A Pepper Grinder Post

I Want to Suffer?

Let’s start with a multiple choice question.

  1. I want to
    1. Know Jesus
    2. Have Jesus’s power
    3. Suffer
    4. All of the above
    5. A and B only

I would probably choose E.  The answer I imagine would get the least votes would be C.  Who wants to suffer?  If someone does want this, wouldn’t we assume that he or she had some kind of mental or emotional issues?

The interesting thing is that Paul answered this very question In Philippians, and his answer took me by surprise.  Here is what he said:

But, whatever was a gain for me, I consider a loss for Christ.  In fact, I consider everything to be a loss compared to the greatness of knowing Jesus Christ my lord, for whom I’ve lost everything. I think of it all as dung, so that I can gain Christ and belong to him, not having my own righteousness that comes from the law, but the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God by faith.  That is, to know him and the power of his resurrection, and to share in his sufferings, and to become like him in his death, and somehow, to be resurrected.  (Philippians 3:8-11, my translation)

Paul has been warning the Philippians about people who teach that they must be circumcised and follow the Jewish law in order to be saved.  He points out that he could have been a poster child for Jewish legalism. Then he arrives at the passage above, where he tells us that he has given all that up for the sake of knowing Jesus.

dumpMy main focus will be the last sentence of the passage above (where Paul gives his answer to the multiple choice question we started with), but I want to start by pointing out what a radical thing Paul was saying before this.  Remember that Paul and many of the early Christians came from a tradition where following the minutest provisions of the law was the key to pleasing a holy God.  It is hard to imagine anything as controversial, in our world, as Paul saying he thought all the work he did to follow the law was dung.  It would be about like going to a strict Muslim country and saying that you thought following the Koran was just a pile of you-know-what.

But Paul is not just being the 1st century equivalent of a shock-jock.  His point is not to put down what he did before, but to say that an intimate relationship with Christ was worth so vastly much more that anything else stunk by comparison.  It’s a very strong statement, but one that most Christians would at least give lip-service to: Following Jesus is worth infinitely more than anything with which the world can provide us.

The shocker for me came when Paul began to spell out, in verse 10, what he meant by gaining Christ and belonging to him.  There are 5 things Paul mentions.

  1. To know him.  This is not dry, factual knowledge.  This is talking about knowing a person and knowing him deeply.  A good example of this would be in John 14:9 where Jesus says, "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?”  (NIV)  Philip had gone almost everywhere with Jesus for a couple of years when this question was asked.  He certainly knew Jesus in the sense that we often use the word.  What Jesus was questioning was whether Philip knew him deeply enough to look past appearances and see the real him, which was God himself.
  2. To know the power of his resurrection.  Some Christians seem afraid of God’s supernatural power working through human beings.  In a way, this is not surprising, given the way some have tried to use God’s power (or an imitation) to gain a sway over people, or to get money or fame or whatever.  However, notice that Paul doesn’t say that he wants to control or possess the power of God which raised Jesus from the dead.  He wants to know that power—to be intimately connected with it.  I believe that to know God’s power in the way Paul means, involves surrendering to God, and being used by him, rather than trying to use his power for our own ends.
  3. And to share in his sufferings.  One thing I do when I study a passage is diagram it in Greek or Hebrew.  Diagramming helps bring out the relationship between parts of a passage.  In this case, it was incredibly clear that this and the previous phrase were tied together.  Here is a very literal translation of the Greek, with the phrases lined up similarly to my diagram of the Greek:
    sentence diagram
    crucified ChristWhat jumped out at me was the way knowing him, knowing his power, and sharing his sufferings were all given the same weight and bound together.  You may be wondering why I translate this third point, “and to share in his sufferings,” when the Greek is literally, “and the fellowship of his sufferings.”  When I make a translation, I try to convey the precise meaning of the passage in words that modern people would use.  Personally, I don’t use phrases like ”the fellowship of his sufferings.”  When I hear the word “fellowship,” I think of people standing around sipping coffee and chatting in the fellowship hall during fellowship time, or of someone saying piously, “We had a sweet time of fellowship.”  Fellowship in the New Testament (koinonia in the Greek) was deeper and grittier than that.  It involved deep relationships and partnerships—deep enough that if one believer was having hard times financially, another believer would not hesitate to send him some cash.  Rather than bring to mind the anemic thing that so often passes for fellowship in our churches, I chose to bypass the word altogether, in favor of a phrase a little more distant from the Greek, but which, I think, conveys the basic meaning better.
    The bottom line is this: we CANNOT separate knowing Christ and his power from sharing in his sufferings.  They are part of the same package. 
  4. And to become like him in his death.  As if sharing in his sufferings wasn’t explicit enough, Paul makes it even clearer.  The Greek word translated “become like him” has a root of morphizo, which is where English words with “morph” in them come from.  Literally, we are changing into Jesus in his death. 
    I am a little embarrassed to admit it, but I read all or almost all of the Animorph books by K.A. Applegate.  In these books, regular kids get the power to “morph” into any creature whose DNA they acquired through physical contact.  They use this power to fight against a race of ruthless aliens trying to take over the earth.  Sometimes the morphing experience was wonderful. Other times, after morphing, they found themselves dealing with things that were very hard (like being a termite and trying NOT to obey the queen).  Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than morphing into Jesus Christ at his death.  I don’t think any of us will ever experience the level of anguish Christ experienced, and yet, Paul is saying that, along with knowing Jesus and his power, he wants to share in Jesus’s sufferings.  It is all tied up together.  You can’t just choose to know him and experience his power, but reject the suffering and dying that was also part of Jesus’s experience.
  5. And, somehow, to be resurrected.  The somehow isn’t thrown in there because Paul feels doubts that we will be resurrected.  He makes it very clear in other passages that he has no doubts about the resurrection.  I believe the doubt is about precisely how it will happen.  I think of this as not only applying to our literal resurrection from the dead, but also to other things in our lives.  I have had experiences in my life that felt like death in terms of finality and despair.  The attitude of faith does not deny one bit of the facts or the emotions around this, yet clings tenaciously to the knowledge that, in some way that cannot now even be imagined, God will bring new life out of that death.
    This is good news.  While sharing in the sufferings of Jesus and even joining in his death, we have a resurrection to anticipate.  There is the final resurrection that all true followers of Christ will take part in, but there is also often a “resurrection” in this life, where many of the tears of our disappointments are wiped away by seeing God bring good out of the very things that caused our misery.  When I am going through suffering, I often can’t imagine any good outcome, but when God brings it about, it seems so effortless.

