“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8, ESV)
There is a Gospel of Prosperity going around that is true in part but which the “unstable twist to their own destruction.” The problem with the emphasis on prosperity is that it is unbalanced when there is no recognition of the role of suffering in God’s plan for our lives. We see that even Jesus, though having never sinned, was made perfect through suffering. If he was perfected by suffering, can we expect any less for ourselves?
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (Hebrews 5:7–10, ESV)
Now it is true that God wants us to prosper:
“Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.” (3 John 2, KJV 1900)
But we may want to ask first, what does it mean to have your soul prosper? My definition of material prosperity is “having everything you need to do what God has called you to do.” That is not about money, it is about the means to accomplish God’s calling on your life. Do you think God wants you to fulfill your destiny? Then, Yes, he wants you to prosper. So, if material prosperity is the means or the tools by which you offer service to God, that is one thing. But the prosperity of your soul is an entirely different matter. And this scripture implies that material prosperity and health are tied to the prosperity of your soul.
So, how does God prosper your soul? You may not want to hear this, but he often prospers your soul through suffering. In fact, he may cause suffering to perfect you in love like he did Jesus! Now, I am not talking about physical illness. Jesus never gave someone a disease and said “this is so God can teach you something.” Rather he healed everyone who came to him, and since Jesus is the perfect image of the Father, he represents the Father’s perfect will for his children. Jesus proclaimed healing as a sign of the kingdom (dominion/rulership) of God (Luke 10:9). If healing is a sign of God’s will being done on earth, then sickness is part of the devil’s will to “kill, steal, and destroy.” It happens where God’s dominion is not fully established, but it is not God’s will.
No, the suffering I am talking about is persecution, rejection, perhaps even physical pain at the hands of others, and death:
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:12–14, ESV)
Why would God use persecution and suffering? Suffering can make us more like Jesus. How does that work? When Jesus was faced with the crucifixion, he prayed to God to get out of it.
“…saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.’” (Luke 22:42, ESV). Jesus was able to surrender his own will, wants and desires to follow the will of the Father. It was not easy, but he learned through sacrifice and in that perfect submission, he was “made perfect.”
We also struggle to do God’s will and not our own. We too must learn to sacrifice our self-will.
“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Romans 8:16–17, ESV)
We all deal with the problem of self-interest and the desire to protect ourselves. But how is love perfected in you if you always get your own way? It is only when your will is crossed and you don’t get your way that you learn to love beyond yourself. And how will you learn to love your enemies unless you run into them?
“But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also… And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” (Luke 6:27–33, ESV)
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:46–48, ESV)
Can your soul prosper from persecution? Yes. Think of those being put in prison in China for their faith, or those being murdered in Islamic countries for their faith… Are they not prospering in their souls for their faithfulness to Jesus? So, it says in Revelation of the martyrs:
“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” (Revelation 12:11–12, ESV)
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12, ESV)
What I am saying is that God uses suffering to conform our character to the likeness of Jesus. By learning to love those who hate you, and by learning to not respond in kind, our rough edges of selfishness are chipped away.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:28–29, ESV)
I was a pastor of a rural church in Pennsylvania. I tried to keep everyone happy and if people were unhappy, I thought there was something I was doing wrong. I had some insecurities and felt I had to defend myself from rumors and gossip. What I did not realize is that I had a “man-pleasing spirit.” One day, the Lord asked me “Wouldn’t you lay down your life for my children?” I resolved to participate in a non-violent sit in at an abortion clinic. The church, upon hearing of my participation, promptly asked me to resign. I knew I had done what the Lord had asked, so the people were not upset with just me, but with the Lord as well. From that time on, I no longer cared what others thought of me. I knew I had done with what God had asked, so they had a problem with God, not me. Before, I would say, what’s wrong with me, but after that I would say, what’s wrong with you? That man-pleasing spirit was broken. God used the rejection of an entire church to heal me of my need for man’s approval. Don’t get me wrong, I still like approval, but I don’t need it. Also, through this process, the Lord taught me how to forgive a lot of people.
We are being conformed to the image of Jesus by God’s plan for our lives, even when that includes rejection by, or suffering for, others. Jesus loved those who hated him and if we are to become like Jesus, we are to learn to do the same.
Just as Jesus suffered to redeem us all, God might also use your suffering to reach others by your example with the love of Christ. Suffering for innocence’s sake may cause the conscience of the abuser to be pricked, or it may cause those standing by to have sympathy for you for the injustice. If you respond with the love of Jesus towards the oppressors, it may work to their salvation. Isn’t it worth it to lay down your life so that another may not face eternal judgement? How great is your love? If you can love like Jesus loved, is not your soul prospering even while you suffer?
Another way God uses suffering, distress, and difficulties in our lives is to teach us to turn to Him and learn to trust him in all circumstances as the Sovereign God over our lives. This happened to Paul. You would think an apostle did not have to learn that, but not only was he persecuted, he also despaired of life itself:
“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (2 Corinthians 1:8–10, ESV)
When we cannot control our circumstances and when things get out of our hands, we have no choice but to turn to God and cast our cares upon Him, because nothing else is working. This can be a loss of a job, divorce, children turning away, or the death of loved ones. We are not masters of the universe, and despite our best efforts, we are not in control. At such times we recognize our mortality and dependence upon God as Sovereign of the universe, and if things are out of our control, they are not out of his. That is not to say that everything that happens is God’s will, because people are evil and do things that God does not will, but it is God’s will for us to respond with forgiveness towards others and to turn to Him in times of turmoil.
Most of the examples of suffering in Scripture say that we will share in the fellowship of Jesus’ suffering when we endure rejection and persecution for the sake of His Name. The question for us is: are we willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him? Jesus said unless we are willing to do that for him, we cannot be his disciples.
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34–38, ESV)
Suffering causes the character of Christ to be formed in us. By it we learn obedience and to sacrifice our selfish ways, we learn to love others, even those who hate us, and we learn to trust God in all circumstances. By it, our souls prosper as we reflect and magnify Jesus through our lives. Such prosperity may lead to material wealth, or it may lead us to prison. But in any case, it will lead us to great rewards in heaven, including the gratitude of many souls saved through our labors, if we remain faithful. And that is a prosperity that will never end.