On June 6th 1944, British, Canadian and American forces landed on the beaches of Normandy. A second front had been opened in the Second World War. From then on defeat of the Axis powers was assured. The suffering was not over by a long shot, but victory was certain. 'Saving Private Ryan' graphically illustrated the deaths on the beaches. 'Schindler's List' demonstrated what was going on in the concentration camps. ‘The Battle of the Bulge’ reminded us that Germany still had teeth. V1 ramjets and V2 rockets continued to rain death on civilians in London; there was a lot of suffering still due.
For the Christian, the position is similar. Christ has defeated Satan. Victory is assured, but the suffering continues. There seems to have grown up a Christian tradition that all a Christian receives on conversion are blessings. Of course, Abraham was promised great blessings, having believed God, but in the great chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews, we read that "These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised." (verse 39). The final blessings are reserved for the return of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself promised that in this world we would have tribulation, but we were to take heart, because he has overcome the world! (John 16:33)
Christians do suffer
About suffering: it is the testimony of all true Christians that this life will not be an easy passage. The early Christians suffered persecution at the hands of the Jews and the Romans. The secular powers have always persecuted Christians; in our own lands in the middle ages and today in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Orissa, Iran and many other lands. Moreover, it was predicted by Jesus: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:18-20). Indeed, Paul, writing to Timothy suggests that persecution is inevitable: "In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12) and in The Acts he says it again: "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God," (Acts 14:22).
But that is about persecution; what about other kinds of suffering? Sometimes we suffer because of our own silly fault. If we crash out motor bike at 100 mph, we can hardly blame anyone else; if we suffer from tertiary syphilis or AIDS as a result of 'sowing our wild oats', who is to blame but ourselves? If we are sent to prison for bank robbery we can hardly complain that God is treating us harshly. "It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil." (1 Pet 3:17). Nevertheless, sometimes we suffer from natural disasters or illnesses that are none of our doing. Sometimes we rage against God for not protecting us from these. Are we not entitled to live a charmed life that avoids these 'snakes' and to expect a life that consists only of 'ladders'?
I see no promise that we will be kept from natural disasters. We will be subject to trials and temptations, including the temptation to despair at our sufferings, for as Paul's first letter to the Corinthians states in this quotation from the Amplified Bible: "For no temptation (no trial regarded as enticing to sin), [no matter how it comes or where it leads] has overtaken you and laid hold on you that is not common to man [that is, no temptation or trial has come to you that is beyond human resistance and that is not [a]adjusted and [b]adapted and belonging to human experience, and such as man can bear]." (10:13) In other words we are not excepted from "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". God makes it to rain upon the just and the unjust.
These evils are in the world as a result of Adam's sin; Adam, that perfect man created in the image of God with greater physique, intellect and knowledge of God than any of his descendants, (lest you think you would have done better) who brought us all down by disobeying God. Romans chapter 8 spells out for us the wretched state of both ourselves and the whole creation: "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (vv19-23).
That bondage to decay afflicts us yet; what better description for worn out hips or cancerous intestines?
The suffering is real
So Christians do suffer. My second point is that suffering is real. Sometimes Christians make light of their suffering as if it belonged to another unreal world. They live on a Spiritual level, where bodies have no reality; though they may wince at pain, they try to convince us that they do not really feel it. How many times will Tom have his head hammered into the ground by Jerry and still be able to bounce back to chase once more that pesky mouse around the garden? This cat has more than the specified nine lives. The sufferings of Christians are not some sort of cartoon violence. Would you dare to think of missionary, Graham Staines and his two boys incinerated in India ten years ago, not really feeling the pain of his martyrdom? Would you suggest it to his widow and his daughters? Christians thrown to the lions or ignited as human floodlights for Nero's delight were not given some sort of sanctified anesthetic. It was real pain. Those who mourn suffer real heartache. Those who worry over a spouse's illness lack real sleep and have real gut-wrenching anxiety.
It is not just experience that tells us so. There are a many, rather strange references in the New Testament to sharing in the suffering of Christ: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ”. (1 Peter 4:12-14); “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him”. (Philippians 1:29); “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:17); “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” (Philippians 3:10).
