Have you ever noticed that the disciples do not have the easiest time in their lives? Living their lives as followers of the risen Christ was not without struggle. One might think that the message of forgiveness would be well received, yet frequently the disciples met hostility and rejection.
First, they were jettisoned from the Temple, then they began to be arrested, eventually, widespread martyrdom set in. At one point, Paul, perhaps the most influential of church leaders, describes his experiences in this way:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers (2 Corinthians 11:24-26).
Throughout history, this reality has been played out time and again in the lives of Christian people. Those who give themselves to the Christian life often find themselves on the receiving end of hostility, judgment, or even downright rejection. Undoubtedly, this is a hard reality to experience. Sadly, because of such things, many choose to walk away from the Christian faith.
Hardships and obstacles seem to be a natural and unavoidable reality for God’s servants. So certain is this experience that Peter writes that we “should not be surprised at the fiery ordeal” that befalls the followers of Christ (1 Peter 4:12). Giving ourselves to Christ is to walk the path of suffering and rejection.
The question for the Christian, then, is not “will my faith lead to suffering?” but “why does the Christian life lead to suffering?” Ultimately, understanding why suffering occurs in the life of the Christian helps us learn the nature of the Christian life and our call to Christlike ministry.
The Christian Life Is Antithetical to Worldly Living
The world has a way of operating, which is not based on God’s principles or design. The world struggles with things such as systemic racism, injustice, violence, and oppression. There is no corner of the globe untouched by humanity’s selfishness and sin. This is simply the biblical reality of the world we live in.
The Christian life is naturally out of step with the ways and systems of the fallen world. It exposes the emptiness of worldly power and the insufficiency of worldly glory. The early disciples were originally charged with troublemaking for this reason.
The Book of Acts records that Paul and Barnabas were cited with “causing trouble all over the world” (Acts 17:6, 24:5). Faith in the resurrected Lord puts Christians at odds with the activities and structures of the world around them.
For one, Christians began separating themselves from godless games, immoral activity, and idolatrous religious practices. As Rome received economic benefit from such things, abstaining from these activities was not well received.
Furthermore, the proclamation “Jesus is Lord” directly opposed the Roman creed that “Caesar is Lord.” Following the risen Lord, therefore, contradicted the rule of the Roman empire.
Even today, the gospel upsets the very economic, political, and military frameworks, which underpins much of our world.
Remember, Christ was rejected by the world. He was rejected because the kingdom he proclaimed ran contrary to the kingdom of worldly power. “If the world hates you, remember it hated me first,” Jesus declares (John 15:18). While we live in the world, we are not of the world. This will naturally lead us to experience negativity and rejection.
This is because the Christian life, rooted in love and grace, dethrones a worldly system based on rewards and punishments. Many sayings and slogans, common today, preach an ethic of deserved and merit.
We say things like: “You get what you deserve” or “What goes around comes around.” In a world based on getting what you deserve, embodying selfless love to everyone seems completely nonsensical.
In a world where everyone is trying to be “number 1,” the message that “the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30) exposes the emptiness of vain pursuits. At every turn, a life in Christ Jesus stands in opposition to the structures and beliefs of a fallen world.
God Calls Us to the Poor and Marginalized
Part of the reason why the Christian life is out of step with the world is because Christians are called to minister to the poor and the vulnerable. As Christians, we live as Jesus lived; we love as Jesus loved. We suffer as Jesus suffered.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus consistently surrounded himself with the poor and the vulnerable. Never once did Jesus use his divine status to exit the suffering of humanity. This would betray the very incarnation itself. Christ dwells with the hurting, the pushed aside, and the forgotten.
Not only did Jesus walk with the hurting of his day, Jesus, eternally, dwells with the vulnerable and marginalized today. “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick, and you looked after me, I was in prison, and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36).
As Christ was incarnated amongst the “least of these” we are called to enter the suffering of humanity as well. We cannot escape this necessary ministry if we wish to embody the love and presence of Jesus.
Authentic Christian life naturally involves a certain amount of suffering because we strip ourselves of earthly power to bless the vulnerable with love and grace. We walk with those who live on the receiving end of hurt, rejection, violence, and oppression.
The sufferings that Christians endure is but a cooperation, a sharing, in the suffering of the vulnerable. This is the way of life and ministry modeled by Christ himself.
The Christian Life Is United with the Suffering Christ
Ultimately, Christian suffering occurs because we follow the one who suffered on the cross. Jesus did not reside in the halls of power or prestige. Jesus ate with outcasts and sinners. He dined in the home of tax collectors.
He spoke with women and invited them into his company of followers. He touched the untouchable, walked in gentile territory, and frequently reached down to those who were at the bottom of the spiritual, social, and religious ladder. To the sinful and down-and-out Jesus declared the blessings of God.
To a world that considered strength and wealth symbols of divine blessing, this was unfathomable. Because of such things, Jesus was decried as a drunkard and a glutton (Matthew 11:19). Eventually, Jesus was crucified.
The path that Jesus takes to his death is called The Way of the Cross. The Church has often used this term to refer to the path of suffering that all Christians are called to make. Just as Jesus’ life and ministry lead him to the cross, so too, are we called to take up our cross and follow him.
The way of the cross is a way of vulnerability, non-retaliation, peace, and sacrificial love. The Christian life cannot be rooted in a desire for comfort or security, for this is completely outside the way of Christ.
Make no mistake, when Christ calls us to “follow him” (Mark 1:17), he is speaking about following him to the cross. Thus, the Christian life can only be rightly understood as life wherein we join Christ in his vulnerability and suffering.
Importantly, Christians do not seek suffering for the sake of suffering. Glorifying martyrdom is simply to swap one system of earning power for another. The power of the cross is seen in vulnerability, self-emptying, and sacrifice.
It is only as we empty ourselves of all vain ambition that we enter the way of Jesus, and engage in a ministry empowered by his Spirit. Christ’s power is revealed in weakness and his salvation is revealed through self-offering. If we wish to walk in the reality of the former, we must embrace the way of the latter.
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Reverend Kyle Norman is the Rector of the Anglican Parish of Holy Cross in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has a doctorate in Spiritual Formation and is often asked to write or speak on the nature of the Christian community, and the role of Spiritual disciplines in Christian life. His personal blog can be found here.