|“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he
hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of
sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.”
(Luke 4:18-19) “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the
revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I
should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from
me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in
weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest
upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in
distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”(2Corinthians 12:7-10)
The title of this sermon is, “The Gospel of Suffering.” It seems like an oxymoron, in that, as you know,
the word, “Gospel” means “Good News.” Certainly, from our own finite perspective, suffering isn’t
especially good news. None of us, unless we’re masochists, want to suffer. Yet Scripture is replete
with God’s people who were called upon to suffer horribly for proclaiming God’s will and for
proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel.
Briefly, the Gospel is good news to those who have yielded their lives to Christ, because we are
assured that by trusting God over and above seen circumstances in our lives and in the world, we
plug into His grace (Romans 5:2), which is the free gift He bestows on us. That free gift entails our
eternal reconciliation with a holy, righteous, just God, as by fully trusting Christ and His finished work
on the Cross two thousand years ago, we have been eternally forgiven of all of our past, present, and
future sins. This fact is good news indeed!
Now that our reconciliation with God is completed in Christ, what are we to do? We are called upon to
live out the Gospel message of faith in God and love for our fellow human beings. As the Apostle Paul
wrote, “And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
(Galatians 6:9) We are to never tire of doing good and having compassion for our fellow human
These mandates from God require us to be broken before Him, and the way we become broken
before Him is frequently through our suffering. It is only when we are so broken that God can
frequently best use us. After Paul had his Damascus Road experience, when Jesus revealed Himself
to him in a very special way, Jesus said concerning Paul, “…he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear
my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will show him how great
things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)
And Paul certainly did suffer in many ways! He was whipped, beaten, shipwrecked, stoned and left
for dead, imprisoned (See 2 Corinthians 11:23-28.) and eventually beheaded. He also constantly
wrestled with his “thorn in the flesh,” (2Corinthians 12:7) and I’m especially glad that he didn’t tell us
what his “thorn in the flesh” was. It could have been anything, and that’s the point.
God not only told Paul that His grace was sufficient for him, but that God’s strength is made perfect in
weakness. (2Corinthians 12:9) Hence, God’s strength is best seen and fulfilled in our very
weaknesses and frailties!
We may suffer physical ills, mental ills, emotional problems, relationship problems, and suffer loss of
our powers and loss of our loved ones. There are many causes of suffering in our world and within
each and every one of us. There are many possible thorns in the flesh!
God allows us to be broken; in Christ we are whole! This world doesn’t give us much peace! It’s not
meant to! Our peace comes from Christ, and it’s a peace that transcends any peace that this world
can give. Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give
I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27) Therefore, we are to
never chafe under the sovereign choices of God!
But we frequently are afraid! We don’t frequently feel at peace! Is this a contradiction? Not really!
We are still in the flesh, carrying around our “old man,” having to deal with the decay of our own
bodies, threats from the external environment, problems with interpersonal relationships, physical and
mental infirmities, and the loss of loved ones.
We hurt! We suffer! As Paul reminds us, “…we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the
excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” (2Corinthians 4:7)
Another translation for “earthen vessels,” and one that I much prefer, is “crocks of clay.” Crocks of
clay over time crack and break and that is what we are: mere crocks of clay. We are not physical
beings who happen to be spiritual; we are spiritual beings who happen to carry around these fragile
physical bodies that endure all sorts of acute and chronic assaults, infirmities, and losses.
We must come to the point where we realize that our suffering, our brokenness, is that very thing that
frequently best enables us to fulfill the ministry God has given to us. We don’t fulfill our ministries
despite our infirmities! We usually best fulfill them because of our infirmities!
For example, should you lose a loved one, whose counsel would you want to seek: one who has
never known loss or one who has known loss and worked through it? If you suffer a chronic illness,
would you rather seek counsel from someone who has always been in robust health, or one who
knows his or her own frailty and is managing it?
You see, we are called upon to suffer not because God is a sadist! God allows us to suffer so that by
being broken before Him, He can best use us for His purposes. Yes, Christ calls us to live “an
abundant life” (John 10:10), but that abundance is to only be found in Him!