If the sufferings that we share with Christ are dream-like, unreal or cartoon replicas, then Christ's suffering was unreal too. It implies that on the Cross he was out of the body, that the lashes found no resistance on his flesh because no-one was at home, that the nails sliced through his wrists without conveying pain because no-one was listening to the signals from the nerves there, that the crown of thorns was whacked down by the soldiers but was not noticed because he was elsewhere, cocooned by Angels in celestial bubble wrap, inured from harm.
What a travesty! What a calumny! I once heard a sermon by Greg Haslam that offended most of his hearers because they thought it exaggerated the brutality of the Cross. Many have criticized Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" for its 'glorification of torture'. It is impossible to exaggerate what took place at Calvary. No doubt the scourging was desperately painful (I was caned twice at school - I can't imagine what it would have felt like to have my flesh torn from my back at every blow). Carrying a heavy cross through the streets of Jerusalem was too much for his frail frame - no Angel stepped in to bear it for him, just a pressed man there for the spectacle. The nails, the crown of thorns, the hanging for hours, the thirst, the constant lifting of the body weight on pierced ankles just to catch another breath - these were all body-borne agonies; but more than this the splitting asunder of the Godhead, the Trinity sundered, when every punishment for sin was heaped upon him is incomprehensibly awful. Greg Haslam compared it to every pain of every cancer heaped on his body, but it was more than that. I think at the time I was having trouble with Isaiah 53:4 in Young's literal translation: "Surely our sicknesses he hath borne, And our pains -- he hath carried them, And we -- we have esteemed him plagued, Smitten of God, and afflicted"; with the implication that a word from Jesus heals us. Greg tended to be on the Charismatic wing.
The word translated 'sicknesses' is elsewhere translated 'griefs', 'infirmities', 'weaknesses' or 'distresses'. All these and more were poured out upon our Savior but the greatest distress was the separation from his Father God. When my children were born I was beside my wife, holding her hand. I don't know whether it gave her much comfort, but while I was recently in hospital recovering from surgery and suffering dreadful, eye-watering, colicky pain, the only comfort I received was for her to silently hold my hand and squeeze it; letting me know that we were sharing it together.
As Jesus suffered on the Cross there was no-one to hold his hand, no-one to wrap their arms around him, no-one to give him succor.
Sharing is not adding
Dr Helen Roseveare, once a missionary in the Congo, tells of the occasion that she was raped by the rebels. She reports a vision of the Lord Jesus appearing to her and telling her that he had need of her body to suffer in. I would not dream of denying her vision, nor of depriving her of the comfort that the thought brought during her terrible ordeal, but we are on dangerous theological ground here. There must be no suggestion that the suffering of Jesus on the Cross was not complete. Hebrews 10:12 tells us that "When this high priest (ie Jesus) had offered for all time one sacrifice for sin, he sat down at the right hand of God" (ie he had completed his work). No more suffering was required to take away sin. The resurrection also signifies that the work is complete.
So in what sense can we be said to be sharing in the sufferings of Christ? I believe it means that we are becoming more familiar with the sufferings of Christ. Our sufferings do not win souls or save sinners, but as we suffer we begin in an infinitesimal way to suffer in like manner to Jesus, we better understand what it cost him to save us. That is why Paul counted it a privilege.
Is there any advantage to being a Christian as we suffer?
A certain future
Yes, there are advantages. It doesn’t hurt less and we are not spared the possibility of dying, but in the first place we have the assurance that we serve a just God who has made our future certain. “If indeed we share in his sufferings … we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8::17. and these sufferings “are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (verse 18). “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all”. (2 Corinthians 4:17) “But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13).
Most mothers forget their labor pains when they hold the little one to their breast. No-one will hark back to their earthly travails when the glorious Son of God returns in triumph in the clouds surrounded by the glorious dead, as the dead in Christ rise to meet him in the air and the trumpets sound the victory salute. We will rejoice with the Angels as we look on his face.
