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"Just a Closer Walk..." Through Suffering

In the last post (, I concluded by saying we need a Part II on fellowship with Christ in suffering. Here it is!

Why is this important? In exploring joy (and wholeness and resilience and spiritual completeness...) through suffering, we've already encountered how the Bible teaches that suffering not only brings God alongside us to be with us in our brings us to Him insofar that we suffer in this world like He did.

I Peter 4:12-13 has been our source Scripture since we're heavily relying on Peter Lee's fantastic Joy Unspeakable: Finding Joy in Christ-Like Suffering book and that is his central passage (besides the book of Job). Another key chapter on this specific topic is Philippians 3, which I'll come back to at another time. For now, verses 10-11 are the focus since they emphasize fellowshipping with Christ through suffering:

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

I mused last time on how being connected to Christ in His glory is related to being connected with Him in His suffering---a two-part deal. You don't have just one, you get both! It's part of the whole sanctification process, prior to glorification.

If you haven't picked up on it before, I have a few consistent theological and philosophical themes that I'm constantly studying and working on, and this is one of them: American Protestant Christians don't seem to understand much theology besides a very general version of Justification. That is, Christ removes the penalty of sin by dying on the cross, through faith in Christ this makes us right with God, we're going to heaven, the end.

If we as American Christians are going to focus exclusively on individual salvation--ignoring the redemption of the rest of creation, which is unfortunate in and of itself!--we should at least get to the really good part where we become better people and are ultimately made into the types of beings that God would want to hang out with for all eternity! That's where Sanctification and Glorification* (see below for a quick summary on these terms) come in, and that's where a theology of suffering is essential, because--and, sorry to be a bearer of bad news here--Sanctification and Glorification just ain't gonna happen by leading a safe, inane, fairly hedonistic, American middle-class or upper-middle class existence where we are essentially following our own hearts. Being Christian doesn't mean just being nice. Let's not confuse niceness for newness. As one of the chapters of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity reads, "Nice people or new men?"

As Jesus said regarding the rich young ruler, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24). And, while we're always arguing in the United States about who is and isn't privileged, deep down inside, most middle-class people know that they are not experiencing poverty and suffering like many in our country and around the world are experiencing. And, if you're not suffering at that level, you're privileged at least in some way, which puts you in a similar boat as the rich young ruler. Jesus told this individual to sell all he had and then come back to be a disciple. He may not instruct all of us to do this (would we even know if He has?), but at the very least, we need to be willing to bear the cross that He places before us or we're not even starting the process to become changed people. We need to get out of our own way so that the Holy Spirit can act within us.

Anyway. This is what the Philippians passage is all about. Regarding this particular passage, Lee says,

To know him, even in his sufferings, is worth more than all the riches of the world.

So, true, and so beautiful. But, I have to say, it's hard to feel this to be true when one is in the midst of suffering. I think it's partly because we honestly don't expect real, harsh, destructive kinds of suffering to come our way. It's like grief--even when you know someone is going to pass, there's still always an element of surprise, even if the surprise is one's own response to this particular loss. Any type of loss is similar--we can't intellectually or emotionally prepare ourselves in advance of what we're going to think and feel as we go through it. But, there are supports and aids that could have been helpful--and one of them is the ability to make sense of things. Not in understanding the "Why" behind suffering (sorry--this blog series is never going to take that one on. The wisest and most ancient account of this is the book of Job, and that ending is the best and most honest answer we'll ever have). But in the wider meaning around it. And having a deeper, richer theology that is tied to ancient Christianity will certainly do that for us. So, as I mentioned in the last blog, union with Christ is another one of those semi-lost Christian themes. It's way more than friendship with Christ, although it's part of it. It's mysterious and definitely way deeper than most of our songs can fully get at. Here's Peter Lee on this forgotten bit of theology and its connection to our understanding of suffering:

It is not merely one doctrine among many, but the one concept that embraces the entirety of the redemptive work of God that extends from the eternal plan of salvation ‘before the foundation of the world’ (Eph 1:4) to our eventual glorification (Rom 8:30). This union with Christ underlies every aspect of our redemption...Our union with Christ means that we ‘share Christ’s sufferings’ in addition to sharing his glory. There is no doubt that we do share and will share in the fullness of his glory…But the suffering and glory are a package that cannot be separated because they come from the same divine source. Jesus knew both. To have one without the other amounts to an incomplete knowledge of Jesus because that was not the life that he lived.

