Suffering toward Salvation
“If any one doth will to come after me, let him disown himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me…”
(Luke 9:23; Young’s Literal Translation)
“Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be so hard.”
So saith the lyrics of the Coldplay song, but it echos a sentiment of many a Christian who embark on the walk of faith. I remember being in the Baptist church as a young adult and often times hearing my pastor echo at least the first part of this statement to our congregation. I have since then heard it repeated often by several pastors. Life is not all peaches and cream when one decides to become a Christian. Do not expect that everything is going to pan out and all your problems are going to vanish now that you’re a follower of Christ. Anyone who’s ever followed Christ for any significant amount of time will believe that. Of course, God is not a magical ointment for the problems that have reared their head into your life. Everyone knows that. Life is full of difficulties but the good thing, says the Christian, is that we now understand, having become Christians, that we are not alone in this daily grind with all its problems. We can rely on God to see us through all the storms of our life and when we whether through them we can rejoice that God has done exactly what he said he would do by not forsaking us. I say, “Amen to that and thank God!”
Even more than just dealing with the difficulties of ever day living, the Christian can expect certain difficulties to arise (in some cases), by simply announcing that they are a Christian. Those who are not believers are likely to scoff and admonish the Christian’s new found belief with patronizing and arrogant rebuffs garnered from their “vastly superior” belief in “reason, facts, and scientific proof.” Children and young people probably feel the bite of believing more strongly than adults since “there is nothing more pure and cruel than a child” and young people that don’t believe tend to display the most open forms of ridicule and scorn to those young believers who tend to be the most outward and exuberant in their display of faith.
All this being granted, one would assume that would be enough to satisfy the will of God and keep any additional strife off our back. A great number of Christians believe that suffering and its effects are no more than this. Even more so, some Christians will tell you that suffering is exclusively worldly and from unholy sources. After all, Jesus Himself said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake” and again, “If the world hates you know that it hated me first.” (Matthew 5:11 and John 15:18 respectively) Obviously, Christians are to expect strife from the world because of their faith. Therefore, it stands to reason that suffering because of faith and for it are because the world “knows [Him] not” (John 17:25) and the world will persecute the Christian because it is the Devil’s playground. Makes sense right? Of course, and true enough it is too.
Yet, what about holy suffering? Is there such a thing as a willful embrace of pain or suffering for a holy cause? This idea is utterly foreign to most Christians. An excellent source to begin with is and deeper theological idea I just discovered in the Passion of Christ.
Well, obviously Christ suffered! However, do we often look to this event forgetting Christ’s Divinity? What I mean to this effect is, do we think of these things on a strictly temporal scale encompassing only Christ’s humanity and what the Romans did TO Him instead of what He voluntarily endured? I have always tended to look at it this way. What a horrible thing to have been done TO Christ and indeed it was. However, if we look at it from the standpoint of His Divinity we can see such a deep sacrifice on His part that it shocked me to the very core. Starting in the Garden of Gethsemene when we’re told Christ was troubled and sorrowful to the point of death. That He drops prostrate to pray lying with His face to the ground (Mt 26:38, 39). His prayer to God is three times to ask if the task can be removed from Him and always not Jesus will but God’s be done. Reading the study notes in my Bible I read this, Christ’s humanity was troubled and was crying out to God for relief. He could have surpressed these feelings with His Divine Power but He chose not to. He chose to endure everything and experience everything through His humanity. That stopped me in my tracks.
