Staying out of prison is one of my top priorities. I’m very careful to obey every law (with the possible exception of the speed limit) because I desperately want to avoid going to jail. The Apostle Paul, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy going to prison. In fact, some of his best work, including the letter of Colossians, was done while incarcerated.
Paul saw the suffering of his imprisonment as an occasion to rejoice. That seems like an odd response to most of us, to be sure, but Paul viewed his suffering as an opportunity to participate in the afflictions of Christ. Because Jesus suffered, Paul reasoned, our own suffering brings us closer to him. Not only that, but when we suffer well, we become an encouragement to the church. But what does it look like to suffer well?
First of all, we must be honest. While we cannot allow our feelings to shape reality, we must be able to name our true emotions with honesty and integrity. It’s okay to not be okay. It is spiritually destructive to try to fake your way through hardships, and it robs others of the opportunity to learn from you how to suffer well. God is out to redeem every difficult circumstance we experience, but he cannot redeem the circumstances about which we are dishonest.
Secondly, we must have hope. Another way of thinking about this is “living with the end in mind.” If we live with an eye toward God’s new creation (the mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, totally redeemed world and humanity he is going to unveil in the final days), we will be able to endure the suffering we experience today. The resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new creation give us hope to overcome the disappointment and loss we live through today.
Finally, we must rejoice. This is where it gets hard. The journey from honesty to hope to rejoicing gets complicated because rejoicing is always out loud. This is an audible response to the hope that lives within us. You may not always feel like rejoicing. In fact, when you are suffering, you will probably never feel like rejoicing. But the more you rejoice, the less power your circumstances will have over you. As you move from honesty to hope to rejoicing, you will become an encouragement to people in your life and an example of what it means to suffer well.