Unlikeness in Sufferers

Several weeks ago, I ran across this quote in the beginning portion of the City of God:

"For even in the likeness of the sufferings, there remains an unlikeness in the sufferers; and though exposed to the same anguish, virtue and vice are not the same thing. For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed; and as the lees are not mixed with the oil, though squeezed out of the vat by the same pressure, so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked. And thus it is the same affliction the wicked detest God and blaspheme, while the good pray and praise. So a material difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them." St Augustine, The City of God.

Suffering does not discriminate. The rain falls on both the righteous and the wicked (Matthew 5:45). That is not to say that there are not real consequences to sin that could be avoided had we not sinned; wisdom tells us to avoid folly because it will likely save us a lot of trouble. But we have to be careful to avoid an understanding of pain which says: "If you do what is good, God will give you a comfortable life." This is just not the case.

This teaching is a form of the "prosperity gospel" which basically says that God will give you earthly blessings if you give him your life and follow Him. As long as you obey Him you will: be secure financially, you will remain physically healthy, and your family will prosper. Forget the fact that 11 of the 12 disciples were brutally martyred. Forget the fact that Jesus, our Savior roamed Israel without a place to lay his head (not to mention crucified); or that many of the prophets of the Lord were mercilessly slaughtered. Instead of Jesus saying that following him will reap earthly blessings, he says quite the opposite. Jesus leaves his disciples with an ominous guarantee in John 16:33, "In the world you will have trouble." That is a matter of fact. Anyone who must come after me must deny himself and pick up his cross daily. Christianity is not a get rich quick investment; it is not an easy ride. Though it does give immeasurable blessings, those blessings are rarely the same physical blessings the world places priority on.

Augustine above reminds us that suffering comes to all of us. Righteous and wicked--it does not make much of a difference. But in the same kind of sufferings, both parties react differently. Overwhelming so. The wicked with their mind only on the temporal and the physical, will surely be pushed to the edge of desperation when the things they most treasure are inevitably taken from them. They have nothing beyond this life to hope in, so when they lose the temporal they are left with nothing. Such a sight is heart-wrenching.

But for the righteous, pain has a unique effect. Yes, it hurts just the same. Yes, on the surface it is equally miserable to them as their wicked counterpart. But because their greatest hope is outside the realm of earthly, their hearts will be lifted up. And in the heat of the pain, rather than despairing the loss of all things, those who are Christ's will draw closer to the Source of their ultimate joy. So suffering, while it ruins the wicked, it purifies the righteous--leading Augustine to say: "A material difference does it make, not what ills are suffered, but what kind of man suffers them."

There are few things more powerful than someone praising God in the midst of suffering. It validates our faith, draws us closer to our God, and proclaims victory to a dying world that has no firm ground to cling to. Few testimonies strike as powerfully as the ones that say: "I have lost much. I have suffered much. I am losing my health, I have lost family members--my life is increasingly hard to bear. I feel pressed up on all sides with affliction. But the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord!" Such a testimony speaks triumphantly to a dying world bereft of something to cling to.

Maybe you have faced incredible suffering. Maybe you find yourself in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death David describes in Psalm 23. Know that Jesus is with you. Know His comfort. Find your help and your sustenance in Him. Know that even in the midst of this, God is working on you his craft; and when He is completed you will shine like purest gold.

And remember: few sermons impact the world as profoundly as the message of a suffering Christian glorifying God.


Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. - James 1:2-4


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