Identification with Christ is the center of our Christian belief. “For in him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power” (Col 2:9-10). Through His suffering and atonement, we are given access to God the Father by grace through faith. As “evangelical” believers we understand that we do not participate in or cooperate with His sacrifice in order to secure our salvation. “It is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9). To have it applied we simply receive it as a gift which has been bought, paid for, and offered to us.
The apostle Paul, however, speaking of our subsequent Christian life, wrote that as believers we “fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church” (Col 1:24). Paul also told the Philippians that his desire was “to know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death” (Phil 3:10). This leaves us with the question of how the believer, on the one hand, is saved by the suffering of Christ (and not of himself) and yet, on the other hand, participates with and fellowships in the sufferings of Christ. What are these sufferings in which we participate?
The Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for all men. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.1
But for us “evangelical” believers who have trusted in the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ apart from any addition of our own suffering, we are sure that this is not what the apostle meant when he spoke of the “fellowship of his sufferings.” We are speaking of a unique type of Christian suffering that a believer may choose to enter into but may also choose to avoid. It is a suffering which Scripture admonishes each believer to seek.
Suffering in general
All human beings suffer in one way or another. The world as we know and experience it is not free from pain or hardship for any person. Much has been written on the subject of general suffering experienced by Christians and non-Christians alike. Greek philosophers used the problem of pain to deny the existence of God, or at least the existence of a God who was either good or loving (for surely He would eliminate pain if He could, yet pain exists, therefore God must not). Most people, who are able, spend a fortune of time and money to eliminate as much pain from their lives as possible and even sue others vindictively for bringing any extra pain into their lives.
Believers have a better perspective of general suffering in life. We know that pain exists because of Adam’s sin which is also our own sin. C.S. Lewis wrote about the problem of pain, “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.”2 We also know that God is always in ultimate control over the circumstances and that He is allowing this to happen. “Suffering and hardship joyfully accepted in the path of obedience to Christ show the supremacy of Christ more than all our faithfulness in fair days.”3 Believers can meet the sufferings of life with the intention of glorifying God and showing that He is “the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God” (2 Cor 1:3-4).
Suffering as obedience to Christ
Most Christian writing today eliminates this aspect of suffering. We seem to be more occupied with handling the general suffering of life than facing specific suffering on account of Christ. Ministers and counselors seem to be spending most of their time comforting the saints only in the general hardships of life. The only thing that appears to make it unique to the Christian is that he can turn to God. I would not minimize anyone’s pain or suffering. I have counseled, wept with, and prayed for many dear people through these times myself. But I believe that most of the suffering the New Testament speaks of is not general suffering as a part of life, but is rather a suffering that comes upon the believer specifically because he identifies with Jesus Christ and seeks to give that message to a lost world.
Had Jesus not commissioned the apostles to preach the gospel to a lost world, they likely would never have experienced the suffering spoken of in the Scriptures. Jesus asked them, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? And be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? And they said unto him, We can” (Mk 10:38-39). In Acts five, when these apostles had been jailed and beaten, “They departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Ac 5:40). That’s why Paul admonished Timothy, “Be not thou therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner; but be thou partaker of the afflictions of the gospel according to the power of God” (2 Tim 1:8). Peter reminds us to “rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings . . . If ye be reproached for the name of Christ, happy are ye . . . . Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed” (1 Pet 4:13-16). To these verses Lenski writes, “We fellowship Christ’s sufferings when we suffer for his name’s sake, when the hatred that struck him strikes us because of him.”4
Obedient suffering is passive suffering
Whereas the natural suffering of life requires active obedience to circumstances we usually cannot avoid, suffering for Christ is passive obedience to circumstances we could but which we choose not to avoid. This might be paralleled to these two aspects of Christ’s own suffering. Theologians make a distinction (though not always critical) to the active sufferings and the passive sufferings of Christ. Christ’s active suffering was that which he endured as a part of humanity. Christ’s passive suffering was that which He endured to atone for our sins (both of which were without sin). The word “passive” comes from the Latin “passio” from which we get “passion.” The Greek equivalent is patheema, which is usually translated “suffering” or “affliction.” In His passive suffering, Christ had the power to remove Himself but chose instead to allow the human antipathy toward God’s holiness to attack Him while He simply remained passive.
