PAUL: A PROFILE IN SUFFERING by John Macarthur
All the passages below are taken from the book, “The Power of Suffering,” by John Macarthur. It was published in 1995.
Many scholars believe the apostle Paul was the kind of person who would have gained some significant niche in secular history even if he had not been converted to Christ. As Saul of Tarsus, a prominent Pharisee with a brilliant intellect and strong leadership traits, he already had the potential for leaving a lasting mark on the first-century Mediterranean world. Paul was by any measure the most spiritually influential person who ever lived. Certainly believers who love God’s Word know that Paul is second only to the Lord Jesus as the dominant figure in the New Testament. Twenty of the twenty eight chapters in the book of Acts chronicle Paul’s life, including his conversion, early ministry, and missionary journeys. The Holy Spirit used him more than any of the other apostles as an author of thirteen New Testament books. Christ’s life and work are thoroughly interpreted in his letters, and all believers throughout the centuries have found in his epistles the truth that transforms lives.
It is for those very reasons that we look now to Paul as another role model of coping with suffering. Paul even held himself up as an example to the churches—he had the Spirit-inspired confidence to urge the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1; see also 4:16; Phil. 3:17).
Paul certainly was a worthy example of Christian discipleship in all its various facets (Acts 20:18-35; Phil. 3:1-16; 1 Thess. 2:1-12). However, Paul’s career as an apostle and pioneering church planter was not one always marked by easy progress. More than any of the other apostles, he knew the meaning of suffering and adversity. Herbert Lockyer said this:
As you follow Paul from country to country (Rom. 15:19), mark how he suffered for Christ’s sake in his missionary labors. Here is a list for you to ponder over with your open Bible
Enduring every species of hardship, encountering every extreme danger (II Cor. 11:23-27). Assaulted by the populace, punished by magistrates (Acts 16:19-24; 21:27). Scourged, beaten, stoned, left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). Expecting wherever he went a renewal of the same treatment and the same dangers (Acts 20:23). Driven from one city, he preached in the next (Acts 13:50-51; 14:5-7, 19-21). Spent his whole time in missionary work, sacrificing to it his pleasures, his ease, his safety (Acts 20:24; Rom. 1:14-15; Phil. 1:20; 3:8). Persisted in this course to old age, unaltered by the
experience of perverseness (Acts 28:17); ingratitude (Gal. 1:6; 4:14-20); prejudice (II Cor. 12:15); and desertion (II Tim. 4:10, 16). Unsubdued by anxiety, want, labor, or persecution, unwearied by long confinement, undismayed by the prospect of death (Acts 21:13; II Cor. 12:10; Phil. 2:17; 4:18; II Tim. 4:17).
At his conversion, Paul was warned of the many things he would have to suffer for Christ’s sake (Acts 9:16), and as he came to suffer he never sighed or moaned but gloried in his tribulations and was prouder of his scars in battle than a soldier of his medals and decorations (Gal. 6:17). What a warrior-missionary he was! The world has never seen his like.1
Knowing Joy Amid Suffering
Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit-controlled life, according to Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.” We are commanded to rejoice at all times and in all things: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4); “Rejoice always” (I Thess. 5:16). There is really only one justification for believers to lose their joy, and that is when they sin. Consider what David said in the aftermath of his sin: “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Ps. 51:12).
We should never forfeit our joy to sullenness, bitterness, or negativism simply because things aren’t the way we would like them to be. Nevertheless, it is typical for believers to let the changing circumstances of difficulties, confusions, trials, economic troubles, attacks, disagreements, unfulfilled expectations or ambitions, strained relationships, and so forth throw them off balance and steal their joy.
In chapter 1, we examined the rationale for believers experiencing trials and sufferings, concluding that they should expect them and believe that the Lord has a good and glorious purpose for them. In the midst of any difficult circumstance is the struggle of maintaining our joy. The apostle Paul is a larger-than-life model of success in that struggle. The New Testament does not record Paul allowing any circumstance to take away his joy in the Lord. On the contrary, the greater the adversity, the more insistent he was to articulate his joy.
Paul had joy in spite of difficult opposition, because his overriding purpose and focus was to see the cause of Christ furthered. Three aspects, derived from his letter to the Philippians, show how Paul was an example of maintaining his joy in the middle of trials and suffering.
