Saturday, 17 September 2016

Suffering for Jesus' sake

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.

There are times when, reading the Bible, I wish the writer was sitting opposite me in an armchair. We would both have a mug of coffee (plus a plate of biscuits), and I would be able to ask him whatever I wanted about what he wrote.

Regarding Paul’s words above I would start: “Paul, I really do love your letter to the church in Colosse, but I have to admit that this verse really has me baffled. You talk about ‘what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions’.

“But how can there possibly be anything ‘lacking in Christ’s afflictions’! And how can you possibly be ‘filling it up in your flesh’? Surely Christ’s cross, after his life of suffering, was enough? Can you, or any of us, really be needed to somehow complete what Jesus did in dying for our sins? Surely not!”

I’m pretty sure that his reply would begin something like: “Now, Colin, don’t worry! Of course I’m not saying that. When Jesus died on the cross, that was a complete and perfect sacrifice for the sins of the whole world – there’s absolutely no way I or you or anyone can possibly add to it. Relax!

“No. What I meant was…”

And this is where it gets tricky. I’m really not sure what he would say next.

What is clear is that he is talking about suffering for the sake of Jesus and the church. The start of the verse is plain enough: “I rejoice in what was suffered for you…” Paul was writing to the Colossian church from a prison cell – in other words, he was suffering for his work as an apostle. And he says that that doesn’t bother him in the least – indeed, he actually rejoices in these sufferings; he regards them as a privilege.

So far, so good. But now comes the puzzling part – the bit about “filling up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions”. What can that possibly mean?

There are two main possibilities.

First, is he saying: “Christ’s ministry involves great suffering, and because I, as a believer in him, am actually ‘in’ Christ, therefore my sufferings become part of Christ’s ongoing suffering”? In other words: “I don’t claim to be adding to the work which Christ completed perfectly on the cross, but I do believe that suffering for his sake means sharing in his suffering”. Yes? Something like that, perhaps.

Or, second, perhaps he is saying (if I may be allowed to borrow the words of a modern writer): “There is a ‘quota’ of sufferings which ‘the corporate Christ’, the Messianic community, the Church, is destined to undergo before the purposes of God are complete. Accordingly, the more the apostle suffers in the cause of Christ and in the course of his ministry, the greater is his contribution to the coming of the End…” (You might need to read that again, but I think it’s worth it!)

The Jews of Paul’s day believed in what they sometimes called “the birth-pangs of the Messiah” – sufferings which had to be fulfilled before the kingdom of God could fully come, or be “born”. And the church, today as well as in the early years, has a part to play in this.

Perhaps the truth lies in a combination of those two possibilities. (More coffee, Paul?)

But however unsure we may be about the precise meaning intended, one thing comes across very clearly: suffering endured for the sake of Jesus, and for his glory, is a positive and powerful thing. For most of us, it’s very hard to actively welcome suffering, as Paul clearly did: but the great truth is that it can be made holy, or sanctified.

Here’s something else that strikes me.

Paul was writing about things he had suffered specifically because he was a Christian and an apostle. But is there any reason why the same thing shouldn’t apply also to any “afflictions” borne in the spirit of Jesus – misfortunes, disappointments, sicknesses, disasters, the everyday troubles of life. I have certainly known Christian people suffering all sorts of troubles with such Christlike dignity that it has been truly beautiful.

So I have learned that, if we can find it in ourselves to pray a prayer such as the one below, a real negative can be turned into a positive, a real bad can be transformed into a true good.

Lord, you know the afflictions of my life. They bring me much hurt and pain. But I offer them to you now, just as Jesus offered to you the sufferings of the cross, and ask that you will take them, use them for good in this world, and glorify yourself through them. Amen.

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