When I was much younger, my friends and I would often drive our motorcycles at dangerous speeds, seeing how low we could get as we went around curves in the road. I wrecked my bike one time, with only minor injuries. Some of my friends were not so fortunate however, and experienced serious injuries. Some are still suffering today from the injuries they received back then.
There I've finally introduced the topic - suffering. All of us have suffered from ill-made decisions, be it relationships, how we spend our money, extreme sports, cheating at school and in our taxes. I think most of us would say there is little merit in suffering for the causes we mentioned above, other than helping us learn valuable life lessons. It does little to help point people to Jesus and to see His kingdom advanced.
The next tier of suffering is one most of us are also familiar with. It is suffering from the hard things that life brings: death, sickness, loneliness, etc. These sufferings are often difficult for us to understand because we can't quite see how this could be part of God’s good plan for us. And so we struggle to understand how God could be good in the midst of our suffering.
But there is yet another tier of suffering that I think we need to keep in mind. So far, both kinds of suffering I have mentioned are experienced by both believers and non-believers alike. In fact, the believer has the advantage over the unbeliever when experiencing these kinds of sufferings.
1 Thessalonians 4:13 says: “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We grieve, yes, but in the midst of our grief we can still have hope. Not only do we have hope, we have a loving Father that uses these painful situations to refine us, to make us more like Jesus. When we respond to these extremely difficult things with hope, the world takes notice; it can be a powerful testimony to point people to Jesus.
But unfortunately, many believers stop right here. We are grateful that Jesus walks beside us in our sufferings, but we don’t often ask ourselves how we might walk alongside Jesus in His sufferings. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
These sufferings seems to be different from the first two types of suffering in one main way – they come as a direct result of choosing to follow Jesus. Somehow, we have come to think that simply trusting in God’s goodness despite the hardships we face, is taking up our cross and following Jesus. But we have already seen how that following Jesus actually gives believers a distinct advantage over the unbeliever. Can we call having an advantage in life, cross-bearing?
What if the kind of suffering that is precious in God’s sight looks a lot more like Jesus’ own journey? J.H. Yoder in The Politics of Jesus writes: “The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice. He warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33)” (p. 129).
What is our view of suffering? Do we follow Jesus mainly for the help He provides us to get through the hardships of life (and He does!), or do we, like Jesus, like Paul, see the way of the cross as the means by which His kingdom advances? How we answer that question will dramatically affect the course of our lives.