Three Ways Suffering Can Lead Us Closer to Christ

There was a man that was hunting in a forest just outside of Pittsburg.  It was early in the morning, the sun was just starting to rise, and there was snow as far as the eye can see.  The hunter sat down against a tree to catch the beautiful sunrise.  He would eventually fall asleep against the tree, and would be awakened by a loud snort.  He opened his eyes and noticed that an 800 pound grizzly bear was right in front of him.  The hunter, who was a professed atheist yelled, “God!  Help me!  Make this bear a Christian bear!  Help him do the right thing.”  The man opened his eyes to look at the bear.  He noticed the bear was on his knees.  Then the bear started speaking and said, “Bless this oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from your bounty through Christ our Lord.”

Obviously this story is not true, but it does illustrate something that we all encounter at one time or another.  That something is suffering.  It is in our nature, and popular in our culture to look at suffering as a negative that could not possibly have anything good come out of it.  Our text today shows the suffering of a great man of faith who realizes the great good that has arisen out of his suffering.

You may have heard of this man.  He is perhaps the greatest evangelist who ever lived, he planted many churches, and wrote thirteen books of the New Testament.  His name is Paul, and he suffered much for the sake of the Gospel. Much can be said of the suffering that Paul underwent.  2 Corinthians 11-23-29 states, “23 Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. 24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant[1]?”  To say that Paul endured suffering for the Gospel would be an understatement.  He endured more than you and I have or may ever will.  Did he see it as a burden?  Did he see it as punishment for something he did?  To answer that question we will look at our primary text for today.

Philippians 1:12-18 states, “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear.  Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.  Yes, and I will rejoice[2].”



Depending on the kind of suffering involved it is hard to see the light that it can bring.  When Paul was writing to the church in Philippi he was writing to reassure them, and to encourage them to continue in the faith.  The churches founder was arrested, and it was well known that Christians were heavily persecuted in Rome.  To see this clearly a closer look at Philippians 1:12 is in order.  Again the passage states, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel[3].”  The KJV Biblical Commentary says in regards to this passage, “His bonds led to a wider witness.  Paul turned his prison cell into a gospel chapel.  His chain did not curtail the gospel, but advanced it[4].”

Paul saw being in prison as having a captive audience, and as a result he added members to the kingdom of God.  This is something that we can incorporate into our own lives.  When we go through trials do we see it as an exercise to increase our faith, or as an obstacle to our faith?  When we go through various trials the Lord may be preparing us for events later on.  It may be a way to better minister to a group, our families, or even our churches.  Just as the suffering of Paul did not hinder his ministry, we must not let it hinder ours[5].  He kept a positive attitude and accepted it as an honor to suffer on behalf of Christ.  This is echoed in Philippians 1:13 where Paul writes, “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ[6].”

No matter where we are or what we are going through there is someone who needs the gospel.  How we handle our suffering may be the witness needed for someone to enter into a relationship with Christ.  What a blessing it would be to be going through a hard time, but at the end of it your words and actions led someone to Christ?  May we echo the words of Paul, “What difference does it make, as long in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed?  And in that I rejoice[7].”  We cannot always trace the hand of God, but we can always trust the heart of God. His heart is devoted to working all things together for good for his people[8].  We must be like Paul and focus on the end that Christ has in store for us.  The enemy will try to discourage us with different trials, but we must proclaim Christ and rejoice that the gospel is being proclaimed in spite of what we are going through[9].


In times of great struggle we find out what we are made of.  We find out what is a priority in our lives, and depending on the situation suffering assists us in realigning our priorities.  In my own situation this is really the case.  All was going well in my life.  I had a great job, beautiful wire, two great kids, and we were expecting twins.  One day I was driving to work and was involved in a rollover accident.  I received a severe concussion and fractured a vertebrae in my neck.  More months I was in severe pain and had memory problems, and one day I decided I wanted to end my life.  I was depressed, had anxiety, and became addicted to pain medication.

I could not go through with the deed.  I called a suicide prevention hotline, and later that night I had a heart to heart conversation with God.  I could not do it on my own.  I asked to be delivered from the addiction, and rededicated myself to Christ.  That happened over two years ago and I have not had another pain pill since.  Our worst times help us to realize what is important, and in my case Christ was an afterthought before that day.  We never know when our time on earth will be over, and suffering assists in reminding us that we must be ready.

