Monday, May 24, 2010

Talk about Suffering Part 2: Discipleship

A recent issue of Mission Frontiers on the theme of suffering includes an excerpt from John Piper's book, Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ. In the excerpt Piper argues that, "God's design for the evangelization of the world and the consummation of his purposes includes the suffering of his ministers and missionaries." As evidence Piper points to passages in the Gospels such as Luke 21:17 and John 15:20 where Jesus explains that his followers can expect to suffer as he did: "voluntary suffering and death to save others is not only the  content but it is also the method of our mission." But Piper is also concerned to guard against misunderstanding, so he quickly clarifies that Christian suffering is not redemptive: "There is only one Redeemer. Only one death atones for sin--Christ's death. ...[O]ur sufferings add nothing to the atoning worth and sufficiency of Christ's sufferings."

While I want to affirm with Piper the unique significance of Jesus' atoning death, I think the emphasis Piper places on the differences between Christ's suffering and that of his followers is unbiblical. The New Testament writers took for granted the uniqueness of Jesus' death, but they were not afraid to emphasize the similarities with Christian suffering, and they were more interested in the similarities than the differences. Consider the following passages:
  • Peter quotes from Isaiah 53 and declares that Christ "bore our sins in his body on the tree so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; by his wounds you were healed" (1 Peter :2:24), but this statement about the significance of Christ's death is to serve as "an example, so that you might follow in his steps" (2:21).
  • Paul says “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col 1:24). Whatever this verse means, Christ's afflictions for the sake of the church are paralleled by Paul's sufferings for the Colossians.
  • In Acts, Luke lays out the practical consequences of following Jesus by drawing links between Jesus’ death and the suffering of his followers. As Stephen (slide), the first Christian martyr, is stoned to death, he says “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” (7:59) just as Jesus had said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And just as Jesus said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), Stephen cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). In Acts 12, Peter is arrested by Herod who planned to execute him around Passover just as another Herod had been involved in the arrest of Jesus during an earlier Passover celebration (Acts 12). The parallels are extensive: While Jesus is raised from the dead, Peter is miraculously released from his tomb-like prison and the sentence of death. There are also parallels between Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, his trial and execution, and Paul’s long journey to Jerusalem, his trial, and eventual execution (in Rome). The lives of the early Christians mirror the life and death of Jesus.

Not only is Piper's emphasis on the differences between Christ's suffering and Christian suffering unbiblical, it obscures a fundamental New Testament theme, and misses the explanation for suffering that the biblical writers provide. As far as I can see, Piper offers no reply to the question why it is part of God's plan for Christian ministers to suffer, except to say that God has decreed it.

The New Testament answer, I think, is that we participate in the merits of Christ's unique atoning death by participating in his death. This includes death to sin, death to self--but it also includes suffering up to and including physical death. And this suffering is not just for those involved in ministry (pace Piper), but for everyone who wishes to follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

More detail, drawn from the same source that lies behind part 1 in this series, below the jump break:

When Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21), he wasn’t trying to decide between the choice of a good life here and now, and a better afterlife with Christ. Life now for Paul meant prison. Released from prison he must have expected a return to the same sort of experience he describes in 2 Corinthians 11:
26 . . . . I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

In 1 Corinthians 15, he says “I die every day.” Paul seems to be in to suffering. He also seems to think it is normal when believers suffer. He tells the Thessalonians that they are “destined for” afflictions (1 Thess 3:3), and explains to the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (1:29).

For a long time, verses like this struck me as completely bizarre--the result, I think, of distinguishing too sharply between Christ's suffering and Christian suffering. It has gradually dawned on me that the idea of Christian suffering runs through the NT, and there is an obvious explanation for it. Paul wasn’t sadistic. He doesn’t claim that suffering is good in itself. He doesn’t encourage us to seek it out or say we should feel guilty if we aren’t suffering. But he takes it for granted—because to live is Christ.

“To live is Christ” means all sorts of positive things. It means that God is for us. It means eternal life. It means forgiveness of sins. It means “joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). It means hope. It means the power of the resurrection transforming our existence. But for Paul these benefits of salvation come through our participation with Christ in his death and resurrection:
  • “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the father, we also might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4).
  • “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:19b-20a).

“To live is Christ” means that my life is no longer my own. It means identifying with the very image of suffering—with the one who was tortured, shamed, and crucified. That’s why Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12:9). In Philippians, he says: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11 NIV). The “fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” is not some abstract other-worldly thing that happens when I pray the prayer and become a Christian. I think Luke highlights the similarities between Jesus and Stephen, Peter and Paul because he believes they exemplify what is normal about Christian suffering. They model the pattern of discipleship. Paul states this explicitly in Acts 14:22 after he is nearly stoned to death when he tells new Christians, “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Knowing Christ—having a personal relationship with Christ—means sharing his sufferings as we continue living our lives. The abundant life Jesus offers involves surrendering the right to our own existence, taking up our cross and following him. The life of discipleship is paradoxically an abundant life. It is the failure of western Christendom that it misses the paradox and concludes that Christ came to save us from suffering rather than to welcome us into it.


Danny Gamache said...

What does the idea of suffering mean for us here in Canada? We rarely suffer. Often what we call suffering wouldn't be called that in some other parts of the world. Sure there are exceptions, but what about those of us that don't suffer? I don't think we should seek out suffering, doesn't that create a false "religion"?

d. miller said...

Thanks for the comment, Danny!

I agree that we aren't called to seek out suffering, and I object to the guilt-inducing manipulation of passages originally intended to encourage those in suffering. It is not true that something must always be wrong if we're not suffering. Good things are to be enjoyed, not felt guilty for (1 Tim 6:17). We are summoned to pursue Jesus not suffering; suffering is a side-effect of discipleship, not something to be sought out in its own right.

At the same time, I think the Western church's failure to embrace suffering indicates that something is wrong, and here's where your question comes in. The best answer I have is a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

"We are not Christs, but if we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ's breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly, by grasping our "hour," by facing danger like free men, by displaying a real sympathy which springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. To look on without lifting a helping hand is most un-Christian. The Christian does not have to wait until he suffers himself; the sufferings of his brethren for whom Christ died are enough to awaken his active sympathy." - From "After Ten Years" in Letters and Papers from Prison.

Remarkably, Bonhoeffer insisted that his imprisonment by the Nazi's didn't qualify as suffering.

Isaac Gross said...

Do you think Piper's commitment to Penal Substitution leads him to this?

d. miller said...

I think it's his defensive commitment to penal substitution.

Danny Gamache said...

Thanks David, helpful.