Photo from Mathieu Formisyn, Flickr
Through the experience of bearing the cross as Jesus commands, we learn that suffering is not only inevitable, but a desirable and beneficial aspect of our earthly existence. Jesus made it clear that God calls every Christian to bear his or her cross:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. – Luke 9:23
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. – Luke 14:27
For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. – Matthew 16:25-26
Jesus set the example through His excruciating suffering and death on a Roman cross. Even long before that day, He had given of Himself and suffered daily. We read in Philippians that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (2:7-9).
Your Cross is Not Unlike Jesus’ Cross
Recently, as the Lord reminded me about the need to bear my cross, I felt inspired to send this tweet from my Twitter handle, @RTGbook:
There’s no great distinction between the personal cross that God wants you to bear and the cross of Christ.
I quickly realized that this needed further explaining. After all, Jesus paid for our redemption through His death on the cross. None of us could ever hope to match that. To avoid giving anyone the wrong impression, I followed it with this:
There’s a big difference between Christ’s blood and yours, but not between His cross and yours (Rom 8:17, Col 1:24, 1 Pet 4:13)
It’s incredible, isn’t it? The thing that probably every Christian admires most about Jesus was His willingness to suffer and die for us. What an honor it is to be able to emulate our Hero in this way!
But is our suffering actually comparable to that of Christ, our Savior and Lord? Let’s look at the verses that I just quoted:
…we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. – Rom. 8:16-17
This says that if we suffer with Christ, we will also be heirs with Him and share in His glory. Next, let’s turn to Colossians…
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
This verse has led to confusion. Jesus’ suffering was not insufficient for our salvation. In fact, we know that “Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through Him” (Heb. 7:25). Even so, we only received the gospel because Paul and countless other Christians passed it on through tears, hardship, and even martyrdom. Their suffering became an imperfect illustration of the great price that Jesus paid to save sinners. In fact, it seems that the gospel doesn’t go forth in the world apart from brokenness and suffering.
Finally, Peter wrote that as we are privileged to share in Christ’s sufferings, so we will also share in His great joy!…
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. – 1 Peter 4:13
With these truths in mind, I composed and sent the following tweets:
We spread the gospel not only through our words, but also through our silent suffering. (Col. 1:24)
That statement is loosely based on Colossians 1:24. Even if you suffer alone, it’s a character-building experience that makes you more Christ-like, and prepares you to be an effective witness for the Lord.
When our heavenly Father sees a Christian suffering, He remembers Christ’s suffering on the cross.
The context here is that we must be suffering for a good cause, not for our own wrongdoing (1 Pet. 3:17). Our suffering also reminds Jesus of His own suffering. Hebrews 4:15 tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
Is it really true that we can associate our suffering, which is often trivial by comparison, with Christ’s suffering on the cross? I am further questioning this idea because I don’t want you to have any doubts about it.
First, let’s be clear about one thing. This isn’t something for any of us to boast about. I know that Jesus suffered immeasurably more than I have, or likely ever will. Even so, regardless of our circumstances, we can all make the comparison for at least four reasons:
- As explained in the verses quoted above, through our suffering we share in our Lord’s suffering, and extend His redemptive work in the world.
- Our suffering seldom seems trivial while we’re enduring it. As Hebrews 12:11 states, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.” The Bible promises that God won’t test us beyond what we’re able to endure (1 Cor. 10:13). However, that doesn’t mean He won’t test us to the very limit of our ability to endure.
- Our Lord Himself made the comparison by calling all who would be His followers to bear the cross daily.
- God doesn’t belittle our suffering in the least. The cross is a symbol of death, and suffering involves dying to ourselves (1 Cor. 15:31). The psalmist wrote, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Ps. 116:15). The word “saints” should remind us that even though we’re all sinners, God sees us as innocent through the blood of Christ.
How We Gain From Bearing the Cross
Why did Jesus command us to bear the cross daily? Let’s consider three primary benefits that we gain through patient suffering:
- We become like Jesus. As Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10 NIV). If we suffer for Jesus, we will also experience His resurrection life (2 Cor. 4:8-10). Suffering also opens the door for the Holy Spirit to comfort us in our afflictions (2 Cor. 1:4). This verse directs our attention to a second benefit…
- We learn to identify with those who suffer. We read in 2 Corinthians 1:4 that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (ESV).
- We will share in Christ’s glorification. We learned this from 1 Peter 4:13, as quoted above. Paul also wrote, “If we endure, we will also reign with Him” (2 Tim. 2:12). There will be no “spectator” seats in Heaven!
Notably, the first two benefits listed above help us extend the saving work of Christ in the world.
I hope you’ll keep in mind all the benefits of bearing our cross for Christ. Any suffering that enters our lives comes by God’s permission, and should be endured for His sake.
Much temporary sorrow and suffering will result from denying our sinful desires to pursue the will of God. We can also choose suffering through a voluntary discipline such as fasting. We can intentionally mourn for our own sins and failures, or for “neighbors” in need. I don’t want to meddle with doctor’s orders, but if Christians today shared a more enlightened, biblical perspective on pain, we might not be so quick to medicate ourselves for every minor ache. We all need a balance of both joy and sorrow in our lives (Eccl. 7:4, and see this article).
As we have seen, the early Christians encouraged one another with the truth that their suffering was an extension of Christ’s suffering on the cross. We seldom hear such moving encouragement today, which is one reason for this post. When I’ve seen other Christians teach on this topic, it has usually been in an intellectual context of explaining Paul’s difficult words in Colossians 1:24, rather than with a focus on the encouragement that we can gain from that and similar passages.
In summary, your suffering, like that of the Lord Jesus Christ, touches the very heart of God. It is never in vain, but will bring great rewards both in this world, and for eternity.