A changed outlook
The second advantage is that we will be changed by our sufferings. The Bible talks about being refined by fire. Paul tells us that “suffering produces perseverance” (Rom 5:3). Discipline is not a popular subject these days. To welcome discipline has kinky overtones, suggesting something perverse to do with Miss Whiplash, but the Bible tells us that those whom God loves, he disciplines (Revelation 3:19; Psalm 94:12, and 119:75; Proverbs 3:11-12). It is clear from Hebrews chapter 12 that the discipline being talked about is physical punishment such as a strict father might inflict on a wayward son. “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11)
This teaching is hard for us to accept. We have become used to modern medicine. There seems to be a pill for every ill. If it is too cold we turn on the central heating; too hot and we turn on the air-conditioning. The rain finds us inside our dry houses or dry cars. From thunder and lightning we are protected. Our houses are built to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes. We don’t go hungry or thirsty. Our police forces are expected to protect us from murder, robbery and mugging. We are outraged if our authorities were to torture our enemies let alone its own citizens. Shipwreck is a rare event; piracy only happens to other people; what is there to harm us? We expect a smooth passage through this life and if a father dares to chastise a child someone will yell, “Abuse!”
Yet people do learn from hardship. Alas, only sometimes. This teaching on discipline seems to be saying to us that we, as Christians, must learn from hardship. Instead of whingeing about how badly we have been treated, we should seek to learn lessons from our adversity. One lesson I have learnt comes from Ecclesiastes 4:9-12: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down his friend can help him up but pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together they will keep warm but how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
Job was never told the reason for his suffering; he was just made to understand that God knows what he is doing. But we are told. Perhaps Job would have been affronted to learn that it was all to settle an argument between God and Satan. Perhaps we are affronted too. To put Job through all that just to settle a bet? But that is to misunderstand what was going on between the omnipotent Lord and the fallen Angel. A spiritual battle is being waged that we have no reference point for in our modern world.
We love that passage in Ephesians chapter 6 about putting on the whole armor of God, but ignore what the armor is for. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (verse 12). Since the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th Centuries we have seen the world according to different model from that used by the Ancients. We forget that Paul was one of the Ancients who wrote according to that mindset. When he talks about ascending to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) we do not understand. He writes at a time when the third heaven was thought of the sphere beyond the air in the atmosphere and extending to the orbit of the moon. The whole area was suffused with the aether and there aetherial bodies inhabited.
This has no resonance in modern astronomy, but modern astronomy would have meant nothing to Paul. He writes as an Ancient, with an Ancient’s world view, but it was the view of Plato and Aristotle, of all the Biblical writers, of Augustine and all the Church Fathers, of Aquinas, of Chaucer, of Shakespeare, of Milton, even of Shelley. Voltaire and Hume and Descartes have shattered that model. It is, as CS Lewis writes, a discarded image. So ‘spiritual battles in the heavenly realms’ conjure no image for us, any more than the battles of Narnia appear as any more than fairy tales. What we must see is that for all the discarded imagery that Paul uses to bring home their reality to his readers, they are really real. I’m not sure how a modern writer would put it, what metaphors he would use, but we need to be convinced that Satan really is at war with God, that though he is a defeated foe but the battle continues and we will suffer collateral damage if we participate in the war.
For our comfort
The final advantage the Christian has as he suffers is that the Holy Spirit is nigh. To call the Spirit the Comforter misses the change in meaning in the English language. It is not sympathy He brings, but strength; strength to resist the evil one, strength to persevere, strength to go on going on when the going is tough. Sure, He brings all the characteristics of Jesus to stand alongside us, love, kindness, encouragement, patience, longsuffering, peace, joy, goodness, faithfulness and self control, but in this context He brings fortitude, backbone, resilience.
As He stands alongside us He recognizes our weaknesses. He restrains the evil one “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Paul was troubled by what he called ‘a thorn in the flesh’. We don’t have a clue what it was. Commentators have guessed at epilepsy or some physical deformity. He describes it as a messenger from Satan that tormented him. Despite his prayer (and Paul was an effectual pray-er) the Lord decided to let him keep it; instead he told him that His grace was sufficient for him, for God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
As we suffer we need to pray for more grace. In our weakness God’s power will see us through.