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Suffering - A Bold Witness

I think it is probably a rare event that we would choose suffering. In fact, so much of our society is built around the idea of avoiding suffering. We spend a great deal of money and energy and time trying to minimize discomfort and maximize ease. We try to convince ourselves that we can craft cocoons of safety that will protect our little ones from any danger. We legislate away all perils. We buy luxury and comfort. We are enamored with the idea of a suffering-free life. And yet, it still comes. It is unavoidable. We might have the financial ability to insulate ourselves from some aspects of suffering, but the result will eventually be the same. Relationships will be broken. Bodies will age and decay. Fortunes can be lost with a ring of the trading bell.

If suffering is inevitable in this fallen world, then what are we to make of it? What would God have us do with our suffering? We’ve already seen that suffering tells us a great deal about God and our relationship to him. We also see that God uses our suffering like a refiner’s fire; purifying and cleansing us from the persistent presence of sin. God will also use our suffering to bear witness to the world about the goodness of God. This might seem counter-intuitive, but when we understand the Gospel, it begins to make perfect sense.

The suffering of others in the world is often an argument against the belief in God. The argument goes, if God is all powerful and all good, why is there suffering? Suffering proves he is either not powerful enough to stop it, or that he is evil in inflicting suffering on innocent people. There are a number of ways to refute this argument. We could question the actual innocence of people. Perhaps their suffering is justified. We could also question the limitations of our knowledge. Perhaps God knows things we do not, and this suffering will produce a greater fruit. Our lives are marked by periods of struggle and difficulty in order to obtain a greater good. Pregnancy, university, and working out are three simple examples of this.

When we believe that God is good, and that God providentially allows suffering for his good purposes, our suffering takes on an element of proclamation. Our countenance in the midst of trial will loudly and powerfully proclaim what we really believe about God. John Flavel wrote, “The frequent trials of grace … prove beyond all words or argument that religion is no fancy, but the greatest reality in the world.”[1] It is easy for people to speak wonderful words of God when all is well. But when life is clearly difficult and people yet profess the faithfulness of God, it is an undeniable witness to the truth of the Gospel.

This is testimony of church history. Time and time again, the suffering of the saints has proved to proclaim the Gospel. The early church father Tertullian would comment, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Foxe’s Book of Martyrs records the suffering endured by Protestants at the hands of Roman Catholics, particularly in England and Scotland in the 16th century. This faithful testimony was a catalyst to the growth of the church. What Tertullian and Foxe knew was that the truth of these martyrs would not stomp out the church, rather it would cause the church to flourish.

The reason for this is seen in the very term used. The term “martyr” comes from the Greek word for witness. A martyr testifies to the supremacy of his particular belief by giving up his life for it. For the Christian, martyrdom comes when faithfulness to God is valued more highly than the avoidance of suffering, even unto death. The Puritan Richard Sibbes comments:

Some think the martyrs were too prodigal of their blood, and that they might have been better advised; but such are unacquainted with the force of the love of God kindled in the heart of his child, which makes him set such a price upon Christ and his truth, that he counts not 'his life dear unto him,' he knows he is not his own, but hath given up himself to Christ, and therefore all that is his, yea, if he had more lives to give for Christ, he should have them.[2]

This valuing of Christ more highly than even our own lives shows a watching world that there is much to be gained and nothing to be lost in giving one’s life to Christ.

Our faithful suffering through all types of trials bears witness to the goodness and sovereignty of God. It bears witness to the surpassing sweetness of Christ in our lives. It bears witness to the inability of atheism to answer the difficult questions of life. It bears witness to the reality of salvation for those who believe in Christ. We cannot avoid suffering in this life, but we certainly can use it to bear witness to the world.

[1] Quoted in Cosby, Suffering and Sovereignty, 89.

[2] Sibbes and Grosart, Works of Richard Sibbes. [Vol. 1], 281.

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