Paul’s crazy idea about suffering

Posted: July 14, 2012 by J in Discipleship, Theology

There’s a strange twist in this strong Pauline doctrine of sharing Christ’s sufferings: Christ came to  carry and share in the world’s sufferings, and now we are called to come and share in his. He bore mankind’s pains, and now we are to bear his. But doesn’t that mean that the suffering that we enter into in Jesus is our own suffering which he took for us? Aren’t we then sharing with him in his sharing with us?

What can this mean?

It’s not totally symmetrical, as only Christians share in this, while it seems Jesus shared in the pains of all people. Can it mean that we Christians bear the sins of mankind with Jesus? That we too suffer with and because of others, for their healing? Not as a supplement to Jesus’ sacrifice, but as participants in it?

The idea wouldn’t be totally foreign to Peter. He writes a letter all about our calling to suffer:

For it means grace if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, this brings grace with God.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22     “He committed no sin,
        and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.  25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.                1 Peter 2:19-25

This is a remarkable passage. First. Peter echoes Paul, insisting that we have been called to suffering unjust treatment: ‘For to this you have been called’ (v.21).

Then he explains that righteous suffering brings grace. Blessing to you, but also to those who see it: the foolish are called out of their ignorance (2:15). Those who bad-mouth you now will see your goodness and be changed by it, so that on the day of God they will be praising him (2:12). Wives  if they suffer at the hands of an unbelieving husband, should do good to them, that ‘they may be won over without a word by their wives’ conduct’ (3:1). In the same way ‘Christ suffered for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God‘ (3:18).

If seems from this that we should copy Jesus in suffering, in the hope our sufferings will lead others to God. And this is precisely what Peter spells out:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps

Jesus’ suffering becomes a pattern for us, of:

 – righteous enduring of unjust treatment:  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” 

 – which is transformative and healing: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 – this suffering has a reconciling power in it: For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls. 

And that’s the pattern Jesus has left us, so that we would follow in his footsteps. Crikey!

Peter is not exactly talking ‘participation’, sharing Christ’s own sufferings, the way Paul does. He’s talking imitation, following Christ’s pattern of suffering. But the two approaches have a lot in common.

Can we really bear the sins of others, with Jesus? Take on this priestly ministry of mediation and reconciliation?

Because if we can, then believers’ sufferings belong in that special category with Jesus’ sufferings: God doesn’t will them to exist,  but since they do exist, he does will that we bear them for the healing of others.

I’m totally in over my head here. Got a bad feeling there’s more to discover in this territory, and I don’t like the thought of what that might be. Perhaps I’m on the wrong track? That would be comforting: someone please explain to me how it’s all wrong.

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