Jesus said quite explicitly on various occasions that the servant is not above the master (Matthew 10:24-25; Luke 6:40; John 13:16; John 15:20). The disciple of Christ cannot expect to be exempt from what his Lord has gone through. And one of the clearest descriptions of Christ is that of the “suffering servant”. This is found in Isaiah 52:13-53:12. We see this especially spelled out in 53:3-4:
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
If suffering was the lot of our Saviour, it will be the lot of us, his followers. And the history of the church is the history of suffering for God’s people: it can be physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, and so on, but the great saints over the centuries have been a people ‘of suffering, and familiar with pain’.
There is great value in reading biographies and autobiographies of great men and women of God. One common denominator is the role of suffering. We can begin with the Apostle Paul. He even offers lists of hardships he has suffered, as in 2 Corinthians 6:3-13 and 11:16-33.
These hardships were often because of the gospel – persecution and the like. But not always. In the second list he says, “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (11:28). His daily concern for the wellbeing of believers and the churches he had founded was a cause of great suffering for him.
So many other Christian leaders could be mentioned here. John Calvin for example suffered from many physical ailments including stomach problems, headaches, kidney stones, insomnia, and so on. Martin Luther suffered from gallstones, kidney stones, stomach disorders, depression, among other things. Jonathan Edwards suffered from spells of exhaustion, depression, and various serious illnesses.
English missionary William Carey suffered from periods of great depression. William Wilberforce was plagued by chronic ill health, including a crooked spine, stomach problems and poor eyesight. One of our more famous contemporary Christian writers and spiritual mentors has spent most of her life confined to a wheelchair as a quadriplegic: Joni Tada Eareckson.
I noted just yesterday that one American apologist and social media friend said he has been asked to write a book on Christian suffering, specifically in relation to his wife’s dementia. Famous preacher David Wilkerson struggled throughout his life fully believing and receiving the fact that God loved him. Renowned Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias suffered for decades with back pain.
Basically all the great saints have known all sorts of suffering. Yet tragically we have all sorts of false gospels which have arisen of late which actually claim that the believer should never suffer – except for perhaps persecution. The bogus health and wealth gospel tells us no believer should ever be sick or ever be financially poor, and if they are, it is because of sin in their life, or a lack of faith.
That nonsense needs to be rejected absolutely. While God can and does heal, it is not an automatic right that we can demand as if we can boss God around. But I speak to that elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/04/29/is-physical-healing-in-the-atonement/
Let me finish by looking at the life of one famous Christian leader and pastor. Charles Spurgeon spent much of his life suffering in various ways, but was used greatly by God to touch the lives of millions, both when he lived and in the years since.
A quick read of his biographies will show just how much he suffered. Some years ago Darrel Amundsen wrote a helpful piece on this called “The Anguish and Agonies of Charles Spurgeon.” The subtitle is worth noting as well: “Debilitating gout, poisonous slander, recurring depression—Spurgeon suffered them all. What happened to his faith as a result?”
He points out that while Spurgeon was a man of great faith with a hearty laugh and a great sense of humour, he also spent most of his life in great suffering. As to physical suffering, consider one major affliction he endured: gout. Says Amundson:
The disease that most severely afflicted Spurgeon was gout, a condition that sometimes produces exquisite pain. What can clearly be identified as gout had seized Spurgeon in 1869 when he was 35 years old. For the remainder of his life he would be laid aside for weeks or even months nearly every year with various illnesses. Space does not permit even an abridged chronicling of his physical sufferings. Some appreciation of them comes from this article in The Sword and the Trowel in 1871: “It is a great mercy to be able to change sides when lying in bed.… Did you ever lie a week on one side? Did you ever try to turn, and find yourself quite helpless? Did others lift you, and by their kindness reveal to you the miserable fact that they must lift you back again at once into the old position, for bad as it was, it was preferable to any other? … It is a great mercy to get one hour’s sleep at night.… What a mercy have I felt to have only one knee tortured at a time. What a blessing to be able to put the foot on the ground again, if only for a minute!”…
Spurgeon was seldom free from pain from 1871 on. The intervals between times of forced rest became increasingly shorter, and his condition became more complex as symptoms of Bright’s disease (chronic inflammation of the kidneys) began to develop. Beginning in the 1870s, Spurgeon regularly sought recovery and recuperation in Mentone, in southern France.
