An Odd Invitation

…but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace…” II Timothy 1:8b-9a

An invitation to suffering? Uh, thanks, but no thanks. I’ll wait for a better offer.

But the problem is, invitations from God always come with an R.S.V.P. “R.S.V.P. stands for a French phrase, “répondez, s’il vous plaît,” which means “please reply,” Yes, God’s invitations, like this one “join with me,” always come with the expectancy of a reply. The invitation to suffering is a difficult R.S.V.P. with which to respond. Curiously, like some wedding invitations might read, the R.S.V.P. to suffering is more like a “R.S.V.P. regrets only”. “Regrets only mean “we will assume your response is positive, unless we hear from you”. It’s more of an automatic. Because we live in a fallen world, we all are going to suffer. The question is, are we going to suffer for the sake of the gospel?

We know that Christians in foreign lands suffer mightily for the gospel. Westerners seem to be isolated from the perils that our brothers and sisters in Christ endure over seas. Their suffering is outright persecution. Our suffering is often in the more subtle realm of our spirit and emotions rather than the physical and mental torture some Christians in other countries endure. Yet, the invitation to suffering is given to all Christ-followers. Ephesians 5:1 tells us, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma”. If we seek to imitate Christ and become more like Him, we are going to go through some times of suffering. Christ suffered. We don’t have to go looking for suffering. It finds us. The distinguishing mark between “having a difficult time” and “suffering for Christ” is often in the nature of our response; our reaction to the R.S.V.P. sent our way.

If we entrust our lives to God and live by faith, then every difficulty that comes our way can have spiritual purpose and meaning. Our suffering can be “for the gospel” as we live out real genuine lives that point people to the hope we have in Christ.

Psalm 40:1-3 tells us: “I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry. He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay. And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; Many will see and fear and will trust in the LORD.” It’s not that the Psalmist’s life was all roses. On the contrary – his life was “in the pits.” But it was in the process of seeing how he handled things that caused people to put their trust in the Lord. It was in David’s public suffering that others were won to the Lord, for they were able to see that God was the source of David’s hope.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) was the most popular preacher in London by the ripe old age of 21. He preached to crowds of 10,000 (talk about a mega church!). Spurgeon was used by God in mighty ways, and the process that God used to hone Spurgeon’s character and ministry was through suffering. The R.S.V.P. that was sent to Spurgeon went like this: “The Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall, a popular amusement hall that Spurgeon’s congregation rented when they had outgrown their building and had not completed a new one. On Sunday night, October 19, 1856, Spurgeon’s first service there was interrupted by false (probably premeditated) cries of “Fire!” In the ensuing melee, 7 people were trampled to death. Spurgeon, only 22 years old, was so distressed he was unable to preach for several weeks and later said the experience was “sufficient to shatter my reason” and might have meant his ministry “was silenced for ever.” Spurgeon went on to recover, but suffered from bouts of depression. “Spurgeon felt great anxiety, but it stemmed not so much from the multitudes as from the awesome responsibility of being accountable to God for the souls of so many. This remained a hearty source of spiritual suffering throughout his career. He remarked in 1883: “I have preached the gospel now these thirty years and more, and … often, in coming down to this pulpit, have I felt my knees knock together, not that I am afraid of any one of my hearers, but I am thinking of that account which I must render to God, whether I speak his Word faithfully or not.” Spurgeon realized, difficult though it was, that his suffering equipped him to minister more effectively. He said, “It is good for me to have been afflicted, that I might know how to speak a word in season to one that is weary.”

The invitation to suffering also comes with the ending, “according to the power of God.” For He is the One whose power transforms something terribly difficult into a source of purpose and meaning and hope.

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