Suffering and the Christian life

In present day USAmerican (and especially Charismatic) Evangelical Christianity – suffering can often seem like a four letter word – those who suffer in life are often seen as either just not together with it or perhaps victims of their own selves or even victims of faulty ideas or theology.   Even so, for many who suffer, they wonder, why?  What have I done to get into this difficult place  Why must we suffer?  I thought it was God’s intention to bless us and to have us walk in his blessings – so we wonder, what place as suffering in the Christian life?

But, the simple reality is, suffering is central to life of the Christian.  Only through suffering can we really come to know God; to know Christ.  The Apostle Paul says this pretty plainly in his Letter to the Philippians:

1:29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (NIV).

He also talks about it later in chapter 3 where he shares his desire to know Christ:

3:7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (NIV)

According to Gordon Fee, this is quintessential Paul through and through – if we want to know the heart of the Apostle Paul – this is the essential passage to read.  Here we see his desire to know Christ above all else such that nothing else matters to him, not his past accomplishments, not his present sufferings, not anything really – nothing stands between Paul and his passion for Christ and the gospel.   Again he says,

10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (NIV)

Here we see what it is to truly know Christ – to know the power of his resurrection and to participate in his sufferings – becoming like him….  To know Christ we must grasp the power and reality of his resurrection from the dead  and we must learn to embrace suffering, which in so doing, we become like Christ.

The key to embracing and participating in the suffering of Christ is to have a proper understanding of his resurrection life.  It is to have the right perspective – an eschatological perspective on the past, the present, and the future.

It’s a matter of perspective; an eschatological perspective.

An eschatological perspective on the past is to realize it lies behind us and really has no power over us.  Because of the cross and resurrection what lies behind really is of no serious effect.  If we hold onto the past, our advantages become our disadvantages.  in the context of the letter, reliance on Torah observance for right standing with God is unreliable at best. Instead, because of Christ, righteousness is now in the basis of faith, not works or our own efforts.  This is not to downplay Torah observance so much as it is to say it’s never saved anyone or made them right with God.

Now comes the question of suffering and its role in the Christian life – what is it? An eschatological view of the present realizes that the ultimate goal of the Christian life is not avoidance of the fires of hell, or guaranteed entrance into heaven and eternal life and such.  The ultimate goal of the Christian life is Christ and knowing him.  That the resurrection life of Jesus guarantees our own resurrection life in him gives us the power or enablement to endure suffering – even participation in the sufferings of Christ.  What kind of suffering is being talked about?

I think the suffering Paul is talking about is that suffering which is part of the process of becoming like Christ and any suffering that is brought about as a result of our living for the sake of Christ and the gospel.  Why is becoming like Christ, being found in him, a kind participating in his suffering?

Because of our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, we have a disease called “Adam-itis.”  We have a sinful nature and we have the flesh that continually lives in opposition to the ways of the Lord (cf. Gal 5) – so in seeking to be like Christ (and especially in this letter to the Philippians with the Christ Hymn being the ultimate model – learning to be like him, the humble obedient, servant, can be cause for some degree of suffering.  We may say we love Christ and desire to know him – but that can often be a painful thing in the process.  Suffering in the Christian life then, is the process of our being transformed by the renewing of our minds and actions and attitudes into the mind, actions, and attitude of Jesus Christ.

Part of the suffering is learning to be like Jesus in his actions and attitudes, but it is also in learning to live a life fully devoted to him; fully consecrated to him – it is learning to say “no” to the things, and practices, and attitudes of the world, and “yes” to the way of the Lord.  Saying yes to the Lord can be costly – it can cost friendships, relationships, livelihood, and even life itself.  There is a high cost to following Jesus but the return is knowing him and some how attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

The eschatological perspective on suffering then lies not in the past, not in the present, but in the future – for in the future lies the resurrection and the life – Christ himself – we may know and experience him in the present but in the sense of “the already but not yet,” – we have yet to fully know him.  Paul makes this affirmation in 1 Corinthians 13 when he says that when we see him, we shall be like him, for then we will know even as we are fully known.

So, suffering in the Christian life is the necessary ingredient in our “likeness training” (via Dave Black) in our knowledge of Christ.