In Christ Our Suffering Is Not in Vain
Jesus suffered for us. Yet we are called to participate in His suffering. Though He was uniquely the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, there is still an application of this vocation for us. We are given both the duty and the privilege to participate in the suffering of Christ.
A mysterious reference to this idea is found in the writings of the apostle Paul: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (Col. 1:24). Here Paul declared that he rejoiced in his suffering. Surely he did not mean that he enjoyed pain and affliction. Rather, the cause of his joy was found in the meaning of his suffering. He said that he filled up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
On the surface, Paul’s explanation is astonishing. What could possibly have been lacking in the afflictions of Christ? Did Christ only half-finish His redemptive work, leaving it to Paul to complete it? Was Jesus overstating the case when He cried from the cross, “It is finished”? What exactly was lacking in the suffering of Christ?
In terms of the value of Jesus’ suffering, it is blasphemous to suggest anything was lacking. The merit of His atoning sacrifice is infinite. Nothing could possibly be added to His perfect obedience to make it even more perfect. Nothing can be more perfect than perfect. What is absolutely perfect cannot be augmented.
The merit of Jesus’ suffering is sufficient to atone for every sin that has ever been or ever will be committed. His once-for-all atoning death needs no repetition (Heb. 10:10). Old Testament sacrifices were repeated precisely because they were imperfect shadows of the reality that was to come (Heb. 10:1).
It was not by accident that the Roman Catholic Church appealed to Paul’s words in Colossians 1:24 to support its concept of the treasury of merits, by which the merits of the saints are supposedly added to the merit of Christ to cover the deficiencies of sinners. This doctrine was at the eye of the Protestant Reformation tornado. It was this eclipse of the sufficiency and perfection of Christ’s suffering that was at the heart of Martin Luther’s protest.
Though we vigorously deny Rome’s interpretation of this passage, we are still left with our question. If Paul’s suffering did not add merit to what was lacking in Christ’s sufferings, what did it add?
The answer to this difficult question lies in the broader teaching of the New Testament in regard to the believer’s call to participate in the humiliation of Christ. Our baptism signifies that we are buried with Christ. Paul repeatedly pointed out that unless we are willing to participate in the humiliation of Jesus, we will not participate in His exaltation (see 2 Timothy 2:11–12).
Paul rejoiced that his suffering was a benefit to the church. The church is called to imitate Christ. It is called to walk the Via Dolorosa. Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church was the image of the human body. The church is called the body of Christ. In one sense, it is proper to call the church the “continuing incarnation.” The church is really the mystical body of Christ on earth.
Christ so linked His church to Himself that when He first called Paul on the Damascus Road He said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 9:4, emphasis added). Saul was not literally persecuting Jesus. Jesus had already ascended to heaven. He was already out of reach of Saul’s hostility. Saul was busy persecuting Christians. But Jesus felt such solidarity with His church that He regarded an attack upon His body, the church, as a personal attack on Himself.
The church is not Christ. Christ is perfect; the church is imperfect. Christ is the Redeemer; the church is the company of the redeemed. However, the church belongs to Christ. The church is redeemed by Christ. The church is the bride of Christ. The church is indwelt by Christ.
In light of this solidarity, the church participates in Christ’s suffering. But this participation adds nothing to Christ’s merit. The sufferings of Christians may benefit other people, but they always fall short of atonement. I cannot atone for anyone’s sins, not even for my own. Yet my suffering may be of great benefit to other people. It may also serve as a witness to the One whose sufferings were an atonement.
The word for “witness” in the New Testament, martus, is the source of the English word martyr. Those who suffered and died for the cause of Christ were called martyrs because by their suffering they bore witness to Christ.
What is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus is the ongoing suffering that God calls His people to endure. God calls people of every generation to suffer. Again, this suffering is not to fulfill any deficiency in the merit of Christ, but to fulfill our destinies as witnesses to the perfect Suffering Servant of God.
What does this mean in practical terms? My father suffered a series of cerebral hemorrhages that caused him great suffering and eventually ended his life. I’m sure that while he was suffering he must have asked God, “Why?” On the surface, his suffering seemed useless. It seemed as though his pain was for no good reason.
I must be very careful. I do not think that my father’s suffering was in any way an atonement for my sins. Neither do I think I can read God’s mind with respect to the ultimate reason for my father’s suffering. But I know this: my father’s suffering made a profound impact on my life. It was through my father’s death that I was brought to Christ. I am not saying that the ultimate reason my father was called to suffer and die was so that I could become a Christian. I don’t know the sovereign purpose of God in it. But I do know that God used that suffering in a redemptive way for me. My dad’s suffering drove me into the arms of the Suffering Savior.
We are followers of Christ. We follow Him to the Garden of Gethsemane. We follow Him into the hall of judgment. We follow Him along the Via Dolorosa. We follow Him unto death. But the gospel declares that we also follow Him through the gates of heaven. Because we suffer with Him, we also shall be raised with Him. If we are humiliated with Him, we also shall be exalted with Him.
Because of Christ, our suffering is not useless. It is part of the total plan of God, who has chosen to redeem the world through the pathway of suffering.
This excerpt is taken from Surprised by Suffering by R.C. Sproul.