The Gift of Suffering and the Usefulness of the Cross

The gift of suffering! Isn’t that the gift that nobody wants? To be sure, the Word of God doesn’t teach us to pursue suffering. But it does describe the life of the Christian, the life of the ordinary Christian, not just that of a martyr or some kind of super-saint, as a life of suffering. In fact, as Paul tells you in Philippians 1:29, if you believe in Christ you suffer with him: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….” (NIV)

In preparing to preach on that verse, I re-read a superb article, written over 40 years ago. A longish quote, followed by a brief comment:

“We tend to think only of persecution that follows on explicit witness to Christ, or perhaps also of intense physical suffering or economic hardships that may result from a stand taken for the gospel. … But the ‘sufferings of Christ’ are much broader. They are the Christian’s involvement in the ‘sufferings of the present time,’ as the time of comprehensive subjection of the entire creation to futility and frustration, to decay and pervasive, enervating weakness…. Where existence in creation under the curse on sin and in the mortal body is not simply borne, be it stoically or in whatever other sinfully self-centered, rebellious way, but borne for Christ and lived in his service, there, comprehensively, is ‘the fellowship of his sufferings.’”

“The giveness of Christian suffering needs to be stressed. This is expressed almost literally in Philippians 1:29: ‘it has been given to you on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.’ Notice that Paul does not say faith is common to all Christians, while suffering is the lot of only some. He expresses instead a correlativity of faith and suffering, the intimate bond between them. The Christian life is a not only . . . but also proposition: not only believing, but also suffering.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Usefulness of the Cross,” Westminster Theological Journal, XLI.2, Spring 1979, pages 237–238)

The balance evident in that essay is profoundly helpful. On the one hand, it avoids the temptation to despair over the problems and trials of our present situation, the temptation to move to what Gaffin calls “a millennial escapism and narrowing of the gospel.” (p.246) The good news, proclaimed in its fullness, is used by the Holy Spirit to transform lives, and in doing so, has a profound effect on every area of life. On the other hand, the emphasis on the usefulness of the cross enables the church to avoid a superficial utopianism — a view which I have seen easily skips over suffering and humility simply by citing the fact that Christ in Revelation is the triumphant rider on the white horse. This side of the resurrection we share in suffering.

The article in full is available here, among other places.

Yes, Christ has triumphed, and yes, the church, united to him by faith, shares in that victory. But our victory, this side of Christ’s return, has a not yet aspect. And our triumph is evident, not in the absence of suffering, but precisely in suffering. Suffering for Christ, and because you are in Christ, is indeed a gift.

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