Responding to the Suffering Church
By Greg Mundis
Apr. 7, 2013
When people hear the term “suffering church,” they immediately think of extreme persecution. In reality, the suffering church encompasses a much broader scope.
In addition to martyrdom or imprisonment, suffering in today’s world can mean being rejected by family members, barred from employment, or denied acceptance into a school or particular neighborhood. Suffering can include emotional or mental stress caused by people in a community. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ experience physical suffering because they live in areas with inadequate water, shelter and food supplies. Others suffer from lack of access to medical care to adequately treat sicknesses.
So how do we, as AGWM, respond to the suffering church? In order to do so effectively, we must address two critical issues.
First, we must recognize that we are abundantly blessed. Compared to the physical, emotional and spiritual suffering that goes on in many areas of the world, we in the United States have so much for which to be thankful. The blessings we enjoy are not a sign of favoritism or an indication we are in any way superior to others. We have experienced God’s unmerited favor, and as a result, we have a responsibility to do what would please the Lord in helping our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering.
The Early Church included members who were suffering and in need. Many of them didn’t have enough food to eat or even a place to stay. The Book of Acts describes how the early Christians responded: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. … And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:32-24, NIV).
From its beginning, the Church has been more than an organization; it is a living organism that responds when one of its members is suffering. The apostle Paul talks about this in Galatians 6:10: “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” As the early Christians responded to others’ circumstances, we too must reach out to help our spiritual brothers and sisters who are in need. Paul also wrote, “God has put the body together. ... If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Corinthians 12:24, 26).
Second, we must try to alleviate suffering in a way that glorifies God. We are called to help our brothers and sisters, yet we must keep in mind that God may be working out His purposes in ways we don’t understand.
Christians have a natural sympathy toward people who are suffering, and we want to be rescuers. But that’s not our job. Sometimes God achieves great victories through the suffering of His people — transforming what the enemy meant for evil to accomplish His purposes for good. Paul addressed this issue when he told the Roman believers: “We boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:2-4).
Many people struggle with the idea that suffering can serve a purpose. It is natural to prefer to focus on God’s blessings and favor. But character is revealed and developed in our lives when heartache comes or when something is taken away from us. At those times, God works in us in ways that would never happen otherwise.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, wrote, “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do, or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.” Suffering is part of a greater purpose, and through our response to suffering, God can receive glory. A right response to suffering is what distinguishes us as believers.
A challenge of our Fellowship is showing discernment by helping those who are suffering and helping them in their suffering. From a human perspective, I want to alleviate all the suffering I can. AGWM will actively and proactively work to help our suffering brothers and sisters in Christ. At the same time, we pray for God’s grand purposes to be fulfilled in their lives and for His strength, help and comfort to be evident in the process.
Praying for the suffering church demands much more than simply praying for what we believe needs to be done. Pentecostals have the wonderful advantage of interceding in the Spirit for the needs of the suffering. The apostle Paul reminded the church in Rome that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26). We can pray in the Spirit regarding situations about which we have limited knowledge. As we do, the Spirit will give us the mind of Christ and help us pray as Christ would pray.
God is fulfilling His purposes in different ways around the world, and we cannot see or understand His overall plan. Our natural inclination is to pray that all imprisoned believers would be miraculously released as the apostle Peter was in Acts 16:26: “At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.” However, we may forget that the apostle James was beheaded in prison. In both situations, God was glorified.
Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering because they refuse to deny Christ or compromise their faith or escape to places where life is easier. They are clear in their understanding that Christ has called them to be His witnesses. As a result, God uses their testimony to make a major impact for Christ.
Paul opened his letter to the Philippians with that kind of experience. He told the believers, “What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear” (Philippians 1:12-14).
One of the words for chains used in the New Testament describes a short chain much like our handcuffs. Can you imagine the conversation that took place each time Paul was chained to a different guard on duty? I like to think that Paul wasn’t chained to the guard; the guard was chained to Paul. Every guard assigned to him heard a clear message of the gospel.
Suffering is not an end in itself; our response to suffering is what makes the difference. Both those who suffer and those who lift up the suffering have a purpose to fulfill. Let us commit ourselves to pray faithfully and do all we can for our suffering brothers and sisters, even as we trust God to complete His purposes and bring glory to His name.
GREG MUNDIS is executive director of AGWM.
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