A Journal entry… the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Philippians 3:10
This seems to refer to a certain deeper communion with you in suffering – a communion that is not exactly what any of us thought we were signing up for when we said “Yes” to you. I’m not sure I am willing most of the time even now to continue my membership in this particular club. But I want to want to.
I had given a talk in a house meeting about coping with suffering and then opened it up for questions. A guy asked me if I were given the choice, would I trade in my trials and therefore miss out on the benefits I had experienced from them. I thought about it a minute. I wanted to answer honestly and was not willing to just give the obligatory formulaic reply. Finally I said, “No, I’d rather have what I had before (my marriage, my health, and my ministry), and forego the things I’ve learned.” I think he was expecting another answer and I don’t blame him. But while I’m eternally grateful for the things God has done in my life these past couple of years, I’d cash them in to have my wife back and no titanium in my neck or cancer in my blood. Be that as it may, I don’t have that option, so let me tell you about the best benefit of these nightmarish trials.
I said before that Jesus is the President of the Sufferers’ Club. He’s the greatest Sufferer in history, in fact suffering is his-story. Suffering the consequences of our sins against God was his purpose in coming to the planet to begin with. His were the only sufferings that ever freed anyone of their guilt before God. I trust that it’s clear that I’m not claiming any kind of redemptive quality to our human suffering, as though we can either save ourselves or others with it. Jesus’ sufferings are the only saving sufferings.
But he does invite us to join him at the table of which he is Head. As I said before, fellow sufferers enjoy a communion with each other in their common ground as sufferers. But there is more to what Paul calls, “The fellowship of his suffering.” He beckons us to take up our own cross and follow him – not only to suffer for him but with him. He invites us to enjoy an intimacy with him as fellow sufferers. “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings” 1 Peter 4:13. I’m most certainly not claiming any special spiritual status as a sufferer. And I’m not sure how much of this intimacy I’ve entered into myself. I’m just saying that suffering has the potential to put us in proximity to Jesus that few other things can.
A Journal entry…
I know that your suffering enables you to identify with me, and I thank you for that. But I am coming to believe that my suffering puts me in a position in which I may have a kind of fellowship with you that can be precious. When I’m hurting it’s like I have something in common with you. I’ve known that you are “close to the broken hearted,” and I have experienced that nearness over and over. But this experience seems more than that. It’s not just that you are close to me when I’m suffering, but that I am close to you. It’s not just that you are feeling my pain, but if I am not mistaken about this, I’m feeling some of yours. And when I do (this is all a bit mystical and kind of Catholic for me), my sufferings seem more sensible, almost desirable. If they press me closer to your heart and give me a better idea of what you felt as human, and even feel as God, then I can endure.
In Psalm 22 David expresses his own personal pain (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), which Jesus quoted from his cross. It seems to me that this was prophetic in more than one way. He was pointing forward toward the Lord’s sufferings. That much is obvious. But I’m wondering if at the same time he was actually feeling some of what Jesus was going to feel. In other words, I’m inclined to think that he had to experience the fellowship of Jesus’ sufferings in order to prophesy about it. He experienced a sort of preview of the sufferings of Jesus, and in so doing tasted “the fellowship of his sufferings” before Jesus himself suffered. (Jesus was the “Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world.” But we won’t go into that right now.)
If David hadn’t experienced his own pain, he would never have been able to point to Jesus’ pain prophetically. I don’t think he was merely predicting the sufferings of the Lord, he’d entered into them through his own sufferings. He felt some of what the Lord was going to feel – the rejection, abandonment, and even physical agony. David’s agonies were a kind of prequel to that of Jesus. He sat at the Sufferers Club table with Jesus and identified with the Lord’s sorrow before it actually happened in time. I wonder if God chose David in particular to use him in this way because he was “a man after his own heart.” It could be that because David was after the contents of the heart of God he was therefore an apt candidate to feel Jesus’ heartbeat as a sufferer.
If that’s possible (or even close to the way it really was), then it’s certainly possible that my sufferings today can accomplish the same thing after his sufferings happened in history. If David can feel something of what Jesus was going to feel and enter a fellowship with him because of it, I (and you too) can certainly feel something of what Jesus felt and enter into that same communion. It seems we can sit at the table of the sufferers and with them enjoy a deep communion with our Model Sufferer.
When wrestling with this concept, how to understand it and how to communicate it, I picked up my guitar and wrote this simple song. It helped me. Though you can’t hear the melody I wrote, may the lyrics strike a chord in your heart and incite a melody of your own. And may you find your own way to his heart.
I think I can feel your pain sometimes
I think I can feel
It seems as if your heart is mine
I think this is real
You were abandoned, rejected by men, and cried
I think I can feel your pain
You were forsaken, discarded, and then you died
I think I can feel your pain
I think I can feel the same
I’ll take up my cross and follow you
I’ll take up my cross
I’ll carry my cross and die with you
I’ll carry my cross