What if God unmistakably commanded you to go and pray for a person who had a warrant for your arrest which would probably lead to your unfair trial and imprisonment? Not sure I would go either. But in Acts 9, there's this obscure Christian man in the town of Damascus who received this exact command from God.
God had stricken Saul, the persecutor with blindness and Ananias was to go and pray for his healing. And, oh yeah, Ananias had to also deliver an unsettling message to Saul: he was to embrace the Christianity he had been violently persecuting, preach the gospel all over the world (mostly to Gentiles, people that Jews like Saul greatly disliked), and suffer much at their hands.
Any takers? I see that hand...
This fellow, Ananias, is understandably hesitant, but he obeys nonetheless. The result? Saul (later Paul) became the greatest proponent of the gospel of Jesus Christ the world has ever known.
But that one phrase in this account still makes me squirm. "I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9:16).
I used to think that the reason Paul was to suffer in ministry was because of his previous acts of violence committed against the church. He arrested and imprisoned Christians. That's got to be a pretty big sin, right? Maybe suffering was God's way of working in some payback after Paul had come to Christ.
But this couldn't be the case. If it were, Paul's ministry would be boiled down to a long penance in which his primary mission was to atone for his past sins - his "big sins." But such a proposition is absolutely, 100% anti-gospel. Like every person who embraces Christ, Paul was forgiven. Period. So what are we to make of this unsettling message from God that he was called to suffer? Here's one takeaway that encourages me and might encourage you, too.
We often subscribe to this same anti-grace reasoning in our own lives when we consider our past transgressions, especially the big ones. Before we came to Christ, some of us might have sinned in some extraordinarily heinous ways. But we were all guilty of high treason, regardless of the intensity or impact of the sin. Each and every one of us were equally reprobate in comparison to God's holiness. But when we repented of our sins, we were forgiven. Fully forgiven. Jesus paid our debt once and for all. His suffering and death on the cross paid the debt for all our sins. Every single sin. And not only past sins, but present and future sins. Jesus endured the judgment of God on the cross so we wouldn't have to. Period. All we are to do is recognize that we are sinners, place the full weight of our trust in Christ, and exchange our ways for his ways. By this kind of faith we are forgiven. (I beg you not to mistake this for the popular, watered-down version of faith that calls people to pray an apology to God and merely go to church.) So we mustn't fall into the trap of thinking that any suffering we experience after coming to faith is God's way of punishing us. Jesus was punished in our place.
Recently, I was able to encourage a brother who was making some very sinful, self-destructive decisions. After a long talk, it became clear that the reason he was making these decisions was because he felt unworthy of God. There is no doubt in my mind he is a Christian, but he didn't fully grasp the gospel. A certain scandalous sin he committed years earlier weighed so heavily on him that that sin became his identity, even more than coming to trust in Christ. Guilt and shame became his life's narrative, which has gradually dehumanized him, causing him to view himself as worthless. And when we feel worthless, we act worthlessly. It was wonderful to remind this brother that he is totally forgiven and that God treasures him. It was wonderful to tell him that he is righteous because of his faith in Jesus and, as a result, he is clean. Now he's learning to see himself through God's eyes. And, over time, this will motivate him to stop mistreating himself and those around him.
When Paul came to faith, God didn't remain bitter at him because he persecuted his church. Paul repented and he was forgiven. Paul wasn't in the doghouse and neither are you if you believe the gospel. Paul's suffering wasn't punishment. His suffering resulted from preaching the gospel to hard-hearted, godless people who didn't appreciate being told that they were living in rebellion against a holy God. The Gentiles especially didn't like being told that they must obey the gospel by some Jewish dude from a strange corner of the world.
If you are a follower of Jesus, God isn't conjuring up ways to make your life miserable either. You're not in God's doghouse. He loves you! See yourself through his eyes. You are valuable! Now, let's begin acting that way.