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Share Christ’s Sufferings

The cross is not a magic wand.

Someone said that the meaning of grace comes in three parts: “Grace means you don’t do anything; you don’t do anything; you don’t do anything.”

Grace is God’s free gift and not something we can achieve (Ephesians 2:8-9). The old hymn says, “Jesus paid it all.” We talk about the sufficiency of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. His suffering and death atoned for sin and brings us to God. For Christians this is a settled point. Jesus suffered judgment to redeem his people.

And then we come to Colossians 1:24:

“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.”

Is Paul really saying what he seems to be saying? What could Paul possibly mean that he’s filling up what’s lacking in the suffering of Christ? Did Paul think Jesus didn’t do enough?

Let me set you at ease: Paul thought Jesus did enough.

Yet Paul suffered — apparently Paul had to suffer for the sake of the Church. And Christians through ages have suffered for the sake of the Church. And I believe that you and I suffer — or at least we can suffer — for the sake of the Church as well.

Since we’re not good at talking about suffering, let me begin with more familiar ground: evangelism.

A friend called me excitedly. “I had lunch with someone I recently met and I led him to Christ right there in the restaurant.” We talk that way: “I led my friend to Christ.” We understand what that means knowing, I hope, that it’s inaccurate language.

You have never led anyone to Christ. Not your friend, not your sister, not your children, not your parents. But don’t feel badly about it. Billy Graham has never led anyone to Christ either. In fact, the only one who leads people to Christ is God the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit opening people’s eyes to their need for Christ and their ears to the Gospel, no one would ever be converted.

St. Paul knew that too. And yet he wrote, “We proclaim [Jesus], admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:28-29). He labored and struggled so that people might know Christ while believing all along that it is the Holy Spirit who converts. This is an example of Francis Schaeffer’s notion that while God is sovereign, you and I are not zeros. We make a difference.

So while only the Holy Spirit leads people to Christ, we have a share in that work that is 100 percent His. God’s Word of redemption and life rides on our words thus making us partners in the work that is entirely God’s.

Does that sound like a mystery? It deepens when we turn to suffering.

If I lose a job I reflexively ask, “What is God teaching me?” If my elderly parents need care I ask, “How is God using this in my life?” If a child is in an automobile accident I want to know, “What is God teaching our family?”

And the Bible encourages us to ask those questions. Hebrews 12:7-8, James 1:2-4, and other texts tell us that God uses our suffering to discipline us. God’s discipline then brings about our full salvation which includes holiness. That is, suffering is redemptive in our lives.

And yet, we argue, if Jesus suffered on the cross and paid it all, why should I have to suffer? Couldn’t he bring about my full salvation without the suffering part?

I suppose so, but it’s a cross, not a magic wand. Whether we like it or not, just as Jesus “learned obedience by what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), you and I must learn obedience by what we suffer. While our salvation is entirely the work of God through the suffering of Jesus, our suffering is somehow required as well. God is sovereign, but you and I are not zeros.

This brings me back to Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24. Could it be that just as my suffering is required in my own salvation, my suffering is also required in the salvation of others?

Father Damian was a missionary in the 1870s who worked in the leper colony on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai. Week by week, he preached addressing the people as “you lepers.” Nothing much happened until the day came when he stood up to preach and began with the words, “We lepers.” He had contracted the disfiguring and fatal disease himself.

The beginning of Father Damian’s suffering marked the beginning of a great revival in that village of the dying. Father Damian’s suffering proved to be redemptive for others. That is because Christian suffering is never suffering in a vacuum. He — and we — suffer with Jesus.

If we offer our suffering to God, that suffering is caught up into Christ’s suffering on the cross. It is ennobled. It is made glorious. It becomes like His suffering — a suffering for the salvation of the world.

My friend Peggy lost her only child, a 28-year-old daughter, to cancer. As she mourned and suffered she poured her broken heart out to God. She offered herself and her suffering to Him just as Jesus did on the cross.

That hasn’t made her suffering any easier, but now everywhere she goes she meets people who have lost adult children to death. I don’t meet those people — or if I do, I don’t know about it. Peggy sits next to them on airplanes, meets them in the supermarket, and bumps into them on vacation. She shares their suffering and offers them Christ and His comfort. Her suffering, united with Christ’s suffering has meant salvation for many. She’s filling up “what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions.”

Don’t misunderstand me. Nothing, absolutely nothing is missing from Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice on the cross. Nothing. And yet just as we have to open our mouths and share the message of the cross if others are going to come to know Christ, so apparently our suffering is involved as well. Just as our words in evangelism are a sharing of his Word, so our suffering is a sharing in his suffering, our brokenness a sharing in his brokenness, our deaths a sharing in his death for the salvation of the world.

If we take our suffering and unite it with his — offering our pain to Jesus for His use and His glory even as He offered His pain to the Father — our suffering is transformed and the world around us will be transformed as well. Like Paul’s suffering, it will “fill up what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church,” completing that which is, paradoxically, complete all by itself.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote in Death on a Friday Afternoon:

It is not that Christ did not do enough, but that he invites us to participate with him in the salvation of the world. When Jesus calls us, he calls us to come and die. We will die anyway. The question is whether we will die senselessly or as companions and coworkers of the crucified and risen Lord.

And before we die, we will suffer anyway. It’s a fact of life in this broken world. The question is whether we will suffer senselessly or for the salvation of the world as companions and coworkers of the Suffering Servant who is the crucified and risen Lord.

Copyright 2008 Jim Tonkowich. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

James Tonkowich

Jim Tonkowich is a scholar at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, D.C. He holds a degree in philosophy from Bates College and both a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Ministry from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jim is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America. He and his wife attend McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, Va.


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