The Virtue of Suffering

Last year saw the release of the film “Me Before You,” a movie about a man who ends his life after an accident leaves him disabled. In response, Christian radio host Joni Eareckson Tada raised very serious concerns with the message of the film. An article on reports on her podcast interview with The Church Boys in which Joni expressed great concern over the danger of the film’s message, one which radicalizes individual rights while removing the moral component from those rights.[1] Tada encouraged Christians to respond to the film by proclaiming that “life really is worth living,” so “face circumstances courageously.”[2] She added that affliction is an unavoidable part of life.

In her critique, Tada drew attention to a sobering reality that most people never see: the virtue of suffering. “Because we live in such an entitlement society, we already see no virtue in suffering … already we believe that affliction should be avoided at all costs.”[3] These two things—virtue and suffering—we rarely, if ever, associate together. Joni Eareckson Tada, a quadriplegic and founder of Joni and Friends, an organization that serves those with disabilities, knows of what she speaks.

Many years ago, an Austrian Anabaptist addressed the same issue. While awaiting execution in a cold Tyrolean prison in the town of Rattenberg, Leonhard Schiemer described God’s three-fold grace, a grace that includes suffering.[4] God’s first grace, Schiemer said, is the law, given to us in order to convict us of sin. Upon receiving the law’s conviction, we despair and ask God for grace in salvation. God responds with a second grace: Christ’s cross of suffering.

Notice Schiemer’s assertion that the affliction that the cross brings is a gift of God’s grace—something to be received, not avoided. The cross’ pain is not only unavoidable; it is essential. Schiemer explains that salvation means loving nothing but God Himself. What is it that prevents us from loving God wholly? Very simply, it is sin, enjoying the “love, comfort, pleasure, and delight of creatures [worldly things].”[5] Therefore, God must remove all loves and dependencies on everything except God alone. The application of Christ’s cross means that God purges sin from our lives, a painful experience involving both inward affliction—“the struggle of the flesh”—and outward suffering—“the renunciation and deprivation of the body.”[6]

As Schiemer explains it, the virtue of suffering caused by Christ’s cross is that God’s grace works through inner and outer afflictions, eradicating sin from our lives and producing a single-minded love for and dependence upon God. However, the pain and affliction are not the final say.

Once someone embraces the suffering of the cross, God gives a third grace: the comfort of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s comfort overwhelms the suffering; however, the grace of the Spirit’s comfort cannot come until one first receives the grace of suffering. Schiemer knew this all too well. After a bitter seven-week imprisonment, he was beheaded and his corpse burned for his Anabaptist faith on Jan. 14, 1528.

Schiemer and Tada insightfully remind us of a profoundly hard biblical truth—the “virtue of suffering.” Jesus taught, “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great …” (Matthew 5:11-12). On the night before His death, Jesus reminded the disciples of what awaited them: “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. … If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you …” (John 15:18, 20).

Peter remembered this lesson and told his persecuted brethren not to “be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing … but to the degree that you share in the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing … you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you” (1 Peter 4:12-14). Likewise, Paul instructs that “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Romans 5:3-5). In a similar vein, James encourages his readers to “Consider it all joy … when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

More Scriptures could be cited, but just these few yield an impressive picture of the virtue of suffering. Suffering produces perseverance, a tried and true character, a non-disappointing hope, and spiritual and moral maturity. Also, suffering as Christ’s follower is both expected and an occasion of blessing and joy. In the midst of the affliction, God has promised great reward and the Holy Spirit’s presence.

God knows of what He speaks; He knows what it is to suffer. God did not remain distant and aloof from our pain and suffering. Jesus Christ came as God incarnate and faced the worst that evil could throw at Him. Jesus suffered physical pain beyond comprehension, the emotional pain of utter human rejection and hatred, and worst of all, the spiritual trauma of bearing humanity’s sin on the cross. He suffered as propitiation for sin to bring salvation for humanity, truly a gracious and virtuous act. Though our affliction is not redemptive, there is virtue in tribulation as it purges sin and produces a deeper love for Christ, whose virtuous suffering saved us.

[1] The article also contains a link to Tada’s podcast interview with The Church Boys.
[4]Leonhard Schiemer, “Concerning the Grace of God; Concerning the Bottle,” in Jörg Maler’s Kunstbuch: Writings of the Pilgram Marpeck Circle, ed. John D. Rempel, Classics of the Radical Reformation, vol. 12 (Kitchener, Ontario: Pandora Press, 2010), 203-34.
[6]Ibid., 207-08.