Suffering tends to produce loneliness. In the midst of the pain we endure we might feel alone, isolated, sealed off, and detached from others. It is common for us to believe that no one understands our pain.
We can be deceived into thinking that God is distant and uncaring. While I do not wish to invalidate these emotions, I do want to extinguish the lie that the sufferer is ever alone. We are never alone in suffering because in it we join other saints in the pattern of righteous suffering that has been going on from the inception of salvation history.
Are you or other believers around you facing rejection for your faith? Do you feel lonely in your suffering? Does it seem that God is distant and has detached himself from your pain? Do you feel disappointment, bewilderment, or dismay? Are you sitting in darkness, searching for answers and grasping for hope?
Destined for Suffering
Paul addresses 1 Thessalonians to believers who are suffering for their faith in Jesus and gives us a model of encouragement for ourselves and others.
When their reputation is being destroyed and the whole city is up in arms against them, Paul gives the Thessalonians what their minds and hearts need: insight into God’s sovereign design for all of salvation history.
He reveals to them the pattern of suffering that they are now a part of, and the divine wisdom behind it, because Paul knows that if they better understand salvation history and God’s purposes in it, then they will not be surprised by any suffering they endure for their faith.
The Pattern of Christian Suffering
1 Thessalonians 2:13-16 establishes a pattern of suffering that spans through redemptive history beginning with the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, the Judean church, and now the church in Thessalonica. The suffering of the righteous at the hands of the wicked is not new in redemptive history. It is an honoured tradition that traverses through all of redemptive history.
After the fall of Adam in the garden of Eden, God gives the first promise of salvation, mingled with a promise of suffering: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (). God’s people would suffer in the battle between the two seeds — the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent — and ultimate victory over the serpent would only come through suffering.
The enmity between the serpent and the seed of the woman (the unrighteous and the righteous) is first actualised after Eve gives birth to two sons. Abel is killed by Cain () “who was of the evil one and murdered his brother” (). Abel, a righteous man approved by God, is the first victim of the enemy’s hatred, murdered by the first seed of the serpent.
This same struggle can be seen throughout the Old Testament culminating in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Faithfulness to God again and again resulted in suffering for God’s people. All of the righteous sufferers of the Old Testament from Abel to Zechariah pointed to Jesus, and Jesus’s suffering has become the pattern for his disciples. Peter writes, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (). That is exactly what Christ’s apostles, the early church did and believers through the ages have done, enduring pain for their faith and ultimately because of their allegiance to their Lord Jesus Christ.
Leading to Glory
When Paul tells the Thessalonians that they have become “imitators” who are “suffering the same things” that others have suffered (), he means that they continue the pattern of suffering from history. Using history itself as his slate, God is writing an amazing story of salvation. The protagonists are God’s righteous sufferers who are being killed all the day long. Suffering is the theme and the plot. Suffering is our story.
There is a purpose for all of this suffering. In so many epic stories, such as in The Lord of the Rings, the suffering of the protagonists leads to their glory, the triumph of good over evil, and peace for mankind. These great literary epics faintly mirror the plot-line of God’s redemptive work in history.
The Pattern Continues
You yourself may be suffering for the name of Jesus. Where do you find the encouragement to endure? Where do you find consolation in the loneliness of your grief?
Look to the story of redemption, and remember that the same kinds of suffering you are experiencing are being endured by your brotherhood around the world (; ). You are not alone. The story of suffering did not begin with you and will not end with you.
If you are not suffering for your faith, expect it to come. When your time comes, remember you are treading where others have trodden. That same narrow path of suffering that you tread has the bloodstained footprints of your Savior, followed by every Christian who has gone outside the city to bear the same reproach that he bore. The same grace that has sustained God’s people throughout redemptive history will sustain you, if you trust him.
The grace that empowered Peter and the apostles to proclaim, “We must obey God rather than men” (), the same grace that enabled Stephen to pray for forgiveness as rocks were hurled at his broken body (), the same grace that empowered Ignatius of Antioch to say, “Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, the rending of my bones and body . . . only let it be mine to attain Jesus Christ”, the same grace that emboldened Polycarp to declare, “86 years have I have served him, and he has done me no wrong — how can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?,” the same grace that empowered Luther to say, “Here I stand” — this is the same grace that will empower you to suffer well as you pursue righteousness in Christ, guarding the truth, and calling what is evil “evil” and what is good “good.”
The same glory that they have received is awaiting you. At the end of this path of suffering stained with the blood, tears, and pain of the saints lies a glorious inheritance that will make the longest trial on earth seem very ephemeral. All who suffer for Christ await an eternity of no tears, no pain, and an everlasting inheritance, chief of which is our scar-handed Savior who will be our everlasting and all-satisfying delight.
If you endure your suffering with joy, like the saints of old, you will be an example for others, your faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ will be greatly prized through you, and God will be greatly glorified in your life, as he sanctifies and guards your faith through the fires of the established pattern of excruciating suffering.
This article originally appeared at Desiring God and is used here with permission from both of the author and Desiring God. You can find a longer version of it in the book Think It Not Strange, edited by Mathis and Piper.