Do you like to suffer? Were I to ask you that question to your face, I'd wager that you would say no. It wouldn't matter who you were or what your background was; no normal human being derives any pleasure from feeling pain (although, judging from the types of television shows we see nowadays, you wouldn't know it).

We live our lives with the intention of making the experience as pain-free as possible. Every major decision we make -- who we marry, what we do for a living, what kind of car we drive -- is based in large part on our desire to be comfortable. No one, for example, would buy a car if he knew the seats would make his back ache constantly, and we southerners couldn't imagine living someplace where it snows six months in the year. Yet we can't avoid suffering entirely, no matter how hard we try. When we get sick, we frequently put off going to the doctor because we're afraid he might stick needles in us, or worse, send us to the hospital for some type of operation. But in the end, we put up with the needles, the knives, and all the rest of it, because we know it's good for us, and we'll feel better afterward. It's been said that medicine has to taste bad to be good for us.

One of life's great ironies is that the pain we try so hard to avoid usually ends up making us stronger. Could it be that the same principle applies to our spiritual lives as well? It's no secret that many Christians fulfill their obligations to God -- as they see them -- at little cost to themselves. Usually this means being at the church building whenever the doors are open, and not much else. Are such people spiritually weaker because their service costs them so little?

I was thinking about all this yesterday after I read an interesting piece in the religion section of the newspaper, which I'll briefly describe here. The author told of a Chinese Christian who spoke recently at the church where he attends. The man told how he had served 10 years in prison for publicly expressing his beliefs. His wife did 20 years for the same offense, and also for refusing to testify against her husband or her father. The Chinese gentleman told stories of the pain and suffering he experience in prison that brought gasps from the audience. But he also told of the spiritual growth he experienced during his imprisonment and of how many of his fellow prisoners had come to believe in God through him. He seemed almost nostalgic as he recalled this terrible episode.

When the visitor had finished, the preacher asked how the members could support the Chinese Christians in prayer. He suggested that they pray for an end to the persecution.

"Oh, no, don't pray for the end of persecution," was the reply. "Suffering has made us strong. It is what has built our faith and caused the underground church to flourish."

Now, I don't know what denominational affiliation, if any, was claimed by the people in this story. But I am almost certain that the sentiment expressed by the speaker was the last thing they expected to hear. If suffering makes us better people, shouldn't it also make us better Christians?

Consider some example from the book of Acts. In chapter 3, Peter and John healed a lame man and preached Jesus on the porch of the temple. They were put in jail by the Sadducees, but many who had heard their words believed, and the number of saved rose to 5,000 (4:1-4). Peter and John were threatened and released, and promptly returned to their work, and all who believed "were of one heart and one soul" (4:32).

In chapter 5, Peter and the other apostles were again ordered to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, and this time were beaten. But instead of being intimidated, the apostles left, "rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name" (5:41).

Even the death of Stephen had a positive effect, because it caused a scattering of the brethren throughout Judea and Samaria. Those people did not leave Jerusalem in order to hide their faith; rather, they "went everywhere, preaching the word" (8:1, 4). It is no coincidence that God chose to establish the church in first century Rome, knowing that social conditions were not what we would call conducive to faith in Him. The very factors that made life uncertain (or short) for Christians were what insured the growth of the church.

The first century Christians lived lives that were by no means comfortable, but their faith gave them the assurance of a heavenly reward for obeying God's commands. Perhaps closeness to the Lord meant more to them because it came at such a high price. In America today, we can worship without having to worry about what our government will do to us, because some far-sighted men decided long ago that our rulers should not be permitted to interfere in our relationship with God. The intentions of those men were admirable, but are we paying the price for that freedom with our souls?

I wonder what would happen if Jesus were to come to our country today bearing His message of hope and calling on all to deny themselves and follow Him. Peter, Andrew, James and John all walked away from their livelihood to answer that call. Would working men today be so willing to similarly give up everything for Jesus? Maybe they would first see how much leave time they could spare for the work, or maybe they would ask if the Master offered full hospitalization.

I am very thankful to God for this wonderful free country we call home, and am not ashamed to say it. We should all thank Him every day for the life that we have here. But if we're going to thank Him for sparing us persecution, maybe we should reconsider. If that bad-tasting spiritual medicine will make up better servants, then let's be willing to take it, with gratitude, just like Peter and John did in the first century, and just like many Christians -- in China and elsewhere -- are doing right now. --

By Jack Harwell

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