Sunday, June 27, 2021

Provided We Suffer

“The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

Simon Peter didn’t want to suffer with Jesus.

Oh, he said he did. He thought he did. When he made his promises of loyalty, he wasn’t virtue signaling to the other disciples or pretending to love his Lord more than he really did. At least, it doesn’t read that way to me in the gospels. “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Emphatic statements made from the heart, and quite ingenuous.

Then, to his horror, Peter found he wasn’t up to the job. His aspirations exceeded his execution. Put to the test, he discovered he wasn’t really ready to suffer with the Lord Jesus after all.

A Little Conditional Clause

What is this little conditional clause in Romans 8 that begins with the words “provided we suffer”? For years I read it to say that suffering is a requirement of genuine Christian faith, a requirement that used to really alarm me. The apostle Paul writes that the Spirit of God testifies along with our own spirit — surely the recipe for peace and confidence. The issue in question is whether I am a child of God, and by virtue of my membership in his great household, an heir of all the glorious things he intends to share with those he loves.

So then, am I really saved, or am I just kidding myself? That’s what’s at stake here.

And on what does this confidence of my membership in God’s household depend? What is this condition? I must suffer with Christ. It is not “provided we are ready to suffer with Christ if called to do it”. It is “provided we suffer”, period.

Oh dear.

The Problem

You see the problem, right — or perhaps at least the problem I perceived to exist in that conditional clause for many, many years; so much so that I didn’t really want to deal with the text at all. I just stopped thinking about it. I glossed over it when I read the passage.

After all, anything that depends on me — the tiniest, most infinitesimal part of my salvation — is the weak link that breaks the chain. It turns salvation by grace through faith back into salvation through works, and surely that cannot be what Paul is saying. After all, this is Romans we are reading. Chapter after chapter, the apostle has just gone to the trouble of dissecting and destroying the notion that works, or law-keeping, or anything I can do in my own energy can save me.

Surely suffering with Christ cannot be a condition of salvation, can it? Peter wasn’t up to the job after three years of walking side by side with the Word Made Flesh. How on earth can I expect to be? Furthermore, how can I control whether or not I suffer in this life? How can I ensure I meet the apparent standard here? How do I bring on the suffering?

Bring on the Suffering

Well, I suppose I could antagonize the forces of evil by aggressively preaching the gospel until my neighbors and co-workers begin to think about ways of forcing me to shut up. I suppose I could picket an abortion clinic and try to get myself roughed up by the counter-protesters. Or I could visit an Islamic area of town and shout out the deficiencies of Mohammedenism until its citizens decide to engage in one of those rock tossing parties of which they are allegedly fond. Or I could take to Twitter and start correcting the misapprehensions of its resident social justice warriors about the Christian faith until I get disemployed, deplatformed or canceled entirely. One provocation or another would surely do the trick.

But is this the sort of suffering Paul is advocating for the average believer: actively cultivating persecution? Surely not. After all, he himself wrote to the Thessalonians that believers should aspire to live quietly and to mind our own affairs, and to Timothy that we should pray for those in authority in order that we may lead “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way”. Does provoking the world with unwanted proselytizing or aggressive declamations against their sinful habits sound like aspiring to live quietly? Not to me. Something here does not add up.

Those of you who have always read the word “suffer” in its context in Romans are probably having a snicker or two at my expense by now, and good for you. Because context is the key to understanding what Paul is talking about in this verse. The apostle is not talking specifically about being persecuted, or even being willing to be persecuted. He is talking about another sort of suffering entirely; not a kind of suffering we need to cultivate, but rather a form of suffering that — assuming we truly know and love the Lord Jesus — we couldn’t avoid even if we tried.

All we need to do is read on.

The Sufferings of This Present Time

In Greek, the English phrase “suffer with” is sympaschō. It means to experience pain together. It involves feeling the same way as another, whether or not you are actually living through precisely the same events. It means to sympathize intensely to the point where you share another’s discomfort. As Paul puts it to the Corinthians when discussing the life of the body of which Christ is head, the church, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

We know how that plays out in church life, I hope, or at least how it should. One of our fellow believers experiences great difficulty or sorrow, and we all do what we can to come alongside. We “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep”. The sympathizers may not themselves be going through the same circumstances as the sufferer, but they step in to every extent possible, bear the burden of the sufferer, and feel what the sufferer feels. This sympaschō is possible for believers in a unique way because we are one body bound together by one Spirit. Since being persecuted is one form of suffering, this sympaschō may include identifying with and coming alongside those experiencing persecution, of course, but it is by no means limited to it.

So then Paul goes on: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” What sort of sufferings are these? I believe if we look closely at the context, we will see that they are the sufferings of living in a fallen world in ever-increasing awareness of all its perversity, sorrow and emptiness and how short it falls of God’s original intent for man. These sufferings are analogous to the futility currently experienced by God’s creation, and are epitomized in the groaning of a spirit waiting eagerly for the redemption of the body.

Ezekiel watched as God singled out and protected his people in Jerusalem who felt similar sorrows in their day, who sighed and groaned over the abominations committed in their city and in the house of God. This is the kind of anguish the apostle has in view.

A Different Kind of Suffering

Unsaved people can suffer, sure, but they never suffer in this way. They are too much at home in the world. They may experience and regret the sorrows and complications to their lives that sin causes, but they do not feel the same revulsion for sin itself, or the same sense of disconnection and isolation from the culture in which they dwell. They do not look for a city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God. They do not acknowledge they are strangers and exiles on the earth. They do not desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. They love the present world order and the things that belong to it. And, as John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

By way of contrast, every single true follower of Christ suffers this way to some degree, and more so with the passage of time on this earth. We can’t help it. The longer we live in this world and the more we know of Christ, the deeper our sorrow over sin and the more intense our longing for our ultimate redemption.

If you do not ever feel this sort of grief ... if you do not suffer with Christ in this way ... if you are comfortable and at home with our society’s ever-more-decadent culture, customs, values and behaviors ... if you find yourself identifying with the spirit of our present age rather than the Spirit of Christ ... then it is distinctly possible you do not know Christ at all.

I think this is what Paul is trying to say. He is not telling Christians we are all required to suffer persecution or hardship in the world, though many have, and some of us certainly are. Still, some of us do not, and trying to make persecution happen on our own does not seem like a profitable exercise. Rather, the apostle is saying that by virtue of who Christ is, knowing and loving the “man of sorrows” must of necessity produce an ever-growing sympathy, connection and fellow-feeling for him. We come to experience more and more what the Son of Man felt when he looked at our world.

And that means suffering. It cannot be any other way. The more we suffer with him in this sense, the more we really know who we are.

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