Suffering that Builds Christian Character

No one likes suffering, and generally, we try to avoid it. However, some suffering is unavoidable, as there are people and circumstances beyond our ability to influence. This is part of the human experience. But we are not neutral, and though suffering is inevitable, how we handle it is optional. If we greatly fear suffering, then we may be tempted to avoid it at all costs, and the weakening instinct of self-preservation might handicap us from maturing in life. God wants us to grow up and become mature Christians (1 Cor 14:20; Eph 4:11-14), and suffering is sometimes the vehicle He uses to help get us there.

As Christians, we realize some fear is rational and healthy, and this helps regulate our words and actions. Rational fear might also be labeled as healthy caution, which is a mark of wisdom. When driving on the highway, it’s good to be slightly cautious of other drivers, as this can help us avoid an accident. And, when entering a relationship with another person (i.e., friend, business partner, spouse, etc.), a little caution can save us much heartache. Solomon tells us, “He who walks with wise men will be wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Prov 13:20). Here, an ounce of prevention will save us from a pound of trouble.

Biblical Self-TalkSometimes, we’re the source of our own suffering, as we make bad choices that affect us physically, socially, financially, etc. The wise will learn from their bad choices—even choices done in ignorance—and be better. And sometimes our mental and emotional distress is the product of irrational fears in which we manufacture imaginary negative situations that upset us. These are the mental dramas we construct in our thinking in which we are under attack by someone or something and feel helpless to stop the assault. These self-produced mental plays can include family, friends, coworkers, or anyone we think has the power to hurt us. But we have the power to redirect our thoughts, shut the story down, change the characters, or rewrite the script any time we want. Of course, this requires introspection and the discipline to manage our thoughts. As I’ve shared in other lessons, the stability of the Christian is often predicated on the biblical content and continuity of our thinking. It’s not only what we think, but we keep on thinking that provides mental and emotional equilibrium.

As a Christian, suffering can be viewed either as a liability or an asset. A liability is a burden, a drain on one’s life and resources. However, an asset is a benefit, something that adds value to life. If we’re able to frame life’s difficulties from the divine perspective, then we can thank God for the trials He sends our way, because we know He’s using them to humble us and shape us into the persons He wants us to be. How we view the trial determines whether it makes us bitter or better. But such an attitude is a discipline of the mind.

Paul-4In Paul’s second letter to the Christians at Corinth, he recorded an incident in which he’d been caught up to heaven and “heard inexpressible words” (2 Cor 12:4). But Paul’s heavenly experience came with a price. The Lord knew Paul would become prideful because of the experience, so the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” that was intended to cause him suffering and humility (2 Cor 12:7). Though Paul did not like the suffering, he eventually came to understand it was divinely purposeful. Twice he declared it was given “to keep me from exalting myself” (2 Cor 12:7). The word “exalt” translates the Greek verb ὑπεραίρω huperairo, which means “to have an undue sense of one’s self-importance, rise up, [or] exalt oneself.”[1] It means one becomes prideful. Elsewhere in Scripture we learn “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling” (Prov 16:18), and that God “is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet 5:5b).

Paul asked God, on three occasions, to take the discomfort away (2 Cor 12:8). But God denied Paul’s request, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). God’s grace (χάρις charis) in this passage refers to His divine enablement to cope with a problem that He refused to remove. God’s grace was the strength necessary to cope with a problem that was greater than Paul’s ability to handle on his own. And God’s grace was in proportion to Paul’s weakness. The greater Paul’s weakness, the more grace God gave. This was a moment-by-moment grace, sufficient for Paul’s need.

ThornAs Christians, it’s legitimate that we ask God to remove our suffering; however, what He does not remove, He intends for us to deal with. This was true with Paul. God did not want to remove Paul’s discomfort because it served a purpose, and that was to keep him humble, to keep him close to the Lord. When Paul understood what God was accomplishing in him through the suffering, Paul chose to embrace it, knowing it came with divine help to shape him into a better person. Paul responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). This was done by faith and not feelings. Furthermore, Paul said, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). The word content translates the Greek verb εὐδοκέω eudokeo, which means “to take pleasure or find satisfaction in something, be well pleased, [to] take delight.”[2] Paul was not a victim of his suffering, as he chose to frame it with a healthy biblical attitude. This also fulfills the command to “Do all things without complaining” (Phil 2:14), and to “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; and in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Th 5:16-18).