Joy in Spite of Trouble
Paul wrote to the Philippians as a prisoner in Rome during his second two-year imprisonment (he had already languished for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome). Romans 1:10 indicates Paul’s original feeling regarding his earnest desire to come to Rome: “If by any means now at length I might have a prosperous journey by the will of God to come unto you” (KJV). However, he did not have the prosperous journey he might have wished or prayed for. Rather, it was God’s will that he arrive in Rome as a prisoner.
Paul had been given a preliminary hearing (alluded to in Phil. 1:7) after arriving in Rome. He was then awaiting a decision from Emperor Nero on whether he would be executed or released. During this waiting period, Paul had some unusual conditions associated with his imprisonment. He was not housed with the rest of the prisoners but was allowed to stay by himself, chained to the soldier who was guarding him. Acts 28:30-31 elaborates: “And he stayed two full years in his own rented quarters and was welcoming all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.” Even though he had some amount of freedom to speak the gospel and see various people, Paul was still basically a prisoner with all the characteristic restrictions.
After not hearing from Paul for four years, the Philippians discovered that he was being held as a prisoner in Rome. Because of their previous close bond with him, they naturally wanted to know what was happening. To accomplish that, they sent Epaphroditus to discover how Paul was doing and how the gospel was faring. The answer to these questions constitutes the core of the letter to the Philippians.
In the Philippian correspondence Paul essentially let his readers know that in spite of circumstances, he was rejoicing. Although his conditions were hard and threatening, and no doubt disappointing for the Philippian believers to read about, the gospel was still going forward, even among the guards. The key that allowed Paul to rejoice was his ability to see beyond himself and the pains, restrictions, and inconveniences of his circumstances. His greatest priority was the advancement of Christ’s gospel, not a concern for his own comfort (Acts 20:24; Rom. 1:15; 1 Cor. 9:16).
Because he saw himself as a prisoner for the sake of Christ, Paul did not wallow in self-pity. Instead he viewed himself as a servant or soldier on duty for the greater cause of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul mentioned his imprisonment often in his letters (Eph. 3:1; Col. 4:10, 18; Philem. 1, 9) and always in a positive light because he connected it with the cause of Christ.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of Paul’s ability to rejoice in spite of suffering and imprisonment took place at an earlier time in a prison in Philippi:
The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.
But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. (Acts 16:22-33)
Given the situation, that was an incredible display of joy in the face of adversity. Ancient prisons like the one at Philippi were dark, dingy, unclean, and unsanitary. In addition, Paul and Silas had their arms and legs stretched out wide and then locked in the stocks while still suffering the wounds from their beatings. Yet Paul described himself as rejoicing in the middle of such torture.
In this episode with the Philippian jailer, Paul illustrated how he so often took advantage of opportunities within times of adversity to spread the gospel. This evangelizing could easily be seen as an overflow of Paul’s joyful attitude. He again seized the opportunity, this time among the guards, during his Roman imprisonment: “My imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else” (Phil. 1:13). Evidently his efforts were fruitful: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household [the guards]” (4:22).
Based on the context, it wasn’t just Paul’s ability to articulate the gospel that had an impact on the guards, nor was it his gracious, merciful demeanor. Ultimately he made an impact because the truth he spoke and the godly character he exhibited were ingrained in a man experiencing deep affliction. What a tremendous lesson that is to us today (see 1 Peter 3:15). If you are currently facing a difficult witnessing situation either at work or at home, you can actually turn that into an easier process by demonstrating Christlikeness and godly character traits throughout the adversity. Your attitude will stand in sharp contrast with what others naturally expect from you and will create opportunities for testifying to God’s glory and grace.
Joy in Spite of Detractors
Throughout church history the most difficult opposition for the church has typically come from within or from those who profess to be religious. The specific opposition or persecution is not as distressing as the disappointment of receiving unexpected criticism and attack from those you thought were supporters. Paul, however, rose above such disappointment and discouragement while contending with detractors from the ranks of other preachers during his stay in prison. He showed joy in spite of apparent difficulties because he knew the gospel was advancing.
The dictionary defines detraction as “the uttering of material (as false or slanderous charges) that is likely to damage the reputation of another.” A detractor is someone who wants to undercut and tear down the character or reputation of someone else—and there were plenty of such people attacking Paul. From our modern vantage point it is hard to believe that a man like Paul, who was so godly, faithful, and dedicated to the cause of Christ, could have faced such serious detractors from within the church. But that kind of opposition has been characteristic of prominent leaders throughout history. Even Abraham Lincoln, who is universally considered one of the greatest American presidents ever, was severely criticized and viciously attacked by political opponents and unsympathetic newspaper editors during the height of the American Civil War.
