We have all been in a circumstance that has left us wondering why God works the way he does. Why did I have to experience this loss? Why is this situation so difficult? Why is my loved one suffering? Why isn’t my plan working out? Sometimes, those questions are left unanswered. But sometimes, God later gives us the sweet gift of insight into what he was doing in that situation.
Twelve years ago, I suffered a miscarriage that devastated my husband and me. Why do so many of us walk that difficult road? While I may never see the whole picture until eternity, I was blessed with a sweet and precious glimpse of God’s good plan a few years later. My father-in-law struggled with the news of our loss, wondering why God would let this happen. As he wrestled through this thought, he was drawn to wonder about God.
In scripture, we see God work through suffering for good purposes. In one of his letters, Paul points out the good things God is doing even through suffering.
And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 1 Thessalonians 1:6-7
The context of this verse is that the church in Thessalonica was under persecution for their conversion to Christianity. They were wrongfully arrested and accused of political rebellion because they believed in Jesus and trusted him. They suffered for their faith. But Paul helps them focus on God's good work in their suffering.
According to Paul’s encouraging letter, these Christians received the good news of the gospel and responded with joy in the Holy Spirit even though they were suffering “much affliction.” In this joy, they changed the way they lived.
This joy is also offered to us today, right here and right now. How can we have supernatural joy in times of suffering and even persecution?
Well, let's look at what the Word says...
The Thessalonians began to imitate the way Paul and the other apostles lived.
- By looking at mature believers in the faith, and looking to Jesus himself, they acted more and more like Christ.
They received the Word.
- What does this mean? We want to make sure that when we hear or read God's Word, it falls on good soil and takes root, not choked up by things of this world. (Matthew 13:18-23)
Fellowship with God.
- This passage may not directly say this, but how else do we receive the joy of the Holy Spirit? When we repent of our dead works and turn to Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins, He sets us free so that we may have a relationship with God. He fills us with his Holy Spirit, leading us to the abundant life that Jesus promises us in John 10:10.
The story of a joyful sufferer is powerful. It draws people in. The people of Macedonia and Achaia heard these stories and needed to know what kind of amazing power the Thessalonian Christians had found that was worth suffering for and filled them with such joy.
The Thessalonians' change and joy in affliction were an example to people for miles! The gospel spread quickly throughout the region, not because the Thessalonian Christians started preaching, sent missionaries, or wrote books about Jesus. The gospel spread, and people came to know the hope and joy of the Holy Spirit through stories about Christians who were suffering and joyful at the same time.
Christians around the world still suffer for their faith today. Let us ask that God will relieve their suffering, protect them from harm, give them strength and grace in suffering, and soften the hearts of their persecutors. But let us also ask God to deepen the joy of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of suffering Christians. Praise be to God that He gives us His Spirit to imitate Christ, receive His Word and have fellowship with God, allowing us to endure times of persecution. May He use suffering to bring the good news of the Gospel to more people.
Twelve years ago, my family’s suffering led my husband and I into deeper reliance on our Lord for his sustaining peace and joy. As my father-in-law witnessed this response to suffering, he pursued God’s peace and joy through Jesus. His pursuit of the Gospel came through our suffering. While we do not always receive the gift of seeing how suffering is used, we can trust that God is good and will use it for his good.
When we think of the suffering individuals, families, or entire groups of Christians, it is right and good to ask God to remove the pain and change the circumstances. But it is also right and good to ask God to use suffering for his glory. He used Jesus’ suffering on the cross to give us the beautiful gift of salvation. So, as we pray for the persecuted church or a suffering friend, we can confidently pray that the joy of the Holy Spirit and the good news of the Gospel will grow.