In Jesus’ well-known Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7), Jesus tells his followers that they are blessed when others revile and persecute them in the name of Christ. The rest of the New Testament repeatedly affirms this reality. Paul says in 2 Timothy that all who aspire to live godly lives will face persecution. James says to count it as joy when we encounter various trials (including persecution and suffering). Paul tells us in Romans 8 that we are heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him, and then he adds that the suffering of this present time is not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed to us. Time and again, the New Testament tells believers that we will face persecution. But why? Why must the believer suffer?
Too often our answers are insufficient. We often say that we live in a fallen world so we will certainly face the effects of that fallen world. That’s true, and it’s an answer I often give myself. But I don’t think it goes far enough. That might explain suffering, but why do Christians particularly face persecution and all manner of suffering? What purpose can it serve, because we certainly see in the New Testament that suffering has a purpose, not just that it is a reality?
In The Man Who Was Thursday, G. K. Chesterton addresses the problem of evil and the nature of suffering in a fascinating and deeply insightful way. Chesterton does not merely conclude that we will suffer, but he seeks to explain why—and I think he gets it right.
Near the close of the novel, the six detectives (Monday through Saturday) lament the trials and difficulties they have faced throughout the novel. Although the trials affect each one differently, all have suffered in a myriad of ways. But soon after they ask why they suffered so much and strayed so near to hell, Gregory (symbolic of Satan, the Great Accuser) accuses them of sitting on their ivory towers without suffering. But in this comment, he makes a fatal mistake, and the protagonist Gabriel Syme finally understands the purpose of suffering.
Syme says that the very moment before Gregory accused them of never suffering that they had just been discussing how much they had indeed suffered. But Syme now understands the reason—so that they can repel the lie of Satan. They love God not because they have much and have never suffered, but because of who He is. This truth is at the heart of the book of Job, a book with which Chesterton’s novel has many intentional parallels. In Job, Satan asks whether Job loves God without a reason—that is, does he love God for Himself or only for what God has given him. Satan claims that Job only loves God because he has been richly blessed, and that if God would take away such blessings, then Job would curse Him. Gregory makes a similar accusation of the six detectives, asserting that they are at the feast only because they have never suffered. But Syme is right; they have suffered, and it is because they have suffered that they can repel the lie of Satan. They possess, by nature of their suffering, the glory and isolation of the anarchist. Because they have experienced suffering and the feeling that they are all alone in that suffering, and yet remained faithful to their task despite the trials, they can truly look Satan in the face and repel his lie. And by repelling the lie of Satan, they have hope.
Yet Syme has one more concern. Have all of them suffered? Specifically, has Sunday suffered? All that Syme says rings true, but how could it be true if Sunday asked them to endure what he himself had not? To this query, Sunday quotes the words of Jesus: “Can ye drink from the cup that I drink of?” And here as readers we are presented with one of the most profound truths of Scripture—we are not asked by God to do anything that He Himself was not willing to do. Yes, we endure hardships, persecutions, and suffering, but Jesus entered into those, too. He can understand, better than we can imagine, how we feel. And in finding a high priest who can sympathize with out weaknesses (Heb 4:15), we learn as the six detectives did that we are not, after all, alone. Having at first experienced the glory and isolation of the anarchist, we can likewise find a friend and savior who has truly, once and for all, overcome that enemy. In this way, we are in fact saved by suffering—not our own suffering, but the suffering, death, and resurrection of our Savior. Our own suffering is merely an opportunity to participate in Christ’s suffering so that, one day, we will likewise share in his glorification—which is exactly Paul’s point in Romans 8:17-18.