Philippians 1:15 identifies Paul’s chief detractors: “Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife.” These men were Paul’s fellow preachers who proclaimed the same gospel as Paul. Doctrinal differences were not the cause of their opposition to Paul but personal differences—specifically the sinful motives of envy and strife associated with their preaching. Simply put, they were jealous of Paul’s gifts and blessings from God in addition to the large following he had attracted from the many converts God had given him and the churches he had founded and ministered to.
In his letter, Paul referred to those detractors not to garner sympathy for himself but to inform the Philippians about this crucial time in his ministry. He was not retaliating against his critics—that would not be consistent with his standard response to difficulties. One aspect of that response was to accept opposition patiently and turn it from a negative to a positive.
Paul undoubtedly gained patience from his experience in dealing with disappointments and letdowns caused by other would-be supporters (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:16). Having to contend with this latest group of detractors was just one more trial in a long list. Paul elaborated some more in Philippians 1:17 about the methods his detractors used: “The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment.” The word distress is the translation of the Greek thlipsis, which basically means “friction.” Paul’s foes attempted to inflict extra irritation on him while he was in prison. Their malicious goal was to discredit him in the eyes of his followers so he would lose all credibility.
However much Paul’s jealous detractors may have succeeded in shaking the confidence and faith of some in the churches, they were not able to shake Paul. He withstood all the ugliness that was hurled at him and was able to conclude, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). In spite of it all, they could not steal his joy, because he knew Christ’s cause was being furthered.
The lesson for all of us from Paul’s example is very clear: We need not allow any amount of unfair or false treatment to steal our joy in Christ and the gospel. The key for us to emulate, by God’s power, is Paul’s intense, overriding devotion to the cause of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:28-29; Phil. 3:7-14).
Joy In Spite of Death
One great certainty that everyone faces is death, whether it arrives unexpectedly or approaches slowly, allowing its victim time to prepare for the inevitable. Of course, not all people accept the unexpected prognosis of death with equal calmness, peace of mind, and even joy.
A poignant but heartwarming illustration of how one person was coping scripturally with a terminal illness came to the attention of my radio ministry recently. A high school girl from the Midwest sent a prayer request to us in which she told of being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease just a few weeks earlier. This young Christian woman, who had been given six months to two years to live, accepted the reality of her condition with grace and optimism, as demonstrated by these comments: “I love the Lord very much and feel the Lord is using my condition to work in different people’s lives. Please pray with me that He would continue to use me no matter what the outcome.”
In Philippians 1:19-21 Paul expressed a strong level of confidence and joy regarding his possible death:
For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayers and the provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope, that I will not be put to shame in anything, but that with all boldness, Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Paul was a living illustration of a disciple who was willing to take up his cross for the gospel’s sake (Matt. 16:24-25). He exhibited a high level of spiritual commitment—one that is not often seen in the church in our materialistic, self-centered, self-serving age. Paul was confident of four things that helped him face death without fear. A brief examination of each can help us in our own struggles as we seek to be better prepared for sufferings and trials.
Confidence in God’s Word. Paul’s statement “For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance” is a verbatim quote from Job 13:16 in the Greek Old Testament. The word know is from the Greek oida, which means “to know for a certainty.” Paul was expressing a sure confidence in what was going to happen.
Paul could be certain of his deliverance because he had confidence in God’s promises. In Romans 8:28, he wrote, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Paul quoted from the book of Job to the Philippians because he knew that statement also was a promise from God. Paul also identified with the struggles and sufferings Job endured.
Paul believed, as Job did, that his trials and hardships were merely temporary. Whether the suffering would be for a short season or a long one, Paul knew God would deliver him because he was righteous—a principle that God established in the Old Testament (Pss. 34:17, 19; 37:39-40; 91:3; 97:10). Furthermore, he was well acquainted with how God rescued and restored Job from a difficult time of suffering.
We can have the same confidence in the face of death as Paul or Job had, and more so because we possess the entire written Scripture. We can “keep on rejoicing” if God calls us to face suffering or death for His sake (1 Peter 4:13).
Confidence in the Prayers of the Saints. Paul believed in the eternal purposes of God that He established from before time began, but he also knew that God did His work and accomplished His purposes in association with the prayers of believers.
