A Christian does not simply have Christ as savior — as if we can reduce his life to this: Jesus gave his life and therefore we don’t have to go to hell. His life includes that, but it is more than that. We participate in more than the winning benefits of Christ, starting with the fact that we get Christ himself. That is, we get his life and his way of being human. We have him as savior and we have him and his way of living. And in having him, we become like him. And here is the apparently hard part: His earthly life was the life of the suffering servant, and that life is the pattern of our own personal way of being human.
Suffering: The God-Design
Suffering was the Christ-life. It was not an anomaly, it was the design. Suffering was not the Christ-life just for Jesus — lived and done by him only to get us into heaven — but it was the Christ-life that he wants reproduced on earth by his followers. God showed us what a Human really is. Jesus is the true Human. And now you. If we relegate Jesus to “he saved me by his suffering” and then think, “that was cool for him, glad I don’t have to have that….” then think again! The Christ-life means reading and preaching the Gospels and then living the Word as he lived. Your life becomes the Gospel of John preached. The Gospel of Mark is preached to the Church, then the Church preaches the Gospel of Mark to the world. That Gospel-life was not an anomaly for Jesus only, it was the design for his life and your life. Jesus wants a new humanity, and he is the first of that new race. And now you too. You, yes you, are to live the Christ life. The Gospels give you the heavenly blueprint of the real Temple and the actual way to live. The Gospels are reality, and they call you to that actual way of living (indeed, there is no other way to be truly alive). Jesus rejected by family is for you too!
And we are not alone. God himself conforms us to his image and his way of being human. And God has tools he uses to conform us to his image. He gave his Word (the Bible and preaching), his Spirit, the Church and even Suffering. It is the last of these, suffering, that concerns me here. Suffering is a tool in the hand of God to make you Christ-like (which is the same as being God-like).
Suffering is How God was God in the World
Suffering is the way of God being God in the world, it is the way of Christ, and it is the way of those who are like him. When we eat his flesh and drink his blood we are joining him in suffering and in the divine realities. Communion with Christ means that our life changes and we adopt the suffering-life (not the eating of bread and wine at a church services, but a life handed over as an offering to God).
Jesus is the Great Reality and nothing is better or more interesting or more valuable or worthy than him. And to obtain him, we come on his terms. His term is this: lose your life to him, gain it back in the resurrection. The terms for gaining Christ mean that nothing in this life competes with him. Nothing in this life gains our attention over Christ. Nothing. Not your spouse or children or career or losses… Nothing. Even suffering does not compete. Losing home, life, family, job, goods, kindred, this mortal life also, do not rank with the joy we have in being in Christ, with Christ, as Christ, like Christ, and the body of Christ.
We do not retreat from suffering as if God is wrong-headed about how our lives are supposed to be, but we praise him for suffering.
Count the Cost, then Sign up with Your Life
If you want Jesus as your savior, and you don’t want to suffer 100% for his glory, then don’t put your hand to the plow. Don’t follow Christ at all if you have any terms. Come on his terms or don’t come at all. We enter the kingdom of God through tribulation, and it means a daily death and a daily cross. And it means great Joy that you are counted worthy to reproduce the Christ-life. If that idea is foreign to you, then pray to God and ask him to assist you.
Christianity (sold-out zeal for Jesus) means essential identity with Jesus. And when we look at Jesus, we see a man who died alone, rejected, non-congratulated and despised. Are you ready for that? Are you expecting that the very life of Jesus will be your life? Or are you thinking that suffering was good for him (and for our salvation) but not for you?
If you want Christ, you must have all of him. And all of him includes washing feet, being hated, being rejected by friends and family, throwing yourself at his commands, loving what he loved (he loved the church!). If your family is too high a cost for you, then you are not fit for the kingdom. If your job, or success, or reputation, or any of your possessions are off-limits to the service of praise, then Jesus is still alien to you.
Count the Cost… but don’t Count too Slowly!
If you name Jesus as your King, but he is barred access to any element or portion of your life, then it is not too late. Lose your life NOW, and you will gain it back.
Don’t wait to lose your life when your present pain subsides, or when you are on your deathbed, or when you get out of debt, or when your family is in right order, or when the economy picks up, or when you finish the important deal you are working on; Christ demands everything, even the immediacy of your adoption of his way of being human. Do not suppose that you can get around to this at some future date. And now I am talking to those who call themselves Christian. I am talking to the religious people of our age. I am talking to the theologically astute Christian who is expert at Bible study and the good parents who raise their kids in all morality. Christianity is not about protecting your ideas about a successful life (unless your ideas are losing and dying for the glory of Jesus).
