INTERSECT: The Marks of a Christian
let no man trouble me:
for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus” (Galatians 6:17).
Maybe you have heard some Christians use the verse above loosely as a justification for “Christian” tattoos. However, it is clear, given the context, that Paul had something much deeper (and more painful) than a tattoo of a cross in mind. He referred to the extreme suffering he endured as a result of following Jesus, suffering that scarred him permanently.
The irony is evident in these closing words to the Galatians. The false teachers who opposed Paul in Galatia insisted on circumcision as physical evidence of a right relationship with God. In response, Paul simply pointed out his scars for Jesus. Obviously, we do not have pictures of Paul. But I’m sure his body was covered with the lasting signs of suffering. Perhaps you remember Paul’s own description of what he had endured in 2 Corinthians 11:23b-27:
In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
The Apostle’s simple statement to the Galatians reminds us of several important biblical principles regarding suffering. First, don’t be surprised by suffering but expect it as part of living in a fallen world and following the Savior. Scripture tells us not to be surprised at the fiery trials we face (1 Peter 4:12), yet we still tend to be stunned when we encounter difficulty. Perhaps this is the result of the fairytale misconceptions of the Christian life in which we “live happily ever after.” Yes, Christians experience peace, joy, and grace, but the Bible never promises ease. Jesus not only told us about His cross; He also describes our cross we take up daily to follow Him. He told his disciples that all who strive for godly lives in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.
Second, remember we shouldn’t go through suffering alone but take comfort in other believers. In his book Future Grace, John Piper encourages us to follow the example of Jesus during His agonizing hours in Gethsemane. He chose close friends to accompany him (Matthew 26:37). He openly shared his struggle with them: “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death” (26:38). He asked for their intercession and partnership through the struggle: “Remain here and keep watch with me” (26:39). He did all of these things before giving Himself fully to the agony He experienced.
It might come as a surprise to many to learn that some of my greatest spiritual battles came during seminary. In spite of being surrounded by Scripture, sermons, and a constant stream of biblical wisdom, I experienced nearly overwhelming spiritual oppression. I found relief only when I left campus, and I dreaded each return more and more.
In desperation, I confessed this struggle to my seminary roommate, Matthew McAffee, now a fellow professor at Welch College. To my surprise, he admitted to a similar struggle. I can’t tell you how comforting it was to know I wasn’t alone in my suffering. Someone shared in what I was going through. As I recall that moment, I can’t help but think of the words of the Apostle Peter, who urged us to be steadfast in our faith because we understand that other Christians throughout the world have and will experience the same types of suffering (1 Peter 5:9).
Finally, don’t waste your suffering. Use it as a motivation to draw near to God. Remember, Jesus endured the full range of human experience—sorrow, desertion, frustration, temptation, disappointment, mistreatment, etc. He knows from experience about our suffering. And His cross—the culmination of His own suffering—became the basis for understanding God, the world, and self. In His death, Jesus tasted supreme suffering, yet by His death suffering was conquered.
Tim Keller observes: “If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ And we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that He doesn’t love us. It can’t be that He is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it upon Himself.”
Consider the thought-provoking insight on suffering offered by Adelaide Proctor in the 1858 hymn “My God, I Thank Thee”:
I thank Thee too that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours,
That thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be my guide and not my chain.
As you face the struggles of this life for the sake of Christ, consider the following questions to help you keep things in perspective:
Will you seek to understand your suffering from
Will you allow others to help you in your suffering?
Will you be used by God to help others in their suffering?
Will you use this time of suffering to draw you near
About the Writer: Barry Raper is Pastoral Ministry chairman at Welch College. Learn more: www.WELCH.edu.
1 John Piper. Future Grace. Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1995.
2 Tim Keller. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2008, 31.