Paul, however, did not allow his confidence in prayer to become presumptuous. He believed in asking people to pray for him: “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me” (Rom. 15:30; see also Eph. 6:19). Once he knew that others were praying for him, his confidence was strengthened even more, because Paul knew the truth of James 5:16: “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”
Confidence in the Provision of the Spirit. Paul was certain that the Holy Spirit would grant him whatever was necessary to sustain him in any situation. The Greek word translated provision in Philippians 1:19 means “bountiful supply” or “full resources.” Paul understood that he could rely on the complete resources of the Holy Spirit, based on what Jesus had promised (Luke 11:13; John 14-16; Acts 1:8).
That truth is a source of confidence—not just for Paul, but also for us. Every genuine believer possesses the Holy Spirit and therefore has full access to His resources. Romans 8:26 says, “The Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.” That’s how things work out for good (v. 28). Trials, tribulations, and sufferings don’t resolve themselves for us in some vacuum. But we are able to endure them through the provision of God’s Spirit—a provision we can know by faith and obedience.
Confidence in the Promise of Christ. Finally, Paul leaned on Jesus’ promise to him when he was converted: “For this purpose I have appeared to you, to appoint you a minister and a witness” (Acts 26:16). Paul knew for certain that God had called him to a specific ministry, and as long as he was faithful, he would never suffer shame (Mark 8:38).
Paul also expressed a simple trust in the words of Christ, the Good Shepherd: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). Paul also would have known well the words of Moses from Deuteronomy 31:6: “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” The Lord never abandons His own, no matter how bleak our prospects in life or how frustrating and fearful our circumstances.
In summarizing his attitude toward life and death, Paul said, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). To Paul, Christ was the reason for his existence. That’s why his only real concern in life was serving Christ and proclaiming His gospel. As long as he met that objective, Paul didn’t care if he lived or died. In fact, given the choice, he would just as soon die, because dying is the ultimate gain for the believer. Death frees us from the burdens of this life and allows us to glorify Christ in eternity.
Paul was a man who stripped out of his life every single thing but Christ. Since Christ was his top priority, none of the opposition he confronted—prison, detractors, the threat of death—could deter him or shake his faith.
We can draw from the same words or precepts of God that Paul did. We can also ask other Christians to pray for us in times of great distress. We certainly have the same provision of the Holy Spirit as Paul did if we are genuine believers in Christ (Rom. 8:15-17). Finally, in the Gospels we can rely on the same promises of Christ that were available to Paul. Jesus has not changed and will not change (Heb. 13:8).
Knowing the Paradoxes of Suffering
Besides his opposition in Rome, Paul also suffered heavy criticism from detractors in the Corinthian church. They were false teachers bent on replacing Paul’s teachings with their lies. To gain the upper hand, those critics maligned Paul’s person and character from all angles. They blamed him for being inept, ugly, blemished in appearance, unimaginative, and a bad orator and for lacking in persona. Those particular attacks forced Paul into the delicate situation of needing to defend himself for the sake of God’s truth without simultaneously being boastful or self-serving.
Paul solved that dilemma in a most remarkable and godly manner by agreeing with his detractors. He compared himself to a baked-clay container (an earthen vessel or pot, which was often used as a garbage pail)—a metaphor for all the frailties and drawbacks his critics accused him of having. But at the same time he noted that this clay container had the treasure of God’s truth in it. In taking this line of defense, Paul revealed his true humility in the face of adversity. He took the spotlight off himself and put it on Christ (2 Cor. 4:5) by contrasting his own weakness with the power of God’s truth, “that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (v. 7).
However, in comparing himself to a clay pot, Paul did not want to be underestimated or misunderstood. He immediately listed a short series of paradoxes to show that his humility and human weakness did not cripple him in the midst of suffering: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (vv. 8-9). Paul continued to demonstrate that he was a man of contrasts humble but invincible, aware of his weaknesses but gaining strength from them.
Each of these paradoxes involves conflict with an adversary. Afflicted means “pressure”—the extreme pressure of potential death that Paul faced every day from his foes. It was much more than the kind of daily pressure and stress we all face as we do our jobs, minister to our families, or serve in our local churches. In one notable instance Paul was stoned and actually left for dead outside the city of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20). That truly was a case of being near death, with seemingly no escape, and emerging victorious.
The second paradox or contrast for Paul amid his trials and sufferings is that he was “perplexed, but not despairing.” He sometimes wondered why he was constantly confronted with difficulties, but he always trusted God for a way out of each situation and therefore never quit. Besides being a role model for handling suffering, Paul was also a noble example of perseverance in the faith (Heb. 12:1-2).
