Two nights ago I attended a lecture by N.T. Wright at North Phoenix Baptist Church on the topic of the mission of the people of God. It was nothing unfamiliar for someone who's read a book or two of Wright's, but it was certainly enjoyable to hear him in person; and like Paul says, it was Wright's joy to say it again, and it was to my benefit to hear it spoken once more.
Afterwards there was a Q&A session, and someone posed the question: "What role does suffering play in the mission of the people of God?"
Admittedly I can't remember the specific details of his response, but it was something to the effect that suffering, too, is a means by which God's mission is accomplished. The paradigm case, of course, is the suffering of Christ for the sins of humanity, but there is also the suffering of the church. And in the groaning and suffering of the church, there is likewise the suffering and groaning of the creation itself, and in this, the groaning of the Holy Spirit. Much like it was the Holy Spirit in Stephen who moved him to imitate Christ's example in pleading to the Father for the forgiveness of his murderers, so also the Holy Spirit is involved in our groaning and suffering, interceding with a groaning too deep for words, as Paul says (Rom 8.26).
Notice this interesting episode, in no way unique, from the Acts of the Apostles:
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them, and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (13.48-52).
The church is suffering, and Paul and Barnabas are persecuted to the point of being forced out of the city -- and yet the disciples are happy! They are filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. How can this be?
Because they hear the message of God's good news and accept it gladly. they hear that through [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and that by . . . Jesus everyone who believes is set from from all those sins from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses (13.38-9). This fills them with a gladness because now they have been visited by God! The Holy Spirit takes residence within their hearts and lifts them up to the fellowship of the Holy Trinity. When you are given this blessing, when God himself has appeared to you and spoken a powerful Yes in your favor, what harm could anyone do to you?