4 Reasons Christians Suffer (With a Hat Tip to J. Vernon McGee)

My wife’s been reading through Hebrews and using a commentary by J. Vernon McGee. I bought the commentary when I was reading through the book myself.

Yesterday, she brought to me the words discussing Hebrews 12:6-8, which read:

“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”

She then explained to me that McGee listed seven reasons why Christians suffer. I thought they were quite accurate, so I decided to share them in a blog post, along with some personal thoughts. I also adapted the list because some points seemed to repeat themselves.

So here are four reasons Christians suffer (with a hat tip to J. Vernon McGee):

ONE: Practical Consequences of Our Own Stupidity and Sin

“The first reason that we suffer as God’s children (and even as his mature sons) is because of our own stupidity and our own sin…The fourth reason we suffer is for our past sins.” – JVM

This affects Christians at every level of maturity. We are always going to be sinful people and will always struggle.

My favorite song right now is called “In the Blood” by John Mayer. Mayer asks about all these things in his life — the influence of his parents, his insecurities, his weaknesses — and wonders if they’ll be “washed out in the water” or “always in the blood.”

The answer to that is yes. When we become Christians, our sins are forgiven, and they’re no longer on our permanent record. But we will still feel the effects of those sins because we’re human.

And that’s not just sins we’ve committed in the immediate past. McGee tells the story of a famous evangelist who used to be a drunkard. While visiting a restaurant for milkshakes and sodas after a service, the evangelist simply got a glass of soda water.

“The others began to kid him about it,” McGee writes, “and he made this statement, ‘When the Lord gave me a new heart, He didn’t give me a new stomach.’ Liquor had ruined his stomach, and he was still suffering because of that.”

TWO: Standing for Christ in a Secular World

“I can guarantee that if you take a stand for truth and righteousness, you are going to suffer. How many men and women could testify to that?…Many people deliberately take a stand for God, and they have suffered for it.” – JVM

Jesus straight up told us that we would suffer for defending His name. Many around the world suffer as the disciples did, facing criminal prosecution, imprisonment and even execution. I hope I never cease from being amazed by those who willingly go through such lengths in the name of Christ.

In America, our suffering is more emotional and social. We might get made fun of or ignored for being Christians and not being afraid to speak the name of Jesus at our school or workplace. That’s OK, that’s part of being a believer.

An interesting note that McGee makes is that sometimes we can go overboard in our “standing for Christ” and feel like we’re suffering, but it’s unnecessary.

“One man came to me and told me that where he worked everybody was his enemy because he had stood up for God,” McGee wrote. “Well, another Christian man who was an official in that same concern told me that this man was trying to lecture everybody — even during work hours! He was making an absolute nuisance of himself by attempting to witness to people while they were busy on their jobs.”

THREE: Some Purpose of God We Don’t Know

“Job suffered because he was demonstrating to Satan and the demon world and to the angels of heaven that he was not a timeserver, that every man does not have his price and that he loved God for Himself alone. I hope I never have to suffer as Job did.” – JVM

This is one where there isn’t a whole lot of explanation. There’s some part of the will of God where suffering is meant for some kind of purpose that we don’t understand and probably won’t fully get until the other side of heaven. This kind of suffering could include an unexpected and seemingly-unwarranted loss of a job, the sudden death of a close friend or family member or a huge house repair or car expense that puts you in financial trouble.

In my experience, it usually leads to spiritual growth and increasing faith in Christ, but there might be something else it’s designed for that we won’t know until later.

FOUR: The Lord’s Discipline

“A judge punishes, but a father chastens and he does it in love. God uses chastening to demonstrate His love for us. And the writer makes it very clear that you are an illegitimate child if you are not chastened by the Lord, my friend.” – JVM

God makes sure we’re in line. When we start wandering away, He might do things or allow things to happen to discipline us. This ties back into the words from Hebrews 12:6-8.

I think sometimes this is another example where God allows us to suffer and we’re not entirely sure why. We feel the chastening of God but may not know that’s what it is. We may know we’ve been disobedient. But that discipline still comes because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.

The commentary my wife’s been reading is from the “Thru the Bible Commentary Series” by J. Vernon McGee, which you can find on Amazon or Christian bookstores.

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A Better Possession and an Abiding One

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a BETTER POSSESSION AND AN ABIDING ONE. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done with will of God you may receive what is promised. – Hebrews 10:32-36

In his book Desiring God, John Piper points to Hebrews 10:32-35 as an example of having joy in the midst of trials. He talks about how the people mentioned here had joy despite being persecuted, thrown in prison and being stolen from. Piper questions if they were losers:

No. They lost property and gained joy! They joyfully accepted the loss. In one sense they denied themselves. But in another they did not. They chose the way of joy. Evidently, those Christians were motivated for prison ministry the same way the Macedonians (of 2 Corinthians 8:1-9) were motivated to relieve the poor. Their joy in God overflowed in love for others.