Elsewhere, Paul said, “we exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom 5:3-5). And James wrote, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jam 1:2-4). Exulting in tribulations and counting it all joy when we encounter various trials is a discipline of the mind and will, in which “we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). Warren Wiersbe states:

Our values determine our evaluations. If we value comfort more than character, then trials will upset us. If we value the material and physical more than the spiritual, we will not be able to “count it all joy.” If we live only for the present and forget the future, then trials will make us bitter, not better. Job had the right outlook when he said, “But He knows the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). So, when trials come, immediately give thanks to the Lord and adopt a joyful attitude. Do not pretend; do not try self-hypnosis; simply look at trials through the eyes of faith. Outlook determines outcome; to end with joy, begin with joy.[3]

Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. And we cease to be the victim when we see suffering as divinely purposeful. This is not always easy, but the alternative to faith is fear, and fear brings mental slavery to the circumstances of life. By framing his weaknesses, insults, distresses, persecutions, and difficulties from the divine perspective, Paul was able to see them, not as a liability, but as an asset that worked for his benefit to help shape him into the person God wanted him to be. From God’s perspective, Paul’s Christian character was more important than his creaturely comforts. And Paul needed to have a character that was marked by humility, not pride.

It is true that God desires to bless us; and of course, we enjoy this. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b). But it’s also God’s will to advance us spiritually, and this means He will send us trials that are intended to burn away the dross of weak character and refine those golden qualities He wants to see in us. We trust that when God turns up the heat, that He also keeps His hand on the thermostat, regulating the temperature. And when we desire and pursue spiritual maturity as an important goal in our Christian life, then we can become content, pleased, and even find delight in the hardships, because we know God controls them and sends them our way for our good. And this is done by faith, and not feelings.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1031.

[2] Ibid., 404.

[3] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 338.

God’s Grace is Sufficient

     God will, at times, place us in difficult situations in order to humble and teach us. This happens because it’s our natural proclivity to be prideful and to rely on our own strength and resources. When this happens, He gives us hardship so we’ll cry out to Him for strength and guidance, and He always comes through.

God’s Grace     The apostle Paul learned a valuable lesson about God’s grace, but first he had to suffer beyond his ability to cope. The incident occurred when he received special revelation from God and this led him to be puffed up with pride (2 Cor 12:1-6), and the Lord gave him a “thorn in the flesh” to humble him (2 Cor 12:7). No one knows what the “thorn in the flesh” was, but it caused Paul a great amount of suffering. He prayed three times for the Lord to take it away (2 Cor 12:8), but God refused to remove it because it served His purpose. However, the Lord did not leave Paul without the means to handle the suffering, as He told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a). Paul wanted the thorn removed. God said no. But then He gave Paul grace that was sufficient to deal with the suffering. The word grace (χάρις charis), as it is used here, refers to divine enablement. It is the strength necessary to cope with a problem that is greater than our ability to handle on our own. God gives grace in proportion to our weakness. The greater our weakness, the more grace He gives. This is a moment by moment grace; always sufficient for the need, and the need is always changing. A problem for many of us is that we think about tomorrow’s problems from the standpoint of today’s grace. But tomorrow’s problems are different than today’s problems, and we cannot expect to deal with tomorrow’s problems with today’s grace. Today’s grace is for today, and tomorrow’s grace will be given to us tomorrow, when we need it. We simply trust the Lord that He sees our needs and will provide for us in each moment. We become relaxed when we realize and accept this.

