Some people think that Christ suffering for us is disturbing. Personally, I find the next part of the story more disturbing: we share with Christ as he shares in our sufferings. Consider this from the apostle Paul:
I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Colossians 1:24
See what I mean about disturbing? But the epistles are chock-full of talk about suffering. It was something of a favourite topic for the apostles:
the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us 2 Corinthians 1:5
This was not just something for apostles, however:
we [believers] are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him. Romans 8:17
when you do right and suffer for it, it is a gracious thing. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you… 1 Peter 2:20-21
It seems that, Christ Jesus having answered his calling and borne our sufferings and tasted our death, standing in for us at the cross, now we are called to bear them with him, and taste his death, and stand with him in crucifixion.
This is disturbing for a few reasons. One is that it plays havoc with our favourite evangelical doctrine of substitution. Whatever that term means (and I think it is a relevant word for the cross), it doesn’t mean we remain distant or uninvolved.
Another reason this is disturbing is because these are redemptive acts we are being called to share in. This death is an atoning death. And we don’t just benefit from it, we enter into it. The mind reels from following the full implications of this, and we will not attempt it here. But Peter pushes some of them:
Christ also suffered for you, leaving you a pattern, so that you should follow in his steps… He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross…by his wounds you have been healed…now you have returned to the shepherd of your souls…Wives, in the same way, submit to the authority of your [potentially harsh] husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word… 1 Peter 2:21-3:1
The pattern is a redemptive pattern, and there are things about that which I don’t understand.
Taking a step back, however, this NT teaching about Christians suffering clearly places it in a special category. It is not just suffering anymore: it has been charged with new and redemptive meaning. While suffering in itself is an evil and therefore futile and pointless, God has now overlaid even this with a web of meaning and relationship: Christ for us and us with Christ. This most meaningless of human experiences now carries purpose: for Christ has gotten involved in the thing. Suffering has been swept up in the life-giving, creative work of God. Its attempt to subvert the good of creation has itself been subverted, and suffering has been employed to bring about new creation:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:22-23
The imagery here is of that most purposeful and meaningful experience of suffering: the pain of labour and childbirth. As Christians suffer with Jesus, through that pain new life is coming. Suffering even takes on an eschatological significance.