The Bible is full of strange statements- declarations that, when encountered in the context of the prevailing wisdom of this world, seem absolutely upside down. Most men and women of faith can give lip service to the reality that “God’s ways are not our ways,” but often, when we come face to face with just how wide that gap really is, we’re taken aback.
This week, as we continue our churchwide journey through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, we encounter one such statement, in 1:24- “For I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”
What?! Why on earth would Paul- or anyone else for that matter- “rejoice in suffering”? Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to hardship for the benefit of others, then be happy about the opportunity? Is this some kind of joke? As we step back and consider the overarching story of the Bible, the answer to these admittedly understandable questions comes into view…
To be a Christian is to suffer well for the sake of the Gospel.
Let’s be real- This is a statement that grates hard against the natural inclination of our hearts. But in examining the nature of the Gospel, we see that it’s also inescapable.
The story of the Gospel of Jesus is one of loving self-sacrifice. It is precisely because Jesus suffered well- indeed, perfectly- on our behalf that we can now be called by His name. And as those who now bear the name “Christian”- who have identified in position and practice with Jesus Christ- we are now called to the same passion and practice on behalf of others.
So then, how do we do this? How can we suffer and serve in such a way that our souls are strengthened, not stolen? I see three paths forward…
1- Consider God’s provision.
Martin Luther once said, “Christians cannot suffer with Christ before they have embraced the full benefits of Christ’s suffering for them.” It is critical to recognize that it is precisely because of Jesus’ selfless, sacrificial work on our behalf that we even have the opportunity to join with Him in “laying ourselves out” for others’ wellbeing.
There is nothing in this world more motivating than to know that the God of the universe put on flesh and bore the full weight of our sin’s penalty, that we might know life instead of death. Allow the Gospel itself to drive you forward into the hard places.
2- Consider God’s power.
Before you can suffer and serve as God has called you to suffer and serve, you must first recognize that you absolutely cannot suffer and serve as God has called you to- not on your own, at least. Paul, in discussing his own suffering on the Colossians’ behalf, makes this fascinating statement in 1:29- “(I struggle) with all His energy that He powerfully works within me.”
Did you catch that? It wasn’t in His own strength and ability that Paul persevered in the face of difficulty; it was through full reliance on God’s presence and power with him. If that was true for him, then it’s certainly true for you and me. Gritting our teeth won’t get this done; we must learn beg God for His “energy” and learn to live in it.
3- Consider God’s prize.
I’ve never run a marathon (or anything closely resembling one), and don’t plan to any time soon, but in talking with those who subject themselves to such punishment, there’s one message I hear over and over again- The thing that keeps them pressing forward in the face of incredible pain and difficulty is the goal of finishing the race.
As Christians in the midst of the “race” of faith, we press on similarly toward a goal- “the hope of glory,” as Paul termed it. For those who endure in Jesus, there’s a certain prize waiting- eternity with Him, a life unimaginably joyous forever. Knowing that that’s what awaits us at the end of what is often a hard road in this life can keep us moving in the face of significant sacrifice.
Following Jesus and serving others can be difficult sometimes; we ought not view it as a surprise or an intrusion into our lives. But at the same time, such struggle doesn’t have to deaden our souls. Indeed, if we approach it rightly, it can actually lead to something beautiful- a life that shouts the worth of Jesus, and impacts others in the best possible way.