     When Paul came to understand God’s grace and how it worked in his life, he responded properly, saying, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:9b). Paul’s weakness, which ebbed and flowed, was always matched by God’s power to do His will. Paul learned to depend on God, day by day, hour by hour, and moment by moment, as the need required. Because God’s grace is always sufficient for the need, Paul could actually boast about his afflictions and weaknesses, for when he was weak, God would supply His strength. Weakness is a blessing if it teaches us to look to God more and to ourselves less. Paul applied this to all of his situations, saying, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). Our weakness and God’s power are simultaneously at work in us, much like they were in Christ when He faced the cross, or in Paul, as he dealt with his thorn in the flesh. “The greater we sense our weakness, the more we will sense God’s power (cf. Eph 3:16; Phil 4:13).”[1]

This grace of Christ (13:14) was adequate for Paul, weak as he was, precisely because (gar, “for”) divine power finds its full scope and strength only in human weakness—the greater the Christian’s acknowledged weakness, the more evident Christ’s enabling strength (cf. Eph 3:16; Phil 4:13). But it is not simply that weakness is a prerequisite for power. Both weakness and power existed simultaneously in Paul’s life (note vv. 9b, 10b), as they did in Christ’s ministry and death. Indeed, the cross of Christ forms the supreme example of “power-in-weakness.”[2]

     We struggle with suffering for at least two reasons: 1) because it leaves us feeling helpless and vulnerable, and 2) because it’s an affront to our pride. We don’t like to think of ourselves as weak. But suffering is our friend when it exposes our weakness and leads us to lean on Christ every moment of every day, for it’s in that hardship that our faith grows and God’s grace is greatest.

Dr. Steven R. Cook

Related Articles:

  1. The Basics of Grace  
  2. God’s Grace to Save  
  3. Not of Works  
  4. Living by Grace  
  5. God’s Favor Toward His People  
  6. Why Believers Show No Grace 

[1] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), 2 Co 12:9.

[2] Murray J. Harris, “2 Corinthians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans through Galatians, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 10 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 397.

The Basics of Prayer

     Pray to the LordThere are two statements I hear people make about prayer that are incorrect: 1) there’s power in prayer, and 2) prayer changes things. Both statements give undue authority to the one who prays. Biblically, the power lies in the One who answers the prayer, and He alone reserves the right to change things if He wills. God answers prayer, but He does so according to His sovereign will.[1] Sometimes He says yes, sometimes no, and sometimes wait. It is good to remember that a prayer delayed is not necessarily a prayer denied. Sometimes we just need patience.

     Prayer is discussion with God. It is motivated by different causes and takes different forms.[2] Most often prayer is an appeal to God to change a difficult or helpless situation. Sometimes God changes our situations as we request (i.e., concerning employment, health, finances, family matters, etc.), and sometimes He leaves the difficult situation and seeks to change our attitude (2 Cor. 12:7-10). When God does not remove a difficult situation as we request, then He intends for us to deal with it by faith (Jam. 1:2-4). God uses difficult situations to remove pride (Dan. 4:37; 2 Cor. 12:7-10), and to develop our Christian character (Rom. 5:3-5). It’s almost always the case that we prefer God change our circumstances rather than our attitude; and yet, it seems both biblically and experientially that God prefers to do the opposite. Though the Lord is concerned about our difficult situations, He’s more concerned with developing our Christian character than relieving our discomfort. However God chooses to answer, He has His reasons and they always glorify Him. A challenge to us is to trust that His plan is better than ours, wherever it happens to lead us, or however difficult the journey becomes.

     Prayer is for believers, for one can address God as Father only as a member of the family of God (John 1:12; Gal. 3:26).[3] Jesus prayed often, both publicly and privately (Matt. 11:25-26; 14:23; 19:13; 26:36; Mark 6:46; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; 10:21; 22:41-42; John 11:41-42; 12:27-28; 17:1-26), and His prayer life was so noticeable, that His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4; cf. Matt. 6:9-13). For the Christian, prayer should be directed to God the Father (Matt. 6:6; Luke 11:2; Eph. 5:20; 1 Pet. 1:17),[4] in the name of Jesus (John 14:13; 15:16), and in the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Jude 1:20). Praying in the name of Jesus is not a magic formula that makes our prayers acceptable to God; rather, it means our request is consistent with Jesus’ character and will (1 John 5:14-15). Praying in the Spirit means we pray as the Spirit leads according to Scripture.[5] It is interesting to note that both God the Holy Spirit and God the Son offer intercessory prayers for us to God the Father (Rom. 8:26; Heb. 7:24-25).

