Sharing Suffering

As I write this, my heart is heavy for the families of the 21 Egyptian Christian men who were martyred on Sunday, February 15. I wept when I heard the news. The Muslim extremists singled them out because they were Christians. When they were forced to kneel before their executioners, surely Jesus stood. They gave their lives rather than renounce the name of Jesus Christ.

Before this tragedy unfolded, I had been working on this devotional. For some reason, my spirit had been stirred up in regard to suffering for the cause of Christ. Personally, I am not going through a trial myself. I was simply reading through Paul’s letters to his friend Timothy, and I was struck by what he wrote.

When I read through both of Paul’s letters in one sitting, I was startled by the difference between the two. The first letter is upbeat and encouraging. It is straightforward, and full of simple instructions about the operation of the church. But the second letter is haunting. It is much more somber in tone. We do not know how much time passed between the writing of the two letters, but when Paul wrote the second letter, the circumstances in his life had completely changed. He was facing execution. Most of his friends had abandoned him. He was in prison. He felt alone. He was suffering greatly.

I examined his second letter and separated statements he wrote about himself from statements he wrote about Timothy. Consider some of the statements Paul wrote about himself:

“I remember you constantly…. I remember your tears…. I long to see you…. All who are in Asia turned away from me…. I am suffering…. I endure everything…. I am already being poured out as a drink offering…. The time of my departure has come…. I have finished the race…. I have kept the faith…. Demas has deserted me…. Luke alone is with me…. Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm…. At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me…. The lord stood by me and strengthened me….” (from 2 Timothy 1:3-4:17, ESV).

When you read his thoughts about himself, can you feel the depth of suffering he is enduring? I can. It unsettles me. His letter bleeds between the lines. This is the man who had planted churches throughout Asia. His writings fill the New Testament with instructions we treasure today. He doesn’t even mention suffering in his first letter to Timothy. Yet at the end of his life he feels alone and abandoned. He is suffering greatly.

It is in this context that Paul is writing to Timothy. When we understand the depth of Paul’s suffering, we can better understand the instructions Paul gives him. Consider these statements:

“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8, ESV).

“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3, ESV).

“As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Timothy 4:5, ESV).

When we suffer, often we feel we are alone in the suffering. It is human nature. Paul seems to be saying to Timothy, “I feel alone. I’m struggling greatly. Please bear the burden with me. Share in suffering with me for the cause of Christ.” If Paul, the great apostle and author of much of the New Testament, could feel this way, it is likely that you and I could experience similar emotions.

It is also likely that many of our brothers and sisters around the world feel the same toward the North American church. Around the world, many Christians are experiencing suffering through trials we never imagined possible in the 21st century. Almost daily there are news reports of Christians being killed, kidnapped, or losing their homes, even fleeing with only the clothes on their backs. Are we aware of their suffering? Are we suffering with them? Surely they must wonder.

On Friday, as I was writing this devotional, I wrote these words:

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know for whom I am writing this. But even as I have been writing, the Holy Spirit has pressed upon me so heavily to pray for you. Even though I do not know your name, I am praying for you now. You are ready to quit. You feel alone. I am praying that you will have a clear awareness of the presence of God with you. I am praying that the Holy Spirit will strengthen you. I am praying that in the midst of your trial you will lift up your eyes onto the hills, from which your help comes. Your help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. You are not alone, so stand firm. Don’t quit. With Paul I plead with you to share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. Endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”

At the time I wrote those words, I thought it was odd. I don’t normally pray like that. The heaviness I felt in that moment was profound. I had tears in my eyes as I was praying. On Monday, I resumed writing this devotional, but the news of the 21 men who had died the night before was heavy on my heart. It occurred to me that on Friday the Holy Spirit may have led me to pray for those men who were facing the end of their lives. It is possible that I was unknowingly praying for them. Perhaps that is why I felt so heavy for whomever I was praying. It is haunting me now. Perhaps the Holy Spirit was leading me to share in their suffering without my even knowing with whom I was suffering.

It is also possible that those words are for you. You may be suffering as you read this. You may be a pastor or other Christian leader and you are ready to quit. You are crying out for someone to share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God. You may be a husband or a wife and are suffering greatly. Inside you long for someone to share in your suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. You may be a student and your peers are mocking you for your faith. You’re looking for a friend to help you to endure suffering, to do the work of an evangelist, to fulfill your ministry.

My friend, if you find yourself in a place of suffering today, you are not alone. God knows exactly what is going on in your life and may even put your need on the hearts of others in the body of Christ to pray for you. Find a fellow follower of Christ with whom you can share your burden. Allow others to come along side you in your time of trial.

Will we answer the call? Will we share with them in their suffering? Will we bear the burden our brothers and sisters are bearing even now? When we are not suffering personally, we have a responsibility to share in the suffering of those who are going through a trial. Paul’s encouragement is for all of us. When one part of the body suffers, the whole body suffers.

Be a burden bearer. Pray as the Holy Spirit leads. Act as God allows. Share in suffering.

I close with a prophetic word from the Apostle Paul, written to Timothy, yet ringing out to our generation as well.

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty” (2 Timothy 3:1, ESV).

This article was originally published in the March 2015 Newsletter.