The Fellowship of Suffering

There are many things that I love about the internet and technology. I love writing here and talking to you all on Instagram stories. I love producing a podcast and listening to my favorite podcasts. I love ordering books on Amazon and getting perspectives from around the world. Something I don’t love is the constant influx of news. It’s not that I want to bury my head under the sand, ostrich-like in my intentional ignorance. But it’s overwhelming to get reports of injustice and brokenness and suffering happening continually all over the world. I find myself longing for my true home more and more often.

In the middle of Philippians 1, Paul is debating between life and death. He says he would rather have death because then he gets to be with Christ. Honestly that sounds pretty good to me some days. I long for the glory of new creation. I desire to be with Jesus and not fight to remember Him in the busyness. I would gladly be rid of the sin that hurts myself and those around me. Then Paul says something shocking. He says he would choose life because it’s fruitful labor, because it’s progress and joy in the faith for others. He’s postponing the ultimate joy to continue the mission of God.

He was facing a potentially gruesome death. He wasn’t trying to skip that by choosing life though; his life was one many would choose. He had physical problems. He was weighed down with worry over the state of the believers that he was serving. He was frequently beaten and stoned for sharing the gospel with the lost. He had been abandoned and deserted by people who had once stood by him.

Even though he longed to be with Christ, he knew that he had a work to be doing here. So he choose to live with full courage. And it must have taken courage to face the life that was in front of him; he was in prison even as he was writing.

How was he facing this life, and the prospect of death, with the joy that this tiny letter is filled with? How was he calling these believers to joy when he says that the conflict that he deals with is their conflict as well (Philippians 1:30)?

I think Paul knew the secret that we American believers ignore. He carried the secret of suffering in his body. We think that suffering is something to be avoided at all costs. Paul says that suffering is fellowship with Christ (Philippians 3:10).

Entire books have been written on the why of suffering. How does a good God allow suffering? Why is there suffering? Of course, the short answer is sin. This is a broken, fallen world and the consequences of that reach into every part of life. God has not stopped the madness of the world or the suffering because He is working on a plot and a timetable that is beyond our comprehension. I will not pretend that I can add any more to the conversation than much wiser people have said. Instead I want to look at how we can function in suffering.

We have to live for a greater purpose than our happiness today.

We cannot adopt the mindset of the world. If our point of being alive is to be comfortable and happy, of course suffering cannot be endured. It must be run away from, at whatever cost. We will rob ourselves of great reward in order to avoid it. We will sacrifice others for our own ease. But we aren’t of this world’s kingdoms, are we? Paul reminds us in verse 27, “Just one thing: As citizens of heaven, live your life worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or am absent, I will hear about you that you are standing firm in one spirit, in one accord, contending together for the faith of the gospel,”

We live as citizens of heaven, worthy of the gospel. Christ is life. We have committed ourselves to the Gospel, not comfort. We aren’t living to be comfortable, because we aren’t called to comfort; we are called to take up our cross. (Matthew 16:24-28) We are sojourners, exiles waiting to get home. (1 Peter 2:11). We are members of a kingdom that cannot be seen, but is the ultimate reality.

The reality of Jesus and His Gospel is what keeps us unmovable; our position in the unshakable kingdom is a sure foundation. We are moving in union with Christ. Paul was confident that the Philippians will continue in the way of faith even if he’s not there to see them. We don’t need a celebrity Christian to follow Jesus. We don’t need the person who won us to Christ or a previous pastor to stand firm. We need to link arms with the ordinary believers around us in the spirit and accord that comes from our Father.

This unity with believers is essential. We will not be able to live worthy of the Gospel on our own; this is not a Lone Ranger faith. This exile is also a battle. We are living in a world under the power of an enemy (1 John 5:19) and we are on a mission to share the light of Christ with the people he has blinded (2 Corinthians 4:4). Paul says we are contending for the Gospel. The ESV says “striving side by side.” We will not withstand the enemy on our own, but will need the people of faith gathered together. The mission is too large for any of us to accomplish alone; we need the combined efforts of the body of Christ.