     Some of the different types of prayer found in Scripture include: request (Phil. 4:6; Eph. 6:18), thanksgiving (John 11:41; Phil. 4:6), submission (Luke 22:41-42), faith (Jam. 5:15), imprecation[6] (Ps. 58:6-8; 69:23-28), and intercession (Acts 12:1-5). The best prayers seek to glorify God above all else. Moses provides a model prayer in Exodus 32:7-14 where he prayed on behalf of His people, Israel, that God would not pour out His wrath on them because of their idolatry (Ex. 32:1-6). Moses’ prayer to God starts by identifying Israel as “Your people” whom He had rescued from Egyptian bondage (Ex. 32:11). Israel was not just any people, but God’s chosen nation, who had already tasted of His great grace and compassion.[7] After citing God’s deliverance, Moses then argued with God to withhold His wrath for two reasons: First, if God destroyed Israel, then His reputation among the pagan nations would be tarnished (Ex. 32:12). Moses sought to protect God’s reputation in the eyes of others, even unbelievers, and to uphold His glory above self-interest. Second, if God destroyed Israel, He would be in violation of the promises He’d made to Israel’s forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Ex. 32:13). Moses did not want others to see God as one who fails to keep His promises. Moses’ prayer was heard and God relented of the judgment He intended to bring on His people because of their sin (Ex. 32:14).

When God Does Not Hear Our Prayers

     There are some things in life that God conditions on prayer (Jam. 4:2), but praying is no guarantee He’ll grant our request. Being a righteous God, He only hears the prayers of those who seek to know Him and do His will. The apostle Peter writes, “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer. But the Lord’s face is against those who do evil” (1 Pet. 3:12). The apostle John writes, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 John 5:14-15).

    Biblically, there are several reasons why God does not answer the prayer of believers: lack of faith (Jam. 1:5-8), worship of other gods (Jer. 1:16; 11:12-14), failure to take in Bible teaching (Prov. 1:24-31; 28:9; Zech. 7:11-13), selfishness (Jam. 4:2-3), carnality (Ps. 66:18; Mic. 3:4; Isa. 1:15; 59:1-3), lack of harmony in the home (1 Pet. 3:7), pride and self-righteousness (Job 35:12-13), and lack of obedience (Deut. 1:43-45; 1 John 3:22; 5:14). All of these failings can be corrected as the believer learns God’s Word and lives obediently by faith. Failure to learn God’s Word and/or apply it results in self-harm, much like a child who will not listen to her parents, but repeatedly keeps reaching for the hot flame because it’s pretty. God’s commands are designed to bring blessing, either by teaching us to avoid that which is harmful, or to pursue that which is helpful.

     The apostle Paul reveals a situation when God refused to answer his prayer. Paul was struggling with something he called his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). We don’t know what it was, except that it caused him great hardship. Paul asked God to take it away, saying, “I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me” (2 Cor. 12:8). Paul uses the Greek verb παρακαλέω parakaleo, which in this context means “to make a strong request for something.”[8] Paul was pleading with God to remove his problem, but God said no. The Lord had a reason for it to be there, and He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9a). Paul did not like being weak. He did not like feeling helpless about this thing that caused him discomfort. But Paul’s thorn, however difficult it was to him, kept him close to God, and that’s what God wanted. It’s as though God were telling Paul, “Paul, I know you don’t like your suffering, but the very thing you don’t like is what keeps you close to me, and the strength of our fellowship is more important than the alleviation of your discomfort.” Suffering is our friend when it keeps up humble and close to God. When Paul understood this, his attitude changed, and he accepted his suffering and praised God for it. Paul said, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). This is a faith response, for it could never be born out of our emotions.


     Prayer is a blessing we enjoy as believers as we can come before God’s throne of grace and make requests. As Christians, we are to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), and to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17; cf. Luke 18:1; Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2). As we advance toward spiritual maturity, God will occupy our thoughts in all matters, and prayer will come more and more naturally. And, like Moses, we will seek God’s interests above our own and pray according to His will.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

Related Articles:


[1] Scripture reveals, “Whatever the LORD pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps” (Ps. 135:6), for “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth” (Dan 4:35), declaring, “My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure” (Isa. 46:10).