"One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them; In the Land of Mordor where the shadows lie..." Ahem--sorry. That's an evil one unifying thing (i.e. the evil ring from the Lord of the Rings series). But, Lee is pointing out that union with Christ is also more than an isolated doctrine, it's the unifying doctrine to bring justification back into connection with sanctification and glorification. It's how to get from our American Christianity of "beam me up to heaven, Jesus, and I don't care what happens to people and planet here in the meantime..." to a deeper understanding of what we're supposed to do, be, and become while we're here awaiting the redemption of all things.

Reflecting on Job in the Bible, Lee summarizes,

…we can see that those in Christ, including Job, are called to fellowship with Christ in his sufferings (I Pet 4:13). Because of the reality of the believers’ union with Christ, to read about one is to read about the other.

For a fun homework assignment, see how many times the New Testament epistles use the phrase, "in Christ." This gives a clearer sense of what our connection with Christ is supposed to look like and what union with Christ means, both through triumph and challenges.

Looking back at Philippians 3:10-11, I'm not sure that I can fully say this out loud even yet and mean it. Here's the passage again:

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

The Amplified Bible translation helps to explain each part more thoroughly:

And this, so that I may know Him [experientially, becoming more thoroughly acquainted with Him, understanding the remarkable wonders of His Person more completely] and [in that same way experience] the power of His resurrection [which overflows and is active in believers], and [that I may share] the fellowship of His sufferings, by being continually conformed [inwardly into His likeness even] to His death [dying as He did]; [a]so that I may attain to the resurrection [that will raise me] from the dead.

I can say honestly I do want to know Christ, experientially, cognitively, all ways. I wish this could happen through mystical encounter alone, which I still pursue at times through meditative prayer. But, as much as I love the deep, calming types of prayer and trust the accounts of those who, like Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, or Brother Lawrence, have deeply encountered God through it (as I hope to someday as well), Scripture seems to connect knowing Christ with what is happening in our lives, as this passage indicates. We want connection and power (yes, yes to both!), but Paul is saying that the power comes through suffering, through actual participation in this suffering.

The Prosperity Gospel would have us believe that this process can be sidestepped. We can have power now, through our own faith efforts. I do not see this in Scripture, and one has to snip disembodied Bible verses, much like Thomas Jefferson did in his unholy version of the Bible, to piece together a theology that says this. Instead, we become conformed to Christ, and are more deeply connected in union with Him, by fellowshipping with Him in our sufferings.

I fear that sometimes we over-spiritualize these kinds of passages, in the sense that we talk about these things as if it only applies to the most righteous martyrs and somehow not us. Being burned at the stake isn't the exclusive way to have fellowship with Christ in His sufferings! Let's conclude with Lee on this:

Righteous suffering is not just for missionaries being martyred. Everyday life involves righteous suffering...Yet there are others who suffer merely because they chose to obey the Lord and not give in to the sinful demands and pressures of the world. They suffer while trying to live a day to day life of faithful, humble obedience...
You may know such people. These are the believers who struggle to maintain a peaceful home with sinful children or family members, who strive to love and respect unethical and tyrannical supervisors or coworkers, or who try, at all costs, to live at peace with demanding neighbors. They do not grace the cover of magazines or headline news reports. They are not the subjects of blogs [Note: trying to remedy that here!!] nor do they revel in fortune and glory...They are regular, everyday believers who love the Lord and desire to live for him, who face an uphill battle due to the sinfulness around them...

Amen! And...we're going to need a Part III on Fellowshipping with Christ Through Suffering. Coming Soon!


*It's likely that I'll dive into these terms more in the future, but I've always liked this pithy summary for starters:

Justification--Christ saves us from the penalty of sin.

Sanctification--Christ saves us from the power of sin.

Glorification--Christ saves us from the presence of sin.

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