As Paul writes Ephesians, he can see there’s a crisis approaching. He’d often written letters when groups of believers faced crises. Sometimes, the crisis involved false teaching. Sometimes, it was persecution. There had also been moral failure, rival apostles, and more. This time, the crisis involves Paul’s own imprisonment. Paul’s imprisonment isn’t a crisis for Paul himself; rather, it’s a crisis for those who had come to hear and believe the gospel that Paul preached. It’s a crisis of confidence. The reality of Paul’s imprisonment—which by now had been going on for years—seemed to be a contradiction to the gospel message he preached. The gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth, but the great preacher of the gospel is under the power of the Roman Empire. The gospel proclaims that Jesus brings freedom and life, but the gospel preacher is bound, deprived of freedom, and perhaps even facing death. And so, Paul can see, there’s a real danger for these believers. It’s a danger that having heard of his imprisonment, they’ll lose their courage, wonder whether it’s all worth it, abandon their trust and hope and love, and give up living for Jesus.
So Paul writes to them from prison. He writes to them about boldness and courage and confidence and glory. And as he writes about all these things, he wants them to see his hardships in a whole new light. What he writes will help us to do the same: to lift our eyes, and to see our own circumstances in the light of the gospel of Christ.
In Christ, we have boldness and access to God, with confidence, through faith in him. So I ask you: don’t become discouraged by my afflictions for your sake, which are your glory. – Ephesians 3:12–13
Paul writes here: “In Christ, we have boldness and access to God, with confidence, through faith in him.” These words don’t come out of nowhere. Paul is drawing together and applying all the things that he has been saying in his letter up to this point. For the last two and a half chapters, Paul has described the joy, the privilege, and the confidence that comes from our relationship with God through faith in Christ. Christ is the one who died on the cross and rose from the dead. Through him, our sins are forgiven, we’re adopted as God’s dearly loved children, we’re rescued from God’s wrath, we’re given a great hope of eternal life, and we’re seated in the heavenly realms. Through Christ, we’re reconciled and given peace with God and peace with one another. Through Christ and the preaching of the gospel, God’s multidimensional plans for his universe are being fulfilled. And this is all entirely by God’s grace, not by our own works. It means we can come to God knowing he loves us deeply. We can approach him, and pray to him, and be secure in the knowledge that he hears us and loves us and will give us that great inheritance. This is our confidence, our hope, and our joy. It’s the bedrock of our existence, and nothing in heaven or earth can take it away.
This is what Paul has been saying—in great detail—for two and a half chapters. All the detail has been deliberate. Paul knows that his readers need to grasp this confidence and hope in Christ so they can understand what Paul says next. Because what he says next is about his “afflictions”—his suffering as a prisoner. Seen by themselves, these afflictions make it look like the gospel has failed. But when we truly grasp the gospel and what it means, these afflictions can be seen in a whole new light.
There are various ways Paul might have chosen to react to his afflictions, just as there are various options for anyone who is going through hard times. When you’re facing a hard situation—whether it’s sickness, loss, struggles with temptation, opposition to your Christian faith, or anything else—what are the various ways you could react?
One way to react to hardship is by trying to avoid it or escape it. And actually, that’s completely understandable and often the right thing to do. After all, suffering isn’t good, and all other things being equal, if we have the opportunity to avoid or escape a hard situation, we should take the opportunity. But not always. What if the only way you can avoid or escape pain and suffering is to give up your convictions or do the wrong thing? This is an option that people often take today, isn’t it? There’s a powerful and pervasive view in our world now that pleasure (wellbeing/happiness/succeeding) is the ultimate good, and pain (suffering/unhappiness/being downtrodden) is the ultimate evil, to be avoided at all costs. In this view, if anything causes pain, or isn’t working for you—anything at all—you need to remove it, even if this means adjusting your beliefs and convictions. Theoretically, Paul could probably have escaped from prison by changing his convictions about Jesus. He could have recanted, or bribed some guards, and that probably would have got him out. But he doesn’t do this. He didn’t think that pain was the ultimate evil, to be avoided at all costs. He knew something greater than his afflictions, something that enabled him to keep going in them, though they might even be the means of his death: the deep love and power of Jesus Christ.
Another way to react to hardship is by denying that it’s real. This approach is common in Eastern mysticism, though it’s common in the Western world as well. The idea is that whenever we suffer, the problem is entirely within ourselves. So we should just work on changing our internal desires, put on a cheerful face, get it together, tell everyone it’s fine, and always look on the bright side of life. But Paul knows that his suffering is real. He mentions it several times in his letter, and doesn’t try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Another way to react to hardship is by lamenting over it. Again, this is often exactly the right thing to do. Suffering is both real and wrong. We live in a world of sin and death and pain. It’s right to cry out and express our anguish—especially to God. We can see from some of Paul’s other letters that he was no stranger to anguish and that he knew feelings of anxiety and even despair (see e.g., 2 Corinthians 1:8, 4:8, 11:23–33). He probably did spend many lonely heartbroken nights crying out to God from prison. But here, as he writes this letter, he doesn’t talk about his anguish. Rather he wants to talk about something more—something greater.