Third, Paul said he was “persecuted, but not forsaken.” The Greek word dioko, translated “persecuted,” has the more precise meaning of “pursue” or “stalk,” as when hunting an animal. This understanding of the usage here should dispel any notions we might have that Paul suffered only routine, light persecution. He actually suffered much more frequent and intense opposition than most of us could ever imagine. Paul’s tribulations were not such that anyone can claim he overcame them by his own strength and willpower. Only the power of God would do (2 Cor. 4:7), and that power is also more than sufficient for us in the difficulties we are likely to face (Heb. 12:3).
Finally, Paul said he was “struck down, but not destroyed.” The Greek word translated struck down literally means “to be struck with a weapon,” whether by a sword, spear, or an opponent’s fist. The word is also used in connection with ancient boxing and wrestling. Paul knew what it was like to be knocked down or slammed to the mat. At the same time, he also could testify that no blows were enough to destroy him or make him quit.
Paul’s four paradoxes in the face of suffering give us additional reason to marvel at his testimony. They are also reminders that we do not realize power by avoiding suffering but by enduring it. Paul was completely committed to tenacious perseverance through any difficulty. Certainly he knew the truth and reality of the prophet Isaiah’s words concerning God’s care for His own:
But now, thus says the LORD, your Creator, 0 Jacob, and He who formed you, 0 Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” (Isa. 43:1-3)
Endurance in Suffering
Our study of Paul has revealed him to be a great model of one who victoriously endured sufferings, trials, and persecutions. He did so not only because he had to overcome the various obstacles to accomplish God’s work, but there was a higher, overarching reason as well. Speaking of himself, Paul wrote, “Therefore, since we have this ministry, as we received mercy, we do not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:1).
“This ministry” refers to the privilege Paul had of ministering the truths of the New Covenant. After recounting the glorious features of the New Covenant in 2 Corinthians 3—the Holy Spirit, eternal life, the resurrection, liberty in the gospel of Christ—Paul could not and would not “lose heart” because of all the severe hardship he encountered. No amount of trouble could make Paul neglect his duty as a minister of the New Covenant, as the record of his life verifies.
The apostle again said “We do not lose heart” in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, where he went on to give three reasons that he endured suffering:
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
Our modern culture has made it difficult for us to maintain an appreciation for the concept of endurance. Advances in science and technology have led us to expect shortcuts and quick fixes to avoid pain and inconvenience. One example of that is the overabundance and convenience of over-the-counter pain relievers. Advertisers claim that just by taking one or two pills, you should obtain fast relief from headaches, stuffy sinuses, and a variety of other physical aches and pains. There is seldom a willingness to slow down and learn to endure in a world of quick pain relief and comfort.
Paul’s eternal perspective is clearly evident in verses 16-18. Each of his three reasons for endurance stresses the value of what’s lasting over what’s fleeting. They are relevant for us whenever we struggle with a trial or suffering and become overwhelmed by the immediacy of the pain and circumstances.
Endurance: Spiritual Is Greater than Physical
Paul was able to endure any physical suffering, first of all, because he was more concerned with what was happening in the spiritual realm than the physical. Paul accepted the fact that we live in physical bodies; his use of the term earthen vessels has already indicated that. But he also knew that our present bodies are decaying and therefore are not permanent. They are undergoing a natural aging process.
The apostle Paul was perhaps more aware of the aging process than most. Because his lifestyle was full of rigorous ministry and travel demands, he aged more quickly. He was wearing out in service to God, much like Henry Martyn in India or David Brainerd among the American Indians in New England. Those servants of Christ both died before the age of thirty-five. Paul lived longer than they did (perhaps to age sixty), but nevertheless, he was prematurely old and had worn himself out in the ministry.
Paul also aged quicker than normal because of the relentless abuse he suffered at the hands of his foes—abuse that was physical and emotional. Even though he ultimately overcame all the persecution, it had to take its toll on his body.
In spite of that, Paul could say confidently that his inner man was being renewed daily (2 Cor. 4:16). In direct correlation to the decaying of his outer man (physical body) was the growth and maturing of his inner man, the nonmaterial, eternal side of us that is made into a new creation, what Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 call the “new self.” Paul was much more concerned about its renewal than about any decline in his physical side (see also Eph. 3:16).
Once again we must challenge ourselves to follow Paul’s splendid example of endurance through life’s variety of sufferings. It’s not easy to imitate Paul and take our eyes off ourselves and our physical situations, yet we must do so, just as he exhorted us to “set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2).
