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OF WESTERN CHRISTIANITYThis was the thing I finally saw in pondering Wurmbrand’s story about the Cistercian abbot. In Paul’s radically different viewpoint I saw an almost unbelievable indictment of Western Christianity. Am I overstating this? Judge for yourself. How many Christians do you know who could say, “The lifestyle I have chosen as a Christian would be utterly foolish and pitiable if there is no resurrection”? How many Christians are there who could say, “The suffering I have freely chosen to embrace for Christ would be a pitiable life if there is no resurrection”? As I see it, these are shocking questions.
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.… I share his sufferings…that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–8, 10–11) I say it again: The call of Christ is a call to live a life of sacrifice and loss and suffering—a life that would be foolish to live if there were no resurrection from the dead. This is a conscious choice for Paul. Listen to his protest: “If the dead are not raised.… Why am I in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day!” (1 Corinthians 15:29–31). This is what Paul has chosen. He “protests” because he does not have to live this way. He chooses it: “In danger every hour!” “Dying every day!” This is why he says he should be pitied if there is no resurrection from the dead. He chose a path that leads to trouble and pain virtually every day of his life. “I die every day.” WHY? WHY DOES HE DO IT?
This is not normal. Human beings flee suffering. We move to safer neighborhoods. We choose milder climates. We buy air conditioners. We take aspirin.
We come out of the rain. We avoid dark streets. We purify our water. We do not normally choose a way of life that would put us in “danger every hour.” Paul’s life is out of sync with ordinary human choices. Virtually no advertising slogans lure us into daily dying.
So what is driving the apostle Paul to “share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings” (2 Corinthians 1:5) and to be a “fool for Christ’s sake” (1 Corinthians 4:10)? Why would he make choices that expose him to “hunger and thirst...[being] poorly dressed…buffeted…homeless…reviled…persecuted… slandered…like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:11–13)?
SU F F E R I N G
“I WILL SHOW HIM HOW MUCH HE MUST SUFFER”Perhaps it was simple obedience to Christ’s commission expressed in Acts 9:15–16. When Jesus sent Ananias to open Paul’s eyes after he was blinded on the road to Damascus, He said, “Go, for [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” In other words, suffering was simply part of Paul’s apostolic calling. To be faithful to his calling, he had to embrace what Christ has given him: much suffering.
“Gave” is the right word. Because when writing to the Philippians, Paul, incredibly, calls suffering a gift, just like faith is a gift: “To you it has been granted (echaristhe = freely given) for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake” (Philippians 1:29, NASB). But this would mean that the “gift” given to him as part of his apostleship is not viewed by Paul as limited to apostles. It is “granted” to the Philippian believers, the whole church.
Others have made the same strange discovery that suffering is a gift to be embraced. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of his time in prison, with all its pain,
as a gift:
It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent
back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience:
how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.… That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about
me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”2 Solzhenitsyn agrees with the apostle Paul that suffering is—or can be—a gift not just for apostles, but for every Christian.
TO SHOW HE WAS SIMPLY CHRISTIAN
Evidently, Paul did not consider these promises of suffering as limited to the original twelve apostles, because he passed them on to his churches. For example, he strengthened all his converts by telling them, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). And he encouraged the suffering Thessalonian believers by exhorting them not to be “moved by these afflictions.
For you yourselves know that we are destined for this” (1 Thessa-lonians 3:3).
And when he wrote to Timothy, he made it a general principle: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy
2. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. An Experiment in Literary Investigation, vol. 2, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: HarperCollins, 1975; Boulder: Westview, 1997), 615–7.
SU F F E R I N G
3:12). When he spoke of his sufferings, he did not treat them as unique, but said to the churches, “Be imitators of me” (1 Corinthians 4:16). So it would be understandable if Paul embraced a life of suffering because it would simply confirm that he was a Christian. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
WEANING CHRISTIANS OFF
THE BREAST OF SELF-RELIANCESince he believed that suffering was part of faithful Christian living, Paul probed into why this might be so. His own experience of suffering drove him deep into the ways of God’s love for His children. For example, he learned that God uses our suffering to wean us from self-reliance and cast us on Himself alone. After
suffering in Asia, Paul says:
We do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired even of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8–9) This is God’s universal purpose for all Christian suffering: more contentment in God and less satisfaction in self and the world. I have never heard anyone say, “The really deep lessons of life have come through times of ease and comfort.” But I have heard strong saints say, “Every significant advance I have ever made in grasping the depths of God’s love and growing deep with Him has come through suffering.” Malcolm Muggeridge, the Christian journalist who died in 1990, spoke for almost all serious biblical Christians who have lived long enough to wake up
from the dreamworld of painlessness when he said:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful, with particular
satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained. In other words, if it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo jumbo…the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal or trivial to be endurable. This of course is what the cross [of Christ] signifies, and it is the cross more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.3 Samuel Rutherford said that when he was cast into the cellars of affliction, he remembered that the great King always kept his wine there.4 Charles Spurgeon said that “they who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.”5
TO MAGNIFY CHRIST AS SUPERIOR SATISFACTIONA The pearl of greatest price is the glory of Christ. Thus, Paul stresses that in our sufferings the glory of Christ’s all-sufficient grace is magnified. If we rely on Him in our calamity and He sustains our “rejoicing in hope,” then He is shown to be the all-satisfying God of grace and strength that He is. If we hold fast to Him “when all around our soul gives way,” then we show that He is more to be desired than all we have lost. Christ said to the suffering apostle, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responded to this: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10). So suffering clearly is designed by God not only as a way to wean Christians off of self and onto grace, but also as a way to spotlight that grace and make it shine. That is precisely
3. Malcom Muggeridge, Homemade, July 1990.
4. Letters of Samuel Rutherford.
5. Charles Spurgeon, “The Golden Key of Prayer,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (Banner of Truth) (Sermon #619), 12 March 1865.
what faith does; it magnifies Christ’s future grace.
The deep things of life in God are discovered in suffering. So it was with Jesus Himself: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). The same book where we read this also tells us that Jesus never sinned (4:15). So “learning obedience” does not mean switching from disobedience to obedience. It means growing deeper and deeper with God in the experience of obedience. It means experiencing depths of yieldedness to God that would not have been otherwise demanded.
HOW CAN WE COMPLETE SUFFERINGS CHRIST?
THE OF What does Paul mean that he “fills what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ”?
Is this a belittling of the all-sufficient, atoning worth of the death of Jesus? Did not Jesus Himself say as He died, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? Is it not true that “by a single offering [Christ] has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14)? And that “he entered once for all into the holy places…by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12)? Paul knew and taught that the afflictions of Christ were a complete and sufficient ground for our justification. We are “justified by his blood” (Romans 5:9). Paul taught that Christ chose suffering and was “obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). That obedient suffering, as the climax of a
perfect life of righteousness (Matthew 3:15), was the all-sufficient ground of our righteousness before God. “As by [Adam’s] disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the obedience of [Christ] the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). So Paul does not mean that his sufferings complete the atoning worth of Jesus’ afflictions.
There is a better interpretation. Paul’s sufferings complete Christ’s afflictions not by adding anything to their worth, but by extending them to the people they were meant to save. What is lacking in the afflictions of Christ is not that they are deficient in worth, as though they could not sufficiently cover the sins of all who believe. What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others.