Suffering with Christ

One of the more peculiar verses in the New Testament is found in Colossians 1:24: “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”

This statement is puzzling to many. Not least, of course, for the reason that it would seem that Paul is in some way denying the sufficiency of the cross. Of course, we know that this could not be possible. There are too many other statements in Paul’s letters where he declares the completeness of Christ’s work (“the is no condemnation for those in Christ!”).

So, what then does Paul mean by saying that in his sufferings, he is “filling what is lacking”?

Before we answer this, we must recognize that suffering is an important aspect of Paul’s theology and practice: For instance, in Romans, Paul makes several statements about suffering: He rejoices in suffering (Romans 5:3), Christians are heirs with Christ only if they suffer with him (8:17-18), Paul wished he could be accursed for his brethren (9:1-5).

Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:5: “for as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too”. Paul’s theology of suffering becomes the most striking in Philippians 3:9-11:

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

What are we to make of these strange texts?

It appears that for Paul, to be a Christian means principally to participate in Christ. To participate in his death. To participate in his resurrection. Think now of baptism, which signifies the believer dying and rising with Chris in salvation. The believer is united to Christ by faith, dies to sin and rises to new life. 

Salvation for Paul (justification, sanctification, and glorification) is union with Christ, participation in the great theo-drama of the cross. And for Paul, part of this union involved his present sufferings. The persecution. The beatings. The shipwrecks. The hate and mockery of the Jews. Paul was participating in the suffering of Christ through his own suffering. The cross was becoming real within him. He was being more conformed into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). 

Many see the cross as an exemption from suffering: Paul saw the cross as something to participate in! And not just the cross. But the resurrection too. This was Paul’s great hope, that all of the suffering he endured would inevitably lead one day to glory! 

This gives much deeper meaning to Christ’s call to “pick up your cross”. Discipleship is forming Christ within. 

So when Paul says that he “is filling what is lacking”, he means that he is uniting his suffering to Christ’s. He is appropriating Christ’s death within himself personally. That which was accomplished 2,000 years ago was being made real then and there in Paul’s flesh. 

And so suffering was, for Paul, an opportunity, not a punishment. It was an opportunity to be conformed more and more to Christ’s death, to the image of Christ. It was a way to make Christ’s death his!

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Eschatology as the Church Suffering with Christ

passion scene

Hans Urs von Balthasar has an interesting aside in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action, in which he suggests that eschatology and history, rather than centering around an “apocalypse-focused” theology (i.e. dispensational / rapture theology), should be centered, even structured around the church-as-suffering-with-Christ.

Balthasar suggests that the history of the church, and the church’s eschatological consummation, should be seen and structured in light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. And what he means is that just as Christ’s life became more and more violent and ended in the cross and resurrection, so the church’s history, as Christ’s body, should be seen that way as well: growing in intensity, in violence, and consummating in a final persecution which ends in resurrection glory.

In other words, as Jesus goes, so goes the church, his body. Because Christ suffered, so the church must expect to suffer. The church’s destiny within history, is to die and rise with Christ. And this church-Christ connection is how Balthasar prefers to structure history. It is a progression of the church toward her ultimate end: death and resurrection with Christ. To him, this is what the final stage of history looks like!

What is interesting here, is that NT theology does seem to find a historical continuum of the church-as-suffering-with-Christ. Jesus himself says that suffering is a “norm” for the church. He also defines discipleship as being crucified with Christ: “if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23).

Paul, in his letter to the Romans, says that suffering “with Christ” is a condition for final salvation (Rom 8:17). Paul even says that he rejoices in his sufferings, as they fill “up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). It would seem that persecution and martyrdom is an anticipated and even necessary experience for the church. Why? The church is the body of Jesus, growing into him through death and resurrection. In other words, the church suffers in and with Christ, as his body. This is her historic destiny.

More than that though, the NT also points to a final suffering, a final “dying-with-Christ”, if you will, where the church suffers in a more complete and eschatological sense. In Thessalonians, for instance, we find Paul teaching that persecution, although normal and expected (“mystery of godlessness… at work now“, 2 Thess 2:7), will grow to a climax at the appearance of a final “lawless one” (2:8, antichrist) whom Jesus himself will destroy. Revelation, of course, envisions a final persecution which will only end with the appearance of Jesus and glorification (Rev 19-20).

What Balthasar suggests is that the church, as the body of Jesus, is meant to experience Jesus’ sufferings. This is the destiny of the church: to be conformed into Christ. This experience of the church, this dying-with-Christ, is expressed in history, culminating in a final death and resurrection, after which she will be completed in glory. This is Balthasar’s eschatological center: the church as suffering with Christ.

Here is how Balthasar explains it:

A question may be asked at this point: Do the various periods in Jesus’ life shed light on the Church’s history and hence, indirectly, on world history? … [T]he destinies of Peter and Paul—according to John 21, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Galatians and 2 Timothy—are fashioned closely enough after their Lord’s. Should this sequence be applied to the Church’s history as a whole?…

[I believe we can draw a] parallel between Jesus’ progress toward his “hour” and the Church’s progress toward the eschatological tribulation. For, as we have shown, the Church comes from the Cross and is always heading toward it. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is sent to her on the basis of Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, that she is equipped for discipleship, enabled to drink the Lord’s cup (Mk 10:39). Hence, in Paul, the baffling simultaneity of transfiguration and Passion: “For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:11)… [And] indeed, it seems to be Paul’s view that the glory of the Lord actually shines forth in the disciple’s sharing of Christ’s sufferings: “When I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:10). “For we are weak in him [Christ], but in dealing with you we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)…

So we cannot avoid the question: Does world history give indications that [Christ’s passion has]… a universal effect? That is, does not world history show a theological structure, a christological structure, and can it not be demonstrated even to the nonbeliever? In such a case, world history and the Church’s history would be more interrelated than is commonly assumed; not merely in the sense of an external intertwining of Church and State (since Constantine), including modern absolutism with its ideal of “throne and altar”, but in a way that is more in accord with the gospel? (Theo-Drama: The Action, Part IV, A)

I believe that Balthasar truly has something here. The church as the body of Christ, suffers as Christ in history. And this history centers around that suffering, in which we shall die with Christ, and finally be raised (in the actual eschatological sense of the world!) with him.