Suffering and the GospelThursday, March 08, 2007
The reason I love the gospel is that God intends it to be the source out of which everything flows as well as the culmination into which everything flows. It is the good news of Jesus which touches and redeems everything I touch. This includes the oft-troubling issue of suffering.
Prepositions are essential on this issue. We all believe that suffering for the gospel is a good thing. It's called persecution and Jesus told us that if this becomes true of us then our reward in heaven is great (Matt. 5:11-12). Suffering any kind of anything while serving Jesus, say, on the mission field or in the pastorate or in some kind of sacrificial ministry is a privileged thing indeed (Acts 5:41).
But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who are not in full-time, vocational ministry of some sort? What about we believers who just plain suffer? Suffering with cancer while sacrificially ministering the gospel to an unreached people group seems much more glorious than simply suffering with cancer while trying to mother a household. Or what about the dad who simply suffer with headaches after work and comes home to a household in great need of servant leadership?
Let's get down to the nitty gritty, because even in these there is a reflection of sacrificial service to others, consequently bringing a nobility to the suffering. What about my acid reflux? It plagues me almost every day (despite the new vitamin regimen my wife has put me on...sorry babe). What about my chronic sinusitis which violently attacks me everytime the weather changes? What about my right knee which screams at me every time I kneel to pray, get down on the floor to wrestle, play Ultimate Frisbee, or breakdance? There's little reflection or hint of sacrificial service while suffering with these things? I guess there's no nobility in that.
At least that's what I used to think...until today.
I received a much needed epiphany-connection, as I have come to call them. They are moments of sudden illumination in which some wandering moon of theological thought is instantly, finally, and thankfully tethered into orbit around the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Suffering of any kind for the Christian is noble. It is noble and glorious for three simple facts that come to mind right now.
First, any suffering of any kind for any Christian is noble for the simple fact that they are Christians. This is where prepositions are important, again. Suffering for the gospel is glorious, in persecution. But so is suffering with or in the gospel. If I'm redeemed, then I'm living in a fallen world with a fallen body both moaning and groaning to be delivered, my soul desiring final consummation with its glorified body face to face with my Savior (Rom. 8:18-23).
Second, any suffering of any kind for any Christian is glorious because Jesus enters into it no matter what it is. Christians make up the body of Christ, and if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it (1 Cor. 12:26). And Jesus suffers too because we are His body. He understands our weaknesses, our suffering, our temptations, our trials because he faced pretty much everything we do now (Heb. 4:15). If giving a cup of water to someone in need of it is giving a cup of water to Jesus, and if serving the needs of the least individual on earth is serving the needs of Jesus, then Jesus suffers with me in my acid reflux, gout, sinusitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoarthritis. He really does. He is with me in the midst of it. So I can suffer with the gospel and suffer in the gospel because in all my suffering I am in Him and He is in me.
Oh dear Lord! What incredible comfort and companionship this brings to me as I suffer even now! I cannot express with words, spoken or blogged, what deep peace this massages into my soul as I am awake in a hotel room several nights a week, suffering from a lack of sleep, due to suffering with a sinus headache, or suffering with a burning esophagus, or suffering with sharp neck cramps! You are with me!!! I suffer before you, in your presence. I never suffer without You! Oh, forgive my incessant whining and thinking that my teeny sufferings, compared to Yours, are somehow insignificant to You. For if You suffer when I suffer, then to say my suffering is insignificant is to say Your suffering is insignificant! It's all the same to you because You have invested Yourself into me. Your glory is at stake in my suffering and You desire to fill it with Yourself, with the expectant joy You had when suffering for me!
Third, any suffering of any kind for any Christian is noble and glorious because after we have suffered a little while Jesus Christ Himself will restore, support, and strengthen us, and put me on a firm foundation (1 Pet. 5:9-10). That's resurrection talk! I'm gonna be raised from the dead when all this is over!!! Suffering is the soil where knowing Christ is deepened, matured, fostered, and cultivated. The more we suffer the darker and richer the soil. For it was only out of suffering that Paul knew that he could "really know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead" (Phil. 3:10a).
"I can learn what it means to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that somehow, I can experience the resurrection from the dead!" (Phil. 3:10b-11)
It is with these three things I have learned today that I know understand more fully Paul's belief that in his personal sufferings he is filling up what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus. "I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am completing what remains of Christ's sufferings for his body, the church" (Col. 1:24). What humility this strikes in my soul! That I, a whining sufferer, would be considered as a worthy vessel into whom the remaining suffering of my dear Lord would be poured! He chose me to allow me to suffer with Him! "For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for Him" (Phil. 1:29).
There it is! Suffering with the gospel, and suffering in the gospel is the same as suffering for the gospel! It's all nobility and glory because it's all sacrificial service for the King. Running to Jesus is sacrificing the all-to-quick sprint to the medicine cabinet. Running to Jesus after the sometimes-necessary run to the medicine cabinet is sacrificing the ever-imminent salve offered to me by the media in their television shows and movies. Choosing to pray through my suffering and look to Jesus in the midst of it, begging Him for healing and at the same time joyously embracing His sovereign rejection of my request is suffering in, with, and for the gospel, but never under or against the gospel. Unbelievers suffer against the gospel because they have no hope. And they suffer under it because it condemns them for not turning to their eternal solace in Jesus. But He has saved me and made me worthy by His righteousness to be a vessel into which He sovereignly pours His remaining drops of His suffering, all to an end...namely, that I would know the joy He now knows because of the love of the Father and the resurrection from the dead.
This is the comfort we need whether suffering with chronic sinusitis or pancreatic cancer, whether with minor osteoarthritis or disabling osteoporosis, whether with acid reflux or esophogeal cancer, whether with diabates I or gangrene of the feet and legs. It's the same comfort because it's all the same to Jesus who is more intimately familiar with suffering than the whole world's suffering combined. He knows it like no other, so He can comfort like no other. And we can only know Him and His comfort through suffering, suffering which in any form for the believer is eternally both noble and glorious. Praise Him in humility for this privilege and call upon His name in pain for the help only He can massage into your soul.