Christians may underestimate the spiritual truths that cause the world to turn on the Christian. (1) We underestimate what Jesus said would bring animosity toward us. “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (Matt 10:22); “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” (Jn 15:18); “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). (2) We underestimate the sinful nature’s power to resist God’s law. “Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness” (Eph 4:18-19). (3) We underestimate the deceptive power of Satan in the gospel age. “In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the life of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor 4:4). (4) We underestimate the power of the gospel to bring conviction to sinners. “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance; as ye know what manner of men we were among you for your sake” (1 Thes 1:5).
Passive suffering may be conspicuous
When we think of suffering for Christ we usually think of martyrs and those who were physically tortured or imprisoned for their faith. John wrote, “I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:9). He would also write of Tribulation martyrs, “And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death” (Rev 12:11). This is what Christ referred to as “baptism” in Mark 10:38. The Anabaptists used to call this the “baptism of blood.”
This takes a specially strong believer to choose to die for his/her faith. Though we don’t see it all around us as some in history have seen, we wonder what we might choose if it came upon us today. G. Campbell Morgan noted, “A martyr is one, convinced of truth, manifesting that truth in life. The fires of persecution never made martyrs — they revealed them. A man who was not already a martyr never laid down his life for truth. The noble army of martyrs died, not to become martyrs, but because they were martyrs.”5
Passive suffering usually is inconspicuous
A Christian may suffer for his/her faith in lesser ways than torture and death. There are many degrees of this suffering that we choose or else avoid almost daily. Each in its own way helps the cause of Christ because sinners are confronted with the truth of sin and salvation and the gospel is given in word and Holy Spirit conviction. The key is that we choose to suffer to whatever degree comes our way. Thomas á Kempis wrote, “if thou art unwilling to suffer, thou refusest to be crowned. But if thou desire to be crowned, fight manfully, endure patiently.”6 I think there are three common ways in which we display this inconspicuous suffering. (1) In witnessing and preaching. A man who stands on a soap box in a public place and preaches the gospel (which I have seen often and done only occasionally) will bring certain hubris and scorn from almost any crowd. Is this a good thing to do? Of course it is if the gospel is presented correctly! But we don’t often choose it because of the consequences to ourselves. A man may knock on someone’s door and talk of things related to the gospel and this may bring criticism of the Christian. A man may try to hand a stranger a gospel tract and it may be refused in a scornful way. Any of these things are a suffering for the sake of Christ. Peter wrote, “If any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Pet 4:16). (2) In reverent worship. Our worship services ought to be places where believers choose to worship God “Acceptably with reverence and godly fear” (Heb 12:28), and where sinners are convicted for their rejection of it. “If all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth” (1 Cor 14:24-25). Paul was concerned that the Galatians would preach what was pleasing to sinners. “And I, brethren, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? Then is the offense of the cross ceased” (Gal 5:11). (3) In patient waiting for Christ. Christians are the house of the Holy Spirit Who is the Restrainer of sin in this age. He desires to do His work through us as clean and holy vessels so that He can convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment. This will often be met with scorn or ridicule. Paul wrote to the faithful Thessalonians, “So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure: which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer” (2 Thes 1:4-5). “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).
Let me end with a word from that faithful servant, John Bunyan, “Let the rage and malice of men be never so great, they can do no more, nor go any further, than God permits them; but when they have done their worst, We know all things shall work together for good to them that love God.”7
But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, stablish, strengthen, settle you (1 Pet 5:10).
May the passion of Christ truly be our own!Notes: 1. “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Doubleday, 1994) paragraph 1368, page 381. 2. C.S. Lewis The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962) 34. 3. John Piper, “Preaching to Suffering People,” Feed My Sheep, Don Kistler, ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2002) 257. 4. R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of First Peter (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1966) 203. 5. G. Campbell Morgan, Understanding the Holy Spirit (USA: AMG Publishers, 1995) 139. 6. Thomas á Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980) 2/19/4, 170. 7. John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Belfast, Ambassador Productions, nd) 198.