A missionary who has given his life to serving God and people is diagnosed with cancer. A loving father who is at the beginning of his journey of walking with Jesus develops what turns out to be an incurable infection. The child of a pastor who is highly regarded because of her faithful service to the community and Jesus dies of cancer before his life even begins. A woman with a gentle and quiet faith who prays and serves wakes up one day alone because her husband left her for another.
These brief snapshots are real life stories of people who I love and care for. They are all people who are authentically trying to follow Jesus. These are not people who are false or who simply sit in the back of worship service to be entertained. These are people who you want to be around and whose faith would cause you to stop and wonder about their God. These are the people of who it is said, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
“God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life,” so begins an invitation to follow Christ that I have shared with hundreds of people. Is there anything inherently wrong or untrue about that statement? No. But, at the very least it is incomplete. It is missing something that is very important to an invitation into following Jesus. It doesn’t say anything about what that “wonderful plan for your life” might include. What happens when that “wonderful plan” includes pain and suffering, a cross.
For many years in my ministry I functionally believed that I needed to help the gospel out. I functionally believed that I needed to give it some PR because Jesus was a horrible salesman.
Jesus said these kinds of things:
“There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34–38)
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
Who would want to follow someone like this? This hardly sounds like a “wonderful plan.”
You might think that the first generations of Christians would have helped Jesus out a bit. As I read the Bible I discovered that they didn’t. The authors of the letters that were written to churches in that first generation of Christians said “…when you suffer…”
What the heck? What happened to a “wonderful life”? Seriously, suffering and pain and losing my life doesn’t sound much like a “wonderful life.”
How can the Bible writers say things like this and we in the 21st century turn around and say that “God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for you life”? It simply can’t be true, can it? Pain, suffering, loss of life, how can these things be “wonderful”?
My mentor, Bob Smart, has written extensively on Christian identity formation. In his book, Embracing Your Identity in Christ: Renouncing Lies and Foolish Strategies, he discusses the work of Charles Taylor, A Secular Age. Taylor lays out “five conditions of our age.” One of them is that we, as a culture, are “encased in Chronos.” Chronos is simply time, the tick of the clock without a recognition of anything beyond it. There is a second kind of time that Christians have long embraced known as “kairos.” This is when we recognize that God is breaking in and we are able to get a glimpse from a “God’s eye view”, so to speak. When we only see things from a chronos perspective there is no meaning in suffering or pain. It’s just another tick of the clock.
In his little book, How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help Is On The Way and Love Is Already Here, Jonathan Martin writes, “People try to offer us an explanation; God offers us a Eucharist.” What he means is that in our suffering we often are looking for “why” and that “why” can be hidden from us. But, what we find with God is care, empathy, and provision.
“This fits the pattern of how God responds to human suffering: We come looking for answers; God sends a hot meal through a warm body. We come looking for reasons for our hunger; God sends provision to feed us. We come looking for a sermon that will explain the complexity of the cosmos to us and satiate our desire for understanding; Christ responds with, “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you.”
In the Scriptures, the writer to the Hebrews says it like this,
“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.” Hebrews 2:14–18
Suffering is part of our experience it is not something that we can escape. Following Jesus doesn’t pull us out of the world and help us to escape pain and brokenness. The “wonderful plan” of the gospel is that as we follow Jesus, as we bear our own crosses, he who bore the cross of the world is with us and will carry it with us. He is able to empathize not simply look on us with compassion. Because we know that God loves us and that he has a “wonderful plan” a plan that imbues all of life with meaning and purpose we are able to experience a peace that transcends understanding.
We do not simply suffer under the weight of a broken world. No, we carry a cross, we enter in with Jesus and he enters in with us.
A friend of mine reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked me to train with him for a “Murph Challenge.” This is a physically grueling challenge where you run a mile, do 100 pull-ups, do 200 push-ups, 300 air squats, and finish by running a mile. I’ve never done a pull-up, ever. I currently can’t do a “real” push-up. I don’t know how I can accomplish this. He asked me to do this with him because, “I want to do this…I am so unbelievably far away from this and need someone to embrace the suck of it with me. Keep each other accountable and work towards it together. And then when we are ready meet up and do it together.”
Why do we “carry a cross”? Because as we do we are embracing the “suck of it” with Jesus. It’s not just suffering. There is so much more to it. It is part of a plan and purpose of God. Ultimately that plan and purpose will result in God’s glory and our joy, this is what we call providence.
As I enter into my own suffering and in the suffering of others, I am grateful that I know it is not without purpose and that I am not alone. I enter in with Jesus the one who bore the cross perfectly “for the joy set before him.” The “wonderful plan” is that in that in the midst of the suffering we will somehow glimpse that same joy because we are not alone we are with Jesus.