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Suffering and Christian Fellowship

By Mark D. Roberts | Monday, May 7, 2007

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In recent posts I’ve talked about how living as saints–people set apart from this world for God and His purposes–can sometimes lead to suffering. Often, however, our suffering comes not as a result of our faith in Christ, but simply because we live in a fallen world. Sickness and starvation, for example, are part and parcel of a sin-infested creation. When we suffer from natural causes, we can’t attribute it to the world’s rejection of our holiness because the material world torments believers and non-believers alike. The same is often true of socially-based suffering as well. But the pain of natural or social suffering does remind us that “this world is not our home,” that we are on a pilgrimage to a world where God will remove all of our sorrows, “and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4). (Picture to the right: All that was left of Christ Episcopal Church in Bay St. Louis, MS, after Hurricane Katrina)

Suffering, whether it comes from religious persecution, natural causes, or social oppression, can lead us into a deeper experience of Christian fellowship. On the one hand, suffering forges more profound relationships among Christian brothers and sisters. In Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, he notes that “if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1 Cor 12:26). He advises the Romans to “weep with those who are weeping” (Rom 12:15). If you’ve ever had the opportunity to share your suffering with those who have genuine sympathy, you know how this kind of sharing gives new depth to relationships. Friendliness is augmented by tenderness. Mutual enjoyment becomes mutual gratitude. Christian fellowship only realizes its full potential when brothers and sisters suffer and weep together.

On the other hand, suffering also can lead us into deeper intimacy with God. Certain kinds of pain help us to feel God’s heart for us in new ways. I remember counseling with a father whose teenage son had walked away from his faith and into the perilous world of drug abuse. As this dad wept for his son, he shared what God was doing in his own spirit through this terrible experience. “I think I’m just beginning to know something about God’s heart for us. I am angry with my son for the wrong he has done. I want him to stop it. But more than anything else, my heart is breaking for him. I would do anything, literally anything, if it would save my son. I would give up my very life for him.” Indeed, this father was getting to know the heart of God, a God who in fact did everything for us through Jesus Christ.

When we hurt, God can seem very distant. Our prayers sometimes echo that of the Psalmist:” O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?” (Ps 10:1). But there is a wide chasm between our sense of God’s apparent remoteness and the truth of his proximity. God does not stand far off, “watching us from as distance,” as the popular song proclaims. On the contrary, our Heavenly Father has drawn near to us in his Son. Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, entered fully into our humanity, even into our suffering and pain, in order to help us. The Letter to the Hebrews puts it this way:

It was necessary for Jesus to be in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. He then could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and temptation, he is able to help us when we are being tempted (Heb 2:17-18).

Jesus knows our suffering from personal experience. Even though He is fully God, He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses, since he has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sinning” (Heb 4:15). When we hurt, Jesus, the Son of God, understands. When we wonder if God has forgotten us, Jesus knows our desperation. Our triune God–the Father who loves us as His children, the Son who shares our humanness and died for us, the Spirit who dwells within us–hurts when we hurt, agonizes with our agony, and never leaves us or abandons us (Deut 31:6-8; Heb 13:5).

Amazingly, this is true even when our suffering comes as a result of our own sin. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post in this series.

Topics: Christianity and the World |


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