Suffering is part of life in a sinful and fallen world. We instinctively try to shield ourselves, our children, and other loved ones from hardship and difficulty. But we never fully succeed in such efforts. And, in our more lucid moments, we perhaps even realize that suffering, in God’s providence, serves a redemptive purpose, conforming us to the image of Christ (Romans 3:3-5), who himself endured ultimate suffering with joy because he knew his suffering accomplished our salvation (Heb. 12:2).
Equipping ourselves and our children with a biblical perspective on suffering is critical to navigating it in a way that glorifies God and maximizes its redemptive benefit in our lives. Philippians 1:12-30, a passage in which the apostle Paul reflects on his own suffering and the role his suffering has played in furthering the Kingdom of God, provides one significant piece, I think, of a biblical outlook on suffering. Paul wrote the book of Philippians from Rome, where he was perpetually chained to a member of the imperial guard, awaiting the outcome of his judicial appeal to the emperor Nero against charges that originated in Jerusalem (cf. Acts chs. 21-28). Paul faced execution at the hands of the state if Nero ruled against him in his appeal. That being Paul’s situation, his observation in Philippians 1:14 that “most of the brothers” (i.e., other Christians in Rome) had become “more confident in the Lord” and “more bold to speak the word without fear” as a result of his “imprisonment” is difficult to understand. Paul’s imprisonment and the uncertainty of his own fate should have made other Christians in Rome less, not more, bold. It should have cowed them into quiet submission to Rome’s inchoate stance against that upstart religion called Christianity. Intimidation (and subsequent submission) of Christians was, of course, Rome’s intention. How did Paul’s situation produce the opposite result? How did his suffering embolden other Christians?
The answer, I think, lies in Paul’s attitude towards his suffering, an attitude that he reveals to his readers in considerable psychological detail in vss. 19-26 of the chapter. Paul doesn’t demonstrate the fear, worry, and anger that one would expect from someone in his circumstances (i.e., a candidate for capital punishment). He demonstrates, rather, pure joy. He portrays himself as one in the ultimate win-win situation. Either outcome of his appeal to the emperor is, in his judgment, a victory. Either he will be released from prison, and so given further opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and serve the church, or he will be executed, and so step into the inheritance that belongs to him as a believer; namely, life forever in the presence of the triune God. Paul considers death the preferable option: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). But living has its own reward; namely, the opportunity to convince more and more people to embrace the forgiveness of sins and eternal life available to them on the basis of Christ’s work. In summary, for Paul, “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).
Paul’s attitude towards impending death reflects the posture that C.S. Lewis hoped he might demonstrate if faced with the prospect of immediate death. A journalist once asked Lewis how he would respond if he were to look up in the sky and see a German bomb just about to land on his head. Lewis replied that he would stick his tongue out at the bomb and say, “Phooey! You’re just a bomb. I’m an immortal soul.” Lewis, with this response, demonstrated quite vividly that Christians need not fear death—indeed, that they might anticipate death—because of the hope that belongs to them as believers. Paul, imprisoned in Rome and facing the very real prospect of capital punishment, exemplifies the very attitude towards death that Lewis hoped he might display if looking death in the eye. Paul is sticking his tongue out at death; looking death in the eye and grinning rather than flinching.
And that attitude towards death is the very thing that is emboldening other Christians. When Paul sticks his tongue out at death, “most of the brothers” suddenly realize that death isn’t so big and bad after all. The worst (as it were) that death can actually do is usher them into the bliss of life forever with God. Suddenly Paul’s Christian peers feel able to stick their own tongues out at death (or any other consequence that Rome might throw their way for their witness to Christ’s person and work). Their fear evaporates and their own proclamation of the Gospel flourishes as a direct result of Paul’s extended tongue. And this is cause, of course, for even greater joy for Paul: “Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).
Paul’s attitude towards death was a powerful form of proclamation. It was a sermon (of sorts). It’s one thing to claim that Christians have a hope for something greater in the life to come, a hope that relativizes their investment in the things of this world. It’s another thing to stand before death with your tongue sticking out, demonstrating to the world that you consider this life’s pleasures paltry in comparison to those that await you on the other side of death’s door.
By the end of Philippians chapter one, Paul is encouraging Christians in Philippi to stick their own tongues out at suffering, and reminding them that their own courage in the face of suffering is itself a form of Gospel proclamation. Christians in Philippi had “opponents” (vs. 28); they were not facing death, perhaps, for their faith in Christ (at least not yet), but they were facing lower grade forms of persecution (the loss of reputation, property, rights, etc.). Their own suffering was, Paul reminds them, part of God’s plan for them; indeed, it was a divine gift to them, if rightly understood (Phil. 1:29). Their suffering was an opportunity for them to proclaim, like Paul in prison in Rome, that their hope was not in this life, but in the life to come. The testimony they were invited to give to their hope in the life to come would be, Paul observed, a word of condemnation to their opponents, a reminder of their opponents’ lack of hope in anything more than this world has to offer. But, by the same token, it would be a word of encouragement to their Christian brother and sisters, and a word of witness to those in Philippi who were seeking something more solid, in terms of hope, than anything this world has to offer.
Suffering gives us the same opportunity. Every form of suffering threatens something that we value in this world: income, reputation, relationships, health, even physical life itself. Every form of suffering equally gives us the chance to witness to the world that we value something else much more than whatever we stand to lose in this world. Suffering gives us opportunity, in other words, to witness to the hope that belongs to us as Christians. And that witness is powerful, because suffering invariably elicits attention from everyone around us. Suffering is mesmerizing. We’ve all had the experience of seeing the red and blue flashing lights ahead of us on the highway while the traffic backs up. We’ve all silently cursed the drivers ahead of us for slowing to a near stop in order to goggle the carnage. We’ve all reached the front of the line of traffic and slowed down ourselves to take in as much of an eyeful as we possibly can. Why? Because pain and suffering elicits attention. When we suffer, people notice. We invariably have a pulpit. The question is, what will we proclaim from that pulpit? Will we despair, and so witness that our hope lies in this world, and that we cannot bear the pain of losing something in this world? Or will we joyfully stick our tongues out at suffering, and so witness to a hope—an anticipation of life forever with God—that no form of suffering can take from us; a hope, indeed, that even physical death can only deliver, not destroy.