Suffering in the New Testament, Part One

In this article I wish to discuss just one quite small aspect of the enormous topic of suffering as portrayed in the New Testament. It is a response to those who argue that suffering in the NT is only to be understood in terms of persecution. They claim that no other suffering should or does exist for the believer, be it sickness or financial distress or some such thing. But a close look at the biblical texts shows how faulty this view is.

Obviously an important way to deal with all this is to examine the relevant Greek terms employed in the NT. There are a number of terms that can be looked into. These include the words thlipsis, pathemata, peirasmos, and so on. Noun and verb forms of course have to be examined, but here only the briefest of overviews can be offered.

In this article I will just focus on the writings of Paul. Consider Romans 5:3: “Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance”. Here we find the Greek word thlipsis, translated as ‘suffering’ (or as ‘tribulation’ in the KJV). Obviously it is vital to understand how Paul is using the term here.

Douglas Moo comments: “What are these ‘afflictions’? Some would confine them to those sufferings caused directly by the believer’s profession of Christ. But Paul’s use of the word ‘affliction(s)’ makes any such restriction questionable. Indeed, in a certain sense, all sufferings are ‘on behalf of Christ.’ This is so because all the evil that the Christian experiences reflects the conflict between ‘this age,’ dominated by Satan, and ‘the age to come,’ to which the Christian has been transferred by faith.”

He goes on to note that while thlipsis is often “closely related to, and perhaps caused by, one’s relationship to Christ … in most cases the reference is to any ‘external pressure’ ([the verb thlipo] means originally to ‘press’) that may afflict the believer in this life”.

Several famous passages from the eighth chapter of Romans can also be explored in this regard. In verses 18 to 27 Paul speaks of sufferings which believers undergo, and which creation itself experiences. The fallenness due to sin makes such suffering inevitable. Such sufferings, as John Stott notes, include “not only the opposition of the world, but all our human frailty as well, both physical and moral, which is due to our provisional, half-saved condition.”

Moo, writing on Romans 8:18, puts it this way: “These ‘sufferings [pathemata] of the present time’ are not only those ‘trials’ that are endured directly because of confession of Christ – for instance, persecution – but encompass the whole gamut of suffering, including things such as illness, bereavement, hunger, financial reverses, and death itself”.

And in verses 28 to 39, Paul lists a number of hardships, all of which we are to see in the light of the work accomplished on our behalf at Calvary. The sufferings seem to embrace the totality of what it means to live in a fallen world. Whatever their nature, they will one day be traded for glory with Christ.

And as John Mark Hicks remarks, the “kind of suffering that Paul envisions here is not simply persecution. According to the context, this suffering also involves any kind of hardship or trouble. It includes nakedness and hunger (famine) as well as persecution or threats with a sword (Romans 8:35). It includes all the power of the fallen cosmos itself (Romans 8:38-39).”

Or as Thomas Schreiner says about verses 38-39, they “indicate that every possible trouble should be included since all present things and all future things are named. Indeed, verse 39 explicitly widens the net so that nothing is excluded.”

Another form of this word, pathemasin, is found in Paul’s discussion of suffering in Colossians 1:24. In his commentary, N.T. Wright says that “we would be wrong to think of suffering only in terms of the direct outward persecution that professing Christians sometimes undergo . . . . [A]ll Christians will suffer for their faith in one way or another: if not outwardly, then inwardly, through the long, slow battle with temptation or sickness, the agonizing anxieties of Christian responsibilities for a family or a church (Paul knew these too: see 2 Cor. 1 and 2; 1 Thes. 2:17-3:1), the constant doubts and uncertainties which accompany the obedience of faith, and ‘the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to’, taken up as they are within the call to follow Christ.”

In 2 Corinthians 1:6 Paul speaks of the sufferings (pathematon) which we suffer (paschome). As Paul Barnett notes, here Paul speaks of his sufferings for his people as “those of a minister or pastor. The Corinthians and other believers – with their shortcomings and sins – were ‘written’ on Paul’s heart (3:3; 6:12; 7:2), bringing him much suffering.” Simply the pastoral care which Paul had for his converts caused him much anxiety and suffering.

Scott Hafemann, in his commentary on 2 Corinthians, argues that the error of Paul’s opponents was their adherence to a type of “health and wealth gospel”. In his comment on 1:3-11 he argues that the terms Paul uses – thlipsis and pathema – were “general terms that could be used to signify both physical and emotional distress, as well as the suffering caused by persecution”. His comments which follow are worth repeating at length:

“Paul’s full-orbed definition of suffering speaks against those who, whether in Paul’s day or our own, attempt to limit the kinds of suffering that can be legitimately experienced by those who are filled with the Spirit. In such a ‘health and wealth gospel,’ those who truly live by faith may be persecuted, but they will not be subject to emotional illness, physical sickness, or financial distress. Yet the general terminology Paul uses in this context to describe affliction, together with his own experiences of physical suffering, persecution, natural deprivations, economic hardships, and the emotional distress of anxiety (see 1 Cor. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 2:12-13, 17; 4:8-9; 6:4-10; 11:23-28; 12:7; Gal. 4:12-16), make such a limitation impossible.”

There is another passage (similar in spirit to the one just mentioned) which is worth considering. Paul’s catalog of weaknesses listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-33 is quite instructive. After listing a number of cases of physical suffering, Paul goes on to mention the emotional pain he has experienced because of his care and concern for the churches he helped to establish (vv. 28-30).

It is indeed amazing to find Paul listing all of the terrible physical hardships like beatings and shipwrecks, only to cap it all off  – “as if to reach a climax” as Barnett puts it – with these words: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (v. 28). This seems for Paul to be the greatest affliction and hardship of all. As Barnett remarks, “The location of this verse at the end of the list of privations suggests that his concern for the churches was the source of his deepest suffering.”

Elsewhere Barnett discusses 2 Cor. 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me”. He notes that today many believe that God’s power is perfected in our power:

“To such people, pagan or Christian, Paul’s words come as a shocking rebuke: ‘Christ’s power is made in weakness’. This is not, please note, ‘special’ weakness, ‘contrived’ weakness or ‘religious’ weakness, arising out of self-emptying, fasting or other spiritual exercises undertaken with a view to being ‘filled’. It is the ordinary weakness of body and mind of fatigue and ageing which occurs in the lives of those who faithfully pursue the work of ministry.”

To conclude Part One, these are just a few of the many important passages on suffering in the Pauline corpus. What we have examined so far makes it clear that suffering is regarded in the NT – at least by Paul – as far more than merely about persecution. Part Two will examine some of the other NT writers and their usage of the key terms.

Part Two is found here:

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