Thursday, September 03, 2020

Who Your Friends Are

“You are those who have stood by me in my trials.”

In my youth I had two friends with whom I was particularly close. Both were highly talented, creative, driven and smart. It was only a matter of time until both made good in the world and became successful, wealthy and celebrated.

But when I met them all that was yet to come. It wasn’t apparent yet that they were going anywhere. They were in a high-risk career line, trying to catch that key break that many folks thought might never come. “Get a haircut, and get a real job” was the advice they heard a lot.

Too bad for the naysayers. Both hit the big time.

Of course I was happy for them. But it wouldn’t have changed our friendship if they had stayed poor and unappreciated. They were my friends. That’s how it was always going to be. So our friendships have continued just the way they started.

From time to time I can’t help but wonder how things are with all their new friends. After all, everybody loves a winner. Success notoriously breeds hangers-on. And when you’re doing well, it’s not always so easy to tell who is a real friend and who’s just there for the ride.

One thing I’m very glad of: I chose to be their friend when they were just “the guys”. I sure wouldn’t want them thinking I was just there hoping something would rub off on me. And for my part, I’m also happy I have nothing to do with their career world, because clouding our friendship is the last thing I’m interested in doing. I never have to second-guess my own motives either, and that’s probably good.

The great thing is this: we were friends when none of us had anything … in fact, when life was pretty hard and tumultuous for us all. We rode out some of the big storms of life together. And frankly, I’m glad I had that opportunity before they became successful. I’d never get it now.

An Analogous Situation

Success can blur the lines of loyalty, can’t it? And have you ever thought that we are called into a relationship with one who is, quite literally, the most successful person in the history of the world? We are. The Lord, we are told in scripture, is seated at the right hand of God, clothed in glory, awaiting his revealing as triumphant king over all creation. You can’t get more successful than that, can you?

Yet he wasn’t always that way. In his earthly walk, the Son of Man was in quite a different situation. Divested of his heavenly glory, he walked the dusty roads of Israel nondescript, dismissed and dishonored by the rich and powerful, hungry and tired, with no place to lay his head.

But he had a few friends then, his disciples, and he has more than a few now. As Hebrews says:
“But we do see him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor.”
Here, then, we have Christ in two modes: first “made lower”, and then “crowned”. It is true that he is now triumphant in the heavens, but in the world he was also made low, rejected, despised, humiliated … and crucified. He who is now a success was once marked by abject failure in the world’s eyes.

The Choice

So let me ask you this: at present, is it with the glorified Christ, or with Christ in his lowliness that you and I as Christians today are called to identify?

“Why choose?” you cry. “Is it not true that he is both?” True enough, but let us not evade the question. God is in heaven, but you live on the earth. What is your calling, your lot, right now — to identify with Christ in his humiliation or his triumph?

Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard puts this question to us. And I think it’s one we have to answer most seriously. It is true that Christ is exalted to the right hand of the Father. But do we really “see” him “crowned with glory and honor” right now? By the eye of faith, perhaps, but not yet with the physical eye. A verse earlier the author also writes, “But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him”; that is, we do not presently see what hope promises to us and faith believes — that Jesus will be glorified and triumphant, and that “every knee will bow” to him, and “every tongue confess”.

So is it because he is “lifted up” in glory, or “lifted up” in shame that the Lord now “draws all men unto [him]?” And why are we supposed to be drawn to him?

With Him in Lowliness

Let me make this case: at present, it is Christ in his humiliation that is manifest to the world. It’s a man on a cross, a man dispatched by the religious piety and the political machinations of this very human world, who is claimed to have risen, but which the world (having no faith in such things) has never seen alive, much less glorified.

It is with him in his lowliness that you and I now have our identification in the eyes of the world.

The world has no regard for him today. True, many will frequently admit he was a sort of exemplar, a good moral figure (though in practice they actually dismiss all he taught) and that he probably lived, historically. But farther than that they will not go. And as for any actual claim on their lives, they take him to have none. Indeed, though you can name any other so-called “god” or “prophet” to them, and it will be a matter untroubling to them, let the name of Jesus be spoken in their presence and the offense is instant. They really don’t like him at all.

By the World Disowned

But it is usually even worse than that. It is said that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference, and they are utterly indifferent to him, as often as they can manage to be so. Talk in this world, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is about “everything else but him, as though he did not exist”.

How then is he now “glorified” but in heaven, and by faith in the hearts of those who have not yet seen him but love him? For now, we identify with Christ in his humiliation, not in his glory.

Now we get to an important question. “Why this?” Why has God the Father allowed that his Son, whom he has raised and exalted to his right hand, should remain veiled and imperceptible to the world? Why has he not manifested his Son already in glory — at least to us Christians, if not to the skeptical world. Why have we remained now some 2,000 years in a state where Christ is not revered in this world as is his due, and where Christians themselves have only faith to assure them that Christ is triumphant at all? Why so long in humiliation?

