“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” —Colossians 1:24
I begin today with some wisdom from C. S. Lewis. He wrote this about love, risk and suffering:
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping your heart intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock your heart up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. Your heart will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. . . . The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is hell.
We want to love. We want to give our lives away for Jesus’ sake. We want to help people. We don’t want to be selfish. But love suffers and takes risks and reaches out, and there’s no way around suffering except to stop loving and turn inward and shut down and die. Suffering is the price love is willing to pay, so that others may live in Christ. He did that for us, and he calls us to follow him.
Until we see him and his purposes in our sufferings, we don’t know what to think. Suffering in itself is bewildering and destabilizing and terrifying. David Powlison, in Suffering and the Sovereignty of God, helps us see more clearly. When we suffer, we wonder, “Where is God in this? Everything is on the line, but where is God now?” We feel abandoned. We wonder, “Why me? Why now? Why this? Anything else would be better than this. But this is beyond endurance. Why this?” It’s too personal, too painful, too horrible. We all know these thoughts.
When that happens – not if, but when – God has not abandoned you. God is drawing near to you. God knows, he is aware, he does not trivialize your suffering but he validates your suffering as significant. Through Christ he chose, unasked – he chose to enter into our sufferings. He does not patronize us or advise us from a safe distance. He is with us. He will carry us through the whole way. He knows personally what you’re going through right now. He knows from his own personal experience how it feels. And when we think about God in this way, so near to us in everything we suffer, a new question enters our minds. We look up to him and wonder, “Why you? Why would you get involved? Why would you suffer loss and hardship and slander and brokenness and death? And why would you do that for me, of all people? But you did. You didn’t have to. But you did it for me, because grace to the undeserving is your greatest glory. You entered in and got involved with me, because you are love.” It’s a new thought toward God. And as that awareness sinks in, as we factor the gospel into our sufferings, we see that our stories are part of a much larger story, and our sufferings do not throw the moral order off its axis, and we do matter but now in the right scale and size and as a part of something far grander than we ever thought up, and that grandeur cannot be taken from us but we can only be deepened in it, and in the last chapter of the story all the other chapters will finally make sense. And as all of this hope enters our hearts, we find to our surprise that we start feeling gratitude and confidence. We start thinking, “Boy, do I have it good.” We even find ourselves thinking, “Why not me? Why not this? God is in this. God is doing something here. I’m a wimp, but even if my weak faith burns like only a three-watt bulb, this world is so dark I’m still making a difference. If my sufferings are filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, my life is a privilege. I don’t deserve to be involved in his afflictions.” Dostoevsky said, “There is only one thing I fear: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” When we suffer, we start out thinking, “I don’t deserve this.” Then, when we see that our sufferings display the afflictions of Christ, we start thinking, “I don’t deserve this,” and we mean something different by it. “If God sanctifies to me my deepest distress, if my weakness proves his power to save me, if my struggling shows other strugglers how to land on their feet, if my story brings others closer to Christ, then okay. What I’m going through is hard, harder than I ever dreamed it would be. But I accept the cost of love, and I entrust myself to Christ who promises to sustain me.” That is where you and I need to go in our hearts today. When we see our sufferings as the display of the love of Christ through us, then we have the courage not to be selfish but to let our hearts be broken. We’re on mission for Jesus Christ. It isn’t easy. It isn’t meant to be easy. But it’s a privilege to be involved.
Last week we saw that Jesus + community – mission is defective Christianity. It is so widespread today, but it is subnormal. It isn’t in the Bible. But Jesus + community + mission is real Christianity and a deep joy. That’s where the blessing of God is, and it’s what we want for everyone in our city and our region and the ends of the earth. What we want for everyone in Nashville is not only that everyone accepts Jesus but that everyone accepts Jesus and enters into community and lives on mission. That is Christianity. That is our ministry. And so much is set against us. We will pay a price. But the Lord is with us. And as we suffer, we will have something to say. People who haven’t suffered have little to say to sufferers. But as we feel what other people feel, they’re more willing to listen. Suffering is the leading edge of the gospel’s forward movement. How could it be otherwise? It’s about a cross! As people see the love of Christ softening us and beautifying our sufferings, they will be able to listen and receive it. Missional living requires suffering.
