To Share Christ's Sufferings: Blasphemy or Blessing?

T. Grady Spires

Most Christians agree in principle that in various degrees we must all suffer disease, disappointments, other hardships, and eventually death just because of God's curse on life and the world on account of sin. We also learn from the Scriptures to trust that the sufferings experienced by Christians are part of God's program of separating us unto himself from the world, and that no bad experience or any hostile creature can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39). Furthermore, we can understand that some hardships are likely to occur "for his name's sake" when we openly confess Christ and live for him before the world, persevering against temptation and opposition.

But a due modesty (and perhaps a fear of irreverence) restrains us from claiming so baldly and boldly for our own, Paul's description of his apostolic sufferings in Colossians 1:24—"I fill up what is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh on behalf of his body, which is the church." And this is only one of a number of places where Paul identifies the difficulties attending his career as Christ's own sufferings (see also 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:10-12; Gal. 6:17; Phil. 3:10).

To some, such a statement has the ring of arrogant fanaticism, the boast of a hard-nosed devotee who is impossible to insult. Paul sounds to them like the kind of bullheaded monomaniac who always turns defeats into symbolic victories by sublimating them somehow. Is the ex-rabbinical zealot claiming here to have a share in making atonement along with Jesus? If not so deluded, perhaps he is commending his own life as a model of asceticism or martyrdom—a devotion much more Christlike than the muddy compromise of most Christians? At any rate, if it might be proper for an apostle so to construe his afflictions, surely none of us rank-and-file ordinaries in the army of Christ could get away with such extravagant self-esteem.

Well, there is something unique about the apostolic claim to suffering. Paul, for one, had the promise of suffering great things built into his commission to the Gentiles (Acts 9:16). Not all of us are made, as it were, "the offscouring of the world" (1 Cor. 4:13), as Paul considered the lot of the apostles in general to be.

But their uniqueness seems on this point to be one only of degree. The apostles' lives are exemplary and outstanding as indicators of what the church could generally expect from a world which was inclined to hate and persecute the servants, since it hated and persecuted their master. Given the life situation of the various communities to whom the New Testament books are immediately addressed and the constant biblical calls to boldness in witness and to perseverance, we can readily surmise that suffering was and remains a standard concomitant of the missionary task of the entire church and was not reserved for the apostles.

Maybe, after all, if we can grasp Paul's intent in "filling up the deficiencies of Christ's afflictions" (Lightfoot's translation of Colossians 1:24), we can also have a glimpse at our participation in the same struggles. In one place, at least, the apostle suggests that other Christians have a share in his sufferings—even in the very "sufferings of Christ"—which were flowing over into his life (2 Cor. 1:5-7). What could Paul mean, and how could we see ourselves as sharing in the sufferings of Christ?

The "Leftover Sufferings"

In one sense, Christ clearly "left over" more to be done than what he accomplished at Calvary, at Joseph's tomb, and in his ascent into the clouds. These constitute the decisive climax of Jesus' uniquely efficacious achievement, to which no one can add anything of merit. Yet that fact in no way invalidates the entire gospel enterprise of his body, the church—which enterprise he mandated, provided for, and currently prays for in heaven. Indeed, Christ's finished work is the ground of authority and power for the church's ongoing task.

Now in his exalted glory, he must continue to reign until all his enemies are under his feet. There, beside the heavenly throne, he is still active in intercession and in leading his own by his Spirit through the course of "good works which God has appointed beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10).

So Paul, as one of Christ's ambassadors, continues on earth the ministry of God's "reconciling the world to himself in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:18-21). Ministers of the gospel especially, and all believers generally, are to confront the world with the good news of the kingdom and to call sinners to repent, to believe, and to be reconciled to God. In doing so, we are secondary agents of God's reconciling activity. And as our Lord forewarned, that will cause trouble, persecutions, and even death (cf. John 16:2, 33). Sufferings, then, are a general consequence of the confrontation by the children of light with the reign of darkness by means of the gospel lived and preached (cf. Phil. 2:14-16).

Union with Christ

But in identifying his missionary sufferings with Christ's, Paul is not merely claiming to continue what the Lord started. The strength of this identity-claim comes from Paul's pervasive awareness of his (and our) union with Christ. Being in Christ—that radically new reality into which regeneration brings us—is not disengaged because Christ is in heaven and we are on earth, any more than the troubles we endure separate us from his love. Granted that union with Christ is a mystery not completely fathomable, Scripture teaches us in various places—and not the least in Paul's writings—that we are joined to Christ in his death, in his resurrection, and in his enthronement in heavenly places (cf. Rom. 6; Col. 2, 3; Eph. 2). In his historical achievements, both as Suffering Servant and as risen, victorious Lord, we have a share as beneficiaries. And "if we suffer with him, we shall be glorified with him" (Rom. 8:17).

