Your what? OK, let me explain. If one reads through the 13 epistles of Paul in the New Testament, one will often find Paul presenting a list of the many hardships he has had to endure for the sake of the gospel. These hardship lists, or catalogues of his sufferings, may seem to be a curious addition to his writings, but they are there for good reason.
Paul uses them as a verification of his apostleship. They are a validation of his divine commissioning. They highlight the truth that God uses our weaknesses to show forth his strength. And they show that our lives are to be a follow-on from the sufferings of Christ.
As such they are a good rejoinder to the bogus theologies of today which claim that the Christian need not suffer but should instead be living the good life. Paul’s lists stand diametrically opposed to the foolish “your best life now” teachings which are so prevalent today and are so utterly unbiblical.
The idea that the Christian life is all about being happy, wealthy, successful and problem-free is completely opposed to Paul’s understanding of what true Christianity is all about. Thus his frequent listing of his sufferings and hardships. Let me offer the main catalogues of affliction that Paul runs with:
Romans 8:35-37 (esp. 35) Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
1 Corinthians 4:9-13 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.
2 Corinthians 4:7-12 (esp. 8-9) We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
2 Corinthians 6:3-13 (esp. 4-5) Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger;
2 Corinthians 11:16-33 (esp. 23-29) Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
2 Corinthians 12:10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Philippians 4:12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
Let me speak to a few of these. Commenting on the 1 Cor. 4 passage, Ciampa and Rosner say this: “The best way to understand Paul’s chronicles of woe is to note links to the death of Jesus. As Hays observes, ‘Paul regards these experiences not merely as misfortunes or trials to be surmounted but as identifying marks of the authenticity of his apostleship, because they manifest his conformity to Christ’s sufferings’.”
And they remind us that Paul “states explicitly that his afflictions are not outside of God’s will; on the contrary, in his view God has put us apostles on display.” And they note how many of the details found in these lists mirror the sufferings Christ experienced. So this is part of the normal Christian life.
Indeed, Paul says his life should serve as a role model, including all the afflictions and hardships. As David Garland remarks, “Paul is not defending his idiosyncratic way of living out his Christian calling but presenting the way of the cross as modeled by the apostles. His argument assumes that true apostles of Christ follow the example of Christ, since everything he says about the apostles’ degradation applies also to Christ.”
Gordon Fee puts it well:
Paul took seriously that his sufferings and weaknesses were a genuine participation in Christ himself. For him discipleship entailed a fellowship in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17; Phil 3:10); but that did not mean that one must suffer in order to be a genuine disciple. His own lot, and that of so many with him, entailed great suffering as the direct result of belonging to Christ. So much was this so that he considered it the norm (cf. 1 Thess. 3:3; Phil. 1:29). But this norm was first of all theologically predicated — on the “great reversal” that God had already effected through the cross. Thus for Paul discipleship meant “sharing in the sufferings of Christ,” not in its expiatory sense but in its imitatio sense (v. 16) – being in the world as Christ was in the world. Christ was really like this; those who would follow him must expect that they, too, will be like this.
And let me look at just the first of the 2 Corinthians passages. The emphasis here is on how Paul contrasts his life and ministry with that of the “super apostles” of his day, and by extension, some of the dodgy gospels of today. Suffering and hardship is the norm for believers – it is not a life of luxury, ease, fabulous wealth and a terrific self-image.
The health and wealth gospel in other words stands in marked contrast to the gospel Paul proudly proclaimed. Let me offer an extended quote from Scott Hafemann on this:
Sheep go where their shepherds lead. Congregations take on the vision and values of their pastors. Paul’s argument in this passage, focused on his own ministry as an apostle, thus provides the antidote to the church’s this-worldly shortsightedness. Rather than portraying the persona of the successful leader, pastors are to take the lead in suffering for the sake of the gospel because of their confidence in the surpassing worth of the glory that “outweighs our light and momentary troubles” (4:18). Unfortunately, in many quarters of the church today Christian leaders have perverted the gospel into a magical attempt to gain physical healing and material comforts through “name-it-and-claim-it” faith formulas and “positive confessions” of healing in spite of one’s apparent “symptoms.” As D. R. McConnell observes, this so-called “faith gospel” is
“without question the most attractive message being preached today or, for that matter, in the whole history of the church. Seldom, if ever, has there been a gospel that has promised so much, and demanded so little. The Faith gospel is a message ideally suited to the 20th century American Christian. In an age in America characterized by complexity, the Faith gospel gives simple, if not revelational answers. In an economy fueled by materialism and fired by the ambitions of the ‘upwardly mobile,’ the Faith gospel preaches wealth and prosperity…in an international environment characterized by anarchy…the Faith gospel confers an authority with which the believer can supposedly exercise complete control over his or her own environment.”
Indeed, the cultural ethos of materialism surrounding us is so pervasive that even those who do not advocate this perversion of the gospel explicitly find themselves expecting that circumstances should go well for godly followers of Jesus Christ. Anything less than peace (at least within the nuclear family), prosperity (at least a middle-class lifestyle), and health (at least most of the time) becomes a disappointment with God. Within this context, it is imperative that we constantly remind ourselves that endurance with praise, not avoidance of pain, is the evidence that the kingdom of God is here (4:8–9).
At the heart of all this is the cross. For Paul, the cross is the centre around which everything revolves. It shows us how the Christian life and Christian ministry ought to function. As Garland says of this passage:
Paul cannot cover up his tribulations and does not wish to do so. Instead, he exults in them and explains why the divine glory must be contained in the earthen vessel of his frail, pummelled body. It shows that his extraordinary apostolic power can only come from God and not himself. Rather than discrediting his apostolic ministry, Paul’s hardships point to the all-transforming power of God working in and through him. This explanation gets at the heart of the gospel. The glory of the ministry must be seen in terms of both cross and resurrection (see 5:1–10). Paul reads the cross into all his experiences and interprets the ups and downs of his ministry theologically as carrying around in his body the death of Jesus to manifest the life (the resurrection) of Jesus. All his suffering is part of God’s design to spread the gospel.
Yet modern believers seek to avoid the cross at all costs. They want a pain-free and easy-going Christianity. In other words, they want cross-less Christianity, which is really a Christ-less Christianity. Such a Christianity does not exist. It is the cross or nothing.
Paul glories in the cross. We shrink away from the cross. But if we are to be real deal followers of Christ, we must run with Paul on this. And that includes being willing to embrace our hardships, afflictions and difficulties as a small price to pay for being an ambassador of Christ.
As usual, A. W. Tozer gets it right on such matters. Let me conclude with three of his quotes:
“We live in a day in which renunciation is no longer being taught. We are not supposed to renounce anything to become Christians. We are not told to. We just believe something and accept something passively, in a state of moral inertia, and then we go right back to what we were doing before. There are people in this country making a career of compromising the cross of Christ with the world, until we cannot tell which is which. We are one big compromise.”
“If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”
“The man with a cross no longer controls his destiny; he lost control when he picked up his cross. That cross immediately became to him an all-absorbing interest, an overwhelming interference. No matter what he may desire to do, there is but one thing he can do; that is, move on toward the place of crucifixion.”