Suffering now, glory later?
The ‘prosperity gospel’ (which is no gospel at all) is probably the most dangerous and widespread perversion of Christianity in the world today.
The message that ‘if you become a Christian, your life will necessarily become easier and better now’, is the default position of the ‘Christian’ church without the Holy Spirit, for it is the message that reflects the longings of the naturally unspiritual human heart. It is ‘Christianity’ made in the image of the unconverted ‘Christian’.
A Cornhill student from sub-Saharan Africa was telling us that in his country, prosperity teaching is so widespread that some churches have rewritten the marriage vows. Instead of promising faithfulness ‘for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer’, now they promise to remain true ‘for better, for best; for richer, for richest’.
They argue, ‘If I am a Christian, how can it possibly ever be “worse” or “poorer”? It is bound to be better or best, richer or richest’. As a result, they are breeding a generation of disillusioned men and women who think God has failed to perform on something he never promised.
There is a catchphrase that is a crisp and helpful summary of a great New Testament truth. It is this – ‘Suffering now, glory later’. It is a concise and memorable way of counteracting the insidious message of ‘glory now’ – health now, happiness now, no problems now – that strange world in which our problems disappear by some pseudo-spiritual alchemy.
‘Suffering now, glory later’ was the great pattern of Jesus’ life. ‘Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ (Luke 24:26). The cross must come before the resurrection and ascension into glory. This pattern is the shape that forms the foundation of the life of Christian discipleship. This ought to be our expectation of the normal Christian life, the pattern of suffering experienced by all Christians throughout the world (1 Peter 5:9).
This pattern was in my mind when I preached from Romans 5:1-11 recently. In verse 2, Paul speaks in a compressed way of our joy or boasting ‘in hope of the glory of God’. This glory is the glory of Adam, made to shine in the image of God and to rule God’s world.
This glory is the glory that is tragically lost when ‘the glory of the immortal God’ is exchanged for idolatry (Romans 1:23), the glory that is lacking in all fallen human beings (Romans 3:23), and the glory that will be revealed to and in the children of God (Romans 8:18-21). And one day, in the new age, this glory will be ours.
In Romans 5:3, as Paul begins to expand on this hope of glory, he makes it clear that before it is ‘glory later’, it must first be ‘suffering now’. And so we boast in our sufferings, not because of some twisted ascetic belief that pain is good for us, but because we understand that it is the pathway to glory.
A danger though
But there is a subtle danger with this helpful Christian shorthand ‘Suffering now, glory later’. It is in what Paul says next in Romans 5:3-5. For when Paul expands on the Christian hope, he does not write, ‘We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering leads to glory’. Instead he says, ‘We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’.
God is at work in believers, day by day and year by year. Suffering does not always have good results. Often it makes a human being angry, twisted and bitter. It can drive a man or woman into a spiral of despair. But for the real Christian believer, suffering is part of the process that leads to glory.
And it is a process. God is at work in us. Sometimes we slip into a model of the Christian life, and of justification by faith, where we picture that when we come to Christ and are justified by faith, the righteousness of Christ is imputed or counted or reckoned to our credit, so that from that moment onwards, God reckons and declares us to be righteous.
So far, so good. But then we picture a model that goes on to say either, ‘It is a little like receiving from a generous uncle a wonderful ticket which gives me the right of entrance to some exciting theme park. Although I have not yet arrived at the theme park, I have the ticket in my pocket.
‘And the moment I arrive at the gates, I can get out the ticket, present it, and be sure that I will be welcomed in. So for the Christian, we are not yet at the pearly gates. But we have the entrance ticket safely in our pockets; and when we arrive (when we die, or the Lord returns), then we can get out the ticket of Justification, and be sure of entry’.
Or, ‘A generous relative gives me a huge cheque. And although I have not yet got the benefit of the money, I carry the cheque in my pocket. And when I reach the bank, I can cash and enjoy the cheque’.
