Suffering for Christ: The Hallmark of Discipleship

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you experience suffering as a result of following Christ? Should you expect to?

According to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, suffering for Christ is central to the discipleship experience. He argues that, as disciples become more and more like Christ, they are treated more and more like Christ was treated on earth. So, Christians should expect to be persecuted. This is part of the cost of discipleship.

Read more to learn about suffering for Christ.

Suffering for Christ

According to Bonhoeffer, suffering for Christ is the hallmark of discipleship. Christ came to earth to suffer in our place so that our sins could be forgiven. By following and obeying Christ, we gradually become more like him. Since Christ’s earthly life was characterized by suffering, it is only natural that the more we become like Christ, the more we will share in the same kind of suffering that he experienced. Bonhoeffer declares that to suffer like Christ is the most glorious honor that a disciple can receive on earth. As such, you can triumph over suffering by accepting it and rejoicing in the fact that it allows you to relate more closely to Christ.

Bonhoeffer clarifies that when he speaks of “suffering” he is not referring to the “natural suffering” that is common to everyone, such as catching a cold, getting a toothache, or developing aches and pains as you get older. Instead, he insists that disciples will suffer gratuitous persecution because of their allegiance to Christ. He asserts that humbly and peacefully seeking to follow Christ invariably provokes people who reject Christ to slander you and seek your harm, just as Jewish leaders who rejected Jesus’s teachings persecuted him.

Reasons to Expect Persecution

Bonhoeffer does not elaborate much on why he thinks disciples’ humility and good works will provoke others to persecute them. However, we can infer two possible reasons:

First, there is a historical precedent. Christians were persecuted severely in the first three centuries AD, before it became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire. (For that matter, history records that minority religions throughout the world have often faced persecution to some extent.) Throughout the book, Bonhoeffer seems to assume his readers are familiar with church history, so perhaps he considered this historical evidence too obvious to mention.

Second, Bonhoeffer had personal experience with persecution, which we can imagine he was drawing from. If you believe that obeying Christ is more important than obeying the laws of your country or the traditions of the society in which you live, then political leaders may view you as a threat simply because they cannot control you. And if they see you as a threat to their political ambitions, they may try to suppress your influence or even destroy you. Bonhoeffer himself certainly experienced this kind of hostility from the Nazis. Whether for these reasons or others, many modern Christians agree with Bonhoeffer’s expectation of persecution. A recent survey indicates that over 75% of evangelical Protestants in the United States expect to be persecuted, even though they represent the religious majority (about 70% of Americans identify as Christian, of which evangelical Protestants make up the largest sub-group). 
Suffering for Christ: The Hallmark of Discipleship

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  • Why Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed the church made discipleship too “easy”
  • Why getting into Heaven will cost you a lot more than you thought
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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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