A seminary professor once spoke about a trip that he took to the Holy Land. One of the most impressive sites that he visited was an ancient prison that is thought to be where the apostle Paul was once imprisoned. While we can’t be sure that this is true, the prison was at least very much like the one where Paul stayed.
The prison was nothing like modern-day prisons in the United States. There were no cots; prisoners slept on the floor. The cells were dark and cold and damp. The government provided no food. A prisoner had to count on the benevolence of others, perhaps family or friends, to bring them food. The food was shoved through a small opening in the cell. On the floor of the cell was another small opening that served as the toilet. Cells were often overcrowded, sometimes to the point where it would be impossible to sleep without brushing up against a fellow inmate. If a prisoner had done something that was gravely offensive to the authorities, he might be put in an inner cell, one that was even darker, and was equipped with stocks and chains that bound the prisoner more tightly, and much more uncomfortably.
These were the conditions that Paul endured when he wrote some of the letters that he penned to the churches. Knowing that context gives extra meaning to what Paul wrote about such matters as maintaining our joy no matter what circumstances we might face, the freedom that we have in Christ and, of course, suffering for Jesus.
As they exited the prison, the professor and one of his travelling companions were overcome with emotion. One cried out, “I have suffered so little!” The other added, “It has cost me nothing!”
These statements were exaggerations, of course. No one, whether you are a professional or a lay minister, serves Christ without suffering in some significant way. Jesus says that life as his disciple consists of self-denial, sacrifice and opposition from many. He says that the world will hate us and persecute us. Truth is, those who follow Jesus will have to endure suffering.
What the visitors to the prison were trying to express was that they had suffered relatively little in light of what Paul had suffered. We should not take lightly the demands of discipleship and the cost of following Jesus. However, we must keep it in perspective. When we compare our suffering with that of Paul and the heroes of the faith described in Hebrews 11, the wounds that we suffer for Christ seem slight in comparison.
“For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.”—Philippians 1:29.