Suffering With Christ

The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. Romans 8:16-17

These words from Paul, about being children and heirs of God with Christ, include an “if” statement at the end that may cause us consternation. Is he saying we can be the children of God and fellow heirs with Christ if and only if we suffer? Is childhood in a spiritual sense only possible through suffering? What does this say about God if he makes us suffer, or requires this of us, in order to be his children? However, the understandable concerns this raises in our minds, even to the point of questioning God, come from a mistaken reading of what Paul is saying. 

First, we must recognize that suffering in this life, in this world, and due to our weak and vulnerable nature, is not optional. Everyone suffers. Suffering is not what followers of Christ alone experience. We all face hardships, temptations, trials, rejection, difficult relationships, strife within ourselves and with others, and to these add all the struggles that come with having physical bodies which develop ailments. No one goes through life without suffering. 

Paul’s is not talking about whether we suffer or not, but whether we suffer with Christ or apart from him. That is his point of distinction! Suffering itself is not some prerequisite to being a child of God, nor is it intrinsically the means to glorification. Doing all things with Christ is the very meaning of being a son or daughter of God and fellow heir with Christ, suffering included. When we journey with Christ in this world and through the inevitable sufferings that come, we will finally be glorified. 

For you have been called for this purpose, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you would follow in His steps. 1 Peter 2:21

Since suffering is unavoidable, how wonderful it is that Christ gives us an example of how to live through these hardships!  Peter says that Christ’s suffering for us is so that we might have an example of how to follow him through this universal experience.

Now, to be clear, all suffering is not the same. The suffering that is associated with sin, the inevitable painful consequences of ungodly behavior, is less part our lives as we learn to imitate Christ. However, while that may decrease, the suffering which is inherent in the struggle against sin, to be holy people and be like Jesus, increases. In living apart from Christ we suffer from sin. In Christ, we suffer in the struggle of putting off the old and being clothed in the new. In all this, the Lord shows us the way.

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Christ’s Coming

But you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. Jude 1:20-21

Jude wrote these words of guidance to confirm his fellow Christians in the way of Jesus because some were corrupting and abandoning that way. Unfortunately, nothing really ever changes, and those who seek to be the church are always challenged to live their convictions well. Attempts to subvert the faith in order to align it with other human agendas, what Jude calls “ungodly lusts” (1:18), is a constant menace. We are all vulnerable to such temptation, because it is not really others corrupting the faith that I need to worry about, but my own propensity to do this. In the face of these realities, Jude reminds us to remain focused on the faith, to be constant in prayer, and to abide in God’s love.

This we do while looking forward to “the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ”, a phrase which alludes to Christ’s second coming. In fact, the spiritual disciplines that Jude advocates will hasten Christ’s coming, not in an end-of-history sense, but in an inner spiritual one. The coming of Christ happens from the inside out, rather than the outside in. 

If we think of Christ’s coming as strictly a future historical event, a yet-to-occur physical appearance, we are holding to its lesser meaning rather than the greater one. For sure, time as we know it, what was created by God as the framework for this universe, will reach a conclusion eventually, one which will culminate in the revelation of God the Son. But this single event, the final act of God’s creation, is much less important than Christ’s coming which begins inside us rather than outside us. Otherwise, we are waiting for a single day which may be millennia away, rather than welcoming each day as the day of his coming, a constant anticipation and “looking for” God’s Christ.

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. Matthew 24:42

Jesus constantly discouraged speculation about his coming in historical terms, with regards to a specific day or time. His “external” return was of no practical value to his disciples, but the disposition of being alert, watchful, and always conscious of his appearing is of immense importance. The coming of Christ in our imagination, the way we think of our life in this world as that we are constantly on the verge of a new age, the consummation of all things in heaven and earth in the Son, is the “inside” coming of hope that frees us from the imperfect present. 

