We often hear that Christians do not suffer any more than non-Christians—that suffering, humanly speaking, is the same whether one is a believer or an unbeliever. The notion, of course, is that hardships are a human experience and misery is no respecter of persons. But if we think about this notion a bit more critically, we can easily see that there are additional sufferings afforded to the believer that are not part of the experience of the unbeliever. Three immediately present themselves in the Scriptures:
- We are chastened by our heavenly Father for our sin (cf. James 5:14-15, to see an instance where particular sin of the believer results in particular suffering). The orphaned or illegitimate child is not disciplined by God, since the Father only disciplines those whom he loves and those who are his own (Hebrews 12:6, 8). Therefore, in this life, we have additional elements of suffering than the unbeliever, because our Father in heaven loves us and corrects us, as any good father does.
- Unbelievers do not suffer persecution, nor do they suffer for righteousness-sake, as the Lord says of the Blessed Ones in Matthew 5:10-12. This is an element of suffering that the unrighteous simply cannot experience, for this unique suffering is afforded only to the righteous in Christ. It is one thing to suffer as an evildoer, but it is altogether different (and blessed!) to suffer as one who bears the name of Christ, as Peter says to the disbursed and persecuted church of his day (1 Peter 4:14-16). After all, we servants should expect to experience additional sufferings since we are united to our Master (John 15:20).
- The believer is also uniquely “filling up the sufferings of Christ on earth” (Colossians 1:24). There is an apportioned amount of suffering for Christ’s Body prior to his return, in order that the looming final judgement will be adequately deserved. Much like God said to Abraham in Genesis 15:16, his descendants would have to wait to enter and purge the Promised Land, because the “sin of the Amorites is not yet complete.” So too, the suffering of Christ's Body is not yet filled up, and the Judgement not yet warranted. If God is crushing Satan under our feet (Romans 16:20), it only follows that the Great Serpent is simultaneously striking the Body of Christ’s heel (Genesis 3:15), even as he is trodden under foot.
In all of the above, you can find phrases that suggest that these unique sufferings are “afforded to the believer” or even produce “blessings” in the life of the believer. While there is an additional costliness to the Christian life, God ensures that even these costs serve to bless and strengthen his people (Romans 5:3-4 and James 1:2-4).
But there is another accounting that should cause us to tremble in all of this. Let us not forget that the believer’s suffering comes now, while his ultimate reward is saved for later. Inversely, the unbeliever’s reward is now…but his ultimate suffering is reserved for eternity. Recall what Jesus says about the Rich Man and Lazarus: “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.” (Luke 16:25)
All of this reminds me of the memorable scene in Pilgrim’s Progress when Christian, in Interpreter’s House, sees two small boys: Passion and Patience. Passion was irritable, demanding his reward now, while Patience was…well…patient, and content to wait. The little boy, Passion, was therefore given a small fortune, and he held it up and mocked and laughed at Patience who hadn’t received anything. But mere moments go by and the treasure is utterly squandered and Passion is left in rags. Interpreter explains that Passion is the people of the world who receive their reward in-full now, but then for the next life receive nothing but suffering. Patience, on the other hand, is the people of the Next World, who are content to receive their suffering now and for their glory to be revealed later. Interpreter goes on to explain how Passion mocks and scorns Patience in this life, but Patience will have the last, because the first must give way to the last. Notice the additional suffering that Patience is made to endure, though only for a time. And notice the additional rewards that Passion receives, though only for a time.
Do unbelievers and believers suffer the same amount, the same types of things, and in the same ways? While simple observation of this life may suggest the answer is “yes”, the Scriptures clearly present a different picture. Biblically speaking, supernaturally speaking, drawing back the curtains to see the Lord’s accounting: the answer to the question is clearly “No”, not in this life. The believer suffers far more and uniquely so in this life than the unbeliever. But in the next life, terrifyingly so, the accounting isn’t even close.
For our momentary light affliction is not worth comparing to the glory that awaits us (Romans 8:18, 2 Cor. 4:17). So let us patiently suffer, friends, for one day, we will be comforted.