One of our Underground University (UU) students recently had a simple, yet profound insight that many Christians, more seasoned than her have not yet fully understood. Let me set the stage of our class last Saturday.
We had been studying the books of 1 & 2 Corinthians as it related to persecution. Interestingly enough, the Corinthian church did not have the problem of persecution and suffering that other churches in the region had, or that even Paul himself had. They were a rather prosperous church that viewed Paul’s propensity for suffering as problematic. But it was their viewpoint that was in fact problematic!
They had very little use for Paul’s brand of Christianity – humble, weak and persecuted! So in the Corinthian letters, Paul tried to convince the church that weak Christianity is the best kind of Christianity, because it’s through our weakness that Christ’s strength is displayed!
To go about proving his weakness, Paul listed out all the ways that he suffered. He said,
Are they serving Christ? I am serving him even more. I’m out of my mind to talk like this! I have worked much harder. I have been in prison more often. I have suffered terrible beatings. Again and again I almost died. Five times the Jews gave me 39 strokes with a whip. Three times I was beaten with sticks. Once they tried to kill me by throwing stones at me. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have had to keep on the move. I have been in danger from rivers. I have been in danger from robbers. I have been in danger from people from my own country. I have been in danger from those who aren’t Jews. I have been in danger in the city, in the country, and at sea. I have been in danger from people who pretended they were believers. I have worked very hard. Often I have gone without sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty. Often I have gone without food. I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, every day I am concerned about all the churches. It is a very heavy load. If anyone is weak, I feel weak. If anyone is led into sin, I burn on the inside. If I have to brag, I will brag about the things that show how weak I am. (2 Cor. 11:23-30)
Not even thinking much about it, I had our UU students read this passage and then write out the specific ways in which Paul suffered. After doing the assignment, one UU student said that all of us (NK defectors) have at least suffered in half of the same ways that the apostle Paul did.
When I heard that, I felt a little deflated. I realize that they probably didn’t need to learn or read about Paul’s sufferings, because they had all been through the same thing already. Maybe somehow, reading through Paul’s list brought back some of the pain that they had once experienced. They were certainly much more well-versed in suffering than I was.
But then one other UU student spoke up. She said,
Yes, but when we suffered these things, we were not Christians . . . we did not suffer these things for the cause of Christ.
They had suffered these things as ordinary NK citizens and as ordinary NK defectors, but not because they followed Christ. Most of our current UU students did not become Christians until the after they left NK.
What’s the big deal . . . suffering is suffering right? But in pointing out that they had “not suffered these things for the cause of Christ,” she pointed to a very important Scriptural distinction when it comes to suffering. We tend to group all suffering/difficulties together, but when the Bible speaks of suffering it is primarily talking about suffering for the sake of righteousness. The New Testament was written by suffering believers in God for other believers who were also suffering.
In other words, all human beings suffer in a general sense, but we tend to think that Christianity should provide some protection against suffering. Following Christ should bring some measure of strength, prosperity and immunity from suffering . . . at least that’s what the Corinthian church would say!
Paul tried to help the Corinthians understand that suffering wasn’t just a part of the human life, but it was a unique feature of Christian discipleship. If you were truly following the Lord, you would endure a “special kind” of persecution and suffering that only righteousness could bring. And Paul understood that this type of “weakness” brought about God’s strength in a way that couldn’t be experienced apart from suffering for the sake of righteousness. He said,
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:9)