God often sends suffering our way to drive us to Him and compel us to look away from ourselves. We have all seen Him do so, if not in our lives then in the lives of others who have endured major trials or physical suffering and have grown in their faith as a result. Paul’s consistent example is proof that suffering is directly related to spiritual growth. If his life is not proof enough, we can listen to the promises elsewhere in Scripture. Peter wrote, “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Isaiah 40:28-31 says,
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable. He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power. Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble badly, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.
That key passage promises that the Lord will give us the endurance we need as we look away from the physical and toward the spiritual.
Endurance: Value the Future over the Present
Paul’s second secret for endurance through sufferings and trials is valuing the future over the present. For him it was a matter of looking beyond the present afflictions to realize that they are “producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). The pain he was enduring on earth was inconsequential compared to that great future reality (Rom. 8:18).
The heavenly perspective Paul demonstrated is truly astounding. He characterized his troubles as “Momentary, light affliction” when all along we have noted that his persecutions were heavy and constant. But that’s our earthly perspective. Paul viewed his difficulties as transitory as the vapor of life (see James 4:14) and as light as fluff. The Greek word elaphros, translated “light” in 2 Corinthians 4:17, technically means “weightless trifle,” and that’s what Paul’s afflictions were when considered from a heavenly standpoint.
In the first two chapters of this book we have affirmed that persecution is inevitable and suffering is real; but when compared to what awaits us in the future, they are, at their worst, light and trivial. The true significance of suffering comes only when we see how it contributes to our eternal glory. The apostle Peter again reinforced Paul’s perspective:
In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:6-7)
All our troubles and sufferings have a causal effect on our future glory. This effect is not meritorious but productive—it produces an eternal weight of glory. The Greek word barus, translated “weight,” more precisely means “heavy.” It’s as if Paul’s sufferings were building up a heavy mass on one side of an old-fashioned scale. The mass represents the eternal weight of glory that is tipping the scale in favor of the future over the present. In essence Paul could tolerate the present pain as long as it had a positive impact on his future glory.
According to Scripture, there is always a corresponding relationship between present suffering and future glory. Christ, as we will see in greater detail in the next chapter, is also an example of this principle. Philippians 2:8-9 says, “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.” The greater the suffering, the greater the eternal reward. To the degree that we as believers suffer now, we will rejoice when we arrive in heaven because we will see the reward of our suffering (1 Peter 4:13). And that reward has nothing to do with sheer external bonuses (fancier crowns, larger heavenly dwelling places), but it relates to our increased capacity to praise, serve, rejoice, and glorify God. That was Paul’s lifelong desire, and it should be ours as well.
Endurance: Value the Eternal over the Temporal
The third way the apostle Paul endured through many hardships and sufferings was by placing a greater value on eternal things than on temporal things: “While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18).
Paul’s perspective on endurance through suffering—placing the spiritual and the future over the physical and the present—was not automatic. That is evident in the phrase “while we look.” The conditional force attached to it indicates that as long as our gaze is fixed, by faith, in the right place—looking at what is unseen—we will give the priority to future, spiritual realities and therefore endure with patience and grace the sufferings of this life.
I mention the element of faith parenthetically because it’s implicit rather than explicit in Paul’s statement. But that does not lessen the importance of faith as it relates to what is unseen. The author of Hebrews wrote,
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible…. And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him. (11:1,3,6)
Faith is a basic component of the Christian life, and by its very definition, we can see that God gives high priority to the invisible over the visible.
Since Paul recognized that priority, it should not be any different for contemporary Christians who want to be obedient, whether enjoying times of blessing and comfort or enduring times of difficulty and suffering. During his ministry, Paul was absorbed with the invisible, eternal world—a realm in which his greatest concerns were worshipping and glorifying God, serving Christ, and saving the souls of lost men and women. When we focus on the things of genuine, lasting value-eternal things-temporal pains and difficulties, even the most severe, become much more bearable. But the key is our eternal perspective and priority, as the Lord Jesus instructed in the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21)
Paul remains a superb role model for how to deal with suffering. He did not rely on his own strength or on some secret formula for successful living. Instead, his key to success was maintaining his focus on Christ’s kingdom and the glory of God. To accomplish his vision, Paul confidently drew from God’s complete supply of spiritual resources: His Word, His Spirit, His Son, and the prayers of fellow Christians. Paul could rejoice continually at these great provisions of grace, and so can we. That is not always easy, but true joy comes through Spirit-empowered perseverance to live the Christian life. Paul again gave the pattern for us to follow:
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. (1 Cor. 9:24-25)
If we are already running to win the prize, there is no suffering, trial, or persecution that can discourage us or defeat us. [pg 65-90]