I love the apostle Paul, I love his God-breathed words in Scripture, and I love what he understood and said about suffering. And I love John Piper too—so it was a no brainer to feature this excellent article, excerpted from John’s new book Why I Love the Apostle Paul. —Randy Alcorn
By John Piper
Only rarely do we find a person who is able to speak meaningfully about suffering at the very personal level of pain and loss, and also at the cosmic level of why the whole universe is the way it is. Most people, it seems, are wired either to be a wise counselor who can apply God’s goodness and power to individual need or to think globally about why the entire world is permeated, for all its beauty, with horrifying calamities. Finding both in one person is rare and beautiful. The apostle Paul was such a person.
Paul was not naïve about the vastness of human misery and suffering in the world. And the explanation he gave, as he probed this mystery, was both personal in its application to individual Christians and cosmic in its scope of redemption.
Within weeks after starting a new church and appointing leaders for the church, Paul prepared the new believers to suffer.
When they had preached the gospel . . . they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:21–22)
Paul did not try to soften the claims that Jesus put on his followers. He did not use a bait-and-switch tactic by luring people with the promise of prosperity and then changing his tune when trouble arrived. He said plainly, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
When tribulation began, he reminded the believers that they were not entering something unusual. They were not being singled out because of some sin. They were experiencing what God had ordained for his beloved children. So he urged them not to be “moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessalonians 3:3).
Paul helped people see their suffering through the lens of God’s good purposes for their eternal good:
We ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. (2 Thessalonians 1:4–5)
Paul helped individual Christians not just in the pain of persecution but in all their sufferings, whether disease or accident or loss or the ordinary burdens of life. He explained that the whole creation is groaning under futility caused by the fall (Romans 8:22), and then he added that Christians are not exempt from this groaning:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22–23)
In other words, Christians endure groans of almost every kind in this world until Christ comes to redeem our bodies. Life in the body — life in this fallen world — means groaning. So take heart, if you are trusting in Christ. Your suffering is not owing to God’s wrath against you. Your condemnation for sin has been taken away by the death of Christ (Romans 8:1). God will not let you be tested beyond what he gives you the grace to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13; 2 Corinthians 9:8). Your groaning is limited. Redemption is coming. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).
Amazingly, Paul is eager not only to help us individually, with our personal suffering in the moment, but also with the big picture of why the whole creation is in such a mess. Here is the key passage from his great letter to the Romans:
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. (Romans 8:20–22)
This subjection of the creation to futility is a reference to God’s act in the garden of Eden, after Adam and Eve turned away from God’s goodness and wisdom and authority. God did what he said he would do (Genesis 2:17): he introduced death into the world and put creation under bondage to corruption and pervasive futility.
In other words, God’s judgment upon the sin of human rebellion was the breakdown of nature’s beautiful functioning. Now things go wrong. Corruption and futility are shot through the created order with every manner of suffering and dying.
We can shed some light on God’s purpose in this subjection of creation if we ask, Why would God’s judgment fall on physical creation when the sin was an act of the human heart? My answer is that the physical miseries of the creation are a visible and deeply felt witness to the moral ugliness and outrage of sin.
For most of us, the sins of our hearts (our preference for God’s gifts over God himself) do not cause great agony of soul. We do not feel the real outrage of the universe — namely, that the beautiful Creator and sustainer of the world is disregarded and dishonored. But just let our bodies be touched by pain, and we are full of indignation that this is happening.
In other words, God subjected the physical world to corruption to show us the outrage of sin at the one point where we really feel it. All physical pain and sorrow should scream at us, “This is how horrible sin is.” This is how serious our moral condition is before God. This is why the redemption of the world was not cheap, but cost the infinite price of the Son of God dying for sinners.
It is beautiful and rare when a person can offer a global explanation for suffering, and then also make his own very personal suffering a means of our comfort. But Paul has done this for me many times. He wanted it this way:
If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. (2 Corinthians 1:6)
I take this very personally. I love him for the vastness of his global vision. And I love him for turning his own suffering into a means of my comfort.
By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org
For more, see John’s book Why I Love the Apostle Paul. And if you’d like to study Paul’s life, I recommend first reading or listening to the book of Acts and letters of Paul. If you want a quick illustrated read on the apostle Paul, see my graphic novel The Apostle. I spent a lot of time studying his life to write it, and chose many of the great action scenes in Acts and added some scenes to tie it together. Or if you want a serious biography, The Apostle: A Life of Paul is a classic. —Randy Alcorn