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Loved Into Being

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. 1John 3:1

We are the children of God for one reason only, that is, because of what God has done in loving us. All that we might list regarding God’s actions to make us his children, our first creation as human beings, the sending of the divine Son into the world to rescue us, his generous and constant mercy and grace to forgive us, the pouring out of the Spirit upon us, or anything else, are all but aspects of one thing, God’s love. Therefore, John properly states that we are called his children because of his love for us. There is no “and” concerning other things of God, nor of us, but only the numerous ways in which the divine nature can be described as having been expressed.  Each and every manner in which the uncreated but creating love of God has acted for, on, and in us, is why we are called children of God.

When considering the magnitude, creative strength, and healing power of God’s love, there is no need to discuss our part in responding to that love, not because we have no part, but because the perfection of God’s relationship with us swallows up our imperfection. Whatever we have done which has been animated and empowered by that love has been a poor reflection of the love which has made us children of God. All that we do, from the faith which is our initial love toward God, our submission and obedience as an expression of how we love God and his ways, or how we love others and creation in imitation of the divine love, is not worthy to be set alongside God’s love as some additional reason for why we are his children.

If we are discussing the natural light of our world, we need to speak only of the sun. Even if people are holding mirrors to reflect those rays, there is no point in saying anything about them or the reflective objects they hold. All the light is from one source alone. The whole bright illumination streams forth from the sun, and so it is when discussing why we are children of God. The divine love has made us so.

Those of us who have by grace a more tender conscience, perhaps a greater sense than some others of our own failures, an awareness that inevitably increases as we are drawn closer to God, may tend to worry about the obvious insufficiency of our love for God. But our love was never meant to be the basis of our relationship with God. His love forms us into his children, not our love.

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 1 John 4:10

I restate again that which I wrote earlier, that the perfection of God’s relationship with us swallows up our imperfection. Our shortcomings are devoured, wholly and completed enveloped and subsumed in the love of God. Feeble love of poor imitation is all we have in response to God’s love. Thanks be to God that we are his children by virtue of his love and not ours!

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Accepting Others 

We must, according to Paul, imitate Christ in our treatment of one another. This should be obvious, after all, what is a Christian except a follower and imitator of Jesus? However, Paul knows that the principle of doing as Christ has done, and continues to do in us and in the world, must be reiterated often.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Romans 15:7

If we look first at Paul’s final words at its end of this verse, we see that the praise and glory of God is the demonstration of his mercy, love, and grace by those who are his. Our acceptance of one another, which imitates Christ, glorifies God. To not accept one another will be to refuse to glorify God. When the people of God act in harmony with the Father’s heart, which is revealed by the Son, and made possible through the Spirit, his magnificent goodness is shown forth. God is glorified. 

For the glory of God is a living human being; and the life of the human consists in beholding God. St. Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.)

Who is the living human being except the person who, in beholding God, has been transformed by that “seeing” to begin to be like the One seen? We are not living until we begin to become like God. All previous existence was sheer deadness. The truly alive human is the one who has the life of Christ within, and that life is expressed in the imitation of Him. In all this, God is glorified.

Essential in our beholding of God, through which we become the living human who glorifies God, is our acceptance of one another. Notice how Paul assumes that bringing glory to God is the chief concern of believers. He urges that we accept one another knowing that in this act of graciousness we fulfill what should matter most to us. It is not the identification of the other’s sin which glorifies God, but the acceptance of the other by God’s grace, that does.

The standard of acceptance to which Paul appeals is the example of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The only way we know true acceptance is through reflecting on our experience of grace before Jesus. And here, unfortunately, is where so many of us may stumble, for we sometimes do not perceive the infinite love and mercy of God that we receive. We may think of ourselves, though admitting we are not perfect, as reasonably acceptable to God. It seems to us that we are fairly good people, and that Jesus does not have to go to as great a length in accepting us as he has to do with others. We esteem our sins as only minor, and the misdeeds of others as severe. 