Writes Kierkegaard:
“In the case of Christ, no one can say of himself that he first learned to know him when he had entered into glory; for everyone who has learned to know him learns to know him in lowliness … Moreover, no one can say truly that it is impossible to share his lowliness with him because this is past and long passed … there shall be given [you] — that he warrants [you] — opportunity enough to suffer with him in his likeness.”
You have come to know Christ in his humiliation, to share with him the rejection and contempt of men that he experienced, to participate with him in the shame men have always heaped upon him, and to identify with Christ in his lowly state. You have even come to identify with him in his persecution and in death.

Our Situation

Do you doubt it? What does it mean, then, when the scriptures say to us, “If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him”? Why does Paul himself beg that he “may know … the fellowship of his sufferings”, even to the point of being “conformed to his death”?

It would not be hard to identify with Christ in his glory. When his intrinsic splendor is manifest to all mankind and he is unveiled triumphant over all heaven and earth, who would not then rush to his side to associate with him, and to identify with his victory? The most base and wicked of men is not insensible to his own self-interest, but will surely crawl to the foot of the throne to grovel for favors in the face of such a magisterial display. So what is it if a man clings to Christ when he is manifested triumphant?

But let him be a despised person, an unimpressive figure, one who professes unpopular moral instructions and rejects this world’s honors — and more, a criminal hung up between heaven and earth in shame — and we shall see who really wants to identify with him. Then, then there will be a real choice to be made.

And that is how it is. In the great graciousness of Christ, he has guaranteed to you an opportunity today — an opportunity to identify with him in his lowliness, in his humiliation, in his apparent defeat, as his genuine believer and friend. Had he been glorified instantly, you would have had no such option, no such opportunity, no such choice. It is a gift to you, and a gift of the first order of value.

But, as Kierkegaard point out, and the scriptures also say, “If [you] will not share with him in his humiliation, neither will he share with [you] in his glory.” And he adds that for this reason, “It is this, the humiliation, that ought to be preached.”

Chosen Suffering

Humiliation is our lot, if we are truly identified with Christ. I don’t mean the justified humiliation of those who have done evil or acted foolishly, nor even the ordinary humiliations that happen to human beings incidentally, by way of being in a fallen creation, such as physical illness, misadventure or the losses of happenstance. It is not necessarily Christian to endure such things, since they happen to all men and must be endured regardless, though a special composure in the face of them can still be a testimony.

No, what is required of us is that we suffer in ways that we would by no means suffer unless we insisted upon identifying with the humiliated Christ — unless we insisted upon doing the good he commanded us to do, and on living the his life out in this world as he commanded us to do. Christian suffering is optional — “optional” in the sense that it is a choice that might be avoided, but not “optional” to every true Christian, since it is nothing less than the absolute terms of our identification with Christ.

So Kierkegaard also writes:
“To suffer in likeness with Christ does not mean to encounter the unavoidable with patience, but it means to suffer ill at the hands of men because as a Christian or by being a Christian one desires and strives after the Good, so that could avoid the suffering by ceasing to will the Good … he suffered because he was the truth and would not be anything other than he was, namely, the truth.”
To refuse to relent, to declare oneself a Christian and then to insist upon living it out is the way that Christian suffering is incurred in this world. This is what Jesus Christ did; he chose to suffer rather than to escape suffering by fleeing, by falling silent or capitulating to the crowd. He told the world the truth, no matter what. He told them of his Father, of his love, of his way, of his salvation, and of his inevitable glorification — though they hated to hear it, and would kill him for saying such things.

The Glory of Lowliness

To identify with Christ in his humility is a badge of honor. Of the apostles, it is written that having been beaten and threatened by the authorities, “they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for his name.” And they kept on going.

In a similar vein, Peter encourages us, “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of his glory you may rejoice with exultation.”

The Opportunity

This is our calling, our place and our legacy; to identify with Christ in his sufferings, that we may also be identified with him in glory, as he has promised.

Now, let us be astonished at the goodness of God. For some two thousand years now, men and women have had a privilege they can never have once Christ is revealed in his glory. They have the opportunity to claim him theirs in the time of his humiliation. By declaring him the Messiah, the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Lord of Glory, the coming Righteous Judge and rightful Lord of All, we can choose to identify with him, not because he is too glorious for us not to bow the knee, but because we want to.

Because we love him. Because we are his friends. Because we freely choose to do it. Because he is precious to us. This is something we will never have a chance to show again in this way. This is our gesture of love.

Take your opportunity. Be one of those who has stood by him in his trials.

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