All through the book of Acts we see the sufferings of Paul as he moves back and forth across the Roman world bring the gospel to Jews and Gentiles alike. At some point we have to wonder, “God … can’t You take better care of Your servants? After all, when they give their life to serving You, can’t You at least keep them out of prison and protect their body from harm?” Even more to the point, why did You tell Ananias, “I will show Paul how much he must suffer for My name” (Acts 9)?
What’s the deal here? Why doesn’t God do more to protect those who are doing good for Him?
It occurs to me that one of the reasons we struggle with this is that here in the West we have very weak theologies of suffering. We live in a microcosm of time and space that provides us with the illusion of a potential pain free existence. And most of us are shocked most of the time when things go terribly wrong, leading us to ask the infamous question, “Why, God?”
But let’s imagine the alternatives for a moment. What if we said to the person in need, “Oh, I was going to help you get to the Father, but it started to be too much of a pain. So I quit. And you are on your own now.” What kind of mission is that? What kind of love? Dedication? Commitment? It starts to make sense that we would have to walk through some levels of discomfort in order to even be worthy of the name servant. Or what if we said to God, “I’m willing to help, but only if everything goes well for me.” Again, an arrangement that decries any sense of sacrifice for good.
Finally, what if God had designed spiritual laws in such a way that the more dedicated we are to the cause, the easier life would become and the more pain free our existence. How would that not alter our purpose and dilute it with pure selfishness and self interest? And worst case, we see in the Old Testament how such a temporal reward system actually failed to motivate them to do good. When life went well they simply grew weak and strayed away.
It seems then that the outer sufferings we experience as servants of God help us to separate what is temporal from what is eternal. This planet is not our home! We are strangers in a strange and dangerous land. More than that, we are in a war. And war is brutal, front lines or not.
But do not think that God is absent! Or that He has left us to the devices of this world. What we do not see with our eyes is the spiritual war around us that would crush us immediately, entirely, were it not for the angels who protect us continually. Our enemy hates us too much to ignore us, and he would destroy us if he could. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from the evil one.”
Perhaps all of this is why Paul could say, “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (Rom.5:3). In fact we might be surprised how many times in the New Testament the words “glory” and “suffering” occur in the same sentence!
If serving God was painless, we would miss the refining fire and the purging that must be part of serving well. We would not know what it meant to extend ourselves for the good of another, which is the very definition of love.