James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” This sounds odd to us. What is joyful about suffering? How can someone be joyful in a trial? Last time I checked, suffering is something to avoid, not a cause for rejoicing. When the apostles taught Christ in the first century, they did it in a very hostile environment. Though they suffered tremendous persecution, their attitude toward suffering provides a truly inspiring example. Though our suffering is quite different from what the apostles experienced, the apostles’ unique approach to suffering can give us real life examples to emulate today. Today we are going to look both at their examples from the book of Acts and Paul’s discussion about his own suffering in Philippians. Initially, rejoicing in trials sounds illogical and fake. If we will see suffering from the perspective of the apostles, we will understand how real and how lasting joy through suffering can be.
The Apostle’s Suffering (Acts)
First, let’s notice a few examples of the persecution the apostles faced.
Acts 5:40-42, “…And when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.” Though the apostles had been beaten and commanded to stop teaching, they rejoiced and continued teaching Christ.
Acts 14:19-22, “But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” Paul was in such terrible condition that those who stoned him thought he was dead. Even though Paul was in a terrible condition he arose and continued teaching in other cities. Paul then returned to Lystra, where he had been stoned, to encourage the Christians to continue in the faith through these persecutions.
In Acts 16 Luke writes about Paul’s trip to Philippi. Paul and Silas were unjustly beaten and thrown in prison for healing a girl of demon possession; yet, they sang praises to God as they were in their prison cells. When they were given an opportunity to escape, they stayed behind and converted the jailer and his family. We also know from 2 Corinthians 11:24-28 of Paul’s great suffering. Paul had been lashed, beaten with rods, stoned, and shipwrecked. This is merely a taste of the apostle’s suffering. They were constantly in need. They were constanly in danger.
The Gospel’s Advance (Phil. 1:12-13)
Though the apostles constantly suffered, they consistently reacted with rejoicing and a firmer resolve to teach. Why rejoice over so much pain? What does this accomplish? Notice our main text for today in Philippians 1:12–13. Paul wrote this letter when he was imprisoned in Rome waiting to find out if he would be executed or set free.
Notice how Paul is not concerned with the fact that he is in a Roman prison. Paul doesn’t talk about how tough and uncomfortable life is. Paul rejoices like he always has in trials and persecution. Why? Verse 12, “What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…” The advance of the gospel is Paul’s concern. How has the gospel advanced? In verse 13 Paul says that the entire imperial guard knows that his imprisonment is for Christ. In Philippians 4:22 we find that Paul has had such an effect that some in Caesar’s household became Christians. How was Paul able to advance the gospel so successfully from a prison cell? I have to believe Paul was probably doing the same thing he did with Silas in prison. He was singing, praying, and talking to the guards about the forgiveness and joy they can have in Christ. Paul’s imprisonment does not phase his resolve to tell other people about Christ. Paul rejoices in suffering because the primary goal is still fulfilled. The gospel is spreading. However this happens is secondary to Paul.
When the world experiences heartbreak and loss, they don’t know what to do. Some spend the rest of their lives moping around seeking pity. Some look to physical comforts like drugs, alcohol, or hobbies to lessen the pain. Some feebly look for answers in religion. Do you see how much these reactions differ from what we see out of men like Paul, Silas, Peter, and Stephen? There is a reason. Christians aren’t supposed suffer like the world suffers. Christians aren’t supposed to experience illness, death, or economic loss the same way the world experiences these things.
This is why Paul had such opportunity in his suffering to advance the gospel. The world will be changed by genuine faith. The genuineness of something is tested by fire. If we call ourselves Christians and we are tested by fire and we burn up and wither away just like the world does, we give the world no reason to come to Christ. They will think, “Christians are supposed to be founded in hope and trust, but they are hopeless like me.” But if we wear the name of Christ and our testing results in rejoicing and praising God through the pain, we will show the world what hoping in Christ truly results in. Confidence. Trust. Joy. The world will respond, “I want hope like that! I want to have a faith and confidence like that!” Genuine faith through suffering advances the gospel because it shows the world that there is a solid rock in whom they too can trust.
Strengthening Others (Phil. 1:14-18)
Notice how else Paul uses his suffering for others in verses 14-18. The brothers were strengthened to teach the gospel without fear like Paul did. Not only did Paul advance the gospel in his area, but his persecution also strengthened other Christians’ resolve to teach. How did he do this? He showed little fear. He showed little concern for the fact that he was suffering. He had a firm hope and trust in Christ. He wrote letters like this one showing Christians how suffering is a key part to a Christian’s life. The result is that others are not discouraged by Paul’s suffering, but encouraged to teach in spite of danger. This is similar to the result of Stephen being stoned for preaching the gospel in Acts 7. In Acts 8:4 the church reacted to the persecution by scattering everywhere and preaching the word. When suffering is approached with strength, our strength spreads to other people.
The idea that our suffering can result in strengthened faith for others calls for us to adopt a new approach towards all suffering. We can show others how to overcome and flourish in similar suffering. Personally overcoming marital struggles is no longer only about strengthening our marriage, but about helping others do the same as well. Having strong faith through illness and death is no longer only about our personal battle, but about helping others do the same. Our weakness in faith is no longer about individual growth, but spreading that faith to others.