They looked at their own lives and said, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (see Psalm 63:3). They looked at all their possessions and said, “We have a possession in heaven that is better and lasts longer than any of this” (Hebrews 10:34).

This passage has been hitting me hard the last couple of days. I’ve been in a situation where I’m dealing with some serious struggles, both publicly and privately, that have been stressing me out, giving me headaches and causing a lot of thinking. It’s hard for me to remember the phrase “a better possession and an abiding one.”

I keep losing sight of what I have a hope for in heaven. I let worldly troubles and earthly drama and hardship bog me down too much that I forget who I am.

Let’s unpack this Hebrews passage. The author says the hardships came after the Hebrews were “enlightened.” I found when I truly accepted Christ, things became more difficult. Life became harder because I started living with a different standard in mind, the Christ standard.

The word “standard” has two meanings. First, it’s a “level of quality or attainment.” Second, it’s “an object that is supported in an upright position,” specifically a military or ceremonial flag carried on a pole or hoisted on a rope. Likewise, I think the “Christ standard” has two meanings. First, it’s the banner we fly and we adhere to, our “Jehovah-nissi” (means “the Lord is my banner” in Hebrew). Second, it’s the level of holiness we should desire to attain.

When we make Christ our standard, our flag we fly when we are “enlightened” by the truth of the Gospel and the saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is our job to live and compare ourselves to the “Christ standard,” an unmatched level of holiness we are still called to adhere to.

As I was saying, life became harder after Jesus came into my life. I faced many “hard struggle(s) with suffering” (v. 32). I was mocked for my faith a couple times, struggled with sins that I previously had no problem with and became offended by things that didn’t normally bother me. Verse 33 says that the Hebrews were, “sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.” When we are Christians, it is inevitable that we will face some kind of public reproach or disgrace unless we hide from the world forever.

That’s the life of a Christian. In 1 Corinthians 4:9, Paul says,

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, became we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.

If we are truly living out our faith, like the Hebrews who visited those in prison and “joyfully accepted the plundering of (their) property” in verse 34, we will be a spectacle to the world. When I think of spectacle, I think of a circus. People and animals do ridiculous things. Other people watch those things and laugh, cry, applaud, etc. The difference with Christians is that our spectacle may cause some to scoff, mock and make fun of us.

The Hebrews faced all of this. But they kept going! Why? They had a BETTER POSSESSION and an ABIDING ONE.

What is this possession? Look no further than 1 Peter 1:3-5, one of my favorite Bible passages:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

I could spend a whole other blog post unpacking these verses. I filled out around 7 or 8 full notebook pages with notes on these verses. The message is basically: we have an awesome inheritance through Christ, a salvation that leaves us in heaven with God when we die.

That is our better possession. That is an abiding possession, one that won’t go away; it’s imperishable, undefiled and unfading.

In his book The Slumber of Christianity, Ted Dekker writes about how Christians live their lives worrying about what’s going on at the time and forget about the great reward we have at the end. The 1 Peter passage above was discussed, but I want to pull a quote he uses from C.S. Lewis’ book The Weight of Glory:

Indeed if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are halfhearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

We get distracted by trying to find pleasure here on earth that we forget the better and abiding possession we have in heaven. I’m not saying that earthly pleasures are worthless. They’re awesome, especially when they’re God-given and God-honoring.

But when things on earth don’t go our way, we should cling to the fact that we have something awesome waiting for us. That’s what the Hebrews did.

When things on earth don’t go our way, we easily lose confidence in ourselves and in God. The writer of Hebrews says to not throw that confidence away, it has a great reward! Regarding this verse, John MacArthur says, “They are closer than ever to the eternal reward, it is no time to turn back.” If you’re following Christ and facing ridicule for it, stay strong! It means your faith is being lived out and people are noticing. You are obeying Christ and doing His will!

Verse 36 is probably my favorite part of this passage.

For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may received what is promised.

That endurance gained through going through trials will be a huge help when going through other trials, and is a testimony to the greatness of Christ within us. There is great honor in doing the will of God. It’s obedience, what Christ asks of us. Plain and simple. When we do God’s will, we will receive what is promised: eternal life.

I want to come back to Piper for a second. Right after he talks about how the Hebrews looked at what they had and said they had a better possession, he quotes a poem (I think) by Martin Luther:

Let goods and kindred go/this mortal life also/the body they may kill/God’s truth abideth still/His kingdom is forever.

That kingdom is a better possession and an abiding one.