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Sharing Our Struggles and Successes Together

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, October 23, 2008

Part 9 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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Yesterday I began to explore the implications of the fact that the church is the body of Christ: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad” (1 Cor 12:26). If this is true, then we will share each other’s pain, hurting along with our brothers and sisters. If you don’t like to feel bad (and who does?), this isn’t exactly good news. Yet through our mutual empathy we are able to care for each other.

For me, there is an even more unsettling implication in Paul’s picture of the sympathetic body. If, when one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, then when I suffer, others will suffer along with me. Now I suppose some people might find this appealing. But I don’t. I’m the sort of person who likes to suffer alone. If I’m sick, I don’t want my wife and family to take care of me. I want them to leave me alone. That’s how I’m wired. So the idea of sharing my suffering with others isn’t something I warm up to easily.

Moreover, Paul’s description of the body implies that I must let the other parts know when I am suffering. If there’s one thing I like less than feeling pain, it’s admitting that pain to other people. I want to pretend that I am above it all, a man of strength and unwavering faith. I don’t want to be weak, or needy, or doubting, or vulnerable. And when I am any of these things, I don’t want to admit it. Yet God expects this sort of intimacy among members of Christ’s body. And he expects it, I fear, because he knows that we cannot bear our pain alone. We have been created and saved to share such things with others.

Perhaps you are not cursed with the need to pretend you’re invincible. If you can easily share your struggles with others, you are blessed. As a pastor, however, I know that my reticence to share my pain is not unique. Time and again members of my church in Irvine would go into the hospital without telling anyone because they were embarrassed. Or they would struggle silently as their family crumbled, but kept quiet because they felt so ashamed. When folks in my church hid their pain, I felt bugged me because they make it impossibly hard for the body to care for them as we should have done. But I certainly understood the fears that kept folks from admitting their struggles.

There have been times in my life, however, when my suffering was so acute that I couldn’t hide it. Twenty two years ago my dad was dying of cancer, slowly and excruciatingly. In the last stages of his life, my family and I would nurse my dad, caring for him in ways that sapped every ounce of strength. The combination of sadness and stress was almost too much to bear. Thank God we did not have to bear it alone!

I was working at Hollywood Presbyterian Church during those years, the church where my parents had been active for two decades. During the last year of my father’s life, friends from church would check in with me and the rest of my family each day. They prayed without ceasing. The loved without expecting anything in return. In the last three months of my dad’s life they brought dinners to my parents’ home, every night a new meal. The food ranged from perfectly cooked prime rib to take out fried chicken. But whatever the quality of the food, every meal conveyed love that fed our souls as well as our bodies.

Experiences like this one have made it a bit easier for me to share my sufferings with others, but only a bit!

Let me add that such intimacy will not happen, and is not meant to happen, in large groups. It’s impossible for groups larger than forty or fifty to suffer and rejoice together in the manner Paul envisions. If we are to be active members of the body of Christ, therefore, we must be in groups that are small enough to facilitate mutual sharing. Most churches have groups like this. They go by different names, such as: small groups, cell groups, growth groups, adult classes, home Bible studies, kinship groups, prayer groups, etc. Specific group functions differ from church to church. But most of these gatherings facilitate personal openness, providing a place for you to share your pains and your victories.

There is a more appealing upside to Paul’s vision of body sympathy: if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. The Corinthians were mired in self-centered accomplishment, seeking to magnify their own honor, even at the expense of others. But God’s plan for the body of Christ eliminates all of this selfish striving. If we share all of life together, the honoring of a fellow body-part will feel like the honoring of ourselves. We will rejoice unselfconsciously with the one who has been honored.

This kind of shared honor can be quite counter-cultural. I lived for sixteen plus years in Irvine, California, one of the most competitive environments you can find. Most Irvine parents are driven to make sure their kids are successful in every way: athletically, academically, socially, etc. (Sadly, they don’t as often care about emotional or spiritual “success.”) As a result, parents can often feel competitive with others parents. They find ways to boast about their children’s accomplishments as if achievement is a zero sum game. If my child wins, your’s loses, and vice versa. (Photo: Moon rise over North Lake in Irvine, California)

But at Irvine Presbyterian Church things were often quite different. As parents shared their struggles, as they prayed for each other and their children, competitiveness lessened. Sunday school teachers followed the “careers” of their students, rejoicing when they grew up and got scholarships to college. When one child was honored, many parents rejoiced.

So, though it can be scary to share your life with others, or to share deeply in their lives, the results of such vulnerability and connectedness are rich indeed. They can stretch those of us who prize independence and self-reliance. But when we truly share our lives together as members of the body of Christ, the rewards are plentiful.

