Like all pastors, every week I stand in front of a room filled with people who are suffering. Not every person in the room is suffering, but there is suffering in every room. Life batters and bruises. There is grief from death, pain from betrayal, uncertainty about one’s future, and sorrow from a doctor’s prognosis. Sometimes there is suffering in the lives of those of us who behind the microphone. When you are acquainted with suffering, your own or from people you shepherd and love, you more readily remember that messages that Jesus will make you healthy and wealthy in this life are false and cruel. False because the Bible teaches suffering is part of our human experience and cruel because they invite people to love blessings in this life more than Jesus. Cruel because those messages set people up for disappointment. If people believe a message that Jesus removes suffering in this life, they will be disappointed when they suffer and even disappointed when they don’t as a life without suffering, if that is the goal, won’t fully quench. Only Jesus does.
We can’t preach a life without suffering. We can preach a better message – a Jesus who does not abandon us. The apostle Peter wrote:
Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ … (I Peter 4:12-13).
Peter heard Jesus say that we will have sufferings in this world, so we should not be surprised. But instead of being surprised we are to rejoice? How in the world can we rejoice and help people we love rejoice? Because “we share in the sufferings of Christ.” Suffering is an opportunity for a shared experience with Jesus.
Earlier in the summer, Kaye and I (with the help of my assistant) hosted a crawfish boil for people from Louisiana who are at our church. It was a great night. Kaye and I talked on the way home about how even though most of the people did not know each other before the night, there were immediate connections. Growing up rooting for the same teams, eating the same food, having the same cultural experiences, listening to the same music. The shared experiences made for a quicker and tighter connection. The same is true in our relationship with Jesus. When we suffer, we have a shared experience with Him. We identify more closely with Him.
One of the most fascinating passages in the Bible is when Stephen, one of the early Christians, was killed for his faith. As people stood around him with stones to kill him, the Scripture says:
Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He said, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55-56)
Standing. The Scripture tells us in multiple places that Jesus is now seated at the right hand of the Father. But Jesus does not stay seated for this moment. He stands. Maybe to welcome Stephen home. Maybe because He is so proud of His son. Maybe to show Stephen He is there for him. We know Jesus did not abandon Stephen in his sufferings, and He won’t abandon us in ours.