[2] The most common words in the Bible translated prayer are תְּפִלָּה tephillah (Job 16:17; Ps. 65:2) and προσευχή proseuche (Luke. 19:46; Acts 12:5), which simply speak of the act of prayer. Other words include פָּלַל palal – to intervene as a mediator (Gen. 20:7; Job 42:8), לַחַשׁ lachash – a whispering prayer (Isa. 26:16; 29:4), שָׁאַל shaal – to ask, inquire (Isa. 7:11; 45:11), עָתַר athar – a prayer related to sacrifice (Job 33:26), δέησις deesis – an urgent request (Eph. 6:18), and ἔντευξις enteuxis – simple prayer, childlike prayer (1 Tim. 2:1). The word αἰτέω aiteo is not translated as prayer, but is clearly used when making requests to God (Matt. 7:7; John 14:13).

[3] The general agreement among theologians is that God does not hear the prayers of unbelievers, for they are not God’s children but belong to Satan. Jesus said of unbelieving Jews, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). Logically, one cannot call God his Father if He is not. In another place, a man who had been healed by Jesus said to the Jewish religious leaders, “We know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is God-fearing and does His will, He hears him” (John 9:31). However, there does seem to be at least one occasion in which God heard the prayer of an unbeliever who was seeking Him for salvation (e.g. Acts 10:1-2, 30-31; 11:14). It could be that if an unbeliever seeks God for salvation, as Cornelius did, then His prayers for salvation are answered.

[4] Although there is at least one petition in the NT directed to Jesus (Acts 7:59-60).

[5] The Greek preposition ἐν can mean, “in” “by” or “with” the Spirit. Hoehner translates the prepositional phrase ἐν παντὶ καιρῷ ἐν πνεύματι as “at every opportunity or occasion in the Spirit” (Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Baker Academic, 2002, p. 856). Hoehner further states, “In the immediate context [of Eph. 6:18], praying in the Spirit may well be connected to the sword of the Spirit. The sword of the Spirit is, on the one hand, God’s spoken word to put His enemies to flight and, on the other hand, the believer’s utterance to God in prayer in the power of the Holy Spirit to aid in the struggle against the evil powers” (p. 857).

[6] Imprecatory prayers were valid under the Mosaic Law where obedient Israelites could expect God to dispense justice to their enemies (Deut. 28:7). These types of prayers are not valid for Christians because we are not under the Mosaic Law (Rom. 6:14). We are commanded to pray for our enemies that God will bless them (Matt. 5:44-45; Luke 6:28, 35; cf. Rom. 12:17-21; 1 Thess. 5:15; 1 Pet. 3:9). If God dispenses judgment upon our enemies, He will do so at His discretion and not ours (Rom. 12:17-19; 2 Thess. 1:6).

[7] God’s deliverance was not based on any righteousness found in Israel, for He describes them as a “stubborn” and “rebellious” people who keep defying Him, in spite of His goodness (Deut. 9:6-7).

[8] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 765.

The Apostle Paul – Chosen to Suffer for Christ

Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

     Christianity, as it was spreading its gospel message of Christ and grace, posed a real threat to Saul’s religious tradition.  Feeling that the church must be stopped, Saul sought permission from the Jewish high priest to search out and arrest Christians in Damascus, a city in Syria, in order to bring them to Jerusalem to be tried before Jewish courts.  Little did Saul know that when he set his will against the church to attack it, he was attacking the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. 

As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.” (Acts 9:3-6)

Saul on road to Damascus     Saul was completely caught off guard.  The word “Lord” in Acts 9:5 translates the Greek word kurios and was most likely used by Saul as a synonym for God, as Saul probably knew this was a divine encounter due to the supernatural “light from heaven” that knocked him to the ground.  In the OT, the proper name of God is YHWH—sometimes used with vowels as Yahweh—and is translated LORD, using all capital letters.  When the Septuagint was written around 250 B.C.—the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT—the translators chose the Greek word kurios as a substitute for the Hebrew word YHWH.  Though the word is sometimes used in the NT to mean sir (John 4:11; Acts 16:30), and master (Col. 3:22), it is also used to refer to the deity of Jesus Christ (compare Isa. 40:3 and John 1:23; or Deut. 6:16 and Matt. 4:7; cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:11; Phil. 2:11).  Surely Saul was surprised to learn that he was talking with the resurrected Lord Jesus.  More so, by attacking the church, Saul learned he was attacking Christ Himself, who is the head of the church (Eph. 1:22-23).  Jesus did not ask “why are you persecuting My church?”  Rather, the Lord said “why are you persecuting Me?”  At the moment of salvation, a believer is in union with the resurrected Christ, and when one attacks a Christian, it is an attack on the Lord Himself. 

