Paul experienced suffering from the beginning of his Christian ministry. After Paul regained his sight (Acts 9:17-19) he began preaching in the synagogues in the city of Damascus (Acts 9:20). Shortly after Paul began his preaching ministry some Jews made a plan to kill him (Acts 9:17-20, 23). This persecution and suffering of Paul would become a theme for the rest of his life.
“Are they servants of Christ? I know I sound like a madman, but I have served him far more! I have worked harder, been put in prison more often, been whipped times without number, and faced death again and again. Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers but are not.* I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm.” (2 Cor 11:23-27) 1
I. PAUL’S SUFFERING WAS FROM GOD
The source of Paul’s suffering is always clear in his writings. On one occasion he writes, “And now I am bound by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem. I don’t know what awaits me, except that the Holy Spirit tells me in city after city that jail and suffering lie ahead” (Acts 20:22-23, emphasis mine).
Shortly before Paul’s death he writes to Timothy, “And God chose me to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of his Good News. That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return” (2 Tim 1:11-12, emphasis mine).
II. PAUL SUFFERED FOR THE CHURCHES HE SERVED
While it was clear that Paul’s suffering was always from God he was also clear that he suffered for the churches he served, “But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus–the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God” (Acts 20:25, emphasis mine). And also, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (Col 1:24, emphasis mine).
III. PAUL BEGGED GOD TO TAKE HIS SUFFERING AWAY
When Paul discussed his suffering he often mentioned a thorn in his flesh. What that “thorn” was is unclear. Some believe it was related to his eyesight, some think it was an speech impediment (Rom 11:6), while others think he had a physical disability related to his back. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he references this thorn in his flesh again. “Three different times I begged the Lord to take it [the thorn in his flesh] away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weaknesses'” (2 Cor 12:8-9). Whatever the ailment was it was significant enough that Paul begged God to take it away. It must have been painful!
IV. PAUL’S SUFFERING PROVIDED BENEFITS
A. Paul Did Not See the Work as Something He Did
“That experience is worth boasting about, but I’m not going to do it. I will boast only about my weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:5). When commenting on this passage Samuel Rima and Gary McIntosh write, “Paul refers here [2 Cor 12:5] to some sort of personal struggle or possibly a physical issue he had struggled with for an extended period of time. Some have speculated that it was poor eyesight or depression. But whatever it was, it kept Paul from thinking too highly of himself and relying on his personal gifts and strengths for his leadership ability” (Samuel Rima and Gary McIntosh, Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007], 161-162).
B. Paul Realized that God’s Grace Was All that He Needed
God revealed to Paul that God’s grace was all that Paul needed in ministry (2 Cor 12:9) because God’s power works best in the weaknesses of others.
C. Paul Saw God’s Work More in His Life as His Weaknesses Increased
“That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10, emphasis mine).
D. Paul’s Weaknesses Allowed Christ’s Work to Shine More Clearly
“Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:8-10).
“From now on, don’t let anyone trouble me with these things. For I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus” (Gal 6:17).
V. PAUL’S SUFFERING LED HIM TO IMPRISONMENT
While in prison knowing he would soon die Paul wrote to Timothy, “God chose me to be a preacher, an apostle, and a teacher of his Good News. That is why I am suffering here in prison. But I am not ashamed of it, for I know the one in whom I trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until the day of his return” (2 Tim 1:11-12).
VI. PAUL’S SUFFERING EVENTUALLY LED TO HIS EARLY DEATH
Paul was beheaded by sword in A.D. 65 stemming from Nero’s persecutation of Christians in Rome (F.F. Bruce, “Paul in Acts and Letters” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald Hawthorne, Ralph Martin, Daniel Reid [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993], 687). Paul appeared to have known that death was coming saying, “As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful” (2 Tim 4:6-7). Most importantly, Paul had peace of mind knowing that he would die because of his faith.
VII. PAUL’S SUFFERING WAS KNOWN BY OTHERS
As a leader of the early church Paul had many opportunities for his voice to be heard about important topics. When Paul had the chance to boast he always boasted about how weak he was, “If I must boast, I would rather boast about the things that show how weak I am” (2 Cor 11:30). Later in the same letter, “I will boast only about my weaknesses” (2 Cor 12:5).
Paul reminded Timothy that suffering would be part of Timothy’s ministry too, “But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:10-12).
VIII. PAUL WAS GLAD TO SUFFER
Paul certainly felt pain and anguish because of his ministry yet he was always glad to suffer, “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church” (Col 1:24). If Paul had the chance to do his life over again and I am confident that he would have chosen to accept God’s call on his life for Paul knew that the end of his life would start something else, “I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!” (Phil 3:10-11).
IX. PAUL WOULD ENDURE ANY AMOUNT OF SUFFERING IF IT MEANT PEOPLE KNEW JESUS
The first hint that Paul was going to endure suffering for God was during Paul’s conversion experience told in Acts 9. While Paul sees Jesus on the road God speaks to a believer named Ananias. God tells Ananias to go see Paul (then named “Saul) saying, “God, for Saul is my chosen instrument . . . I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake” (Acts 9:15-16). From the beginning of Paul’s appointment it is known that Paul will experience suffering for the name of God.
“So I am willing to endure anything if it will bring salvation and eternal glory in Christ Jesus to those God has chosen” (2 Tim 2:10).
X. PAUL EXPERIENCED SUFFERING SO THAT HE DID NOT BURDEN OTHERS
Just before Paul’s long exhortation about the hardships he experiences he prefaces those statements saying, “We live in such a way that no one will stumble because of us, and no one will find fault with our ministry” (2 Cor 6:3). Some of Paul’s suffering in life might have been avoided if he was willing to be a burden to others, but he appears to not want to burden others.
As a leader you must be dedicated to your cause and endure suffering for that cause. Please remember that suffering for the work you do will manifest itself in different ways for different people. Hopefully your suffering will not be like Paul’s suffering in prison and death, but instead manifested in different and less painful ways (smaller pay, work directed by clients needs, and future career limitations).