The Wonderful Gift of… Suffering?
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.” (Philippians 1:29-30)
Philippians 1:29 is one of those verses that makes me stop and shake my head in disbelief. Paul tells the readers of this letter that suffering has been granted to them. Granted? Really? As in, “Here you go. Here’s a big ol’ heaping helping of suffering”?
If you dig into the Greek behind that phrase, you’ll uncover the word charizomai. This word usually implies something that’s freely given for someone else’s benefit. In fact, Paul uses this same word to talk about how God forgave our sins (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 4:32); how we are to forgive others freely (2 Corinthians 2:7, 10); and how God bestows gifts or titles because of His love and power (as in Philippians 2:9). In Luke 7:21, the same word shows how Jesus gave sight to the blind. Free, beneficial gifts.
All those are well and good. So, why would Paul add something crazy like suffering to these other good things? Surely, he has to see that suffering doesn’t fit in the same category as healing the blind and forgiving sin. They don’t even share the same zip code. Right?
Well, Paul’s example shows us that they do. Right near the end of Acts (chapter 27), Paul gets stuck with a stubborn centurion who can’t wait to get to Rome and a ship’s pilot who’s happy to oblige. Paul warns that such a trip will end badly. They ignore him (word to the wise: never ignore Paul). When they run into a storm, things look really, really bad. People are throwing supplies overboard, faces are green, and hope goes buh-bye.
About that time, Paul gets to give his “I told you so” speech, and in that speech, he uses our old friend charizomai. An angel had appeared to Paul and told him, “God has granted you all those who are sailing with you” (Acts 27:24). God had granted him seasick sailors (who wanted to kill the prisoners, mind you) and a stubborn centurion who refused to listen to sense. What kind of gift is that? God could have granted him a miraculous trip to a nearby island—perhaps somewhere warm and not so stormy.
But if that had been the case, Paul wouldn’t have done the other part of this verse: “you must stand before Caesar.” If Paul had been whisked away, in fact, we wouldn’t have the books of Acts or Luke (that chapter is filled with “we” from our good doctor friend who also survived the storm); the sailors and centurion wouldn’t have seen God’s mighty act to save every single one of them; and Paul wouldn’t have taken the gospel to the most important city in the Roman Empire. God gave Paul the gift of their lives so that the gospel would bulldoze on.
And that brings up back to Paul’s suggestion that suffering is granted—a gift. Quite likely, Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians not long after being smashed into the rocks. Despite the messy trip (or perhaps precisely because of it), the message of Christ spread throughout the royal guard and people all over Rome. Other Christians got some backbone to speak more boldly (Philippians 1:13-14). Things went boom all over.
The gift of suffering, for Paul and for us, doesn’t seem much like a gift—at first. But the vantage point makes all the difference. Suffering that comes for the sake of Christ always produces a harvest of awesome. That’s because, in addition to the suffering, God also grants us the strength to endure and the chance to see the gospel take root.
And that’s why Paul can truthfully say, “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things” (Philippians 3:8). That’s not empty boasting from a beaten down man. That’s the triumphant cry of someone who sees what lies ahead.