There is no lasting peace in this world; there is no ultimate or lasting source of happiness to be found
here. Why else would Jesus tell us, “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in
this world shall keep it unto life eternal.”? (John 12:25)
To compensate for our existential angst, and for the various predations that befall us, we frequently
vainly seek fulfillment, if only for a moment, in such pursuits and indulgences as alcohol, drugs, and
one night stands. Yet these, and other similar activities that seek happiness from the pleasures of this
world, ultimately neither ease nor release us from our sense of futility and the seeming
meaninglessness of life in this world. And, apart from God, life in this world is indeed meaningless!
To be able to hear God’s voice, to discern our ministry, and to have the courage to fulfill our ministry,
requires that we seek our meaning and purpose in God and His will for our lives. To enable us to
accomplish these goals requires us to completely yield ourselves to God, and the major way we are
enabled to so yield ourselves is frequently by suffering loss or tragedy.
Sixteen years ago, I was in the hospital with acute pancreatitis. They thought I was going to die! One
of my visitors was a woman whom I had never seen before. She came and talked with me for a few
minutes, seeking to comfort me, and then she left. I later found out that she had terminal cancer and
she chose to spend the time on earth she had left visiting sick people and help lift their spirits. She
was doing God’s work that He ordained for her! She was fulfilling her ministry!
She could have chosen to curl up in a fetal position, curse her fate, and wait to die. But she didn’t.
She chose to make her life count for something; to make the world a better place than when she
found it. Indeed, she chose to, in the words of St. Augustine, help make earth a colony of heaven. It
was her very suffering that motivated and enabled her to fulfill the ministry to which she had been
called by God!
You see, suffering is inevitable; misery is optional! Viktor Frankl, in his excellent book, Man’s Search
For Meaning, wrote about the last of the human freedoms: our attitude toward our sufferings. We
may not be able to change the situation we are in, but we can change our attitude toward that
It is through our suffering that we best develop compassion for others, and appreciate their frailties as
we grapple with our own. As Paul wrote, “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we
may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are
comforted of God.” (2Corinthians 1:3-4)
Viktor Frankl details his several years in a Nazi concentration camp. As a psychiatrist, he was able to
learn many things from his suffering and experiences, and communicated many of his insights derived
from his crucible of fire in this book. Later on, he was able to apply his insights to his work with
He quotes Nietzsche, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” He saw our suffering as
serving as a vehicle for us to detect our meaning in life; once we see meaning in our suffering, it
somehow becomes more bearable.
For example, he relates a patient who had just lost his wife of many years; he was inconsolable with
grief. Clearly, Frankl couldn’t bring his wife back to life but instead asked him this type of question,
“What if you had died and she had survived you? How would she have handled it?” The man said in
effect, “She couldn’t have taken it. She would have suffered horribly.” Frankl then, in essence, said
to him, “You see, by surviving her, you have spared her that grief and you are called upon to suffer in
her place.” Clearly, the man didn’t go dancing out of Frankl’s office, but he now saw how his suffering
spared his beloved wife the suffering he would not have wished on her.
Frankl felt that our major motivator was the search for meaning in our lives. Freud felt that our major
motivator was the search for pleasure. Frankl, on the other hand, felt that our major motivator was
the search for meaning, and suffering was a major way that we could detect that meaning.
This assertion flies in the face of much teaching on this subject. Many people, including many clergy,
feel that if you’re in God’s will, and if you have enough faith, you will be happy, wealthy, healthy, and
at peace. I don’t know where they get this belief that God wants us to be happy. It’s certainly not in
the Bible. If these were the criteria for happiness, none of God’s heroes of faith were in His will. How
many of God’s people were happy?
Were the Prophets happy? Very few, if any, of them died in their sleep! Virtually all were persecuted;
frequently by those to whom they sought to minister and instruct. Moreover, all of the Apostles, save
John, died for the faith, proclaiming to their dying whispers that they had seen the risen Christ.
The Bible makes an implicit distinction between “happiness” and “joy!” Happiness is borne of
situational fulfillment. Many times situations make us happy: a wonderful, fulfilling relationship,
recognition for a job well done, etc. However, we can’t and shouldn’t depend on situations or other
people to define our reality for us, as situations are very temporary and people are frequently fickle.
