Leading in Suffering

Last month in Nepal, I had dinner with a pastor who spent time in jail for evangelizing. His case is still ongoing and he potentially faces several years in prison. I asked him whether he was nervous about going back to jail. Without hesitating, he simply replied, “No brother, we have already won!” His statement took me by surprise. How can someone view this as a victory? He explained how in jail he was able to share Christ with all the inmates and guards, and I realized that his comment about winning wasn’t ignorant; it was a wider perspective on what it means to succeed spiritually. He knew that whether he went to jail or not, God would use it for His greater purposes.

This embrace of suffering goes against our typical paradigm of leadership, which motivates us to win and lead people to physical wellbeing. But a worldly leadership paradigm fails to consider that God’s view of success is far different from ours. In fact, the Bible says that suffering is a part of God’s plan for believers.

After Saul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, God tells Ananias, “I will show him (Saul) how much he must suffer for My name” (Acts 9:16). Some may think this is punishment for Saul, but I don’t think so. It seems to be a prophecy of how God will use Saul to spread the gospel. Jesus says a similar thing when talking about the end times. He says, “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me…and this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:9,14). This appears to be more than just a prediction of Christian suffering; Jesus says there is a specific purpose for suffering in fulfilling God’s final purposes on earth.

If God uses suffering to spread the gospel, then we cannot fully lead God’s purposes on earth without understanding the role of struggles, hardship, and persecution.

Suffering is not the failure of God to intervene. God himself suffered. He became a man and died for us, on purpose. Because God suffered, suffering has the ability to sanctify us and make us more like Him. This is why following Christ to the cross is not morbid but a joyful pursuit of God’s greater work in us and in the world. If we examine the Bible, we can find many purposes for suffering. Here are just 20 I’ve found:

  1. Persecution leads to boldness (Acts 4:13,29)
  2. Struggles lead to selflessness and sharing (Acts 4:32)
  3. Suffering bears the fruit of joy (Acts 5:41)
  4. Persecution leads to outward movement and mission (Acts 8:1,4, Matthew 10:23)
  5. Those who are persecuted receive blessing from God (Matthew 5:10)
  6. Suffering points to a reward in heaven (Matthew 5:12)
  7. Death of ourselves can lead to spiritual multiplication (John 12:24-25)
  8. Suffering confirms we are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17)
  9. Suffering confirms our hope (and the best) is yet to come (Romans 8:24-25)
  10. Suffering shows God’s working purpose in all things (Romans 8:28)
  11. Suffering reveals Jesus’ life in us (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
  12. Suffering allows Christ strength/power to show in us (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
  13. Suffering helps us grow in holiness like Christ (Hebrews 2:10-11, 12:10)
  14. Suffering creates empathy (Hebrews 2:18)
  15. God’s discipline creates righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:10-11)
  16. Suffering shows that we are content in Christ alone (Philippians 4:11-13)
  17. Suffering refines our faith (1 Peter 1:6-7)
  18. Suffering results in God’s praise and honor (1 Peter 1:7)
  19. Suffering brings intimacy with God’s Spirit (1 Peter 4:14)
  20. Suffering confirms our commitment to God (1 Peter 4:19, Matthew 24:13)

With this in mind, I pray that we will gain a godly perspective on our lives amidst suffering, so that like my friend facing trial we (and those we lead) can joyfully say, “Thank you God, for we have already won!”