I am currently writing a series of blogs that deal with the topic of suffering. These blogs will seek to answer the following questions: (1) What does Christian community have to do with suffering?, (2) What does the Bible teach us about suffering?, (3) What does the gospel teach us about suffering?, (4) If God is good, why is there suffering in this world?, and (5) How can we help those who are suffering? For the rest of this post, I will focus specifically on answering the third question.
Last week we studied seven truths from the Bible that serve as building blocks for a robust theology of suffering. This week, as we continue to build a theology of suffering, we will look specifically at what the gospel teaches us about our experiences of suffering. The gospel not only saves us and sanctifies us, it also comforts us. It gives us hope during seasons of mourning. It brings peace in the midst of trial. It gives us reason to rejoice even in the most difficult of circumstances. And so in the darkest hours of our lives, we cannot forget to turn to the light of the gospel. Here are three reasons why:
1) The gospel reminds us of the hope we have in Christ.
“But we do not want you to be uniformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word form the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumped of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with him in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”—1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Christians have hope.
The passage above divides people into two categories: those who have hope and those who do not. There are people in this world that go through the ups and downs of life without any hope. There is no anchor for their soul during the storms of life. But as Christians, Paul reminds us that we have hope. That doesn’t mean we never mourn or weep or grieve. But it does mean that in the midst of our grief and sorrow we still have reason to hope.
Our hope is rooted in the resurrection of Christ.
Why do Christians have hope? In 1 Thessalonians 4:14, Paul grounds our hope in the death and resurrection of Jesus and in the promise of our future resurrection. He reminds the Thessalonians as they suffer trials that they need to remember what Christ has done for them in the gospel and what he promises they will one day receive because of the gospel. Our hope then is ultimately rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We must encourage one another with gospel truth.
At the end of this passage, Paul writes, “Therefore encourage one another with these words,” (1 Thessalonians 4:18). He wants us to regularly remind one another of the death, resurrection, and return of Christ as a means of encouragement. And because Paul is specifically addressing those who are grieving, certainly Paul has the suffering, in particular, on his mind when he instructs us to encourage one another in these gospel truths.
2) The gospel reminds us that Christ knows what we need to endure.
“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” – Hebrews 4:14-16
Christ is able to fully sympathize with us.
Where we are only able to sympathize in part, Christ is able to sympathize in full. He’s a God who understands our suffering because he became flesh, dwelt among us, and suffered as our Suffering Servant (see Isaiah 53).
Christ knows what we need to endure trial and temptation.
Because Christ walked this earth as you and I do, and perfectly endured all the suffering and temptation that he faced, he knows exactly what we need to get through trials and temptations.
We must draw near to Christ in order to receive grace to help us in suffering.
We are promised to receive the mercy and grace that we need to endure if we would only draw near to Christ’s throne in prayer. In times of suffering, we must flee to God in prayer, knowing that he’ll give us all that we need to persevere.
3) The gospel reminds us that God sovereignly uses suffering for good.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” – Galatians 3:13
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” – 1 Peter 2:24
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21
“For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. ” – 1 Thessalonians 5:9-10
Here are five summary statements based on the key texts above:
i. Christ was cursed that we might be redeemed. (Galatians 3:13)
ii. Christ was wounded that we might be healed. (1 Peter 2:24)
iii. Christ became poor that we might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)
iv. Christ became sin that we might become righteous. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
v. Christ died that we might live. (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10)
The gospel is the ultimate reminder to us of how God can use the worst of suffering to bring about the greatest good. Through the death of his sinless Son, God purchased our forgiveness and our salvation. What men meant for evil, God used for good (Genesis 50:20). He worked the death of Christ together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). The cross is simultaneously the most darkest moment of suffering in human history and the most victorious moment of human history.
Someone once said, “The gospel is so simple that a small child can understand it, and it is so profound that studies by the wisest theologians will never exhaust its riches.” The gospel is like a diamond. It has many dimensions, angles, and facets to it. And so it is able to speak to our various experiences of suffering in many different ways. Here’s a (lengthy) excerpt from Dave Furman’s book “Being There” that helpfully demonstrates this truth:
Whether your life seems pain-free or pain-full, you should never get over the gospel. Suffering people are inundated with good advice all the time…But somebody needs to bring them good news. This is the heart of a Christian’s ministry—it’s the sharing of good news for the benefit of not only non-Christians but also Christians…
Because of the finished work of Christ, you can remind your exhausted and discouraged wife that Jesus understands what she is going through. He carried the heaviest burden that could ever be—the sin of all those who would place their faith in him—and he bore that burden so that she would never have to carry it even an inch.
When our aging parents face death, we can remind them that because Christ conquered death and rose from the grave three days later, death will not be the final story of their lives. There is soon coming a day for them when they will be face to face with their Savior. Death is a defeated enemy who can only serve God’s good purposes, decrepit as dying is. Remind the aging that the happiness of heaven commences immediately after death. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, they have been reconciled to God and will live forever in that heavenly city.
When a church member is facing her greatest fear and learns that she has stage four cancer, you can tell her that God is worth trusting still. Remind her that Jesus trusted God the Father when he faced the greatest fear anyone could ever face. In the garden of Gethsemane he suffered anguish at the holy wrath that was coming. Jesus went to the cross and faced utter and total rejection from God. It was complete severing from the father. It was the greatest fear anyone could face, and he faced that fear for God’s glory and our salvation. Jesus faced the ultimate fear so that we can face our fears by faith.
You can tell a friend who is depressed that he will see his darkness lifted and will one day sing of his never-ending gladness. That because of Christ’s agonizing dark night in Gethsemane and his faithfulness to go to the cross, his dark nights of the soul will be but a memory. The anxieties of the morning will be long gone. Christ’s nail-scarred hands will wipe our tear-stained eyes dry forever.
For the neighbors who are being persecuted for their faith because they were born with a certain passport and live amidst violence, remind them that Jesus faced the greatest persecution in order to give us his birthright. Through our faith in him we have a new citizenship, a birthright, and an inheritance that is ours forever and not subject to immigration proceedings or legal red tape. There is coming a day when as citizens of this new heavens and new earth, we will have perfect peace, and persecution will be impossible because we will all love God.
There is coming a day when we will be with Jesus. This is what we have to look forward to. To be with the Savior who was pierced for us. To be with our Lord who gave his life so we could have life—the one who suffered so we could be united with God. We will be with him. This is future grace. We all need the gospel, but times of hurt can be the most important times when we need to be reminded that our hope exists outside of ourselves. Our hope is grounded in the past, secure in the future, and available for us today.
More than anything else, suffering Christians need to remember what Christ did for them on Calvary. The gospel that saves us in our sin also comforts us in our affliction. The gospel that sanctifies us in life also gives us hope in death. So here’s a good rule of thumb in life and in ministry: no matter what difficult situation you might be dealing with, always come back to the gospel knowing that it has something important to say to you.
 Dave Furman, Being There (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2016), 66-67.