Jesus has shown us what it means to be a true human. He has not shown us the human life as if it were good for him only, but he is telling you to live it as well. It is for you. If I can say it oddly: “Christianity” was not just for Jesus! If your Christianity does not look like the way Jesus lived, then ask yourself if you have the real Chrisitianity. If that sounds unbalanced or unreal, then imagine instead that you have domesticated Christianity. Jesus plainly shows us that the life of God on earth has nothing to do with a bank account, a college fund for our kids, earthly security, a health care plan, or any other such distraction. False humanity (the kind we get from our parents at birth) is a life that is lost in trivialities and creature comforts. But look at Jesus. He himself has blazed a different path — a narrow path — the Christ-path. It is a path of suffering with Joy for the Glory of the Triune God.
If You Count the Cost Properly, You Find that it Adds up to All Joy.
It is Fantastic Joy to be like Christ! No matter the cost, being united to Christ is of greater worth. God will show you that it is all joy. This joyous path is strangely one and the same as the tribulation path in that it costs us our present life. But we are going to die regardless! We lose our lives, and it is a lifetime of so doing. We bear our cross daily so that Christianity is not simply “going to heaven instead of hell.” It includes that, in one sense, but Jesus gave us his life and now we daily give ours. All of this equates to a willingness to give up everything, but to gain it all back and more. You lose what you cannot keep to gain what you cannot lose.
If being like Christ means suffering (and it does) and you can’t count it joy, then you can’t count Christ as Joy. If anything stands in the way of you seeing that this world is a pile of rubbish, and that gaining Jesus is our chief joy, then you will wallow in suffering like a lost soul. Every pain you experience will make you imagine that God is against you. Suffering will not produce joy in you, but a kind of confusion, stoic stature, or even depression. So look to Jesus.
If you can’t count it joy when you face trials of various kinds (if you can’t embrace and love the way God conforms you to his image), then pray and ask God, and he will give you wisdom (James 1:2-4). When we pray this way, God will answer. And therein we find that there is nothing that can rob us of our affections and fixation on the grandeur of Jesus. Even suffering becomes glorious as it enables us to fix our gaze more strongly on Jesus.
Suffering is a Sacrament — a Means of Grace
Suffering is a divine sacrament. It is a means of Grace. It is God’s way of drawing you to himself. But if suffering does not produce Upward-Joy, then your suffering is in waste, and is only pain.
This is not a philisophical theory, this is the message of Jesus. For in losing our life now, there is a resurrection that speaks better things. And looking past the suffering we count it all joy when we endure the cross. For the joy set before us, we do not count these present evils as worthy of comparison to the glory that is going to be revealed in us. We are not tricked by suffering. It does not blind us for a second. We see through it, and we even see it as useful in God perfecting our vision. We see Christ raised from the dead standing at the right hand of the Father. Our own suffering draws that into sharper relief, and therefore is a mystery of how God’s grace comes to us.
God is gracious to us in that he takes us through suffering. Even Jesus learned obedience through suffering. How much more us! Because it was good for him, we want the same!
The Cross does not Blind Us, It is Our Seeing
Praise God that we get to spy him through death and dying. Praise God that the death of our children and loved ones is not the victory of Satan and Adam. Praise God that gut wrenching sickness is not in opposite balance with the glory of Christ. Praise God that divorce and loss of relationships is not equal to the magnitude of Jesus.
What is sorrow, sickness, exposure, famine, bankruptcy and even death in comparison to Jesus? Jesus stands large against all these things, and they are as nothing in comparison to him. Praise God.
Gracious Joy and Amazing Adventure
When you suffer, it is God’s good grace upon your life. Bless those who persecute you. Pray for your enemies. Bless and do not curse. God is being good to you when you lose.
All of this is Wonderful! You are invited into an amazing reality when God brings you into his world. It is excellent to be like Christ. Far from disheartening, this is joy igniting. Far from being a bummer, this is a chance to be a part of God’s universe. He brings you into heavenly realities by taking you through the grave. Suffering means we see the resurrection. And if we participate with him in suffering, then we will also share with him in all the benefits he has won for us.