This cannot be accomplished if we suffer silently or avoid growing through our suffering altogether. We can often be so quiet and private about our struggles. It is a fool who says suffering is a private problem. Certainly there will be details about our lives that are more delicate than others, but extreme privacy shows no love for our Christian family. Our experiences and trials can strengthen others! Paul didn’t suffer in prison alone – he made it a community struggle. He allowed other people to share in his suffering. Paul did not keep his “thorn in the flesh” quiet – he taught the Corinthians what he learned from it. We must be open about our suffering so that we can both give and receive encouragement through the healing process. This is why it is important that we all have close relationships with each other. Otherwise we will not feel comfortable sharing our suffering. This fantastic example will encourage fellow Christians to have the same reactions in their dark days.
Honoring Christ (Phil. 1:19-20)
What is the result of all this? Notice the cause for Paul’s rejoicing in verses 19-20. No matter what happens, whether Paul lives or dies, Christ will be honored. If Paul lives, he will continue to suffer for the faith and encourage Christians all around to teach the gospel and suffer for Christ. If Paul dies, he will do so with full joy and confidence of his eternal home. Paul’s attitude would not turn sour or become unthankful. Either way, his faith and others’ faith remains strong.
It is quite difficult to have this positive and thankful attitude through trials and persecution. As a people who experience many comforts and little persecution, it often seems ridiculous to us when we hit hard times. It is an injustice. It isn’t fair. It is even more difficult when we experience illness and death. We are suddenly debilitated or a family member is given little time to live. Our lives are instantly changed as our realities and expectations are shattered. We painfully struggle to piece our lives back together and accept new realities.
If we are not careful, we can experience difficult trials and persecution and not even think about what God can accomplish through our pain. It is perfectly reasonable for us to spend time repairing our lives; however, notice how this was not the entirety of Paul’s focus. Paul is consumed with a desire to honor Christ in his body. If this weren’t accomplished, Paul would have been consumed with disappointment because of this lost opportunity. Paul’s passion for the Lord was not hindered by the trial. His passion was magnified. How often does suffering hit us and we stop praying, praising, reading, and meeting with our congregation. A Christ-honoring attitude during suffering only causes prayer, praise, study, and fellowship to intensify. We must no longer think from a fleshly perspective focused on serving self, but a heavenly perspective focused on having Christ-honoring attitude. If we have an attitude of discontentment constantly asking, “How can I get out of this trial?” then we miss the point. Christ allows suffering and persecution for a reason. We need to think, “How can the Lord use this trial for his glory?” If we suffer just like the world, we show that Christ has done no work in us. But when we suffer with hope and praise, we honor Christ by proving that he is the solid rock he claims to be.
When the apostles suffered, the text almost always talks about rejoicing. Even James exhorts the Christians to joy in James 1:2, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds…” Paul emphasizes joy frequently in Philippians. This seems odd when we realize that Paul was imprisoned and about to die. It’s even odder when we remember that Paul wrote to the Philippians who were also enduring great persecution.
If Paul and the apostles rejoice during massive trials, persecution, empty stomachs, and imminent death, then godly joy is founded on something other than physical circumstances. Notice in each of these circumstances why the apostles rejoice. In Philippians 1:18, Paul rejoices because Christ is proclaimed. In Philippians 1:18-19 Paul rejoices because Christ will be honored in his body. In Philippians 2:17-18 Paul rejoices because he and the Philippians may soon die for Christ. In Acts 5:41 Peter and the apostles rejoiced after being beaten because they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ. Though each of these situations were full of pain, the apostles rejoiced. They did not rejoice because of their physical circumstances, but because the purposes of the Lord were being fulfilled. True life and perspective changing joy for the apostles was founded in the advance of the gospel and the honoring of Christ. When faith was deepened, spread, or magnified, the apostles rejoiced even if it happened through great pain. In fact, it seems as though the apostles embraced loss and suffering as a means to a greater joy. Philippians 3:8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…” Suffering loss further taught Paul the puny value and fading joy found in things that have no substance. Material possessions, academic knowledge, and even family had no worth in comparison to the joy found in knowing Christ. Imagine losing everything, but gaining Christ. Can we still count it as gain?
This means that in order for us to be a satisfied and rejoicing people, we must stop resting our hopes in this world. The foundation of our smile does not need to be our economic situations, the success of our day at work, the healthiness of our bodies, or the happiness our family and friends give us. This will lead to a miserable life. Money fails, careers dissolve, bodies weaken, and people fail us. There is no lasting joy when we expect these physical circumstances to fill us.
Our priorities need to be in the right places. If we seek to be filled only by honoring Christ and advancing his gospel, we will place our hope in a firm foundation. If our hope is in the firm foundation of the Lord, our joy will be full because he always has the victory. Someone may die and it may hurt but we are rejoicing in the Lord because another child goes home. Our bank may run dry but we will rejoice because we are further reminded of the temporary nature of this world, but the eternal faithfulness of our Lord. We may experience pain and sickness, but we are joyous because of the opportunities we have to show the world our hope in the future resurrection. How this joy will spread! Our joy will have a firm foundation and it will be fed by glorifying the Lord. The world will try to offer us greater satisfaction, but we will be able to boldly respond with the words of Jesus when his apostles brought him food after he taught the woman at the well. John 4:32-34, “I have food to eat that you do not know about… My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.” The Lord’s will may be accomplished through suffering, but our joy is to accomplish the work of the Lord. Suffering is sometimes the means to that end.