Suffering is a Doorway, Not a Dead End

by Gavin Ortlund March 8, 2017

Suffering for Christ is the call of every Christian. It is like a doorway we cannot get around, but must walk through. “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22); “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12); “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).

There are lots of reasons to be modest about whatever suffering we are going through. For example:

  • We don’t suffer as much as we could or probably should.
  • We don’t suffer nearly as much as our Savior did, and he suffered in total innocence.
  • Compared to grandiose examples of suffering for Christ in church history, like Christians being fed to lions, our suffering can seem very small-scale and ordinary.
  • Oftentimes our suffering is not for the sake of righteousness but simply part of living in a fallen world—or even a result of our own poor decisions.

But after all the caveats and cautions are in, it remains the case that all Christians do in fact suffer for Christ. Sometimes its relatively small things like if you endure gossip or mistreatment without retaliation, persevere in a difficult calling or wait up in the hospital with your non-Christian friend even though you have work early in the morning. Sometimes it's much more severe.

But inevitably, one way or another, the door opens, and God calls us to walk through it.

In that moment, one of the most helpful things is to remember what is on the other side of that door. Suffering for Christ is not a dead end (though it might feel like it!). Rather, it is always a doorway to greater joy and life. Here are three ways that are so.

Suffering is a Doorway to Communion with the Saints

When Jesus blesses our suffering, he does so on the grounds not only of future heavenly reward but of our previous earthly association: “blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you … for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12). Cain’s murder of Abel at the beginning of human history established a pattern that plays itself out over and over, in every generation and in every place, whenever good and evil clash in human affairs. Whenever good comes along, evil hates it—not in spite of its goodness, but because of it: “why did Cain murder Abel? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous” (I John 3:12). When we suffer for Christ, we enter this historical pattern; we become associated with a larger cause; we are pulled up into greater loyalty and identification within this great struggle.

Our suffering may not be particularly grand suffering compared to, say, Job’s pottery scars, or Paul’s back lashings, or Latimer’s charred flesh. Against the broader backdrop of the saints and martyrs throughout the ages, our suffering might look like a tiny little hut built amidst skyscrapers. Nonetheless, for all that, it is still a part of the landscape. We share the same neighborhood as “the prophets of old.” We are on their team.

It is so helpful to remember, when we walk through suffering, that what happens to us is nothing new. Countless others have walked through that doorway before us. It is normal. It is the pattern. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

When we see our suffering in its corporate context—when we are able to say, with trepidation but true conviction, “for so they persecuted the prophets of old,” it turns the shame of suffering into a badge of honor. Just as, when you live in a tiny hut, there is nonetheless joy and pride if it resides in a world-famous neighborhood.

Suffering is Doorway to Fellowship with Christ

Twice in 1 Peter the apostle commends suffering for Christ on the basis of the prior and larger reality of Christ’s suffering:

  • It is a gracious thing to suffer for good (2:19-20) –> because Christ also suffered for you (2:21-25)
  • Suffer for doing good (3:8-17) –> for Christ also suffered once for sins (3:18-22)

When we suffer for Christ, it is so helpful to remember: He was here first. Suffering is a doorway, an entrance to something new that we have not yet experienced. But its newness is to us, not to him. The other side of that doorway is not some foreign, unexplored territory. Whatever suffering we may face, it is already on the map—it is a site that has already been excavated, a land that has already been chartered. We are called to follow, not explore.

And because Christ walked ahead of us, we know greater fellowship with Him as we follow in his steps. To suffer for Christ is, in a mysterious way, to suffer with Christ—it is to “share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13) and to “know … the fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). It is as though his death and resurrection are a kind of an archetypal pattern, performed in history but as real and enduring as one of Plato’s forms—and in our suffering, we enter into this pattern. We “follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21); he is our “pioneer” (Hebrews 2:10); on the other side of that door is greater fellowship with Christ.

Suffering is a Doorway to Resurrection Joy and Power

In the gospel, suffering for Christ is not only a doorway to greater knowledge of Christ’s suffering, but to a greater experience of his resurrection. This is part of the archetypal pattern into which we walk. “To know him and the power of his resurrection” is of one piece with to “share his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). Suffering with Christ always leads to glorification with Christ: “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17). 

The resurrection is the ultimate assurance that suffering with Christ is not a dead end. It means that what is on the other side of that door is a blessing we could never get except through this suffering. The resurrection means that not only does God meet us in the suffering, but He will redeem it—He will make it good that we went through that suffering. The resurrection, therefore, means we can walk into that doorway with hope rather than fear. Just as Paul says: “…not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God…” (Philippians 1:27). And Peter: “…have no fear of them, nor be troubled…” (1 Peter 3:14).

This death-resurrection pattern of the gospel reveals the secret to all of life: life comes through death, joy comes through suffering, victory comes through loss, and possession comes through sacrifice. Suffering is a doorway, not a dead end.

“Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19).

Editor's note: this originally published at Gavin's website, Soliloquium.