I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. God has given me the responsibility of serving his church by proclaiming his entire message to you. This message was kept secret for centuries and generations past, but now it has been revealed to God’s people. For God wanted them to know that the riches and glory of Christ are for you Gentiles, too. And this is the secret: Christ lives in you. This gives you assurance of sharing his glory. (Colossians 1:24-27; New Living Translation)
Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes, and each of us determines what constitutes “suffering” for ourselves. One person suffers with rejection while the next person thinks little of it. One person suffers with an ankle sprain while a cancer survivor might have a very different perspective. Suffering is subjective.
I’ve seen parents suffer as they’ve grappled with the (bad) choices of their sons or daughters. I’ve watched church leaders suffer as conflict and division engulfed them. I’ve listened to the pain-filled stories of young adults who have endured parental divorce or abuse.
If we have one thing in common, it’s suffering. And rarely does it arrive as an invited guest.
So, it seems odd indeed when the Apostle Paul writes “I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church.”
His comments to the Colossians reflect what he writes elsewhere. He tells the Philippians that he wants to “know Christ…and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, that I might attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11).
Paul had a way of re-framing his suffering.
On the one hand, whether it was beatings, imprisonment, poverty, cold, hunger, or shipwrecks, he saw much of it as a way to identify with Jesus. He was suffering not for Christ, but with Christ and like Christ.
On the other hand, Paul viewed his suffering through the lens of the resurrection and eternity. These “momentary light afflictions are producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (1 Corinthians 4:17).
This re-framing of suffering produced (for Paul) great hope amidst his hardships.
Rather than producing fear or dread, Paul’s sufferings deepened his faith and bolstered his reflections on both the resurrection and eternity. In his mind he felt absolutely convinced that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).
Facing a trial today? Perhaps one way forward is to re-frame the situation in light of Jesus, the resurrection, and eternity.
By the way, if you need a moment of pure inspiration, watch Mandy Harvey on America’s Got Talent … and grab the tissue box.