Though ascended on high, he is still present with us, as he promised, in the person of the Holy Spirit, indwelling us. The Paraclete, who, if anyone is, is the vicar of Christ on earth, guides and accompanies the church as she carries out the commission to disciple the nations. He is sanctifying believers in the very process of their living obediently for him in the world. Peter tells us that the Holy Spirit rests upon us when we are insulted for Christ's sake, indicating perhaps a special attention paid by the Spirit to suffering incurred in witness (1 Pet. 4:13-14).

The name of Jesus is borne by "Christians," and is operatively present when they walk by the Spirit. His name is not an arbitrary designation, but an indication of his very person. The characteristics and potencies of that person impact upon the kingdom of darkness in judgment and/or in deliverance where believers obediently bear witness to Christ. Again, we can appeal to Paul's self-awareness: he sums up his missionary career as "spreading the fragrance of the knowledge of Christ," "an aroma to God of Christ" (2 Cor. 2:14-15). The stench to those who reject the light is the perfume, pleasing to God, of the very presence of Christ—redolent wherever Paul goes as his ambassador.

There is, furthermore, the overarching fact that the church is considered as Christ's body—imagery conveying to us the close organic nature of the union which binds us to the Head and to each other. Minimally, this thought ought to strengthen our knowledge that Christ is also where we are when we are rejected, insulted, or abused for his name's sake. If anyone abuses or even neglects to minister to the least of his little ones, Christ regards it as happening to himself!

This statement is not, then, a piece of Pauline braggadocio, nor does it mark something utterly unique to the apostolic calling. It is a grace generally granted to Christians, as Paul elsewhere expressly acknowledges (Phil. 1:29, where suffering is, in effect, called a charism; and 2 Cor. 1:7). It is not megalomania to see the sufferings wrought—not of sinful compulsions, but of obedient witness—as assigned by the Lord and attended by his presence.

Incidentally, nor should we infer that somehow Christ is all over again, in his humiliation as well as in glory, staggering under blows or abandoned to shame and wrath. But it is nonetheless true that he is there, identified with the trials of his faithful.

As to their scope, we ought not to model too narrowly what the afflictions of Christ might entail. Certainly the missionary and evangelistic contact with this spiritually degenerate age produces a known range of afflictions large and small. But let us remember that Paul had not visited Colossae and its vicinity. So his sufferings on their behalf seem primarily to refer to continual intercession for their growth in the context of Christ-denying error (Col. 2:8), and to the strenuous ministry of preaching, admonishing, and teaching, so that he might present everyone perfect in Christ (1:28-29). Suffering with Christ occurs not just in the crisis episodes, but in the day-by-day struggle for the health of Christ's bride. "Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches" (2 Cor. 11:28 NIV).

The Real Question

At basic issue is the matter of seeing things right. In our sinfulness, we might slink away from discipline or conflict by suppressing our witness. Alternatively, we might want to vent aggressions by becoming maximally abrasive in our condemnation of unbelievers' resistance. Or maybe we might resign ourselves to a lifelong penance of masochism for Jesus, though few Americans would find that perspective attractive.

But if we see by faith that our Lord is still calling us to shine as lights in the darkened world (Phil. 2:14-15)—and if, in the process of so doing, we suffer slight embarrassment or even death for our loyal witness—the truth is that in our lives, as in Paul's, we are "filling up" the legacy of Christ's sufferings, which in his covenant love he has appointed for us. To be able realistically to say so is an honor and a blessing. We are counted worthy by our Lord to suffer dishonor. The Spirit of glory and of God rests—hovers over, dwells with, broods over, overshadows—us as the powerful divine presence who is sealing and setting us apart to Jesus, to God, to the everlasting kingdom of glory.

The real question this apparent puzzle poses is this: which is the more compelling, the more imposing reality to us—being in Christ, or just being? That is, being identified with him through and through, or only when it's not too inconvenient?

If the gospel is getting through to us daily, then the sufferings are unworthy of comparison to the glory to be revealed—and even in those there is divine support in our weakness. So, it is possible for us, like Paul, to rejoice in our sufferings.

This article, slightly edited, first appeared in New Horizons in April 1982. At that time, the author was a professor of philosophy at Gordon College and a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Hamilton (now Ipswich), Mass. He has retired as a professor, but still serves as an elder. Unless otherwise indicated, he provides his own Bible translations. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2002.