Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings
In his letter to the Philippian church, the Apostle Paul reveals that his lifetime goal is that he might “know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, emphasis added).
Why is he so fixed on sharing in Christ’s sufferings?
For anyone experienced in the faith, the answer is clear. He knows that suffering builds Christian character in ways that no amount of good feelings can touch. We could go on at length about the tangible ways that suffering builds the faith, but I will concentrate on two here.
Suffering’s Ability to Prove our Faith
Difficulties work together to mature our faith. We know this from Romans 5:1-5. But they also become the tangible test by which we know that our faith is real.
Let me give you an example. When Paul wrote his second letter to Timothy, he said, “You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct…my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra, which persecutions I endured…” (2 Timothy 3:10, 11).
This letter was the last correspondence of Paul’s life. He wrote it while he was in prison, waiting to be executed. Yet the persecutions to which he referred occurred at the very beginning of his ministry (Acts 13:13 – 14:28). The persecutions were severe, and they had proven him. They remained his personal lifetime litmus test of his faith. Now, they gave him the courage to maintain his last faith stand.
Suffering’s Ability to add Weight to our Intimacy with God
Finally, suffering is uniquely qualified to add weight to our intimacy with God. Let me share my personal journey to this realization.
I began seminary studies four years after my first wife Marie’s death to cancer. Her death had driven me to the Scripture, but I realized that my Bible knowledge had begun to plateau. I had learned as much as I could without systematic training. The need to deepen my biblical foundations had become irresistible.
During this time, a single verse caught my attention and would not let me go. In Philippians 3:8, Paul wrote that he had lost “suffered the loss of all things” for Christ. I wondered whether my loss qualified me to claim those words as well.
The seminary offered a class on Philippians during my first quarter, and I jumped on it. My first term paper was on Philippians 3:2-11.
Both the class and the paper went well. I claimed Philippians 3:8 for myself. In the exploration of the text, though, Paul’s words two verses later about sharing in Christ’s sufferings left me blank. Try as I might, I could not pull their meaning from the text.
The Moment of Understanding
The answer eluded me until a couple years later. One weekend, a late wave of grief hit and drove me into an unshakable depression. By that Sunday, I told my wife Patty that I hoped we had some hymns on the worship schedule, because I needed something with content and written harmony.
We walked into youth Sunday. There was no more hope of singing a hymn than seeing the Cleveland Browns in the Super Bowl.
The first number was a song about trading our sorrow and shame for the joy of the Lord. The underlying message was clear. Sad is bad. Happy is good. And we are not going to tolerate any sadness.
Mentally, I dug my heels. I refused to sing. I remember thinking, “I will not discard my sorrows for a cheap version of joy that will prove to be counterfeit in twenty-four hours. I will keep my grief until I can place it at Jesus’ feet and receive the eternal joy that only he can bring.”
In that moment the meaning of sharing Christ’s sufferings fused into my Christian armor. I understood that suffering moves us to the deepest level of intimacy with Jesus. When we suffer, his presence becomes more important than anything else. Suddenly, my history of grief became my treasure because it was the gateway through which God brought me to a deeply intimate relationship with him.
The twentieth-century Christian apologist C.S. Lewis makes a profound observation on personal intimacy. He writes,
“What can be more a man’s own than this new name which even in eternity remains a secret between God and him? And what shall we take this secrecy to mean? Surely, that each of the redeemed shall forever know and praise some one aspect of the divine beauty better than any other creature can. Why else were individuals created but that God, loving all infinitely, should love each differently?”
(C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996). 154.)
Think about that. Ours is no cookie-cutter relationship. God calls each of us to know him uniquely.
Knowledge of this depth cannot arise out of happy masks. It grows in sorrow. Pain is not a disorder to be numbed or laughed away. It is God’s gateway to intimacy. Pain allows him to visit our deepest corners and create spaces that we share with him alone.