Having discussed how it is that even now believers are growing from glory to greater glory, Paul turns around and says that it frequently seems as if the very opposite is happening. Paradoxically, the Christian's glory is often seen in the present age when he suffers, not when he prospers.
When we discuss suffering, we must relate it to the life and work of Jesus Christ. He suffered, bearing the shame and penalty of others, but then was exalted to glory. In the same way, we who are in union with Christ can expect a portion of suffering, to be followed by glory. Historically, it is times of suffering in the life of the church that prepare her for periods of influence and prosperity—and so it is also in our personal lives. Whether the church suffers or prospers, it is all ultimately to the glory of God.
But there is more to it than this. God told Paul that He wanted to keep Paul weak, because "My power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul's weakness and suffering kept him dependent on God, and became a channel for God's grace to others.
Yet there is more even than this. When we are united to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, we are given the privilege of sharing in His work in a secondary fashion. We have to phrase this point carefully. We do not contribute anything to the definitive, once-and-for-all suffering of Christ for the sins of the world. Yet our sufferings do contribute to the filling out of the kingdom in the world (Colossians 1:24). Paul writes that death is at work in him so that life might be at work among the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 4:12; and 1:5–6). Just as the sufferings and death of Jesus mean that we escape the wrath of God, so in a secondary way, God gave Paul the privilege of suffering in order that the infant church might be spared the wrath of man.
It is part of the Christian's glory to be counted worthy to join Christ in His sufferings. It is our glory—shame in the eyes of the world—to pick up a cross and carry it daily. How often it is that those who have suffered the most for the sake of Christ's kingdom are also those whose faces shine forth with radiant peace and joy?
Jesus asked that the cup of suffering pass Him by. We are never to seek suffering. It is God who brings suffering upon us. When it comes, however, could it be that God is allowing us to take someone else's pain, that they may have the strength to serve Him? Such a thought comforted Paul; it may comfort you as well.