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~ The Lacking Suffering of Christ ~
Admittedly not quite fair, but like a lot of humor, this characterizing of different religious attitudes has some basis in truth: "What about suffering?" The Taoist: "He who knows, does not say. He who explains, does not know." The Hindu: "It happened before. It will happen again. All is a cycle." The Zen disciple: "I drink water, I chop wood, I suffer. What about it?" Confucius say: "He who rises early in the morning, after retiring late, suffers." The Roman Catholic: "If I suffer, I deserve it." The Protestant: "If we work harder, we can eliminate suffering." The Prosperity Gospel Evangelist: "Accept Jesus as your savior by saying this quick prayer, and all your troubles will vanish. And for every dollar you give God, He'll give you back $10. End your suffering, praise God!" The Muslim: "If you suffer, it is the will of Allah." The New Ager: "Suffering is being in dis-harmony with the universe. You deserve abundance!" The Satanist: "Suffering is God's enslavement. He hates it when Satan shows you how to really live it up." The Deist: "Suffering is a need for oil in God's great machine of creation." The politically correct religious: "Let me give you one world government, one world religion, one world economy, and there will be no more suffering." The atheist: "Suffering is a result of social inequality." The body worshipper: "No pain, no gain."
The Scriptures declare Christ was crucified once to destroy the power of spiritual death over His adopted brothers and sisters and that He ascended to the right hand of the Father. If we interject the notions of time and space which are dimensions of only our humanity and the creation with which we share this world, however, our minds won't easily grasp how Christ can be enthroned with the Father and yet continue to suffer with and in us on this earth.
Christ painted a remarkable picture recorded in Matthew 25:41-45 (NIV): "'For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' They will also answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'" When Christ confronted Saul, to later become the Gentile evangelist Paul, He did not ask him, "Why are you persecuting my people?" Instead, Christ asked, "Why are you persecuting me? [Bringing suffering to me?] (Acts 9:4).
So when we neglect the hungry, ill, imprisoned, poor, we neglect Christ. If we find ourselves passing by suffering people so we can worship in the comfort of a church building, or we deliberately take a route through the better parts of town to avoid seeing such people, we neglect Christ while believing we are paying Him attention. such worship isn't done in "spirit and truth" (John 4:24). Should that happen, best to skip the church service and tend to Christ on the streets. The prophets declared that to be true worship.
Paul wrote, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" (Colossians 1:1, NIV). There must be a lot of lacking in the body of Christ, the church, since there is a lot of suffering.
"They said to him, 'John's disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.' Jesus answered, "Can you make the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast" (Luke 5:33-35). So now is the time to fast and pray. "Those who follow me will be persecuted" (John 15:20). "The student is not above his Master." Christ, the Head, will continue to suffer, so long as the least, most insignificant member of His mystical body suffers. How could it be any other way? "But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (1 Corinthians 12:24b-26, NIV). This is the calling of love: His love for us and our love for Him.
"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:22, NIV). Our cross? Follow Him where? To the supreme joy of being one with our Lord forever? Yes, but the way is not the destination. We are still pilgrims in this broken world and cannot ignore the suffering of the brothers and sisters of Christ (and hence His suffering too) just as we trust and hope our brothers and sisters won't ignore our suffering.
How prepared are we to "fill up in our bodies what is lacking in the suffering of Christ?" Do we want any part of it? Do we understand the need for it in order to become holy and sanctified? Do we understand what is meant by "I have been crucified with Christ" (Galatians 2:20)? Do we know in our hearts and guts that "unless a seed dies, it cannot bring forth life" (John 12:24)? Do we understand "narrow is the gate and few find it" Matthew 7:13)? Don't questions like these feel scary? Then what is meant by "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12)? If we dismiss these questions, if they make us angry or offended, or if we just don't get all this stuff about suffering and the meaning of these Scripture passages, then we must evaluate what it means to call ourselves Christians: "Christ ones."
"In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers" (Hebrews 2:10-11, NIV). "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering" (Hebrews 13:3, NIV). "I want to know Christ -- the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Philippians 3:10-11, NIV).
A reaction from some secular thinkers who interject modern psychology into the ancient spiritual wisdom may be, "Some people just aren't happy unless they are miserable...martyr complex." These scripture citings, however, are not about the personal need to suffer out of some neurotic guilt complex. Christians, rather, celebrate their great joy of being forgiven and in redemptive freedom. There is great peace in this, "the peace that surpasses understanding." It is more akin to a need to share in the suffering of the Christian's focus of his or her love: "Love God with all your mind, strength and heart." Jesus upgraded the second part of that summon: "Love each other [not as you love yourselves but] as I have loved you" (John 15:12). So we are to love our brethren as we love God. "How can some say he loves God whom he has not seen when he hates his brother whom he has seen?" (1 John 4:20-23).
Love compels us into the joy and suffering of one another. The prayer, "may your kingdom come" is an expression of the full manifestation of this true love. When a prisoner is freed, when the sick one comes home, when the addict returns clean, when the poor person receives prosperity, lots of "friends" want to gather to celebrate and feast. How many of them had also shared the burden of the imprisonment, the illness, the addiction, the poverty, daily suffering with him or her through those hard and desperate times? The world salutes the one "who overcame" and holds him or her up as a great role model. That person may even be invited to speak at church functions or community gatherings. Suddenly he or she is surrounded with accolades and supportive people. But so few of them were there during the person's suffering and struggles along that narrow way. That person was lonely then, sneered at and gossiped about by many of the same people who now want to celebrate his or her success. And some of them don't even want to do that. This is not love, and is a smack on the holy face of Christ. And any Christian should be ashamed and repentant of joining in that smacking.
It's increasingly fashionable for couples to write their own marriage vows. That way one can write something poetically beautiful that will have everyone teary eyed instead of that terrible downer of "for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death..." But these are the marriage vows of the Church, the bride, to Christ, the groom.
The one who arrogantly declares, "If God allows
suffering, I don't want to believe in a God like that," doesn't know what
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Weekly Reflections © June 6, 2003
Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com
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