Many Christians seem to have a special affection for trinkets and keepsakes which remind them of their faith. In our own house, for instance, we have a wall full of crosses which points us to Christ's suffering and death for our salvation. My wife Melody was the one who began the collection. After finding out that she (and by marriage, I) collected crosses, we received crosses for every conceivable holiday: Christmas, Easter, birthdays. I think we even received a cross for Valentine's Day once. We now have so many crosses that we can't fit them all on our appointed "cross wall." So, if you're looking for a gift for Melody and I, please don't buy us a cross!
Besides crosses, there's other Christian memorabilia as well like posters, statuettes, and plaques with every conceivable Bible verse etched into them. And this is where our reading for today from Matthew 5 comes in. Matthew 5-7 constitutes the most famous sermon in history: Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. And snippets of Jesus' indelible words can be found on Christian merchandise everywhere. "You are the light of the world" (Matthew 5:14). "Our Father who art in heaven" (Matthew 6:9). "Seek ye first the kingdom of God" (Matthew 6:33). And, of course, "Ask and it will given to you" (Matthew 7:7).
Another set of words that can regularly be found on countless Christian items are the words which Jesus uses to open his Sermon on the Mount, popularly known as the beatitudes: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth" (verses 3-5). These are words that have brought comfort and strength to more than one faint soul. For these are words for those who are downtrodden, weary, encumbered, and embittered by the woes and persecutions of this world. And we love these words. After all, who doesn't want to receive the kingdom of heaven when they feel poor in spirit? And who doesn't want to be comforted when they mourn? And receiving the whole earth just for being meek sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
But as many times as I have seen the words from these Beatitudes emblazoned on Christian mementos, the one beatitude I have never seen on these items is Jesus' final beatitude: "Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (verses 11-12). The rub in this beatitude seems to be one word: "when." "Blessed are you," Jesus says, "when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me." What? I can see being persecuted and then being blessed by God after my suffering because I endured it so nobly. I can even see myself being blessed by God in spite of my suffering as he pours "silver linings" into my dark and dreary days. But being blessed when I suffer? That almost sounds like the suffering is the blessing! And that's exactly right.
Now, to be clear, it's not that suffering is good in and of itself, it's that it's a blessing when it's used and redeemed by God to strengthen our faith and form our character. And make no mistake about it: God does indeed use suffering to do just that. As the apostle Paul reminds us: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Romans 5:3-4). The school of suffering, it seems, can teach us things we can't learn anywhere else. Things like perseverance, character, and even hope. And so, if you are suffering, I would never be so naïve to say that you should be obnoxiously cheery in the face of pain, but I would say, "Blessed are you." For you truly are.
One of the most notable Christian "sufferers" of the 19th century was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a great preacher from London. Although he achieved world-wide fame, he also had his vehement detractors who took every opportunity to besmirch his name and try to ruin his ministry. In her memoires, Mrs. Spurgeon writes about her husband's suffering at the hands of his enemies:
My heart alternately sorrowed over him and flamed with indignation against his detractors. For a long time I wondered how I could set continual comfort before his eyes, till, at last, I hit upon the expedient of having the following verses printed in large Old English type and enclosed in a pretty Oxford frame: "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in Heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." The text was hung up in our own room and was read over by the dear preacher every morning...fulfilling its purpose most blessedly, for it strengthened his heart and enabled him to buckle on the invisible armor, whereby he could calmly walk among men, unruffled by their calumnies, and concerned only for their best and highest interests.
I guess someone put the words of Jesus' final beatitude on a plaque after all.
This, my dear friends, is the blessing in suffering: it strengthens our hearts and enables us to buckle on the armor of Christ so that we may carry on with our duties for the sake of the gospel. And so, when we suffer, "Blessed are we."