Spurgeon’s last years of physical suffering must be seen through the grid of the Down-Grade Controversy. Early in this controversy he commented that he had “suffered the loss of friendships and reputation, and the infliction of pecuniary withdrawments and bitter reproach.… But the pain it has cost me none can measure.” To a friend in May 1891 he said, “Goodbye; you will never see me again. This fight is killing me. ”
Susannah Spurgeon also experiencing periods of invalidism. Like her husband, she found ways to be amazingly productive despite her illnesses. For example, she founded and operated a book fund that distributed countless theological works to pastors who could not afford to buy them.
And spiritual depression was also a big part of his life:
Spurgeon was indeed frequently “in heaviness.” Sometimes Spurgeon’s depression was the direct result of his various illnesses, perhaps simply psychologically, and in the case of his gout, probably physiologically as well. Despite this, Spurgeon thought of his own depression as his “worst feature” and once commented that “despondency is not a virtue; I believe it is a vice. I am heartily ashamed of myself for falling into it, but I am sure there is no remedy for it like a holy faith in God.”
Spurgeon comforted himself with the realization that such depression equipped him to minister more effectively: “I would go into the deeps a hundred times to cheer a downcast spirit. It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary. ”
Spurgeon’s recurring bouts of depression were exacerbated by his numerous responsibilities. He once remarked: “No one living knows the toil and care I have to bear. I ask for no sympathy but ask indulgence if I sometimes forget something. I have to look after the Orphanage, have charge of a church with four thousand members, sometimes there are marriages and burials to be undertaken, there is the weekly sermon to be revised, The Sword and the Trowel to be edited, and besides all that, a weekly average of five hundred letters to be answered.” In 1872 he asserted that “the ministry is a matter which wears the brain and strains the heart, and drains out the life of a man if he attends to it as he should.”
Like Paul and so many others, the regular load of ridicule and slander was also a major source of hardship and suffering:
During his early years in London, Spurgeon received intense slander and scorn. In 1881 he could look back at those years and say, “If I am able to say in very truth, ‘I was buried with Christ thirty years ago,’ I must surely be dead. Certainly the world thought so, for not long after my burial with Jesus I began to preach his name, and by that time the world thought me very far gone, and said, ‘He stinketh.’ They began to say all manner of evil against the preacher; but the more I stank in their nostrils the better I liked it, for the surer I was that I was really dead to the world.”
At the time, however, Spurgeon wavered between rejoicing in such persecution and being utterly crushed by it. In 1857 he wrestled with his feelings:
“Down on my knees have I often fallen, with the hot sweat rising from my brow under some fresh slander poured upon me; in an agony of grief my heart has been well-nigh broken; … This thing I hope I can say from my heart: If to be made as the mire of the streets again, if to be the laughing stock of fools and the song of the drunkard once more will make me more serviceable to my Master, and more useful to his cause, I will prefer it to all this multitude, or to all the applause that man could give.”
Yet all this suffering was something he could look upon as coming from the hands of a good God:
Here we see a marvelous paradox in Spurgeon’s experiential theology. He candidly admits that he dreaded suffering and would do whatever he legitimately could do to avoid it. Yet when not suffering acutely, he longed for it. “The way to stronger faith usually lies along the rough pathway of sorrow,” he said. “ … I am afraid that all the grace that I have got out of my comfortable and easy times and happy hours, might almost lie on a penny. But the good that I have received from my sorrows, and pains, and griefs, is altogether incalculable.… Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library. ”
The story of Spurgeon can be recounted millions of times over. Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian life – especially for the Christian leader. It can make us or break us. It can make us better or make us bitter. How we respond is crucial.
All this is not to say of course that we should go out of our way seeking or praying for suffering. But we should not look on suffering as something to be avoided at all costs. Suffering has a redemptive role to play, and God can and does use suffering to draw us closer to him and to make us more Christlike.
This is the clear testimony of countless great saints of God. Spurgeon is just one such noted Christian who could exalt in his sufferings. And this is an old and proven truth. As I just read again in Psalm 119:67, 71:
Before I was afflicted I went astray,
but now I obey your word.
It was good for me to be afflicted
so that I might learn your decrees.
As such it may be time to develop a theology of suffering. Given how much Scripture speaks to this, and how much church history testifies to it, it is a necessary step forward, especially for Western Christians.