In the gospels, Jesus persistently welcomes, dines with, and receives those who are obviously guilty of disobedience. Instead, it is to the ones who refuse to consider themselves “sinners” that he offers his rebukes. They refuse his healing because they do not consider themselves to be sick. 

Only by drawing closer to God do we begin to realize how much sinfulness God has had to forgive in us. Anyone who comes into the Holy Presence will understand that Jesus was right to say it is a log in my eye, and only a speck in the other’s. To imitate Christ is to consider all others easier to forgive and accept than oneself, and thereby accept all others with the reckless abandonment of grace.

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Assured of Life

When John concludes both his gospel and his first letter, he clearly states why he wrote each one. His intent is similar in each case, but reading closely you will notice a significant difference.

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. John 20:31

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5:13

Did you notice the change? He writes his gospel that we might trust in Jesus and have life, and writes his first letter that we who already trust in Jesus may know that we have that life. His letter is assuring us of what the gospel declares to be true. The letter describes how we know we actually have that life, the life which the gospel says is ours if we trust Jesus. What is the sign or indication that we have the life of God that comes to us in Christ?

No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 5:13

God’s own life, eternal life, is not a “thing” to be seen any more than God himself can be seen. Evidently, one does not “feel” they have that life in them, or surely John would have indicated that. However, when we love others, John says, God lives in us. If God is living in us, then God’s own divine life, eternal life, the nature and essence of God’s own existence, is in us as well. The real sign by which we know that we have God’s gift of life is that we have come to live in and share his love. 

The Christians to whom John wrote his letter had begun to doubt if, in fact, they had this life of God. At the very least, they were unsure of how they could know if they did. In response, John identifies that love for others is the clear and definite evidence that God abides in the believer, and that his love is being brought to its maturity in that person. 

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 1 John 4:16-17

Our boldness in the final reckoning of God’s truth-telling (judgment) is because we can know that we are in God’s incomparable life through the love which becomes our dwelling place (abiding). John does not claim that this divine self-giving love is immediately complete or mature in us, but that by grace and time the gift of love is moving toward that end. Though we may not be able to perceive such change now, within ourselves or others, as we suspect it is needed, the promise remains that we will become like the One in whole we trust.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 1 John 3:2

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Wounds and Healing

The great mystery of the sufferings of Christ was foretold by the Hebrew prophets and poets. They were inspired to proclaim that the redemption of the human race, our rescue from the dreadful enslavement to spiritual darkness, would somehow come through suffering. Our healing would be through woundedness. 

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5

The disciples of Jesus, once their minds had been opened to understand how all their scriptures were speaking of the Christ (Luke 24:45), recognized those promises as pointing to his cross.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24

To promise healing through the Son’s sufferings assumes that we have wounds. While we might think immediately of the hurts and injuries received as the result of sin, and certainly Christ’s suffering heals those wounds, Paul speaks of another woundedness that has nothing to do with sin. He says that the sufferings of Christ are still lacking in some manner, and need to be completed.

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. Colossians 1:24

Paul sees an ongoing wounding. What is missing is not the sufficiency or scope of Christ’s sufferings as atonement for sin and the means of reconciliation. Jesus defeats death and offers himself for the whole world’s sin, once for all. The part that is lacking is our own participation, not because we add anything to God’s reconciliation of the world to himself or to his atonement for sin, but because the sufferings of Christ are also the expression of God’s love. Our sufferings, and the wounds that accompany them, do complete what is lacking in us, that is, love. We need to share in the same self-offering love of the cross, and the wounds that come when we do.

Love hurts. There is no way around that reality. We are right to describe participating in God’s love as a share in his afflictions, for we too must accept the cost of love. Christ’s wounds are the marks of love, not only the evidence of cruelty and hate. The wounding we need is the piercing our defenses, the tearing of our selfishness, and the bruising of our neglect with regard to the needs of our neighbors. To have the wounds of Christ, the wounds of love, will be our healing. 