Christ could have chosen to use His Divine power at any moment during His Passion. He could have walked down the Mount of Olives and said, “I got this” and not felt a thing about it. He tells Peter, “Do you not know that I could petition my Father in Heaven and at ONCE He would send twelve legions of (about 6,000) angels to my aid?” (Mt 26:53) Conceivably Jesus could have asked His Father at any time to make it stop and He tells us that God would have done so instantly. Jesus could have used His Divine Power to avoid feeling pain at the scourging or even to have prevented them from inflicting pain and damage to His Body at all or even of crucifying Him. How silly it seems now to think that they offered Him the wine mixed with gall in order to act as a narcotic and drug the pain (Mt 27:31) when He could have used Divine Power to ward off any part of this suffering and pain that He wished. However, this would not have fulfilled the Scriptures of the prophets perfectly which call for Jesus suffering and death on the Cross (Isaiah 53, Psalms 22 for example). Of course, we can look to Jesus entire life and think that at any moment He could have exercised Divine Power for many things which He did not. Now however, Jesus death with the idea of Divine Intervention being voluntarily omitted on His part seems astounding. He willingly chose to go through every single event and every single pain, torture, and torment. He willingly suffered for our sakes. That’s a potent thought when clearly realized.
Well, okay, yes, Jesus suffered, but that was part of the ultimate plan wasn’t it? That doesn’t mean we have to voluntarily endure suffering right? Well, let us remember the forementioned quote at the top of this blog from Jesus own mouth, “Whosoever wishes to follow me will take up his own cross every day.” Never has a cross been a fun thing to pick up at all much less choosing to do it every day. (Also incidentally, this gives leverage to the belief that salvation is not a one time event since we must daily chose to follow Jesus by taking up our cross, but that’s another topic for another day.)
1 Peter is rife with the concept of righteous suffering. Into the third chapter he begins discussing suffering and enduring it for a holy cause. “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil.” (1 Pt 3:17) God wills the suffering of a person for doing good? But why? Peter goes on to say, “Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same attitude (for whoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin)” but why, why must we suffer in the flesh? Peter tells us, “as not to spend what remains of one’s life in the flesh on human desires, but on the will of God.” (1 Peter 4:1,2) Not only are we to suffer in order to draw closer to God’s will, but we’re to rejoice in it. (1 Peter 4:13) We’re not to shun it or to try to rid ourselves of it as some so-called pastor implore their flocks. They should spend a little time in 1 Peter if they think suffering should be avoided or shunned. Christians who rejoice in their suffering and abide in it giving glory to God “will hand their souls over to a faithful creator as they do good.” (1 Pt 4: 19) So suffering, in a kind of shorthand, leads to salvation. That’s pretty heady stuff.
What does his contemporary Paul say, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:4) and again Paul remarks that not only does he suffer from external suffering for being a Christian but he also is given, by God Himself, suffering, “Therefore, that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Cor 12:7) Paul speaks of suffering many times so it is interesting to me that the concept of righteous suffering is not given more weight in certain circles. He calls us children of God, but only if we suffer with Him so that we may be glorified with Him (Romans 8:16-18).
The key component to remember is that that God calls us to suffer in different ways and not all suffering is a grand epidemic calamity. Suffering can be simply struggling with the temptations of sin. The idea of redemptive suffering is to direct it or, as Paul says, join it to Christ’s suffering. Suffering in the flesh to “make up what is lacking in the suffering of Jesus Christ” is not to say that Christ’s suffering on the Cross was insufficient, but that by joining one’s suffering to the suffering of Christ we are carrying our cross daily. We direct our suffering to, and join it with, the suffering of Christ for the greater good of the world and to be glorified with Him. Suffering also creates a purification in us as Peter says. We are tested through fire as gold is so that what is not good is burned away, leaving only pure gold. (1 Pt 1:6&7) Why is this? So that we may obtain salvation for our souls. (1 Pt. 1:9)
The Catholic believes this theology of suffering in a way that’s pleasing to God can be used by God in a positive way and for the good. In joining our sufferings with Christ’s suffering we hope to do just this. Something Catholics are oft to say (especially cradle Catholics who were schooled by nuns) is to take anything, especially suffering and “offer it up”. The Catholic Christian seeks to imitate Christ in all things, even His Passion and suffering. To do so we join ourselves to Christ and seek to draw closer to Him. In doing so we expect suffering and in suffering we seek to give glory to God, be purified of the unworthy things in our lives, live in communion with God’s Will, and forge a path to salvation and His glory.
“The greatest good that ever came to the world came through God’s suffering – Jesus’ suffering and dying on the Cross.” – Jim Blackburn, Catholic Apologist.