By taking another look at the Apostle Paul’s situation we can see many examples of suffering bringing him closer to Christ.  We see this in Philippians 1:14 which states, “and so that the majority off brothers, having taken encouragement in the Lord from my imprisonment, dare more than ever to proclaim the word fearlessly[10].”  The Christians in Philippi looked upon the suffering of Paul, drew encouragement from it, drew closer to Christ because of what they witnessed, and proclaimed the truth of the gospel like never before.

The writers of the New Jerome Biblical Commentary say in regards to this, “God’s grace has emboldened others to fill the vacuum in the work of preaching created by the restriction of Paul[11].”  How does this situation described apply to us?

We all attend a church which is a community of Christians.  Each of us has a job to do, and must not ignore or task.  Often times we elevate our leadership to a place they should not be.  How many of us have left a church because the pastor left?  How about when it was discovered that the pastor was in sin?  If we leave the church because of situations like these, though they are difficult, have we left for the right reasons?  Chances are we left under some state of emotional distress and acted irrationally.  If our pastor leaves we are left without leadership.  How is this any different from the church in Philippi when Paul was put in prison?

Let us look again at verse fourteen of our text, “and so that the majority of the brothers, having taken encouragement in the Lord from my imprisonment, dare more than ever to proclaim the word fearlessly[12].”  If our pastor were imprisoned would we take encouragement and proclaim the lord more fearlessly.  In regards to this encouragement the great Bible commentator Matthew Henry writes, “They saw that those who served Christ, served a good master, who could bear them up in their sufferings for Him.  That which was intended by the enemy to discourage preachers of the gospel, was overruled for their encouragement, and they were bold to speak the word without fear[13].”

Would this happen in our church today?  Is your faith such that you would step up with boldness to proclaim Christ in the midst of suffering?  I would venture to say that most congregations in the country would scatter like sheep among wolves.  In this regard we must take the lead of Paul who writes, “I want you to know brothers, that my situation has turned out rather to advance the gospel[14].”  To put this in a fuller context a look at Colossians 1:24 may prove beneficial.  Colossians 1:24 states, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church[15].”

Paul is not saying that there was something lacking in what Christ did for us on the cross.  However he is saying that if we suffer as Christians that we are participating in that suffering.  By suffering for his cause we are further being conformed to his image.  This will allow us to be bold, be a better witness, stand in the face of tyranny, stand for what is right, and proudly proclaim the gospel.  Theologian Wayne Grudem puts it well by saying, “We should see all the hardship and suffering that comes to us in life as something God brings to us to do us good, strengthening our trust in him and our obedience, and ultimately increasing our ability to glorify him[16].”


            Ministry was something that was always in the back of my mind, but it was something that I would only if something else did not work out.  My goal was to get an MBA, go as high as possible in corporate America, and make as much money as possible in as little time as possible.  These are goals I had when I first entered theology in the summer of 2011.  These are not the normal goals of the average theology student.

After six classes I decided to change majors to what I really wanted to do, or what I thought I wanted to do.  I changed my major to Business Administration and set course for everything I had ever wanted.  This path was not what the Lord had intended for my life.  After just two classes there were so many things spiraling out of control in my life that I have to leave the University.  To say that I was disappointed is an understatement.  In my mind I let myself and my family down.

After one year of a meager existence that had little direction I received any email.  This email was from a theology professor who was just checking in to see how I was doing.  This kind gesture came just in time as I had developed a pain pill addiction and was on the verge of losing my family.  I decided to do something I had not done in a while…I decided to pray.  I prayed for help with the pills, help with my family, and completely handed my life over to God.  I have not touched a pill since, my wife and I have had two more children, and I went back to school to pursue my calling of teaching church leaders of the future.  Sometimes in the midst of suffering we get direction, but we must be willing to go where Christ leads us.  This was a lesson that I had to learn the hard way.

The Apostle Paul willingly went where Jesus asked, and the churches he founded flourished.  Some had the issues, but the church in Philippi obeyed Christ and the teaching of Paul.  They willingly went where Jesus was leading them.  In regards to Paul we read in Philippians 1:16, “The latter act out of love, aware that I am here for the defense of the Gospel[17].”  The Holman New Testament Commentary says in regards to this passage, “Motivated by Paul’s example, those who preach with right motives do so in love. Such love flows out to Paul, to unbelievers needing the gospel, and to God. Such love realizes that Paul was suffering, not for some wrong he had done, but because he preached Christ[18].”