In my next post in this series I want to examine another implication of being the body of Christ together.

Topics: Church as Body of Christ |

5 Responses to “Sharing Our Struggles and Successes Together”

  1. Evan Says:
    October 23rd, 2008 at 8:59 am

    This is a topic that you could write on for a very long time. Many, many issues and facets.

    Physical suffering is probably the easiest hurt to share and to help others bear up under. Whatever else I might be able or not to do, I can certainly get take-out chicken for an evening and pray for a family. It is very rare that someone stricken with physical problems receives judgment or disdain from believers, and ways to help are often very obvious and within our abilities to perform.

    But how does one respond to a person suffering from a “dark night of the soul”? If you are hearing from God just fine every day, what do you make of someone who says that he can no longer sense any presence of God? What do you think of someone who has taught Sunday School for years but now that their children are teenagers, the kids are drinking and fornicating openly? As a seasoned pastor, well-acquainted with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the subtleties of a relationship with Jesus Christ, your response would likely be gracious. Unfortunately, that is often not the case with the imperfect saints in the pews. Job can tell you all about that aspect of things.

    I hope you can address such issues, and as usual, I may be jumping the gun here. It is hard enough, as you note, for men to admit that any help is needed. But I have observed enough cases in which disdain was heaped upon someone who admitted that they were suffering to conclude that being staked out on a fire ant bed would be less painful than sharing any suffering with the saints in the pews.

  2. J. Falconer Says:
    October 23rd, 2008 at 9:57 am

    Rev. Roberts, Thank you for sharing your most recent post. America & especially Orange County, CA was the most competitive environment I ever resided in. It was interesting to notice that I observed a lot of unethical behavior that seemed greatly applauded & accepted. Maybe the worldly attitude was the ends justified the means!! My experience in Texas was the direct opposite with character & personality more important than outward symbols of success & prosperity. Everyone has a story & we especially enjoy reading & learning from your posts. Keep up the awesome work. I’m so glad the children at Irvine PC observed Team work. Thanks Again- J

  3. J. Falconer Says:
    October 23rd, 2008 at 10:09 am

    Rev. Mark Roberts, Also, Thanks again for sharing your personal family history. In a lot of families, it’s taboo to share one’s problems & pain. My grandfather suffered the same fate as your father’s - my condolences to all of your family-even if some time has passed. My own father rarely shared this painful chapter about the illness & dying of his favorite relative-his own father. It can reopen the most sensitive & Painful emotions one can bear & share. My father said when he was a teenager he was shaving his cancer stricken father whose body weight went down to 85 pounds on his deathbed. Thank God our faith can help soften the emotional sadness,loss, & pain & the hope of a brighter future in a forever place with no suffering, loss & pain. Thanks Again & God Bless j

  4. S.E.P. Says:
    October 23rd, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Thanks so much for these posts on body life. We are blessed to attend a church where when children are dedicated by their parents to the Lord, the congregation is asked to stand and affirm that each of us will nurture, encourage and help these children to grow in their faith. This responsibility belongs to all of us, not just to the children’s pastor and Sunday School teachers. In that my husband and I are raising our 6-year-old son with no close family support, we appreciate more than we can express the encouragement our little family receives from the people at our church. Our body is doing a fantastic job bearing each other’s burdens and sharing each other’s joy.

    P.S. — I can totally relate to what you said about Orange County competitiveness. Having spent the first 41 years of my life there, moving to Clovis, California (five years ago) was wonderful change!

  5. HenryH Says:
    October 24th, 2008 at 9:49 am

    Oh, yeah? You think Orange County is competitive? You should try living in the D.C. area. Talk about competitive… Oh, wait, sorry, never mind. But seriously, while competitiveness doesn’t always manifest itself in the same way, it seems a pretty universal ailment.

    On your point about the size of a group that can care for each other, it’s certainly true that the deepest care comes from the closest people and that’s usually a small group. Nevertheless, the wider family can play an important part at times. On Monday night, five high school kids, three from our church, were driving from a Young Life meeting to Burger King when the driver lost control and crashed into a tree. One passenger was killed and another remains in critical condition. In a time like this, a much larger segment of the family needs to join those who are closer. The best emotional support comes from those closest to those suffering but the “easy” stuff — meals seems to be the most obvious — can come from anyone. I know you know that, I just thought it should be said. If the person suffering isn’t in your “small group”, that doesn’t necessarily take you off the hook.

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking series of posts.


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