Apr 13, 2020

Suffering Well in Union with Christ

6 Min Read

All Christians want to know how the past resurrection of Christ and our future resurrection in union with Him shape our everyday lives. We will never see how the resurrection changes our lives until we understand that all change happens by the power of the Holy Spirit. One of our greatest privileges as Christians is being indwelled by the third person of the Trinity. Therefore, the resurrection life is the Spirit-filled life (Acts 2:4; Rom. 8:4–7; Eph. 5:18).

This Spirit-filled life cannot be considered apart from another biblical doctrine: union with Christ. A quick read of the Apostle Paul’s letters reveals that his favorite expression to describe believers is not “Christians.” Instead, it’s a little two-word phrase: “in Christ.” A follower of Jesus is someone who is “in Christ.” To grasp what God is telling us, we need to take a brief detour and outline the basics of the biblical doctrine of union with Christ. Though this doctrine had fallen on hard times in evangelicalism, theologians and authors are paying more attention to it than they have at any time in recent memory. Despite renewed interest, it is still too often misunderstood. I certainly don’t promise to clear up all the confusion, but I want to sketch the doctrine’s basic contours and its relationship to the resurrection.

At the most basic level, union with Christ means that by faith alone, Christ is now our representative, whereas Adam was previously our representative. As many authors have put it, union with Christ means that what is true of Jesus is now true of us (in a creaturely way, of course) by faith alone. We are born united to Adam, meaning we are born guilty and sinful (Ps. 51:5; Rom. 5:12–21). Adam’s sin was imputed, or counted, to us. As a result of his first transgression, every aspect of our humanity is fallen.

Central to the good news is the reversal of this situation. As one church father put it, “Where Adam failed, Christ prevailed.” Christ obeyed the law perfectly in our place (Rom. 5:12–21; 2 Cor. 5:17–21), and His obedience is imputed to us when we are united to Him by faith alone. So, the moment you put your faith in Jesus, God sees you through Christ. His account, as it were, is counted as yours.

This inseparable link between union with Christ and the resurrection is why Paul can write things like this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). How could we be united to Christ’s death and resurrection when we weren’t alive two thousand years ago? Because faith links us to Christ’s death and resurrection. Faith makes what He did true for us. Union with Christ teaches us that, in an important sense, we are already resurrected with Christ. That’s Paul’s point in Romans 6:5. Certainly, we are not resurrected bodily yet. But we have been raised, by union with Christ, to new life in Him (John 5:24–25; Col. 3:5).

Therefore, union with Christ changes our perspective on this life entirely. As one author explains, because of this union, we live from heaven to earth, not from earth to heaven, so to speak. This scholar is simply following Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:6, where he tells us that God “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Given the resurrection of Jesus, our position in the here and now is changed at the most fundamental level. This “positional reality,” as we’ll call it, has sweeping implications for all of life. Not only does union with Christ help us understand the resurrection, but it explains why this life is so hard.

Up to this point, we have only discussed how union with Christ assures us of glory and repositions us in God’s sight. These are magnificent truths, and we must celebrate them. But before we witness resurrection, either for Jesus or for us, we experience suffering. If we truly want to understand union with Christ, God, prayer, and the Christian life in general, we must grasp this frightful yet necessary truth. The irreversible pattern, both for Jesus and His followers, is suffering, then glory.

Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). He lived out His days on this earth misunderstood, maltreated, underhoused, unappreciated, scorned, mocked, and eventually murdered. By anyone’s standard, His life was miserable. Nonetheless, His daily sufferings had a point. They had a goal. They were for us, in two ways (Heb. 12:2). First, He lived like this as part of His work for our salvation. Second, He lived this way to show us what to expect in union with Him. This is why one of His core teachings was cross bearing. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23). Here is Jesus’ template for the Christian life. Before we are resurrected to life in glory, we suffer here below.

To get our arms around this difficult prospect, we must not read our own definition of suffering into the New Testament’s use of the term. As one scholar explains, the word means something broader in the New Testament. He writes that suffering means not only martyrdom for one’s faith but also “the mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties of our everyday lives when they are endured for [Jesus’] sake.”

I love that description because all of us can relate to it. Could we sum up our daily lives better than a series of “mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties”? After all, God seems absent so much of the time. Prayer seems fruitless. Loved ones die. Children go astray. Spouses lose interest in one another. Dreams fade like furniture left in the sunlight over the years. Nothing is perfect. Everything is broken.

Once we come to terms with the essential role suffering plays in our union with Christ, mundane frustrations and unspectacular difficulties begin to make sense. We realize afresh the truth of Jesus’ words when He said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Suffering is a nonnegotiable aspect of our discipleship. Cross bearing is part of Christ following. I don’t intend to minimize the pain we experience at seemingly unanswered prayer. Much less do I want to downplay the agonizing grief that grips us when a friend or family member dies. But we do not honor God, and we do not help ourselves, when we shake our fist at the heavens, as though hardship and suffering are something strange. According to the Bible, they are not (1 Peter 4:12). They mean we’re on the right path.

In my ministry, I have been privileged to witness Christians suffering well. Watching them endure like this has been both humbling and strengthening. They embody the truth that suffering comes before glory. I have watched parents put the bodies of toddlers into the cold earth. I have seen faithful saints suffering horribly with diseases like pancreatic cancer. I have prayed with families struggling to come to terms with a beloved child’s suicide. I leave these situations bewildered, full of questions, and with my faith stretched to the breaking point.

Through it all, I have seen firsthand families and individuals, with pain so deep that words failed them, continue to trust God. If anything, their faith has deepened in their suffering. It takes my breath away.

Their steadfast confidence in the Lord helps me fathom the unfathomable truth that, in ways none of us will understand this side of glory, suffering is God’s design for our lives. The pathway to a mature, lasting faith—the type of faith that gives way to resurrection sight—is paved with the rough stones of suffering (Col. 4:12; Heb. 6:1). The only way to keep putting one foot in front of the other on this dark road is through union with Christ and with the promise of resurrection to light the way. Here we see the Spirit manifest His power in our lives. No one but God Himself could keep us on the resurrection road when such difficulties loom in front of us. The Spirit indwells us to enable us to suffer well in union with Christ.