The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:7-9)

     Though there were men traveling with Saul, the divine encounter with the risen Lord Jesus was meant primarily for him.  Rising from the earth, Saul realized “he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus” (Acts 9:8).  The brazen Saul who had originally rushed to Damascus on horseback, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), ultimately reached his destination blind, on foot, and perhaps a little bruised from his fall.  His cohorts led him like a helpless little child to the city he intended to crash with waves of violence.  Once there, Saul “was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank” (Acts 9:9).   I suspect Saul was anxiously waiting for the Lord’s next instruction, since the Lord had commanded him to “get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6).

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” (Acts 9:10-14)

Paul-Praying     Saul had come to Damascus to attack the disciples of the Lord (Acts 9:1); yet God’s grace was upon Saul, for it was through “a disciple at Damascus named Ananias” that God would heal Saul of his blindness and show him love he did not deserve.  The Lord spoke to His servant Ananias and commanded him to “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying” (Acts 9:11).  This verse gives us the first glimpse into Saul’s background, for we learn that he was born in the city of Tarsus.  More importantly, Saul was praying to the Lord at this time, seeking Him from the place where the Lord had brought him, a place of helplessness.  The Lord went on to reveal to Ananias that Saul had “seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight” (Acts 9:12).  It’s interesting that God had given Saul a vision of something that was certain to happen, involving the volition of Ananias, even before the Lord had asked Ananias to go and lay hands on Saul.  At first, Ananias offers fearful resistance to the Lord’s command.  Ananias was genuinely afraid of Saul, citing previous acts of violence against Christians in Jerusalem, and stating that he had religious authority from the chief priests to persecute the Lord’s disciples even in Damascus (Acts 9:13-14).  The Lord did not rebuke Ananias for his fears, but offered him kind reassurance. 

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16)

     Here is divine revelation into the eternal counsel of God, who revealed to Ananias that Saul was His “chosen instrument” (Acts 9:15).  The word chosen translates the Greek word ekloge which means to select for one’s own purpose.  God chooses—or elects—to salvation (Acts 13:48; Eph. 1:3), spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3-6), holy and righteous living (Col. 3:12; 2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 2:9), and service for the Lord (Jer. 1:4-5; Gal. 1:15-16; cf. Acts 9:15).  Election is always the free choice of God, based on His sovereignty (Rom. 9:10-21), and never based of the worthiness of the object (Deut. 7:7-8; 1 Cor. 1:26-31; Rom. 9:11).  God chose Saul, not because he was sweet and lovely and doing all the right things; rather, the Lord chose Saul in order to demonstrate His grace, His love and His power.  As the “chosen instrument” of the Lord, Saul was to carry the Lord’s name “before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  Thank God for His sovereign grace!

The Lord assured Ananias … This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Saul was to become Paul, the apostle to the uncircumcised (Rom. 11:13; Gal. 2:2, 7-8; Eph. 3:8), including kings (cf. Governor Felix [Acts 24:1-23], Governor Porcius Festus [24:27-25:12], King Herod Agrippa II [25:13-26:32], and possibly Emperor Nero [25:11]). The apostle, of course, also ministered to “the people of Israel” (cf. 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:2, 10, 17; 18:4, 19; 19:8; 26:17-20; Rom. 1:16). How amazing that the one who persecuted Christians so violently should himself be transformed into a witness of the gospel—and such a dynamic, forceful witness at that![1]

     Attached to Saul’s divine calling were the Lord’s words to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:16).  The persecutor will now be the persecuted.  Saul, who inflicted suffering on Christians, will now suffer as a Christian.  Saul had the pronouncement of a lifetime of suffering from the very beginning of his call to ministry.  Saul was no coward.  He received the word of the Lord and accepted his commission to Christian service knowing fully it would be marked by a life of suffering wherever he went. 

