Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Point of Faith

“I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

Imagine for a second that at the time you came to Christ you had been told that your life from this day forward was to be characterized by people throwing rocks at you, telling lies about you, betraying you and letting you down, calling you names, hitting you, throwing you in jail and trying to kill you. Moreover, in addition to all the abuse you could expect as a matter of course from your fellow man for the sake of your testimony to Christ, you could also expect more than your fair share of all the nasty, apparently random things that happen to people the world over: getting mugged, having to work hard, getting no sleep, getting sick, suffering chronic pain from old injuries, lacking food and having your transportation fail regularly in spectacular and dangerous ways.

Would that have changed anything? Might a bout of frantic back-peddling have ensued?

In some cases, maybe.

A Good Question

My post about COVID-19 and Psalm 91 last week attempted to make the point that Christians should not be expecting a pass on the trials, difficulties and dangers which are currently afflicting our neighbors. One reader responded, “Then what’s the point of your faith and especially the purpose and effectiveness of prayer?”

Hey, good question. Maybe we should ask the apostle Paul.

It is no big secret that Saul of Tarsus persecuted the church until confronted personally by the risen Christ in glory, after which he made one of the biggest about-faces in human history. If we add up his missionary work, preaching and teaching all over the Middle East, Europe and Asia; his mentoring of numerous young men who would go on to do the same; his establishment of churches everywhere he went; his public defense of the faith; and his writings, which are the foundational documents of Christendom and the Spirit-inspired interpretation of the history found in the gospels, it quickly becomes evident that despite his wretched beginnings, Saul of Tarsus went from being the church’s worst enemy and a persecutor of Christ himself to arguably the most effective and well-known promoter of the faith this world has ever seen.

This is a man whose life was characterized by suffering. And he knew it from day one.

Going All Jordan Peterson ...

Now, when I say “characterized by suffering”, I am not going all Jordan Peterson on you. Peterson teaches that “life is suffering”. That’s hyperbole. It’s certainly a dramatic way to put things, and if you’ve been having a hard time lately, you may find yourself relating, but a moment’s honest consideration gives the lie to that. Yes, there is lots of suffering in life, and in some lives more than others. I have no doubt that there are a few of us out there for whom life is almost nothing but suffering. If you bear the name of Christ some places in the Arab world right now, life is nasty, brutish and short. That’s no exaggeration.

But for most of us, suffering is only one aspect of our lives. We also experience moments of affection, peace, hope, appreciation, beauty, joy, duty, inspiration, satisfaction, and, if we are honest, a fair bit of ho-hummery and “Hmm, what should I do today?” Sure, all these states of being come and go, and moments of great emotional intensity are often very fleeting indeed, but then for most of us in the West, so is the suffering. If having to wait in line for forty minutes to buy my groceries from a well-stocked store almost completely emptied of customers is my idea of a bad time, I’m doing alright, thank you very much. And yes, that’s probably the worst thing I suffered through in the last seven days. Poor me!

Even Paul’s life was not unmitigated suffering. It was full of joy too. You find it expressed in his epistles repeatedly: “I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all”, “Therefore we are comforted ... and besides our own comfort, we rejoiced still more at the joy of Titus”, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” And so on, and so on. Not just moments of joy, but a regular experience of being joyful ... even right in the midst of suffering.

Listing the Lowlights

All the same, his suffering was continual and intense. There are passages in which he lists the lowlights of his service for Christ:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
Seriously? Three shipwrecks? The book of Acts only tells us about one. Apparently what we get there from the pen of Luke is the merest tip of Paul’s suffering-iceberg. When the Lord told Ananias, “I will show [Saul] how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”, he was not exaggerating even a little. He was plainly stating the facts of the case.

Now, it’s true that this message about suffering was given to Ananias, not to Saul directly. But we need have no doubt that Ananias told others and the word got back to the new convert very quickly indeed. The line could not have been recorded for us in Acts if he hadn’t. Furthermore, the three accounts in Acts of Saul’s conversion supplement each other, and show that no one account contains everything the Lord said to him on the road to Damascus. It’s not impossible the risen Christ told him flat-out what he might expect, and even if he didn’t, Saul’s own experience as a persecutor of the church made him well aware of the cost of preaching Christ to people hostile to the message of the gospel.

The Point of Paul’s Faith

So very, very early in Paul’s Christian experience, he was confronted with the fact that he was going to have trouble, sorrow and pain. All kinds of it. Over and over again, perhaps in near-record quantities. If anyone could legitimately make Jordan Peterson’s “suffering” case for him, the life of the apostle Paul is a pretty solid attempt at setting the bar.

So now, Paul, what’s the point of your faith if you cannot take your problems to Christ and expect them to be taken away? If you must go through life not only hated, persecuted, jailed, whipped and hungry, but also on the run and in chronic pain, with no guarantee of a long life or a pleasant ending, what is the point of your faith?

Well, Paul had an answer to that one:
“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
And that’s our answer too. It’s not a fun answer, but it’s a good one, and a scriptural one.

Aspiring to Aspire

Should we all want that? More pointedly, do I want that? Hmm. Let’s just say that I aspire to aspire to it. That might be as good as it gets currently. But what I do recognize, and what I think we all ought to recognize is this: Sure, we are not all fated to suffer for Christ in this life, and we are not all asked to suffer to the same extent. But to the degree that I, like Paul, am either called to suffer for the name of Christ or else afflicted with the normal hazards of life in a fallen world, I would hope and pray that I have the courage to face adversity of every sort just like the apostle did, and to rejoice in the opportunities that suffering creates to testify to Christ, to crush pride and independence in my heart, to develop perseverance and self-control, to know Christ better, to experience his comfort, and to put my life in a fallen world into an accurate and spiritual perspective.

Now, that doesn’t mean we should never pray for relief, and it certainly doesn’t mean that every answer to every prayer for relief is always and only a firm “No.” Sickness that is a result of God’s judgment may be lifted when it has brought about the repentance it was designed to produce. Sometimes, as James puts it, “the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up”.

Sometimes. Not always. Sometimes sickness has nothing to do with judgment. It may serve other purposes entirely. So Paul’s prayers for relief were not answered in quite the way he had originally hoped. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about [his ‘thorn in the flesh’], that it should leave me.” What was God’s answer to him? “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s road in life was not around the suffering, but through it. Ours may or may not be. What is clear is that the point of faith — and the point of prayer — is not to escape hardship in this life. The most effective servants of Christ didn’t. Why should we imagine we are any different?


  1. Being curious, this has always bugged me. What was it?


    The exact nature of Paul’s thorn in the flesh is uncertain. There is probably a good reason that we don’t know. God likely wanted Paul’s difficulty to be described in general enough terms to apply to any difficulty we may face now. Whether the “thorn” we struggle with today is physical, emotional, or spiritual, we can know that God has a purpose and that His grace is all-sufficient.

    1. I've read all kinds of conjecture, including that the "thorn" was a person rather than a disability. Bottom line is that, yes, as you point out, scripture doesn't say specifically. There is a fairly strong likelihood, I think, that is was probably an injury resulting from one of the bouts of serious physical abuse he endured.