On either of these models, the Christian life is quite simply suffering now, as I bump along the bottom, crawling miserably along from day to day, cheered only by the thought that one day it will quite suddenly and wonderfully get unimaginably better; but I will be deeply suspicious of all ideas of progress or change in the Christian life in the meanwhile.
These ideas will ring alarm bells in my mind as I think of the varieties of perfectionist teachings that have so troubled the church over the centuries and bred disillusionment. ‘No’, I will say to myself, ‘I should keep well clear of all ideas of progress and growth and change in the Christian life, lest I drift over towards unbiblical and unrealistic expectations in this life. Let me settle on a simple model which consists of suffering now and glory later’.
But the answer to unrealistic views of progress is not to completely reject progress. Rather, it is to replace unrealistic views with a healthy New Testament understanding of Christian growth and maturity. Let us see how Paul does this in Romans 5. What is this process that moves from suffering through endurance to character and ends with hope?
This is not how we would have expressed it. For, we say, ‘Surely the Christian hope is an objective certainty that is part of the Christian life from the first day of discipleship?’ The youngest Christian can affirm the sure and certain hope of eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. So what can Paul mean by speaking of a process that produces hope?
The answer is that God is at work in us as we suffer. Gradually, by his grace, the quality of endurance – of patient perseverance through suffering – is worked in us. Gradually, our character – what we actually are (rather than just what we are reckoned to be, by the righteousness of Christ) – is fashioned and shaped by endurance through suffering. And as endurance gets a grip on us, so our character becomes tested and tried. As we change, so the subjective quality of hope deepens within us.
The newest Christian who has never suffered knows the Christian hope, but knows it only in theory. He or she can tick the ‘I believe in the Christian hope’ box on the creed. But the Christian who has suffered knows the Christian hope, not only in their head, but in every fibre of their being.
This Christian knows more deeply every year that goes by that, were it not for the Christian hope, he or she has nothing whatsoever to hang on to – no purpose, no grace, no light at the end of a dark tunnel, and no hope.
There is a great difference between the Christian who has not suffered and the Christian who has. The Christian to whom to world has been ‘nice’, flattering, alluring and pleasant, feels little need of the Christian hope. But the Christian who has experienced the world as it really is – as a power deeply hostile to the sons and daughters of God – this Christian knows the Christian hope from strong experience.
Hope has been produced within this suffering believer as a subjective experience reality. His or her discipleship goes far deeper that the ‘ticket in my pocket’ model. The whole of experienced life is now infused with hope.
A related and sometimes neglected dimension of present Christian experience is joy and delight. Writing to believers in the midst of what seems to have been acute suffering, Peter says that even now in this age, while they do not see the Lord Jesus Christ, nonetheless they ‘rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory’ (1 Peter 1:8). John writes his first letter with the aim not only of promoting true assurance (1 John 5:13) but also of promoting a shared joy (1 John 1:4).
It is in these senses that ‘Suffering now, glory later’ is dangerous shorthand. For in our suffering, God is at work to change us, to reshape us, to mould us into men and women whose whole experience is pointing forwards in Christian hope, and whose ‘spirituality’ (to use an alarmingly elastic word) is longing and yearning and praying and holding on to the promises of God, crying out for the return of the Lord, rather than taking shallow satisfaction in the blessings of the present.
Joy in suffering
These men and women, in the thick of suffering, rejoice with a joy freighted with a deep weight of glory. If it were simply ‘Suffering now, glory later’, we would sink under the weight of pain. But God is at work in us to grow endurance and produce a character in us that has been tested.
And as he does that, the Christian hope moves from head to body and heart, and we know with deep confidence that we are headed for glory. In some way, by the ministry of the Spirit, who is the firstfruits of the age to come, the joy of the future is experienced in the present in the midst of suffering.
So in our necessary concern to correct the terrible errors of prosperity teaching, let us not forget that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character and character produces hope.
This article is reproduced from The Briefing, Issue 338, with the permission of Matthias Media. All rights reserved. For more information about The Briefing and other resources for growing Christians, visit the Matthias Media web site (www.mathiasmedia.com).