Paul and Annanias     Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and spoke the words of the Lord to him, and Saul received his sight again, and after eating and visiting with the disciples for several days, “immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God’” (Acts 9:20).  Because of Saul’s conversion, “the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase” (Acts 9:30).  Even though the church enjoyed peace for a while, not having to fear their greatest persecutor, the Lord’s new servant would begin his life of suffering for Christ.

     Saul, who eventually came to be known as Paul after Acts 13:9, would serve three missionary journeys for the Lord and share the gospel with many who would be saved.  Paul’s missionary journeys started in Acts 13 in the city of Antioch and concluded in Acts 28 in the city Rome.  Between these chapters, Paul experienced much persecution.

     Paul’s life was marked by suffering and persecution from the time he was saved on the Damascus road until he arrived in Rome.  This was all in fulfillment of what was spoken by Jesus to Ananias when He said of Paul, “he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16).  In addition to what is recorded in the book of Acts, Paul tells us of more sufferings he endured:

Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:23-28)

Paul-3     Paul knew suffering like few others in this world.  His suffering was the result of his service for Christ, as one who boldly preached the gospel message and taught others from the Scriptures.  Paul experienced hostility primarily from his own people, the Jews, but also from Greeks and Romans.  Apart from the external hardships Paul faced throughout his life, he also had “the daily pressure…of concern for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28).  Paul was often internally distressed over the church because he knew that Christians were in real danger of false teachers who might lead them astray from Christ and from sound teaching (Acts 20:18-32; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Gal. 2:4-5; Phil. 3:2).  In addition to all that he suffered during his time of ministry, there was a special form of suffering that came to Paul, a “thorn in the flesh” as he called it.  Regarding this special form of suffering, Paul said,

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

     Paul had personally received divine revelation from the Lord, and there was a real temptation that Paul might get prideful over having received such revelation, so the Lord gifted him with a “thorn in the flesh” to keep him humble and effective in ministry.  It was unimportant for Paul to tell us what his thorn was, but rather that it kept him humble, which was his purpose in revealing his “thorn” to us.  At first, Paul did not want his painful thorn, and even petitioned the Lord three times to take it away.  God, in His great wisdom, denied Paul’s prayer request, informing Paul that He would give him the grace—or divine enablement—to cope with his new weakness.  God loved Paul enough to give him what he needed, and the Lord needed Paul to be weak, so that he would learn to rely on the Lord and not himself.  Paul’s pain kept him close to God.  The wisdom and greatness of Paul is seen in his response to the Lord’s refusal to his prayer request, for Paul declared “most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).  Such declarations are contrary to human nature, since our first inclination is to complain about the things that cause us pain.  However, we must fight against our human nature and live by faith, trusting God at His Word and believing that when He causes us to have pain—like He did with Paul—that it serves some purpose in us and benefits us as well as others.  This requires faith.  May we all learn to say with the apostle Paul, “I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

     For Paul, pain and suffering were not anomalies that occasionally popped into his life; rather, they were a regular part of the fabric of his life and ministry.  Too often Christian ministers sell Christianity as a way to escape pain and suffering, teaching others that if they’ll only come to Christ and live godly lives their troubles will go away.  Such teaching is false; for “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12).  The Lord Jesus stated:

Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man. Be glad in that day and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven. For in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets. (Luke 6:22-23)

     Not every Christian will suffer for their faith.  Certainly there are Christians whom the Lord has blessed with a life of peace and prosperity.  However, when looking through Scripture as well as through history, suffering is more the norm rather than the exception.  For the Christian, joy is not found in the absence of suffering, but in doing God’s will and being found pleasing in His sight.  This requires biblical understanding and a lifetime of learning to walk in God’s truth (Phil. 4:11-13).


This article is an edited excerpt from my book, Suffering: A Biblical Consideration (pages 91-117). 

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, eds. Walvoord & Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 377.