“Offer it up.”
As a Christian, I have heard and said those words many times. This idea of offering our sufferings up in union with our risen Lord had become so ingrained in me from an early age. However, when I had to live them in a very real and dramatic fashion, I knew I was in store for a life changing lesson.
Now let me say I have never been fortunate enough to live what others may call “a charmed life”. From my earliest days, I have struggled in all aspects of my life – work, school, family, and yes even health. Maybe that’s exactly why this understanding of the value of human suffering always appealed to me. I have often told people, crosses appealed to me not because I do not worship a risen Lord (I do), but because I myself have never risen from the dead (spiritually yes, but I have not yet been delivered from this body). Yet I can relate and find comfort in a suffering God, for I too suffer.
Five years ago I was given rather bad news, which was only complicated six months later. I was living with Crohn’s Disease for years. Crohn’s is an autoimmune disease that attacks your gastrointestinal tract. The symptoms extend beyond the GI tract affecting your vision, skin, bones, etc. There is no cure.
After years of very harsh medical treatments involving toxic drugs, I had run out of options. My entire large intestines had to be removed. I was told it was a barbaric twelve-hour procedure that would not only be incredibly painful but would also require me to have to use an ostomy bag.
Six months later, I developed the early signs of cancer and had to have yet another surgery and reconstruction requiring me to adjust my life to this very uncomfortable but now permanent situation.
Over the next several years I had complications causing more procedures, more brutal surgeries, and countless hours in and out of emergency rooms.
And then there is the chronic pain that will never leave me.
To say I was let down by God is an understatement.
To complicate issues even further, my wife and I were expecting our third child two weeks before my scheduled operation, and I was just about to launch a new mission church.
I questioned if I was a modern day Job. Like Job, I was very disappointed in my God.
So I decided to immerse myself in scripture. There among the scriptures and the writings of the great Christians of the past, I found what deep down I truly knew all along (That is, when it was not being smothered by pain).
The words of St. Paul spoke to my darkness. “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” (Col. 1:24 ESV).
This concept and the utter change in worldview that flowed from it made me a more compassionate pastor. I can now sit in a hospital room with a patient and explain with more than simple academic clarity how the suffering I went through and the sufferings I will always carry as a result of my surgeries allow me to grow deeper in Christ; how they have value in his eyes; how he can take them and unite them with his own on the cross and give them value. He can use them to form me, shape me, and mold me into a stronger servant.
And this is nothing new. The great St. Augustine wrote, “You suffer as much as is needed to be added from your sufferings to the total suffering of Christ, who suffered as our head, and suffers in his members, that is, in ourselves.”
This should INSPIRE.
If what St. Paul and St. Augustine says is true, then not only should we not shrink in fear, or worse, be drawn into isolation and depression when it comes to our suffering, but we should embrace it and find comfort that it’s not wasted, meaningless, or a cruel punishment from God.
We also should be inspired to HELP others who suffer. Not only in bringing this Gospel of hope and grace and enlightening their darkened minds to this wonderful truth, but also in reaching out in social justice to alleviate their suffering. Knowing that if we truly believe what Augustine said, that Jesus suffers in us, then Jesus need not suffer when it can be prevented.
I also should make clear that although this specific cross finally made sense and was accepted by me, there are many crosses that befall us that simply will have no explanation on this side of the veil of earth and paradise. And that is OK as well. We need not feel disappointed in ourselves or worse yet feel we have somehow failed as a Christian because we can not make peace with our crosses. But we must carry on knowing God is present to us all the time even in the midst of our brokenness.
This Gospel of suffering taught me that there are certain sufferings common to man that God simply allows. We will never understand it fully, but we can struggle to make sense of it when possible embrace it, and most importantly GROW from it!
My cross was heavy. Calvary is steep. But what I learned over the years since, I simply could not have learned any other way. That’s the great wisdom of our God.
And now, I’m happy.
I’m happy for empathy. I’m happy for grace. I’m happy to share, if only in a little way, the great sufferings of Jesus. I’m happy that, particularly as a pastor, I can stand as a witness in a world that teaches we must have everything our way, and we must strive for comfort and success in life. I’m happy that God can use me as an example that true joy is not to be found in the fading pleasures of this world. I’m happy that God even bothered to teach me this lesson.
Ultimately I’m happy that I have the opportunity to teach the truth of this verse not only with my lips but with my life: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9 ESV).