Suffering and Holiness
…for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin…
(1 Peter 4:1)
We’ve lost the desire to be holy, individually and as a people. I’m not even sure we followers of Jesus know what it means to be holy.
The Wesley Brothers, who began the Methodist movement, created a holy club when they were in Oxford, where men of like mind would gather together once a week, confess their sins to one another, and would encourage and stir each other up with the gospel. Their aim was to become more holy, to submit the fullness of their morals and character to the law of God. They discussed biblical ethics and tried to apply them to their own lives.
Where has our zeal for holiness gone? Why have we lost the will to seek out righteous living?
I think the answer is that we’ve lost our capacity to suffer. We worship at the idols of comfort and ease. We give ourselves to consumption and live on the sugary diet of dopamine hits from notifications on our phones. These are the things we find ourselves longing for and it is to these that we turn to ease our suffering. But that really is the goal: a life without suffering.
Into the middle of all of this comes crashing the biblical teaching that holiness comes by way of suffering. That’s the meaning of that verse Peter wrote above. Those who suffer tend to cease sinning; that is, they become more holy. Even Jesus himself learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8-9). “If suffering was the means by which the sinless Christ became mature, so much the more do we need it in our sinfulness” (John Stott).
No self-respecting follower of Jesus would say the right choice is to give up holiness in order to avoid suffering. But every honest believer would confess that that is precisely what we do.
And these choices are not without consequence. The more we embrace comfort and eschew suffering, the less we value holiness. And without a sense of purpose for our suffering—like becoming holy—we are able to tolerate suffering less and less, meaning that we will look increasingly to escape it. And of course, the more we avoid suffering, the less holy we will get along the way. It is self-reinforcing.
But Jesus wasn’t thinking of himself when he set his face like flint toward Jerusalem. Like a lamb led to the slaughter, he suffered in silence. He thought not of himself and his own comforts, but of the ones that he loved. And he embraced suffering for their sake. And because he embraced that suffering, he has warded off for us the ultimate suffering—true and full alienation from God. Jesus endured that suffering so that we wouldn’t have to.
And now we are free. Not free from suffering. But we are able to suffer freely. That is, our suffering cannot enslave us or control us. Our suffering does not determine who we are or what we have to do. More than that, our suffering will fail to destroy us because in Christ suffering will produce holiness. “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all compare” (2 Corinthians 4:16-17).
Embrace your suffering, then. Grasp the thorny reed. Search for true holiness in Jesus. “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).
You suffered for my sake, but I don’t want to suffer for yours. I just want to be comfortable and at ease. I just want an easy life. A life like that is more important to me than holiness.
I don’t know how to change it. I’m afraid to change. I don’t want to change. I don’t want to pursue holiness.
Please teach me. Please lead me along the path of holiness. I humble myself before you and submit myself to your ways. Please be gentle and kind with me, for I am weak and afraid. I am a smoldering wick; do not snuff me out, but kindle my flame. I am a bruised reed; do not break me, but strengthen my hand in you.
Do this daily, I pray.