If anyone has suffered for his faith and faithfulness, it was Paul. Who can forget the list that he gave to the Corinthians? “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger of rivers, danger form robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure,” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27, ESV). Most of us will never experience these moments in ministry (and those are just the ones we know of for sure as legend tells us how he died at the hands of Nero).
In one of the letters he wrote from prison, Paul made it clear that he was thankful to God for what he was doing in the Colossians lives. Paul thanks God for the eternal things in life, not the temporal: “because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel.” (Colossians 1:5, ESV). How is it that man who has gone through what we read in 2 Corinthians, and a man who is currently in prison for his faith, able to stay so thankful and positive? It is simply due to his perspective. Perspective comes from Latin (per = through, spectrum = glass, lens, view). Thus, Paul simply looked through a different lens than we so often do.
For most of us, we tend to look through the lens of the temporary. Usually suffering comes from a lack of temporal objects, whether animate or inanimate. Paul looked through the lens of eternity. While the temporal things were wonderful tools to be used, they were no more dear to him than a broken set of pliers or a bucket with a hole at the bottom. Paul could rejoice in his suffering because his suffering was temporary just as all other earthly tools. Yes, suffering was a tool. Paul rejoiced in his suffering because it was useful as a tool for the sake of the body—the church. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is the church, (Colossians 1:24, ESV; italics mine).
Our suffering is the tool for the body. As part of the body, it may be used toward our growth and good, as is made abundantly clear in other parts of Scripture (cf. James 1:2-4, 1 Peter 1:6-7). But it also has to do with those in your local body or those in the local church down the street or across the globe. When our focus of suffering turns away from us, when our perspective (the lens we look through) turns away from us and toward others (God, Christ, the church, the lost, etc.) then we not only endure the suffering, but we can actually rejoice in the midst of it.
If you take a look at Colossians, you will find that Paul explains his outlook on life throughout the whole letter. Its zenith comes in chapter 3 when he wrote, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory,” (vv. 1-4, ESV).
Christian: look to Christ. See Him. Don’t lose focus on who He is and what His mission is. Christians don’t get to go rogue. Keep your eye, your perspective Christ-centered.
Christian: set your mind on heavenly things. Everything else is transient. It is here today and gone tomorrow. All of life is a vapor. In The Sound of Music, there is a cloud about solving a problem like Maria. The question is asked in the song: “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?” That’s what so many of us try to do. We seek to try and hold on to clouds as if they could ever be held in the first place. It’s all a vapor, a cloud. Set the mind to that which is eternal: God’s Kingdom (souls, disciples, the Word, etc.).
Christian: Christ is your life. The home, car, spouse, 2.5 kids: that’s not your life. That’s the American dream. We were not called to the American dream; we were called to Christ. It is fine if we have those things, but we cannot confuse those things for that which we actually live. Christ is our life. We live for him. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (2:20, ESV). Paul’s life was about Jesus. He lived with Him in view, and so the suffering was but a tool that Jesus—the one who loved and gave himself for Paul (and us)—chose to use.
May God open our eyes to see suffering from the same perspective.