We who have been called to this great purpose of conformity to the image of Christ will for that reason also be called to suffer with Christ. If we want to know him and the power of his resurrection, then we will need to share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Phil. 3:10). Not that our death in any way is redemptive. Only Christ’s death can save. But yet, if anyone is in Christ, then that person has glory and hardship in store (Rom. 8:17). We are often caught off guard by our sufferings, as though we ought to be exempt. We reason that since we are not condemned, then why should we continue to pay any price?
We hardly have all the answers for the mystery of suffering, especially the suffering of Christians. Ultimately, only God can have reasons for the evil in this world and the pain inflicted on its inhabitants. We do know that the immediate responsibility for evil is ours, not God’s.
But we wonder why believers who are acquitted from the responsibility still must receive the consequences deserved by sinners. The Bible explains that suffering has a number of purposes connected with sanctification. One of them is the purification of our faith. As gold is refined by fire, Peter tells us, so our faith is perfected by hardship and trials, so that it will result in praise and glory and honor on the last day (1 Peter 1:7; Rev. 2:10; 3:10). Such an approach is corroborated in our experience. When we suffer we begin to know what matters and trust only the things that last. We make fewer investments in the transitory and ephemeral.
Suffering helps us because it enables us to endure and gives us character (Rom. 5:4). Moreover, it strengthens our hope, the kind of hope that will never be shamed in the final outcome (Rom. 5:5). For this reason we can be glad for the pain that God allows us to endure. Not because there is anything good in itself about pain. Nothing could be further from Christian faith than the adages “Joy through pain” and “No pain, no gain.”
The central reason for Christian suffering is fellowship with Christ. We should not be surprised at the trials that come our way but glad that they mean we are communing with Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:12). It can even be said that we fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). It is easy to misunderstand such statements to mean we are somehow continuing the unfinished business of Christ’s passion. The idea is blasphemous.
Christ’s suffering was once and for all (Col. 2:14; John 19:30; Heb. 9:26; 10:11–14). That is, the atoning value of his work on earth, culminating on the cross is sufficient and accomplished. Flagellants and others who believe they are participating in the atonement by their self-inflicted pain are far off the mark. However, not all suffering is for atonement. The afflictions of Christ while on earth did not extend forward to include every hardship endured by his people.
When we suffer, it is for his sake (Mark 13:13). When Christians are persecuted, it is Christ who is the object (Acts 9:4–5). Although attacks on Christ during his lifetime brought complete satisfaction to God, his enemies were not yet satisfied. And so they continue to attack him by attacking the church. His afflictions are now received by us.
The whole creation groans with pain (Rom. 8:22). This sorrowful, broken world was subjected to futility by the same God who cursed the human race for its disobedience. And we suffer and groan along with it (vv. 20–23). Romanticism about nature, nostalgic views, and utopian views about the beauty of the creation do not coincide with the reality of world history. But world history does not end with death and futility. It ends with the freedom of the glory of the children of God (v. 21). In fact, the whole creation will come to glory with us.
The end is so unspeakably beautiful that our present sufferings are not worthy to compare with the glory to come (v. 18). Physical death no longer has that dreaded finality it once had. Death is now the gateway to full communion with the Lord. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:3–4).This piece is adapted from Dr. William Edgar, Truth in All its Glory: Commending the Reformed Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 209–11.
Dr. Edgar (DThéol, Université de Genève) is professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary.