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Helping our Children Handle Suffering

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:10

As a parent, I want the best for my child. But in wanting that best, I can become confused, using only human wisdom. I hate to see my child suffer in any way. And yet, following Jesus involves suffering. So, if I am going to call my children to follow Christ, then I am going to call them to suffer.

Perhaps the corrective on suffering needs to start in my own mind. Francis Schaeffer argued over 30 years ago that the majority of adult Christians are worshipping the idols of personal peace and affluence. We, the parents, want a Christianity that brings us a sense of tranquility and a greater standard of living. Unfortunately, the Sermon on the Mount topples those idols, teaching us that we are blessed when we are suffering for the sake of righteousness.

In fact, Jesus spoke of sending his disciples out like sheep among wolves (Matt. 10:16). We are not greater than our teacher. Since they persecuted him, they will persecute us (John 15:20). Why? Jesus teaches that we will suffer because of righteousness. This righteousness might be spoken words of truth or it might be actions lived out. Nevertheless, righteousness will provoke a negative response.

Discipling our children to expect persecution will be difficult. Persecution cuts right to the heart of the temptation of every young person, love of popularity. To please Christ, they will have to displease those around them at some time.

So we need to be prepared and teach our own children a biblical view of suffering. Paul taught that suffering for Christ was actually a privilege granted to Christians (Phil 1:29)! And in that suffering for Christ, he actually came to know Christ better. He was able to say that one of his life’s goals was to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his suffering (Phil. 3:10). Peter teaches us to rejoice in suffering because we are following the example of Christ.

How then shall we best attempt this difficult task?

1. Teach them not to seek suffering but to expect it. It is a sign you are doing something right. Since Christ left us an example to suffer, the question is not if but when you will suffer. Are you prepared to suffer? One of the best ways we can prepare our children is to prepare them to suffer. I want to encourage them to expect suffering as part of the abundant life that Jesus promised me. In fact, suffering for doing right is a seal of God’s blessing. It means I am doing something right (1 Peter 3:13).

2. Teach them to be willing to pay out suffering in little bits. Often the question is not, “Will I die for Jesus?” but, “Will I live for Jesus?” There are different types of suffering. Paul describes some of his own suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:23-29. In this passage, he moves from physical suffering- “I have been in danger…”- to emotional suffering. Here is how he describes the emotional struggle he has for Christ:d “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” Will we teach our children that it is good to be hassled for the kingdom? Will we put them in situations where they are hassled by serving others? Do we understand that the abundant life involves inconveniences?

3. Encourage them to stand up for Christ with their friends. The early Christians lived in a culture centered on emperor worship. To unite the diverse peoples the Romans conquered, they forced worship of the goddess Roma, the spirit of Rome. The people were usually willing to do pay this small price since the Romans had brought peace and order to their area. Gradually this worship shifted to the emperor. Once a year, the subject of the Roman empire had to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar and say, “Caesar is Lord.” After they performed this “patriotic” duty, they were given a certificate and then could go and worship any god they liked. But it was this very thing that the early Christian refused to do. They refused to compromise on this one small thing and so paid the price of ostracism or even death.

4. Teach them that suffering is needed for propagation. Paul says that he filled up in his flesh what was still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of Christ’s body, the church (Colossians 1:24). Christ’s sufferings are not lacking in regard to their worth in terms of propitiation. His one sacrifice has paid for our sins. However, suffering is still needed for propagation. When we engage in suffering for the truth and for righteousness, we are continuing to participate in the ongoing (nonpropitiating) sufferings of Christ. For the message to go forth and the church to be built up, there must be suffering by the people of Christ. When we are suffering, we can rest assured the gospel is going forth.

All these principles are fine and good, but other than spontaneous exhortation and coaching, how can we put them into practice? One excellent way is to….

5. Engage in contact evangelism. Practically speaking, contact evangelism is an excellent means of training our children to stand up for their faith. Contact evangelism is not spontaneous relational evangelism that occurs when we speak to people in the course of our daily lives. Contact evangelism involves taking the initiative, in the power of the Holy Spirit and intentionally going out to share the gospel with people in a public forum. It involves a form of courage and suffering. Sharing the truth about Christ is going to provoke a response. And yet there is something that produces personal growth in that being “forced” to stand for their faith publicly.

The Communists understood this principle well. In his 1966 classic, Dedication and Leadership, Douglas Hyde details the means the Communist Party used to prepare workers willing to endure hardship and suffering. He says,

Quite deliberately, and with good reason, the Party sends its new members, whenever possible, into some form of public activity before instruction begins. More specifically, it is designed to commit the recruit publicly to Communism. Quite often this will take the form of being sent out to stand at the side of the street or in some public place selling Communist papers, periodicals or pamphlets. This may appear to be a very simple, somewhat low-grade form of activity. It is in fact of profound psychological significance…. Humble as the task may appear, to engage in it requires for many people a certain degree of moral courage….It requires another act of moral courage to remain in a fight for which, he by now realizes, he is not fully equipped. And moral courage is not a bad starting-point for future action.

My three oldest children have all engaged in some form of contact evangelism. The growth and excitement in them was palpable. One went overseas. The other two were involved in evangelism training and went out on sidewalks and parks. Adults were surprisingly receptive to talk about spiritual things with a group of high school students. Where are the youth leaders or the parents who will lead the children around them in strategic outreach?

Jesus finishes his kingdom manifesto with an assumption of courage and conflict. To be blessed is to have the inner fortitude to speak an unpopular message and live an unpopular life. May this be true of us! May this be true of our children!

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