In a materialistic Christian culture that has been brainwashed by a prosperity-bless-me false gospel, the idea of suffering as part of normal Christian life, is as foreign as finding bacon served at a bar mitzvah.
It seems like on the one extreme we can glorify suffering like medieval flagellants, wearing adversity like a spiritual merit badge. On the other hand, we can think the devil is after us if we experience anything that dares to interrupt our pursuit of the “good life” of personal peace and happiness–as if God exists to make my life comfortable and wealthy if I just obey His principles strictly enough. Both are error. Having a sane, balanced theology and practice of suffering is rare. I have been a Christian a very long time. Suffering is a theme I have rarely heard in my experience. Why? It doesn’t “sell.”
The idea of being conformed to the image of Christ can excite us if we think it means access to more of His “blessings.” If being conformed to His image primarily accrues to our benefit, we’re all aboard for that. Being more like Him in character and being esteemed for it, or striding the earth like supermen doing miracles and wonders, and being esteemed for it, are palatable propositions. We can fill conference halls and treasuries preaching messages about either. We are less excited to consider a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, and a fellowship in His sufferings. Preach this legitimate facet of the gospel and conforming to His image, and you will hear your own voice echoing off the walls.
The Fellowship of His Sufferings
There’s not just a fellowship of His suffering, there is also the fellowship in His sufferings, one with another. It’s about identifying with a sufferer, not “discharging a duty to pray for her/him,” and going about my merry way. We can intellectually agree to truth and discharge a principle or duty, and not allow ourselves to be emotively touched by the relational implications of the principle. Our management of truth can be used as a shield to protect us from being touched in our being by another’s circumstance. We don’t want to feel pain or suffer, so we will use mastery of biblical principles as a vaccination against experiencing personal unpleasantness of any sort.
The first manifestation of life, love, and ministry evidenced by our Lord was IDENTIFICATION: He became one of us, and was touched by our pain. We want to preach truth from a distance because “we know the Bible.” We want to throw “biblical insights” into the arena of another’s suffering from a safe distance. Caring without cost is not caring at all. It is romanticism, delusion, self-preservation.
Our role as a new testament priesthood has two facets: to be intimately connected with the sufferer and intimately connected with the Lord, at the same time. Either alone is inadequate, falling short of His kingdom. Being just identified with the sufferer can result in hopelessness and despair. Being just identified with the Lord can result in a clinical sterility and emotional detachment, a lack of identification. The latter gives the impression of faith and faithfulness, but it falls far short of the manifested life of Christ.
Someone who is drowning cannot be helped by someone who is drowning next to him/her! However, If the person is out of reach of a tossed life-saver, only someone who can swim can help him/her by jumping in. If you are unwilling to leave the shore, and jump into a person’s circumstance, and assume risk in doing so, all your shore-line-knowledge about swimming, as right as it might be, is useless. Tossing a life saver to someone is low cost, low risk, and low investment. Jumping in next to her/him is incarnational love.
If there are no burdens of others to carry, there cannot be a fellowship in suffering. When we carry one another’s burdens, we do not get to determine the time frame of our “fellowship” with them in their suffering. When one suffers we all suffer. When we weep with those who weep, when we mourn with those who mourn, when we comfort others with the comfort we have been comforted with, we are with them as long as they are in it.
We need two things: understanding of our “allotment” (Gal. 6:2: KJV- law = allotment) of burden bearing, and Holy Spirit power to do so, thus fulfilling our “allotment” of Christ. In one sense, we cast our cares upon Him. But in another sense, we carry one another’s burdens. Only the Spirit can administrate this in us and through us. I will only have grace and power for what He allots, but there WILL BE an allotment, all the days of my life. We will never grow out of it by maturing in Christ. Rather, the allotment of burden bearing in both quantity and depth is likely to increase as we mature (Gal. 6:1-2). This is all part of “one-anothering” in reality rather than philosophy, and not a very popular part at that.
We don’t have to shop for suffering and adversity. God forbid! That’s just weird! But we need to settle it for all of us, it will come our way, one way or the other. We need to learn, once and for all, that whatever my circumstance is, it is not about me. If I am prospering, it is not about me. If I am suffering, it is still not about me! It’s about Christ and His redemptive purpose for me in His kingdom. We will find a lot of rest, victory, dominion, fruit, kingdom and a lot less “why-me-Lord-questions-with-no-answers” if we can truly understand and apprehend this.
The Fellowship of His Sufferings
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