Updated: Nov 24, 2020
I feel certain that, in time, believers in America are going to be counted worthy to join the rest of the church worldwide and through the ages in suffering for the gospel (Acts 5:41). I'm not saying this to be alarmist, or to sound like I have supernatural insight into future events. I'm saying it because we are told to expect it:
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (2 Timothy 3:12-13)
We need to be told this, because it runs counter-intuitive that "getting saved" would lead to suffering. But that's because God's wisdom flies in the face of the devil, who always prefers power and privelege over humility, submission, and sacrifice. Our ears are naturally tuned to the wisdom of the devil. The way of the cross - our very salvation - is the wisdom of God that "thwarts" the enemy's schemes. Because God is life, death gives way to resurrection. The devil didn't see that coming.
This was true for me exactly ten years ago. At age 58, my darling dad - best dad ever, no joke - got sick with brain cancer, and eight months later was gone. Facing death with him was suffering, not just for him but for all of us who knew he wasn't going to survive this tumor in his brain. It was not fun. Can't really tell you anything nice about death. Can't really say I feel like life is better without my dad. Even ten years later, I and my kids, husband, and mom notice the gaping void and all the subsequent collateral suffering that has resulted from not having a husband, father, and grandpa.
Let's be clear: suffering is, well, suffering, and God is not asking us to think otherwise.
That tragedy ignited my faith. Facing the reality of death was like focusing the lens of a camera I'd been staring through all my life, and suddenly everything was clear. I'd been a Christian for 30 years, but I remember the lights going on and thinking, "Oh my word, this is what the gospel is for!" I remember feeling positively charged with the electricity of the hope of resurrection. Suddenly everything I'd ever learned and heard (and taught) about the gospel made sense. Ouch! So this is why we need eternal life!
Resurrection and eternal life are valuable to us only when we become convinced of our own weakness, mortality, and inability to shield ourselves from the inevitable heartache of living in a fallen world.
Conversely, suffering clarifies the good news. Our weakness clarifies the power of God.
Nevertheless, this aspect of our relationship with Christ - suffering - is for many people a deal-breaker. When things don't go "right" we naturally question the goodness of God. We question his power, his love for us. Peter was the disciple who rebuked Jesus when Jesus mentioned the persecution that was coming against him personally. But later that same disciple went on to be martyred for his faith (Mark 8:32; John 21:18-19). He learned the lesson, he caught the savvy wisdom of suffering, and went on to teach it to others:
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 1:6-7)
But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.(1 Pet 2:20-21)
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Pet 4:12-13)
What changed for Peter? Well, much like Paul, he got a glimpse of a power and a glory that overrode and surpassed the suffering of the world. Paul saw the risen Christ, and that did it for him. Peter witnessed the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the miraculous manifestations of God's presence on his people. Both men essentially saw God's power to bring life beyond death.
Suffering ignites faith. I can't explain why or how, but it does. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that suffering exposes the futility of this world, and directs us to look to God for something better - which is the very thing he is offering us. In any case, like it or not (and we don't), suffering is a faith-building force.