frozen bushOkay.  Paul presents suffering as an essential part of the Christian life in this passage, but surely this gloomy message is balanced out elsewhere in Scripture, right?  Not exactly.  Here are some other New Testament passages that I grabbed almost at random from the many passages containing the same Greek word for suffering that Paul uses in Philippians 3:10.

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.  2 Corinthians 1:5-7 (NIV)

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.Colossians 1:24 (NIV)

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,  2Timothy 3:12 (NIV)

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.  Hebrews 2:10 (NIV)

And here are two other verses that use a different Greek word but convey a similar message:

In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  1 Peter 1:6-7 (NIV)

So then, those who suffer according to God's will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good. 1 Peter 4:19 (NIV)

So does this mean that we should actively seek out suffering?  I think there are two extremes that we need to avoid.  The first is to try to suffer.  The thing that comes to mind when I think of this is a monk fasting and wearing a hair shirt.  I imagine that most of us can’t relate to someone living a life like that.  However, think about women in our society who are literally starving themselves in service to the god of a mythical body image.  Think of people who make cuts all over their bodies.  Think of people who repeatedly seek out relationships with abusive partners.  The pursuit of suffering (whether conscious or not) did not die out with the medieval monks.

The main point I want to make about this extreme is that Jesus did not court suffering.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, he pleaded not to have to endure the final and worst ordeal of his life.  However, when the answer came back that he must go through the suffering, he did it.

sunriseThe other extreme is to flee suffering.  I can write with great authority about this, because it has often been a guiding principle of my life.  I don’t like physical suffering, but what really rips me up inside is emotional suffering.  When I feel that I have failed or let people down, or when I am in conflict with people I’m close to (or even not so close), I am a basket case.  My approach for avoiding suffering is two-fold.

  1. I flee it.  When I see something like an argument coming up, which will cause me emotional suffering, I try hard to head it off at the pass or simply leave.
  2. I distract myself from it.  I try to do something—anything—to keep from facing and dealing with my pain.  This is where our incredible entertainment culture comes in so handy.  I am a fairly techno-friendly guy, but it seems to me that much of what we have done with our technological improvements has been to pack every second of our day with entertainment.  We watch hours of TV and movies.  People walk through the store listening to music on an iPod or talking on a cell phone.  Any time we want, we can do something to distract ourselves.  This isn’t all bad, but I do think it is far too easy to use entertainment and superficial conversation to distract us from suffering and to keep from thinking too deeply or examining ourselves too closely.

There is also another way I think we flee suffering—we avoid people who are going through it.  Many of us are very good at rushing to the side of someone who has suffered some tragedy or sudden illness or disappointment.  The real test, though, is how we act toward someone whose suffering goes on and on.  It seems to me that, when the suffering doesn’t stop, we often tend to start blaming the sufferer.  If it is physical illness, we start to see the person as a hypochondriac or a complainer.  If it is emotional, we might start to think of the sufferer as someone who wallows in self-pity.  Basically, we want the person to buck up and get on with his or her life.

Admittedly, there are times when people are mired in self-pity when they should get on with their lives.  Personally, though, I think there are more times that we pressure people to bury their pain to please us.  It is as if we are afraid that pain is contagious.

Sadly, churches seem to be some of the places where this is at its worst.  Here we don’t just avoid suffering people, we give them the subtle or not-so-subtle message that they need to be happy (or at least do a good fake) to be spiritually mature.  I heard of a well-known pastor’s wife who would only select people for leadership positions who had had real suffering in their lives, but this does not at all seem to be the norm.  Look at the people chosen for leadership positions in most U.S. churches.  In my experience, they are usually people who have had stable, successful, and comfortable lives.

It is as if we have replaced the Jesus of the Bible with a self-help guru, who traveled around proclaiming feel-good, can-do messages of self acceptance.  But listen to what Isaiah prophesied about Jesus in Isaiah 53:2-11.

tender shootHe grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (NIV)

Do you want to know Jesus and the power of his resurrection?  Then don’t flee from suffering.  Accept it, go through it, and then wait for God to bring a resurrection in your life.  The correct answer is:

d.  All of the above.


*Photo Credits: dump by , crucified Christ by , shoot growing out of wall by