10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. (Acts 9:10-19 (ESV)
“For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” It jumps out at a person. As we read it we think Jesus plans on punishing Paul for his persecution of the church. But doesn’t Jesus forgive? And the answer is yes, Jesus forgives all. This doesn’t mean that the temporal consequences of our actions are necessarily done away with, though sometimes it works even that way. Yet, this has nothing to do with forgiveness or temporal consequences of Paul’s previous sins. Paul himself would not have read it that way, neither would Annanias or the other disciples. They all understood their suffering for the sake of Jesus to be a blessing and an honor, as it is even today.
Oh, this understanding hardly makes the suffering itself any easier to bear. And it hardly meant that Paul’s life would be nothing but suffering. A close reading of Paul shows that he had much joy and happiness in life. He knew how to enjoy life. But he also knew suffering for the sake of Jesus name. He records it here and there in his letters, the shipwrecks, the robbers, the beatings, and the imprisonments. At times he wondered if he would be better off just to die, and he knew he would. But he would rather endure the suffering for the sake of his brothers that they would be edified. He no longer lived for himself, but for Christ. And if his life was Christ’s life than it would necessarily entail suffering in this world.
This suffering can take on so many different forms. The world has so many ways of inflicting pain on the children of God. The devil is never finished with his work. Sometimes we don’t understand even how any of this suffering is for the sake of Christ. Perhaps we see Christians in the Middle East being persecuted for Christ and we understand that this if for his name. But the great tribulation covers more than all of that.
We have been given the name of Christ, anointed with it in baptism. Any suffering we encounter in life is suffering we endure in the name of Christ. We know the world was not supposed to be this way. We know that God had created the world and it was good. And suffering lets us know it is not good. And yet we endure this suffering knowing that this life is a gift from God that has been redeemed by God. We endure this suffering in the name of Christ because we no longer live to ourselves but for others. Namely, we live for Christ, and so we suffer for his name sake. The hardships we endure at work, the allergies that wake us up at 4:00 AM and induce us to weazing through the morning, the cancer we get in old age, sick children we are given to take care of when perhaps we would rather be on vacation. All of these things we suffer as children of God, and for the name of Jesus. From those little things that seem so trivial, to the life shattering events that makes us stare down death in the evening shadows. Yes, these things we suffer for the name of Christ.
No, there isn’t any glory in them. They seem pointless, and meaningless, they seem to suck the purpose straight out of life. Beheadings for confession, being thrown to the lions, strapped on grid irons, burned at the stake, 40 lashes minus 1. We think we can more easily see how this suffering is suffering for Christ. But often we are blinded by the blaze of glory aspect to this sort of suffering. We see the confession of faith this makes just before death. But we are drawn to glory, and we think if the suffering will bring us glory we would even afflict it upon ourselves as so many early Christians were won’t to do during great persecutions of the church. There is an aspect of this sort of thing that attempts to short circuit the suffering and make it into something it is not. Oh, Paul understood that when these things happened he was suffering for Christ. But he also understood that this suffering for Christ also extended to the thorn in his side, and poor eyesight, things too which glory can’t be attached. Suffering that looks no different from the suffering the rest of the world suffers itself. But then as with everything in the Christian life, it isn’t the thing itself that makes it good or bad but the blessing of God. Just as it is impossible for the non-Christian to do good works because they don’t have the faith necessary for good works. And yet the Christian flipping burgers at McDonald’s is doing works pleasing to God simply because of their faith. So it is not what we suffer that determines it being good or bad suffering, suffering for the name of Christ or not, but that we suffer what we suffer in faith, trusting in the death and resurrection of Christ to forgive all sins. Trusting that this momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of Glory that is beyond all comparison to any glory we might receive in this world.