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What a Friend We Have in Jesus!

While I've been familiar with the Psalm verse, "The Lord is close to the broken-hearted," I can honestly say I've never given much thought that a prime way we can connect with Jesus in friendship-like closeness is through suffering. Typically, I think of connecting with God through prayer, meditation, service, or through loving others...but not through suffering. This study is showing me that this way is hidden in plain sight in the Bible.


Because of Peter Lee's Unspeakable Joy: Finding Joy in Christ-Like Suffering book, I Peter 4: 12-13 is much more on my radar:


Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

And, also, Philippians 3:10-11:


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.

Lee points out that this participation is more than it appears to be. It is actually fellowship, using the same Greek word used to describe fellowship with other believers. Here are his comments on the I Peter 4 passage:


The phrase, 'you share' [or, you participate] is the Greek verb that can be translated ‘you fellowship with Christ in his sufferings.’ The use of this verb suggests that there is a close relationship between the believer and Jesus…Given that it is Jesus’ suffering that we share in, it is unjust, righteous suffering that binds Jesus and believers together.


Jesus is the "Man of Sorrows." Ancient and first-century Jews didn't understand this about the Messiah, and modern-day Christians apparently don't either. That doesn't mean that Jesus went about with a long face. On the contrary, when he kept having feasts with tax collectors and prostitutes, he was accused of being a glutton. Jesus Himself said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” And yet, the whole orientation of His life was one of service and suffering, but implemented joyfully and lovingly. It's our model, and one that we connect to directly when we participate in living as He lived. Our suffering is not identical to His suffering; it's our own particular cross to bear. And yet He invites us to live as He did in a historic past, but even more importantly, connect with Him in the present in the midst of our lives and inevitable suffering.


I wrote of union with Christ in the last post (https://www.christianmusingsfortoday.com/post/just-a-closer-walk-through-suffering) and the first book I read on this topic was Rankin Wilbourne's Union With Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God. It was a life-changing read, opening my eyes to a truth somehow missed. We aren't connected to Christ and His Holy Spirit in the abstract. It is real and there is something about living our lives in the day-to-day that brings out the realness if we abide in Him in the midst of it all. But, the last time I read this book, I wasn't reading it with an eye for what it said about the connection between union with Christ and suffering. Here's Wilbourne on the connection:


We certainly can’t talk about being united to the person of Christ and skip over suffering. Each one of us has been marked or will be marked, by suffering. Christ’s life was marked by suffering as well. We can’t talk about the means of abiding in Christ, about how to make union with Christ a daily and lifelong experience, and bypass the uncomfortable reality, the necessary path, of suffering.

Making union with Christ a "daily and lifelong experience." Yes and yes...but Wilbourne is saying (and I unhesitatingly passed over in my initial read of this book) that suffering is the necessary means.


In speaking about Christ as the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant, Wilbourne quotes John 15:20, saying, "A servant is not greater than his master." Writing in this Gospel Coalition article (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/suffering-life/), Wilbourne asks, "If Jesus, the perfect child, had to learn how to trust and obey through suffering, how much more necessary is it for you and me?" In the book, Wilbourne continues,

To know Jesus is to know his cross and to carry your own. Apart from carrying this cross, you cannot know this Savior, nor be united to him. The Christ in you is indeed triumphant and victorious, but, again, he is ‘a man of sorrows…acquainted with grief.’ Paul didn’t just resolve to know Christ. He resolved to know ‘Christ and him crucified’ (I Cor 2:2). Is this the Christ you know?

That's an excellent question! Is that the Christ that I know? Or, have I divorced the reality of what He did and said from this idea in my mind that the Christian life is meant to go from strength to strength, from glory to glory. Is that what Christ's life looked like? If not, why would I expect anything different in my life?


It occurs to me that if Christians thought more along the lines of these Scripture passages and theologians, we wouldn't be so wowed by Charismatic male preachers who look great on the outside and speak a good game, and seem to be successful in the faith because of the size of their churches and number of followers...and yet they are secretly spreading havoc in their wake, particularly with female victims. You'd think we'd be a little wiser about wolves in sheep's clothing...or ministers who start out OK but fall into the temptations of wealth and accolades. Or, the leaders who openly tell us all along who they really are, but we, for some reason, think we're more discerning (for a fantastic article on this, see Russell Moore's https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/january-web-only/jerry-falwell-liberty-controversy-vanity-fair-hypocrisy.html). I'm convinced that one significant reason why Christians have been so susceptible to having the wool pulled over their eyes by corrupt, morally degenerate leaders is that we mistakenly succumb to the rotten theology that good people are visibly blessed (financially or through accolades) and bad people are visibly punished! We see blessing, and conclude that the person has earned it. We see pain and distress, and we issue blame. It is a philosophy that undergirds mainstream American Christianity as well as the mainstream American Dream.


We make excuses for what is without excuse, because we assume that the perpetrators deserve to be blessed. We worship celebrity and forget that our Savior was one who was "despised and rejected of men" (Isaiah 53:3). Why would we expect to live a life markedly different than His, as if we were the ones "#blessed" while our Savior was not?


This is not Biblical.


And, it apparently started really early on in Christianity. In II Corinthians 11, Paul complains that the Corinthian Christians aren't listening to him, because they are so enamored of well-spoken "super apostles"!


I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.” I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way. Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge?...And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

You can hear his frustration and emotion in his writings, and yet he remains unashamedly who he is. He has no intent to embark on a plan to whiten up his teeth, practice his oration, and commit himself to a makeover. He knows the truth of who he is in Christ, and he is warning these new Christians to not be impressed by outward trappings.


You know what he does next? Instead of one-upping the false super apostles, Paul starts to boast...in his sufferings!


I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting...Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!...
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again... I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

Mic drop! There it is. Whatever version of the gospel we think we are living in modern America, Paul shows us how "off" we are if our version of Christianity looks more like the Corinthians than his model. It's rarely a good practice to randomly open the Bible, point to a verse, and expect that verse to speak to the moment you're in, like a horoscope of sorts. But, I'm starting to feel that I can randomly open to nearly any passage of the New Testament in particular and see verses directly addressing these issues or exemplifying through example (Christ, Paul, Peter, etc.) a life lived where suffering and weakness is a thing to boast in and power and accolades things to avoid.


What do we think these verses mean? That they're nice passages that are kind of lovely and poetic, and must have been good for Paul because he was kind of masochistic and a bit of a fanatic but have no direct connection to our own lives? Or, that these actually mean something for us today?


Returning to Paul's fantastic Philippians passage,


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.

Paul isn't masochistic. He's not seeking after these horrific sufferings. He's seeking after Christ. As much as he was actually the consummate "super apostle" (in contrast to the fake ones), he saw himself as needing to learn so much more. His life was one of perpetually seeking the Lord: "I want to know Christ." And knowing Christ involves knowing Him in the good and the bad, trusting that both come for a reason if one is in Christ. We don't have to hastily jump in to explain to one another what that reason is, dismissing the pain that others are going through in the process. But, we can all trust that there is a glorious, uber-reason above all the suffering, and Paul says it plainly here: attaining to the resurrection from the dead. We are being made into new people. Who needs a makeover to be a fake super-apostle who looks good in a Greek amphitheater or on in front of a camera on the stage of a mega church?


Our actual transformation is so much greater--being made into the type of human beings who can co-exist with the heavenly hosts, the saints of history, and the Lord of Creation Himself.






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