In 1 Corinthians chapter 13 the Apostle Paul speaks about the greatness of faith, hope, and love.  He goes on to state that the greatest of the three is love.  It was love that led to God creating each of us.  It was love that gave Christ strength to die for us.  It is love that allows us to persevere in our faith when we are in the midst of suffering.  It is love that allows us to go where Christ wants us to go.  As Christians we have an obligation to go where the master leads.  The question that must be answered is, are we?

Do we have this kind of faith?  We confess Christ, and are quick to call on him but do we believe in him?  When trials arise many Christians look at the Lord as a cosmic butler waiting to budge to our will.  To view God in this manner is to lose sight of who he really is.  We should call upon the Lord when we are suffering.  In fact, he encourages that because he loves us with an everlasting love.  We need to reciprocate that love in all situations, and when we are suffering it will help us draw even closer to him.



We see this written plainly by the Apostle Paul who writes, “What then?  Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in that I rejoice[19].”  What really matters is not the attitude of one group or the other to Paul himself but that Christ is being proclaimed. His actions have been for the sake of the gospel, and because his stand has not been ineffective, he is filled with joy[20].

While Paul was in prison there were those who were preaching out of love, and there were those who were preaching to undermine his ministry.  In both of these situations Paul rejoices because the Gospel is being preached.  In not retaliating the great Apostle is showing an incredible sign of Christian virtue.  He is doing what the Lord commanded when he said “Love your enemies[21].”  How much of a witness could this have possibly had on those around Paul?  Those in prison, and the guards surely would have noticed his charity, and the seed of the gospel would have been planted.  Is this something that we do?  If you are like me you jump quickly to defend yourself, and in doing that say something hurtful and foolish.  That may be that individual’s only chance to hear the gospel, and that is not a good first impression.  Every situation in an opportunity to live and share the gospel.  Are you willing to share it?



            So far we have looked at how suffering can be a blessing, how it can bring us closer to Christ, how we must be willing to go where Christ leads us, and that we must rejoice and proclaim Christ.  All are critical components to understand and exercise in the Christian faith, but we must also remember that Jesus gave us the church.  His people need to encourage and strengthen each other as we each journey towards our heavenly home.

Paul writes in Philippians 1:12, “I want you to know, brethren, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel[22].”  Although the Philippians were concerned that the apostle’s adverse circumstances in prison as he awaited the outcome of his trial might have dealt a blow to his ministry of the gospel to Gentiles, Paul wants to assure his readers that far from having the effects they had feared his affairs had actually served to advance the gospel[23].  The concern that the church had for Paul served to encourage him and enrich him while he was in prison, and in turn Paul wrote the letter to encourage the church.

As people of faith we must realize that we are in this together.  If we see someone struggling we must not be afraid to say a kind word of encouragement.  If we see a brother stumbling we must reach out to help.  We are called the body of Christ because we are all in this together.  Being accountable and encouraging each other will assist in helping individual faith grow.


Anders, Max. The Holman New Testament Commentary:  Galatians-Colossians. Edited by Max Anders. Nashville, TN:  Broadman &​ Holman Publishers, 1999.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Ellsworth, Roger. Opening Up Philippians. Leominster, UK: Dayone Publications, 2004.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible. Volume III ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1979.

King James Version Bible Commentary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005.

Loh, I-jin, and Eugene A. Nida. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1977.

O’Brien, Peter. The Epistle to the Philippians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.

[1] 2 Corinthians 11: 23-29 (New Revised Standard Version).

[2] Philippians 1:12-18 (New American Standard Version).

[3] Philippians 1:12 (New International Version).

[4] King James Version Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005), 1584.

[5] King James Version Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc, 2005), 1584.

[6] Philippians 1:13 (New International Version).

[7] Philippians 1:12-18 (New American Bible).

[8] Roger Ellsworth, Opening Up Philippians (Leominster, UK: Dayone Publications, 2004), 27.

[9] I-jin Loh and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1977), 26.

[10] Philippians 1:14 (New American Bible).

[11] Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds., The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 793.

[12] Philippians 1:14 (New American Bible).

[13] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, volume III ed (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1979), 225.

[14] Philippians 1:12 (New American Bible).

[15] Colossians 1:24 (New American Bible).

[16] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 812.

[17] Philippians 1:12 (New American Bible).

[18] Max Anders, The Holman New Testament Commentary:  Galatians-Colossians, ed. Max Anders (Nashville, TN:  Broadman &​ Holman Publishers, 1999), 209-210.

[19] Philippians 1:18 (Revised Standard Version).

[20] Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 105.

[21] Matthew 5:44 (New International Version).

[22] Philippians 1:12 (Revised Standard Version).

[23] Peter O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 89.

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