Have you ever wondered what St. Paul meant by asking that his sufferings could cause him to identify with Christ Jesus so that he could be found in Him? That, indeed, the Apostle’s tribulations were somehow being used to actually cause him to be more like Christ in living, in dying, and therefore more eager for resurrection?
“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” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV).
Surely, Paul did not mean to say that there is holiness inherent to suffering. Peter tells us, in fact, that we should not suffer for evil. We cannot hope, like a Pre-Reformed Luther to win God’s favor by self deprivation. That is certainly not what Paul meant. There is no spiritual merit in affliction for affliction’s sake. Such an idea is not only Biblically wrong-headed, but inhumane and senseless.
Nor can we say that affliction has a power, on its own, to drive one to God. If it does have that end effect then it will have surely been an instrument in the providence of God. No, by itself suffering is suffering. It is but one more terrible manifestation of the sinful fall of Mankind and the judgment of God that presently rests on the world, even in the cells of our bodies. Suffering will be done away with in heaven and in “Paradise Regained.”
What then did Paul mean? I have meditated upon this passage in times past, as a pastor, to seek to bring comfort to those under affliction. I find now that I am blinded by the stinging poison of suffering and must feel my way about the passage by remembering the familiar lampposts of insight that I would have offered in times past. Sometimes I stumble, which lets me know that my pastoral placement of guideposts and lamps in the cave of affliction were likely misplaced. I wonder to myself, “Did I ever hurt anyone with bad counsel as they groped in the night of pain? Did I treat the passage too directly? Not directly enough? Why isn’t this message at work for me?”
In my study, I came across the insights of a pastor and a seminary professor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer studied the text in the light and made an observation that he would later cling to in the dark. I think it is the answer to what Paul was saying about suffering and its usefulness in the Christian life. It inspired me as I read the words:
“We do not always understand the purpose of difficulties and suffering. And usually in the heat of the moment we find it difficult to make sense of what is happening to us. We are blessed if, sometimes in hindsight, we can look back with understanding and see the purpose of those hardships. Sometimes, however, we are not given an understanding of their meaning and are called to link ourselves with the crucified Jesus who cried, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?'”— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
It is at this sacred moment of trust that suffering is identified with Christ—not in clarity, but in mystery. Thus, affliction is a rare and strange gift that defies explanation as much as the Cross. Yet like the Cross it brings us to cry out to God and to love Him for who He is, not what He can do for us. In our isolation we are brought into community with the Trinity and are stripped of the pretense of self-righteousness and supposed self-sufficiency. We live in Christ. We die in Christ. So we shall rise like Christ.
The School of Affliction has many lessons. If it was an academy where St. Paul was obliged to board, how much more does this unlearned minister need to be instructed.