Strength for Today…Bright Hope for Tomorrow: How the Resurrection Shapes our Suffering
“You do not know what tomorrow will bring.” As if these words in James 4:14 aren’t unsettling enough, the verse goes on to remind us of the uncertainty of our existence: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” In other words, tomorrow…life could be drastically changed forever. Tomorrow…reality could be turned upside down. Tomorrow…the mist we call our lives could vanish. For most of us this reminder is reinforced by many of life’s “tomorrows.” Many can think back over the decades of their lives and pinpoint one or two such events; others don’t have to look back so far.
Tragedy will come. Suffering is part of the Christian, indeed human, experience. Jesus predicted it (Mark 8:31), then he endured it (Heb. 12:2), and now all believers are promised it (1 Peter 2:21). Consider the calling of the Apostle Paul in Acts 9:16 when God says, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” We can be sure that being a follower of Christ means following in Christ’s suffering.
The question before us is not will we suffer; the question is will we suffer well? When trials come, will we suffer in a way that reflects Christ and glorifies God? A sure way to suffer well is to continually remind ourselves of the promises secured for us by Jesus. Because of his sacrificial death and resurrection on behalf of all who trust in him, Jesus has promised forgiveness (Mark 2:10), abiding peace (John 14:27), his presence (Matthew 28:20), and hope for the future (John 14:3). These promises are woven together so eloquently in the third verse of the familiar hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness:
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide.
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!
“…Bright hope for tomorrow.” We may not know what tomorrow will bring, but as believers we know that we have the bright hope of resurrection. This is a reality which changes everything, even our suffering.
The writings of Paul are saturated with references to the resurrection, and just as his teaching is shaped by the resurrection, so too are his experiences. On numerous occasions in his second letter to the Corinthians Paul recounts his suffering. As we look at these reflections we get a glimpse of what happens when we allow our view of suffering to be shaped by the resurrection. There are at least two outcomes:
1. We are driven to dependence (2 Cor. 1:8-11)
As he opens his second letter to the church in Corinth Paul makes several references to his “sufferings” and “affliction” throughout his ministry. While he doesn’t get into the specifics of these afflictions here, he makes it clear in verse 8 that they caused him to be “utterly burdened” beyond strength. So far from insignificant was Paul’s suffering that he “despaired of life itself,” and felt as though he had “received the sentence of death.” But verse 9 reveals the key point, where Paul tells his readers quite plainly why his suffering happened: so that “[we might] rely not on ourselves but on God…who raises the dead.” Plain and simple. Paul’s suffering happened so that he would be driven to dependence upon God. He seems to recognize the deep-seated attitude that is part of the makeup of every human being as a result of the fall: self-reliance. If we’re honest, each one of us can identify with that natural inclination and desire to “make it on our own” and “do it for ourselves.” This spirit of self-reliance is nothing less than sinful, but God sees fit at times to use suffering to grab our attention and strip us of our sinful independence. Paul recognized that God was at work in the midst of his terrible suffering, but he also realized that God’s work was to drive him to a position of dependence.
While this process is never a painless one, we need to be reminded that dependence is not a position of weakness, regardless of what our society tells us. It’s in our weakness that we recognize our need for dependence, and it’s in that same weakness that we begin to embrace God’s strength. Notice how Paul characterizes God at the end of verse 9. Paul’s sufferings have taken place so that he might be driven to dependence on the God “who raises the dead.” On the surface this seems like an odd and somewhat irrelevant statement to tack on. So what does the fact that God raises the dead have to do with Paul’s suffering? The short answer is…everything.
In a figurative sense Paul was as good as dead in the midst of his suffering (vv. 8-9). So when Paul says in verse 10, “he delivered us from such a deadly peril,” figuratively speaking God did indeed raise the dead when he delivered Paul from his suffering. But we would be missing so much if we reduced Paul’s statement to a mere figurative statement, because there’s also a very literal sense in which God raises the dead. This God whom we serve is the same God that raised Jesus from the dead. And the God who raised Jesus from the dead is the same God who will one day raise his people from the dead! Even though the inevitable fate of every human being is death, it does not have the final say for those who trust in Jesus Christ…because God raises the dead!