Another way to react to hardship is by seeing it as a gift from God for our own good. Suffering, when understood rightly, can have good outcomes for our own lives. It can build character and make the hope that we have in Jesus more real for us. Paul himself talks about suffering in this way: in Romans 5:3–4 he says: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”. So Paul probably did remind himself of this truth during his time in prison. But yet again, this isn’t what he talks about here. Again, there’s something even more; something even greater that he wants to say.
How does Paul react to his afflictions, then? He doesn’t try to avoid or escape or deny them. He doesn’t even (at this point) consider their effect on him, for good or bad. Rather, he says this: “So I ask you: don’t become discouraged by my afflictions for your sake, which are your glory”. That is, Paul here looks away from himself. He looks upwards, and he looks outwards. He considers his sufferings in the light of the gospel of Christ Jesus. And he considers what his sufferings mean for others—in particular, for the believers that he is writing to. He asks them not to become discouraged. Because, he says, these hardships of his are “for your sake, which are your glory”.
What does it mean that Paul’s afflictions are “for your sake, which are your glory”? Part of the answer is that Paul’s preaching of the gospel, including his imprisonment for that gospel, has led to these people becoming believers in the first place. But that’s only part of the answer. Paul doesn’t just see his afflictions as an unfortunate way to achieve a positive outcome. Rather, he wants his readers to glory in his afflictions. He says that his afflictions “are your glory”.
This only makes sense in light of what he’s said so far in Ephesians. That is, it only makes sense in the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ: the one who was crucified and who is now risen. This is where we see the glorious God revealing himself and bringing about his great plans for the universe. God’s glory is shown through Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, to bring reconciliation and peace. God’s glory is shown through Jesus Christ rising from the dead. And because we have the Holy Spirit, and we are risen with Christ, we can look forward to God’s glory being revealed in a new creation and to sharing in that glory with all the holy ones. So Paul’s hardships aren’t something to lose courage over. Nor are they just an unfortunate means that God has used to achieve his goal. Rather, Paul’s hardships themselves are a sign of God’s glory, just as Jesus’ suffering was. They point to the very heart of the gospel that Paul preaches: the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. They also point to our glorious future inheritance. And so they are our glory.
Suffering and glory
In some ways, Paul’s afflictions were unique. But his attitude to his afflictions can give us insight into what we can say about our own suffering, especially in light of the glory of the gospel of Christ Jesus.
Should we say: “suffering is an illusion, glory is a reality”? No, suffering is real. And if we know the gospel of God’s grace, we can face up to it.
Should we say: “suffering is bad, glory is good”? In its most basic sense, yes we should. All things being equal, we shouldn’t go searching out suffering for the sake of it, and we should avoid it if we can. But we can’t always avoid it, and we should never try to avoid or escape it at the cost of our convictions or obedience to God.
Should we say: “suffering leads me to glory”? Again, there’s a great truth to this statement (see e.g. Acts 14:22). It can help us to see the way God uses suffering to work in our individual lives and point us to eternal life. But still, there’s more than can be said.
Knowing the confidence we can have in our access to God through faith in Christ, we can look beyond ourselves. Even in our suffering, we can say with Paul: “My suffering is your glory.” Because even as we suffer and our hearts ache in this fallen world, as we live for Christ in the midst of that suffering, we are in fact, doing something incredibly valuable for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are displaying to them the glory of the crucified and risen Christ, and we are pointing them to our glorious, heavenly inheritance—even in and through our own suffering.
This teaches us something about how much we should value our brothers and sisters in Christ who face hardship in this world, doesn’t it? Those with a disability, those enduring a chronic condition, those who are being put down or deprived or persecuted for holding on to Jesus, those who struggle with singleness or childlessness or sexual desires that can’t be fulfilled while honouring God, and many more: how do we see these brothers and sisters? Compassion is vital. But we shouldn’t just see them as people to pity. Love and practical help is also vital. If we can relieve or remove the pain, that’s wonderful and we should do so. But we shouldn’t just see them as people with “needs” or as a burden. They are people who have value—inherently. And it’s not just that they have value despite their hardship. They have value in and indeed because of their hardship. Their endurance in these hardships points us to Christ’s death and resurrection, and points us to our heavenly inheritance.
Here are the words of a brother who has ministered the gospel, in a profound way, to me and many others I know. His name is Zack. He’s a student here at Moore College where I teach. In our student magazine, each student has 50 words to describe themselves. Zack said this:
I have been blessed with a brain tumour which will most likely take my life. Please be praying that I use this gift for the glory of God in everything that I do until I go to meet Jesus.
Societas (Sydney: Moore College, 2018), p. 12. Available online here.
Zack isn’t in denial. He’s grasped the truth about the glory of Christ—now and in the future. And in writing these words, Zack is exercising a profound gospel ministry, isn’t he? Our brothers and sisters in Christ who are enduring suffering aren’t just people for us to minister to. They are people who, in their very suffering and endurance, are ministers of the gospel to us. In fact, often those who have suffered or are suffering now make the most powerful gospel ministers of all. Why? Because that’s what the gospel is. It’s not a message of glory in earthly health or earthly happiness or earthly fulfilment. It’s a message of glory in the cross of Christ.
What is your most common reaction when you face hardships in life?
How does the confidence we have in the gospel of Christ help you to see suffering—your suffering and the suffering of others—in a new light?
This article was originally published on Lionel’s website Forget the Channel as part of his series in the book of Ephesians, ‘Lift Your Eyes’. You can subscribe to the whole series and podcast here.