As he was wounded for our healing, so we share in his sufferings, being wounded in ways that open us to genuine love and mark us as those who have shared in it. When we are wounded with his wounds, then we are healed. We too must bear the evidence of love, the same signs of love the disciples saw in the hands, feet, and side of the risen Lord. The Spirit himself draws us into the wounds of God that we may be healed.

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 2 Corinthians 4:10

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Out of Darkness

I have suggested that we are not lost because we sin, but rather that we sin because we are lost. We are not in darkness because of sin. We are in darkness because we do not know the Light, and consequently, we sin. By “lost” I am not talking about condemned and sentenced to hell, but what the word literally means and how Jesus used it (lost sheep, coin, and son, Luke 15). “Lost” refers to those who “do not know their way, where they are, or how to get to where they need to be”. When we are lost and in darkness we do not know what to do.

Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), that is, to find and rescue those who are like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36). We do not begin life knowing our way, exactly where we are, and should go. No, in lacking true knowledge of God we are in the dark from the beginning, and as a result, act in ways contrary to God and who God intended us to be.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. Galatians 4:8

As Paul states, in not knowing God we are slaves as if unto gods, but that to which we are actually obedient and subservient in this ignorance are not divine, holy, nor truly gods. The problem is not sin, but not knowing God, from which false worship and sinful behavior arises. Distinguishing between what is the source of our spiritual problems and what results from it helps us recognize our true need Too often we have thought sin is the source of our spiritual troubles, rather than the symptom of the real issue. The real problem is that we do not know God. 

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things, to which you desire to be enslaved all over again? Galatians 4:9

Notice how Paul tells the Galatians that now they know God, but then, almost as if to correct himself and to speak more accurately, says they are “known” by God. All our knowing depends on being known, in the same way John says that our loving (which is in fact the basis of our knowing God) is predicated on God’s prior love of us. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We know because we first are known. We are loved into being, and known into knowing. This initiative by God is what rescues and saves us from being lost in darkness. God reveals himself and shows himself that we may know him.

Do not think that because I am saying we need to know God that I am relying heavily on the work of the mind or intellect. We are to love God with all our mind (Luke 10:27), not merely think about him!  By loving God with our whole being we will come to know God. As we grow to truly know God in this manner of participation in the divine nature of love, which is beyond mere knowledge, then we will be changed.

Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. 2 Peter 1:4

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An End To Sin

I find it difficult to have helpful and transformative discussions about sin because for so many the subject generates extreme fearfulness. We become anxious to even discuss sin once the idea has been drummed into us that our sins separate us from God, incite God’s wrath against us, and will plunge us into the eternal fires of hell. When combined with honest self-awareness that we are quite sinful, we doubt whether we can be saved from this awful state and are terrified that even one slight slip will be enough to doom us for eternity.

I believe that the truth is our sin separates us more from godliness than it does from God himself. Jesus, who is God, reveals that God has no problem being around sinners. The very religious people of Jesus’ day had more problems being around sinners than he did, and likewise sin is much more a problem for us than it is for God. God’s wrath is against the sin problem rather than those who are mired in it (Romans 1:18).Our ever-loving and always merciful Lord never abandons us because we are sinful. The separation is entirely on our part. Our sins separate us from God, but not God from us.

Rather than being separated form us, God pursues us! The good news is that Jesus was sent and came to save sinners (Luke 19:10)! Being a sinner is not a cause for despair but for hope. God has no problem forgiving sin! He absolutely revels in mercy, grace, and compassion, being so free with the riches of forgiveness that we might mistakenly think we can sin all we want (Romans 6:1-2). We must be reminded by John, after he tells us about the readiness with which God forgives (1 John 1:7-9), that he actually does not want us to sin (1 John 2:1).

Forgiveness alone, though, is not the solution to sinfulness. The grace of forgiveness does not remedy our habits of ungodly living.

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 1 John 3:6

John states clearly that unless we know God, we will simply keep on sinning. Being forgiven means that God does not hold our sins against us, but knowing God is the way to a changed life. This is not a knowing about God, information we hold in our minds, but a more profound relational “knowing” that John equates with “abiding” in the previous verse and the one that follows.

