I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.
2 Corinthians 11:23–28NIV
Through these experiences, God would use the Apostle Paul to bring the gospel to the world. Paul would write most of the New Testament. He would plant churches and disciple leaders. He would even share his faith with the Roman emperor, Nero! That is where Paul ended up, but do you remember where he started?
Here is the picture I want you to have in your mind: Paul hanging from a basket on the side of a city wall (Acts 9:25). Why? Because people wanted him dead.
In Acts 9, we see the story of the call and conversion of Paul. He is walking to Damascus to persecute Christians, when Jesus appears to him, tells him that God has a plan for him, and then makes him blind. Yet, by the end of this chapter, he is raising the dead (Acts 9:40). God changes Paul’s life completely — he goes from murder to raiser of the dead!
I think it is symbolic that Paul started his ministry blind. If he had seen what he would go through, he might have been too scared to move forward. Suffering is scary and hard, and most people would not choose a life like that. But God uses everything. God can use suffering to sanctify us, to make us stronger, wiser and bolder, all for his glory. That’s discipleship.
Here is the hard truth: Discipleship doesn’t come from reading the Scripture and thinking it sounds nice or listening sermons and admiring them. (Do you think we preach so you can admire us? No way!)
Discipleship happens when we allow ourselves to be pushed by Scripture, by sermons, and by life. We put our lives at risk, experience pain, and learn to make Godly and effective responses to the world!
Real discipleship isn’t just reading Jesus saying, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” and admiring the beauty of his words. It’s hearing those words and then making the deliberate decision to become one of those poor. It isn’t listening to the story of Jesus touching the leper and thinking, “Oh, wasn’t that sweet of him.” It’s allowing the story to penetrate you so much that you begin to think about people you need to reach out to, barriers that you need to break down, people that you might be able to bring healing to.
I look at the life of Paul, and I’m grateful because I know that the battle for the kingdom of God is not a fight for the faint-hearted, or the weak, or the cowardly, or the ill-prepared. I know that, if you are honestly going to follow Jesus in this world, you are going to have to give it everything that you’ve got. But we must believe that God will use our suffering to make us better.
Maybe you’re going through some stuff right now, and you are not sure what God has in store for you. None of us know, and thank God for that. But I also know that he has brought you here. Make the most of it, and one day you will be able to say like Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness.” (2 Timothy 4:7–8)