Last night and today I had the great joy and privilege of sitting under the teaching of Paul Miller, the author of a book (A Praying Life) that has had a profound impact on my relationship with God. One challenging takeaway for me from his teaching in this mini-conference was that suffering and hardship are to be the norm in the Christian life. We are to not only believe the Gospel but we are to become the Gospel, by allowing our lives to take on the “shape” of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ pattern is from life to death to resurrection. The world tries to skip the downward slope of death and instead jump directly to resurrection life–and though for a short time that may appear to be working, the end result is death not life. In contrast, as God forms a “Jesus-shaped life” in His children, there are mini-deaths and mini-resurrections happening all the time, because that is what took place in Jesus’ life as well.
The apostle Paul spoke of the normality of suffering when he wrote this to the church in Thessalonica: “for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this [affliction]. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.” (I Thess. 3:3b-4) Jesus also explicitly warned His beloved disciples that “In this world you will have tribulation…” (John 16:33)
If we are to embody the Gospel and reflect Christ by “sharing in His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10), then does that mean we are to seek suffering? No. But neither does it mean that we are to avoid suffering at all costs. Rather, we are to walk in obedience to Christ, knowing that suffering will simply be a part of our relationship with Him, and that is not a bad thing. And I believe we are to pursue things that are in fact hard and risky, for the sake of the Gospel, things which we know have the potential to bring some level of suffering into our life. But doing hard things is not limited to what some might view as “big” things like moving overseas as a missionary or adopting a special-needs child; it may also mean the “little” things like speaking honestly with someone who will get angry at you for your truthfulness, or refusing to compromise your integrity at work, or choosing not to have the last word in an argument.
Any of those steps of obedience to Christ could lead to an experience of death–a mini-death to self by releasing control or taking the road of humility or admitting sin. But that death then leads to resurrection! That mini-death becomes the conduit to the formation of God’s heart and character in me. It becomes the conduit to a deeper intimacy with Jesus as I understand in a tangible way something more of what He suffered for me. And it becomes a conduit for greater ministry, as the power of God is displayed in my weakness. Through that mini-death, there is a greater life that emerges–that is resurrection! So rather than attempting to insulate myself from any kind of suffering I might face, I need to see suffering as a normal part of a Jesus-shaped life, and know that without those daily mini-deaths there would be no resurrection life.