Last week we saw in the book of Jonah the key to it all: willingness. With that willingness, we’re ready to take the next step. Today Paul shows us one of God’s great purposes in our sufferings:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works in me. —Colossians 1:24-29
Three insights into missional living. One, whenever the gospel moves into a new person’s life, it costs somebody something. We think, if we’re serving Christ, then he should prevent our sufferings or at least take them away. Paul didn’t believe that. Paul knew and accepted that whenever the gospel moves into a new person’s life, it would cost him. And he didn’t feel bad about the price he had to pay for someone else. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t resenting the cost of love, as if he were above it, as if it should be convenient. He wasn’t sulking. Look at this man’s selfless objectivity: “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”
You’ve probably seen this in living color already. How did you become a Christian? Most of us came into Christ through someone else’s influence. Somebody cared. Somebody prayed. Somebody took an interest and got involved. Somebody invited us in. Somebody took a risk of being rejected when they shared the gospel. Somebody learned how to play the guitar or how to teach kids in Sunday school or whatever. Somebody paid a price, and it made an eternal difference for you. And I have to believe that, whoever that person was, they were happy to see God at work through them for you. You’ve seen in your own life what Paul is talking about here. Okay, now it’s your turn. The Bible says, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation” (2 Corinthians 1:6). Have you ever seen a city with too many churches too full of that cheerful, selfless love for other people? Do we have too much of this Christianity in Nashville today? If so, then let’s all move to another city where there’s a need. But if there is a need for Colossians 1:24 in Nashville, then we know why we’re here. We’re here to pay a price in many ways for the comfort and salvation of others. And it’s also obvious from this verse that the Lord doesn’t want us to see ourselves as big heroes but amazed that God would use us at all. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”
So we don’t expect gospel advance into more people’s lives to be easy. It’s meant to be hard. Here’s why. The price we pay to get the gospel to a new person re-enacts the cross of Christ: “In my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” That’s a strange thing to say. What does Paul mean? Is he saying that the work of Christ on the cross was not finished, that something Paul does completes the otherwise incomplete work of Christ on the cross? Was Jesus wrong when he said from his cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30)? No. What’s lacking in the cross-afflictions of Christ is that people don’t know about the cross, and if they do know they don’t care. Many people don’t know what Jesus was doing for sinners on the cross. And many people in our city who have some vague concept of the cross don’t care. And they don’t think we care. They don’t think we mean this. Their understanding of the cross is vague and small, and they’ve seen so much empty Christianity, so much hypocrisy, so much selfishness. Okay, that’s where we come in, especially as suffering people among other suffering people, so that the message of the cross can start getting traction in more people’s lives.
When people make it hard on you for being a Christian among them, they are handing you on a silver platter what may be the moment for which you were born – that you would become to them a living display of the dying love of Jesus Christ for his enemies. You are bringing the cross over twenty centuries of time that make it seem remote and irrelevant, you are bringing the cross into Nashville in 2010, right into the circle of people you are responsible for. What’s incomplete in the sufferings of Christ is not their power; what’s still incomplete is their presentation, their visibility in the eyes of your friends. When you suffer, both as a broken person in a broken world and as a witness for Christ, he’s giving you a gift. He’s giving you the privilege of re-enacting the greatest love ever known, and the only love that has any hope in it. He has put you in among the people who know you, so that they can see the cross of Christ and believe and be saved.
That makes a difference, doesn’t it? We begin to see our sufferings in a new way. What a privilege to be caught up into the display of Jesus Christ crucified. But we’re also weak. Let’s all admit it. We’re not good at suffering. We’ll never get used to it. How do we know we won’t fold? That leads to our third insight. The Lord Jesus Christ knows how to bring his presence and power to his suffering friends. Verse 29: “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.” I don’t know about you, but the biblical passages about the power of God in us used to frustrate me. I could never make it work. I kept wondering, “How do I pull the trigger on this? How do I set this power in motion?” That was the wrong question. I thought there was some technique to this, and I must not have a knack for it. But this verse is not about any technique. Paul isn’t talking about a method that we master. Paul is talking about Christ mastering us. He’s talking about his power entering into our weakness. That’s why Paul says, “. . . his energy that he powerfully works within me,” not “. . . his energy that I somehow spring loose inside myself.” The whole point is not how we activate Christ but that he activates us and he sustains us and he never leaves or forsakes us and he accomplishes his purpose through us even in our weakness. Here’s one story, from Dr. John Piper, of how the Lord can do this in a frightened Christian.
Joseph Tson was a pastor in communist Romania. They came and searched his house and confiscated his books. The soldiers needed proof that they were doing their job. So they told him to sit at a table and write in each book that it was found in his house. Then he had to sign the book while they took pictures of him. At one point in the tense process, he took down a book whose title was Joy Unspeakable and Full of Glory with the subtitle, “Is This Your Experience NOW?” As he read the title he asked himself that question and was filled—at that moment—by the Holy Spirit with joy. The change was so real that he told his wife to get the soldiers some coffee and he was freed from his anger and fear. Later that week he had to preach. His congregation knew he had been stripped of his books and was daily questioned by the authorities so that he had no time to prepare. He preached on “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). One man was so overwhelmed with the sheer force of his joy in that setting of suffering that he was broken in his own heart and deeply changed.
If you’re not feeling the energy of Jesus powerfully working within you right now, don’t worry about it. When you need him, you will. Trust him. Love people. Suffer for their sake. Rejoice at the privilege of re-enacting the cross of Jesus. He was also raised in power. He knows how to empower his sufferers moment by moment. And his love moving through your joyful sufferings will change people.
Finally, if you’ve never become definite about Jesus, and what I’ve been saying today leaves you feeling like an outsider, maybe you are. But you don’t have to be, not one moment longer. Jesus said, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” If what dominates you emotionally is all the good you deserve, Jesus is not calling you. But if you see yourself as unworthy, he is calling you right now. He is offering you all the righteousness God will ever require of you, he is offering it to you freely as his personal gift of love, no matter what you’ve done. All he asks of you, all you can do, is hold out the empty hands of faith and receive his mercy. If you will, he promises to give you every grace you will ever need, plus infinitely more, for the sheer joy of it.
Will you open up to Christ and receive him now?