The Gospel is the point. Christ lives in us. We aren’t pursuing comfort or happiness or ease or popularity. One day we will live in a world all tears will be wipe away. Death will be no more. Grief, crying, and pain will be no more. But we don’t try to manufacture that today. Instead we embrace the mission of the Gospel alongside the believers around us.

We identify with the Savior who identified with us.

Philippians 1:29 says, “For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” Belief in Christ means embracing suffering. We don’t get to claim the Christ who sits exalted on the throne without also embracing the Christ hanging, suffering, on the cross. We are told to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves.

Hebrews 2:14-18 is a beautiful passage of Scripture that comforts me in suffering. It says, “Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through his death he might destroy the one hold the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that he does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matter pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.”

Jesus shared in our flesh and blood. He became like us in every way. Every type of physical suffering we can experience, he experienced. He grew hungry and tired. His physical body responded to those things the same way our own does. He experienced all the suffering of temptation without sinning. (Hebrews 4:13). Jesus agonized over the lost (Luke 13:24), mourned over loss (John 11), desired a different path than the one laid before Him (Luke 22:39-44), and still carried on in obedience.

Jesus leaned into the suffering that comes in giving birth to new life. When Nicodemus came to Jesus in John 3, Jesus tells him that he must be born again. He used the metaphor of women giving birth to explain what He does for us. Nothing has changed my perception of suffering like giving birth to my own children because I have never experienced the presence of God as I have in giving birth. He seemed as near as the air around me then.

In John 16:21 He says “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. Jesus uses that phrasing of “hour has come” to refer to his own experience on the cross in Mark 14:41, John 2:4, John 12:23, John 17:1. There is another echo in Hebrews 12:2 when He says “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.”

He has entered into every suffering that we could experience. He was beaten, taken advantage of, betrayed by the human authorities. He was tempted by the enemy, humiliated by those who hated Him, abandoned by His closest friends. And in our suffering, we identify with the Savior who experienced everything humanity can. We do it knowing that joy is before us as well. Romans 8:16-18 says, “The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs— heirs of God and coheirs with Christ— if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.”

Jesus shared in our suffering and in our suffering we identify with Him.

Suffering is an acknowledged part of the life of a believer.

Paul finishes that first chapter of Philippians with these two verses, “For it has been granted to you on Christ’s behalf not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are engaged in the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I have.”

This struggle- and we cannot desire that suffering is a struggle- is the same struggle they saw Paul have. It’s the same struggle they hear that he has still. It is the struggle we have. We believe, we suffer, we struggle.

Marketing experts will tell you that this is not the way to win people over to what you’re selling. You’re supposed to relieve people’s problems. You’re supposed to make life simpler and easier in order to get people to buy in. In God’s upside down kingdom, that’s not how it works.

There are deep riches in the Gospel: forgiveness of sins, oneness with Christ, a new creation free from any suffering or pain, healing of all the brokenness both within and around us. But these riches are not immediate. We get a seal of the promise in the Spirit and we are slowly transformed to being like Christ. Much of that transformation happens as we identify with Him in suffering.

This is the Gospel that we present. Often I hear people say that suffering happens because we have angered God and He is punishing us. In that case, we should all be in hell, forever thrown out from Him. But He holds out reconciliation and redemption. We can know His forgiveness and love as we enter into relationship with Him. Romans 8:1-2 says “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

I hear people say that faith in Jesus will make you happy or fix your problems and I have never found that to be true or promised in Scripture. It will be true in the end, but people are looking, have always been looking, for immediate gratification. We want now what God has promised later.

What we get now is suffering with Christ. We know that suffering produces endurance (Romans 5:3), that we are suffering for the kingdom of God and it is evidence of faith (2 Thessalonians 1:4-5), and that we share in suffering for the Gospel with other believers (2 Timothy 1:8).

Chapter divisions in the Bible are there to be an aid in reading. They help us all find the same place and reference the Word. But we benefit from reading overlapping divisions. Chapter two starts out with “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, make my joy complete by thinking the same way, having the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.”

Why do we need encouragement, consolation, fellowship, affection, and mercy? Because, friends, we’re suffering here. We find what we need to endure in union with our suffering Savior and His people.