We’ve discussed how knowing Christ means 1) we find our central identity and status in Him, 2) understanding the power of His resurrection, and 3) proclaiming, rehearsing, and displaying His redemptive suffering in our lives.
But how do we do that last one?
Is it simply through sitting in comfortable assemblies, eating the bread and drinking grape juice as we remember Jesus’ crucifixion? That certainly has its place, and we must be careful not to underestimate the impact of the church as a proclaiming community on such occasions. But there’s more to our witness of the suffering of Christ than that! Paul spoke of “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Corinthians 4:11).
Have you ever entertained the thought that our suffering (the legitimate kind as opposed to the drama some engage in) is the suffering of Christ—that Jesus Himself suffers through us and with us? Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 25 that when the homeless or the hungry are overlooked—it is being done to Him? Is that just a nice little rhetorical device He was employing, and it has no basis in reality—or is there possibly some larger truth there about the suffering of Christ? And what about when Jesus told Saul in Acts 9 that he was persecuting Him? Or what about when Peter speaks of participating “in the sufferings of Christ” (4:13)? What if Christ actually suffers through and with His people? Would that change our minds about how we think about it? Might that not make us more likely to want to participate in His sufferings and become like Him in His death? Hmm . . .
A football team lost their most important game of the season. Afterward, their coach told them not to waste the experience. What did he mean? Simply that while they couldn’t change the fact that they had lost, they could learn from it and benefit from it in the future. His concern was that they wouldn’t handle losing in a productive way.
How well do we as disciples handle suffering? Here are three questions to help us gauge where we are:
- Do we live in absolute hand-wringing fear and panic that something might possibly happen to us one day? (It will).
- When suffering enters our life, do we act as if it has never happened to anyone else (it has) and that the world is about to come to an end? (It isn’t).
- When and if we get through our painful episode, is our only concern to get as far away from our experience of suffering as possible?
This is what I call a Teflon approach to suffering—we don’t want any of it to stick with us! If that’s our approach, we’ve wasted our experience. And while it is true that at a base, physical level we are (healthily) hard-wired to avoid pain, we’re also programed to eat and drink, and yet we learn how do those things discerningly, proportionally and to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That’s all I’m after here. There has to be a healthier way for disciples to view their suffering!
Instead of the Teflon approach, there is the childbirth model (John 16:21). Women accept the suffering of childbirth because they understand it leads to something profoundly glorious. In the same way, suffering and death are steps in the disciples’ path of glory. That was true for Jesus, so it is true for His followers. Part of our problem is that we compartmentalize them—we look at suffering and death and fail to see them as part of the bigger picture of glory. That’s why Paul ends with the resurrection in v. 11. In suffering, death, and resurrection, he’s embracing God’s model as witnessed through Jesus.
Knowing Jesus then is a profound thing. It is not a part-time venture, it is not something that rounds out our life, or a box we check off. It is for disciples only. This passage challenges us to treat it that way.