No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 1 John 3:9

Another way John talks about what needs to happen for us to leave our sinful ways is that we must be born of God. Knowing God and being born of God are ways of describing that which leads to the deep transformation which will end the cycle of sinfulness. But what is it exactly?

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 1 John 4:7

God is known and we are born of Him through our participation in the love which comes from Him. Learning to love is the transformational experience of grace which ends our sinful habits. Because God is love, those who learn to love have come to know God through abiding in his loving nature. To love God and to love others, as God loves, is to know God and to be born of God.

“Faith is the beginning of love; the end of love is knowledge of God.” Abba Evagrius (345-399).

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The Active Life

I am sure you’ve noticed the fact that none of us asked to be born. It is obvious. We simply had no choice in the matter. Our mortal existence in this world is not of our own choosing, and therefore, in this sense, our mortal life is passive. We may be, and many are, very active within our mortal human lives, but what we are, the life itself, was passively received.

However, a genuinely spiritual life is exactly the opposite. Instead of a passive state of being, a spiritual existence is actively chosen, or it simply will not be. No one comes into a spiritual state passively, in the passive way we all came into our physical life. If we will have a spiritual life, then it will be because we desire and choose this way. The spiritual life is as inherently active from inception as our material and mortal life is passive.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. Matthew 7:13-14

Perhaps we can think about these words of Jesus, and his distinction between the broad and narrow ways, according to this “mortal versus spiritual” and “passive versus active” analogy. The narrow way is the spiritual life, which has to be chosen as our active pursuit. Those upon it have moved deliberately in this manner. The broad way, a merely physical and mortal existence, is given to us all and requires no effort. We are simply born onto this way. If we amble along, passively staying on a simply mortal level, well, we all no what happens to the mortal. The very meaning of the word is that it comes to an end. The mortal will not last, but is always destroyed in the end.

Truly, truly, I say to you, the one who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. John 5:24

We are given a mortal life but must choose a spiritual life. Our Christian lives begin through an active choice to embrace the spiritual existence and to rise above our mere mortal, physical one. We end up in a odd place, simultaneously mortal and yet beyond mortal, that is, genuinely spiritual.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer person is decaying, yet our inner person is being renewed day by day. 2 Corinthians 4:16

The very essence of this spiritual life is the imitation of the self-offering love of God. By living in the love of God we live in the eternal, non-mortal life that is God’s own existence. 

We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 1 John 4:16-17

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Jesus and Scripture

I suppose that all of us at some point in school were assigned a play to read for a literature or English class, probably one of Shakespeare’s classics. Mine was Macbeth. Since the dialogue was so very difficult to understand, the teacher spent considerable time explaining what was happening as we read. We discussed each section and sometimes were asked to attempt a dramatic reading of a portion. All that helped, but it was only when I watched a production of the play that I really understood the story well. I had to see the story acted out and not just read the script.

For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead. John 20:9

Scripture here refers to the Hebrew writings that we call the Old Testament, because for Jesus and his disciples that was their Scripture. Notice how John admits, though they knew the writings actually said, that they did not understand what they meant. 

Perhaps we can compare Scripture to the script of a play. It is difficult to imagine exactly what the whole story only from the script. The sacred writings from Moses, the prophets, and their poets was enough to give the Jews of the first century a rough idea of the messiah and God’s kingdom, of what God wanted for his people, but it was still vague in certain respects. This is why there was controversy over who the messiah would be and what he would do. 

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me. John 5:39

Jesus is the living out and full expression of what their Scriptures envisioned. If Scripture is the script, Jesus is the production put on by God. Without the official production of the play, by its author, we are not completely sure what is intended. When the writer of the play directs the actors in their lines, supervises the creation of the sets, and puts on the play, then we know. Only Jesus can open our minds to understand the Scriptures, even two millennia later.

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. Luke 24:45

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