“He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.” Isaiah 53:3 (NASB)
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah foretold how the coming Messiah would be rejected and shamefully treated by His own people. He was promised to be a suffering Servant Who would bear the sins of His people Israel (Isaiah 53). The four Gospels unequivocally testify to the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies by their portrayal of a despised and rejected Jesus. Although He received acceptance initially and acclaim for His gracious words and wonderful works, Jesus was eventually viewed with contempt and was rejected. Israel ultimately called for His execution. He came to His own, John said, and His own did not receive Him (John 1:11). All this happened to the Lord Jesus Christ, the completely perfect and spotless Lamb of God.
If you follow Jesus, don’t expect to be treated differently than He was. Jesus told His disciples that they, like Him, would be hated without a cause (John 15). Followers of Jesus should expect the hatred and the same treatment He received. In the earliest centuries of the church, many disciples had to suffer the same Roman cross. And Jesus told them as much: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23, NASB).
Sometimes Christians suffer due to their own sin. You and I have many sins and failures and are not worthy of the respect and honor Christ alone deserves. We need to make sure that we are not the cause of the mistreatment that comes to us. As Christians we ought not to suffer for being evildoers (1 Peter 4:15-16). If there is known sin in your life, humble yourself and repent. Ask God and others to forgive you if you have sinned. You could be the cause of your own pain.
Don’t be surprised if shameful or painful treatment sometimes comes from other believers. Christians are forgiven by God, but we are still sinful people who can be proud and self-righteous and unloving. Anyone who has lived for a while in a church has sinned against others and has been sinned against. When you are sinned against, pray that God will help you not to become cynical and distrustful of others and their motives. Pursue reconciliation biblically (Matthew 18), and ask the Lord to help you be tenderhearted and kind and long-suffering and ready to forgive like God has forgiven you (Ephesians 4:28-5:1). Ask the Lord to help you be like your Father, perfect and complete in love (Matthew 5:48).
Experiencing Suffering as a Leader
If you suffer mistreatment as a Christian pastor or leader, remember that the apostles suffered because of Jesus’ name. In fact, they rejoiced that they had been counted worthy to do so (Acts 5:41). Many of them were eventually martyred, sealing their testimony to Christ with their own blood.
One common form of suffering for leaders is rejection and contempt by God’s people. Don’t expect God’s people to receive you automatically, and sometimes issues or conflict cool Christian affection. Even Paul had to defend his apostleship to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 11). He also had to remind the Philippians of the necessity of receiving Timothy “in the Lord” and to “hold such [men] in reputation” because of the work they were doing (Philippians 2:29-30). He had to remind the Thessalonians to “appreciate [know] those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:11-12, NASB). You can and certainly ought to pray that God’s people will receive you since you are doing the Lord’s work, and you can make sure your life commends you as a servant of God. Even so, remember that even Jesus was rejected in His hometown of Nazareth. “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household” (Mark 6:4, NASB). Sometimes you will be rejected and abandoned, and it will feel lonely. But even if no one else stands with you, the Lord will, and He will strengthen you as He did Paul (2 Timothy 4:15-16).
I remember being amazed when I learned that Jonathan Edwards had to leave Northampton because the church rejected his ministry and teaching. The very same people who experienced the Great Awakening actually fired their pastor. Edwards himself took comfort at that time in the similar sufferings of Jeremiah, who had faithfully spoken for twenty-three years to the people of Israel, but God’s people had not heeded his words. Interestingly, Edwards left Northampton after twenty-three years of ministry and came across that text (Jeremiah 25:3) during that very same difficult year of his ministry. James exhorted, “As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (James 5:10, NASB). This kind of suffering and rejection is not new.
Responding to Suffering Like Jesus
Finally, remember the example of Jesus and our calling to be like Him. Remember He prayed for His own disciple Peter even though He knew Peter was going to deny Him three times (Luke 22:31-32). Remember He asked the Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him, not knowing what they were doing (Luke 23:34). Remember that after His resurrection He came preaching peace to those who had abandoned Him in the hour of His greatest need (John 20:19, 21, 26).
Peter sums up the mindset we ought to have toward suffering: “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls” (1 Peter 2:21–25, NASB).