The Fellowship of His Sufferings
By David Bolick
Prayer requests come to me regularly for a variety of needs, many of them related to physical ailments, and I often turn to 2 Corinthians 4:16 for encouragement: “Though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.” I tell myself and others that I need to focus on that second part more, especially now that aging has become the elephant in the room. I don’t need any help grasping that first part about the outward man perishing. Palpable evidence of that abounds, but I must confess I’m not always clear on that second part, about the inward man being renewed. What is the landing gear for that?
In an effort to understand it better, I expanded my viewfinder, looked at more of 2 Corinthians and other places in the Bible that talk about newness, and the results were interesting. This is just a first impression, and I won’t attempt a full-blown documentation of it here, but so far, in all the passages I’ve found about newness and renewal, references to suffering, death, or disruption are never far away.
Consider, for example, the verse just after that phrase about renewal of the inward man: “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). That sounds a lot like what Paul said to the Romans: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18), followed, a few verses down, by that classic passage: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter” (Romans 8:35–36).
It would appear that “tribulation, distress, persecution,” etc., are a sort of antechamber to that “glory which shall be revealed in us,” and that this was particularly the case for the apostles, and by extension, the same applies to those who strive to follow in their footsteps in bringing the gospel to others.1
Anticipating persecution was part of the Lord’s instructions to His disciples2 and we see them rejoicing over the fulfilment of this in the book of Acts (Acts 5:40–41). Stephen was the first of those they ordained (Acts 6:6) to actually “resist unto blood, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4). Paul witnessed this and then later described the general pattern as follows: “For I think that God hath set forth us the apostles last, as it were appointed to death” (1 Corinthians 4:9); “So then death worketh in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:12). He, like Peter and the other apostles in Acts chapter 5, rejoiced in his sufferings for those he preached to. He expressed this as the “fellowship of his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). He also listed a veritable catalog of perils as proof of his apostleship (2 Corinthians 11:23–33).
While Jesus did heal the sick, give sight to the blind and raise the dead, scoffers taunted Him with “physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23), and “He saved others; himself he cannot save” (Matthew 27:42). Paul, the great apostle who urged us to imitate him—“Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)—experienced similar treatment.3
My takeaway from this is that while it’s important to pray for healing and trust that we will indeed be healed in many cases, immediate physical healing is not necessarily the only godly outcome we should expect from suffering.4 Suffering might be what God uses to bring about the renewal of the inner man and the “peaceable fruit of righteousness” (Hebrews 12:11) in our lives.
In zooming out some from that particular verse that refers to the “perishing of the outward man” it seems the apostle has more persecution-related afflictions in mind than the aches and pains and even serious illnesses associated with old age or the normal course of life in this fallen world. But one way or another, all physical suffering is a result of sin, as a result of humanity’s universal fall through disobedience into sin and death.
That phrase, “the fellowship of his sufferings,” is comforting to me, reminding me of that line from the beloved Psalm 23: “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me” (verse 4), and of this one: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (Isaiah 63:9).
* * *
The surrender of our heart’s deepest longing is perhaps as close as we come to an understanding of the cross. … Our own experience of crucifixion, though immeasurably less than our Savior’s, nonetheless furnishes us with a chance to begin to know Him in the fellowship of His suffering. In every form of our own suffering, He calls us into that fellowship.—Elisabeth Elliot
No words can express how much our world “owes” to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were conceived in a wilderness. Most of the New Testament was written in a prison. The greatest words of God’s Scriptures have all passed through great trials. The greatest prophets have “learned in suffering what they wrote in their books.” So take comfort, afflicted Christian! When our God is about to make use of a person, He allows them to go through a crucible of fire.—George MacDonald