It should be remembered that many of the people who celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem
eventually turned on Him and shouted, “Crucify Him. Crucify Him.”
The Apostle Paul said that we are to learn to be content in any situation in which we find ourselves.
He knew the truth of the statement, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he
delighteth in his way.” (Psalm 37:23) He knew he was in God’s will, regardless of the circumstances in
which he found himself; regardless of the sufferings he was called upon to endure.
He wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution,
or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day
long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than
conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels,
nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any
other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Knowing the fact that nothing could separate the person who yields his or her life to Christ from being
in the will of God or from being loved and used by God, he further personalized this fact by writing,
“…I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” (Philippians 4:11) You’ll notice
in the King James version “therewith” is in italics and was therefore added by the translators.
“Therewith” doesn’t belong there and should be removed. What Paul was writing is that he wasn’t
necessarily content “with” any given situation in which he found himself but he was content “in” any
situation in which he found himself because he knew he was in God’s will.
For the man or woman of God, it is harder to get out of God’s will than it is to remain in it! We may
not be able to understand why our lives are headed in certain directions, or why we are called upon
to suffer one or more afflictions, or why seemingly anomalous losses befall us, or why gratuitous and
sometimes not so gratuitous abuses have befallen us, but we have the firm conviction that we are in
God’s will and that we are called upon by God to live not in “time” but to live in “eternity.”
God’s will does not necessarily entail us being in situations that don’t violate our comfort zones or
even rock our worlds. Indeed, being in those situations may well be God’s desire for our lives to
enable us to best hear His voice; detect and fulfill our ministries. Indeed, although it seems to go
against the American grain, where death is viewed as an option and suffering is viewed as some
aberration, it may well be that by our dealing with, and spiritually learning from and transcending, that
very suffering that we develop the ability and the guts to fulfill the ministry that God has set before
You see, suffering is part of our contract with God! God said Paul would suffer; He said Peter would
suffer (Luke 22:31) Jesus Himself suffered! Through reading the Bible, we see that He tells us that
we, too, are called upon to suffer. And it is precisely that suffering that may enable us to best live out
the Gospel, in that when we are weak, when our backs are against the wall, when we realize that we
can’t help ourselves, it is at that point that we throw ourselves upon God’s strength and mercy. It is at
that point that God can finally best use us broken vessels, as He then becomes our strength.
Then, we are assured that when we finally come to the point where we have no other choice but to
rest in Him, trust Him, and wait on Him amidst all of our sufferings and afflictions, that God will renew
our strength, we “shall mount up with wings as eagles,” we “shall run and not be weary,” and we “shall
walk, and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)
The Christian life inextricably entails the Gospel of suffering! The great Bible expositor, and Christian
martyr, Watchman Nee, probably said it best when he said that the Christian life consists of holding
one hand on the plough and using the other hand to wipe the tears away from our eyes.
In our weakness, there is God’s strength! In our suffering, there is manifested God’s compassion! In
Christ’s death, we lose our life! In His resurrection, we have the blessed hope of eternal life and
salvation! In His ascension, we have new life that enables us to take our “thorn in the flesh” and
translate it into fulfilling the ministry God has ordained for us.
Of Jesus, our suffering Servant, it is written, “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows,
and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we
esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3) Jesus, when He walked the earth, modeled the life of a suffering
servant, and we are called upon to do no less. If people and life treated Him that way, why should we
expect to live a life free of suffering?
In dealing with Jesus’ humanity, the author of Hebrews wrote that Jesus, the captain of our salvation,
was made “perfect through sufferings.” (Hebrews 2:10) Suffering is somehow redemptive. It teaches
us things about life, about ourselves, about others and, yes, even about God, that’s unrivaled by any
other means. I know that I have learned much more from my failures and sufferings than I have from
my successes and periods of happiness.
We are called upon to be a blessing, a vehicle of God’s grace, in the world. Just as God has shown
His grace to us, we are called upon by God to show forth grace to others.
We are to be vessels of God’s mercy, thereby living out the Gospel of grace, faith, love, peace, and
inclusiveness. And especially, and most poignantly, it is frequently through our suffering that this
Gospel is best understood and best lived out.
|The Gospel Of Suffering
By: Jerry S. Maneker