Therefore, Paul can say with utmost confidence in verse 10: “…and he will deliver us!” Paul’s confidence raises the question, “How can he be so sure?” The fact is Paul’s not sure what the future holds. For Paul, “tomorrow” could be his last day, and his next suffering could be fatal. Yet, knowing this, he confidently says, “God will deliver us.” He can only mean that his confidence is in the fact that God raises the dead, so that even if his suffering results in death…even if his suffering is so bad that that it claims his very life…even if he receives a death sentence…even still, God will have the victory! Even still… there’s hope, because God raises the dead! Accordingly, Paul writes, “On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” He still hopes and believes that God will deliver him from his present sufferings, but even if he doesn’t there is final deliverance from the God who raises the dead!
In the midst of our suffering we’re driven to complete dependence on God, and in that dependence we find strength and confidence that he will, one day, deliver us.
2. We are determined to persevere (2 Cor. 4:7-18)
If we fast forward a few chapters in the same letter we see Paul again describing his experience of suffering throughout his ministry. Beginning in 2 Cor. 4:10 Paul makes the point that his experience of physical suffering continually pointed to the suffering of the Lord Jesus leading up to the cross. We must remember, however, that Jesus’ story didn’t end with his death on the cross, but rather the empty tomb! So the sufferings that Paul endured didn’t make a statement about suffering; rather, they made a statement about life…resurrection life! This is why Paul says in verse 12, “so death is at work in us, but life in you!” Paul’s sufferings pointed the Corinthians to the good news of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, which brings true life!
In the verses that follow Paul begins to unpack this “life” which is made known by his sufferings, at the heart of which is this statement in verse 14: “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” Paul’s hope and confidence is in the God who raises the dead. No matter what circumstances he faces, or how bad the afflictions, Paul says a second time with confidence in verse 16, “we do not lose heart!” He may be beaten, struck down or destroyed…but he’s still encouraged! Why? The rest of verse 16 reveals the answer: “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” For Paul these “jars of clay” might be broken and cracked and leaking, but that’s okay because someday we’re trading these jars of clay for new bodies – fully restored and free from sickness, pain, disease, suffering, and imperfections. We can be sure of this because we serve and trust a God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead! And if he raised Jesus, then he’ll also raise us! We have a hope for resurrection when Jesus returns because of the God that we serve!
This profound truth ought to shape our perspective in the midst of suffering just as it did for Paul, which we can clearly see when we compare how he refers to his sufferings in chapters 1 and 4. In 1:8-9 he was “utterly burdened” (literally “weighed down”) by his sufferings, but by 4:17 he calls them “light and momentary”! Because he kept the resurrection in view, Paul’s perspective changed from despair to hope as he allowed his sufferings to orient him to his true hope, Jesus Christ.
We see further evidence of Paul’s new perspective in verse 18: “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.” Paul chooses not to focus on what is visible – his broken down, wearied body, torn apart by the sufferings of this world. Rather, he focuses on what is not yet visible – his hope for resurrection and an eternity spent with Jesus Christ. It’s important to remember that the end goal is not enduring the suffering itself, but rather what it is bringing about – “an eternal weight of glory.” In our suffering we ought to focus on and point to the reality of the hope that is ours in Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus’ experience of suffering and death resulted in new life, so too our experience of suffering points to the new life we’ll receive at the resurrection.
Clearly the reality of the resurrection changed Paul’s perspective on his suffering, but will it change ours? It’s possible that for you the unimaginable “tomorrow” has not yet come. Or perhaps you’re in the middle of it right now. But take heart! Of all the “tomorrows” we’ll face in life we can be sure that one of them is that Blessed Hope – the glorious appearing of the Lord Jesus. No matter how unbearable the circumstances may seem we know confidently that there is coming a day when the words of Revelation 21:4-5 will certainly come true, when “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore,” when God will say, “Behold, I am making all things new.” In this truth we find great strength for today, and a bright hope for tomorrow!