Jesus did not tell his followers to take up a feather and follow him. He did not tell them to take up a scepter or a sword, a flag of surrender or a trophy of triumph. Rather, he told them to take up a cross, to shoulder a rough and heavy burden that was synonymous with pain. It should be no surprise, then, that his followers’ path to glory is paved with much sorrow and much suffering. He told us it would be.
As we make our pilgrimage from our many cities of destruction to our one great home in heaven, we endure much pain and much grief. The path is strewn with thorns and the winds sometimes blow strong and cold. The road is narrow and perilous, often rough underfoot and steeply inclined. But if we are in Christ, we have the assurance that none of the struggles along the way are meaningless, that none of the trials are wasted and none of them unseen by God.
And truly the trials are many. We experience physical pain that leaves us helpless, that knocks us off our feet, that makes us cry out in agony. We experience traumas that mark and scar us, that linger in our minds and in our souls. We experience bereavements that tear our traveling companions from our side so we must sometimes walk alone. We experience persecution through which we suffer like our Savior. We experience divine chastisements that, while painful, reflect God’s paternal care for his children. Though we do come to stretches where the way is easy and the burden light, sorrow and suffering are always close at hand, often just around the next bend.
Of course it is not just Christians who have such experiences. Those who reject Christ are not immune from physical pain, trials and traumas, sore bereavements, and even many forms of harsh persecution. They, too, may experience God’s chastening hand, though in their case they do not feel the chastisements of a kind father, but the punishments of a just judge.
This points to a key difference between our suffering and their suffering, between the sorrows of those who are in Christ and those who are outside of him: No matter what, we have the assurance that the suffering we experience here is not a foretaste of hell but a refinement for heaven. Christian suffering is always purposeful, always accomplishing something good, for through our suffering God makes us more like Christ. Through it, he orients our hearts so they long to be where Christ is. Through it, he shapes our character so it will be at home in heaven. Through it, he changes our desires so we lose interest in the pleasures of this earth and instead long for the pleasures above. Through it, he prepares us now for who and what we will be then, for our journey is leading us to a place of perfection and we must be made perfect to be there.
But when those suffer who have rejected Christ, they are being warned to repent and believe, to turn from their way and be saved. They are experiencing judgment already and receiving a warning of the greater punishment that will soon befall them. They are receiving a foretaste of hell such that their light and momentary afflictions are presaging the much weightier and everlasting sufferings to come.
But when those who embrace Christ suffer, we are merely being shaped and molded, equipped and transformed. We are being made ready for heaven, for as our character is transformed to be like Christ’s, we begin to see sharper pictures of who we will be when we are in his presence. These are the light and momentary trials that are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. As we endure them, we are being prepared to see Him.