If one way of thinking about and processing our suffering is to see it as testing, which we’ve talked about, today we look at another way of framing it – our suffering as a cross. As we saw last time, Jesus calls every believer to take up their cross and follow him. And a cross involves lowliness and suffering. Today we go into more detail, starting with –
The three stages of the way of the cross – Philippians 2:6-11
The first two stages have to do with our downward movement. In Stage 1: We lower ourselves to love and serve others. Here the lowliness and suffering is freely chosen.
We not only experience the suffering of living in a fallen, broken world, we lower ourselves further. We choose to give up our privileges and rights, and use whatever gifts and strengths we have to love and serve others. We deny ourselves and lay down our lives for others to meet their needs and lift them up (Mark 8:34; 1 John 3:16-17). To follow Jesus in this way can bring great joy, but it will also involve loss, pain and suffering.
Let’s look at the example of Jesus: He set aside his glory at the right hand of the Father to come into our world to love and serve us. Paul says in Philippians 2:6-7 – “. . . though he was in the form of God, (he) did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped (or clung to), but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . ..” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve . . ..”
When he walked this earth he bore our troubles and burdens (Matthew 8:17; 17:17), he suffered through conflict, long hours of ministry work and stress to serve us (Mark 3:20). He was even betrayed and deserted by those closest to him. He laid down his life for us in all these ways (John 10:11; 1 John 3:16; Mark 10:45). And he did this without the honor that was due him as God’s Son, or often without any appreciation or thanks.
Jesus knew what it was like to be lowly and suffer because of his love and service to others.
In Stage 2: We lower ourselves to accept rejection and persecution. We don’t seek this kind of suffering, it finds us. We’re mistreated by others because of our connection and service to Jesus. This can involve ridicule, shame, insults, exclusion and even death (Luke 6:22). This takes us even lower.
Here’s the example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:8, “And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” As Jesus said about himself in Mark 10:45, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He accepted mockery, dishonor and torture. He also suffered within, saying in Gethsemane “my soul is sorrowful, even to the point of death” (Mark 14:34). He literally took up his cross and died on it (Mark 8:34-35). He was faithful unto death.
Jesus knew what it was like to suffer rejection and persecution and to go as low as one can go.
In Stage 3: God lifts us up. If we’re faithful in the first two stages of the way of the cross – we will experience the great reversal. God will intervene to exalt and bless us. This is how the kingdom of God works.
The example of Jesus: Paul says in Philippians 2:9-11, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” The “therefore” that begins these verses has to do with Jesus’ faithfulness in lowering himself in the first two stages of the cross. Because he did this, God has exalted and blessed him.
Hebrews 12:2 says of Jesus, “for the joy that was set before him (he) endured the cross, despising the shame.” But then it goes on to say, “and (he) is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” He lowered himself and suffered. But God vindicated and exalted him.
Now this will most definitely happen for us when Jesus returns. But it can also happen even in this life as God blesses us and lifts us up in various ways. But these experiences are only a small taste compared to what’s to come – when we experience the fullness of the power, honor, wealth and well-being that awaits us.
Next, we look at –
– that, I think, are pretty important. 1. Is our suffering just like Jesus’? Well, his suffering is certainly an example to us and an encouragement for us (Hebrews 12:3). As we just saw, if we remain faithful we too will be blessed by God.
But his suffering is also different than ours. His suffering and death on the cross is what provides for our salvation. Our suffering can be used by God, but it doesn’t save us or anyone else. It is, rather, the proper expression of our faith, lived out in deeds. It’s not about us becoming Jesus the savior, it’s about us taking up our cross and following after Jesus the savior (Mark 8:34).
2. What about the suffering of living in a broken world? Here the suffering is what comes to everyone; the trials that are common to all people (1 Corinthians 10:13). This includes sickness, disabilities, tragic accidents – among so many other things.
Jesus himself said that each day has “its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34); and he’s talking here about everyday life stresses like obtaining food and clothing. And Jesus experienced this kind of suffering. His step-father Joseph died, apparently when he was a child. And he lived in a land that was poor and under the oppressive rule of Rome.
Although this lowliness and suffering is not due to our faith, as Christians we understand that there will be no more tears, no more death and a new creation in the end, because Jesus overcame this on the cross. The solution to all suffering is the cross.
And as Christians we should see the suffering of living in a broken world that we experience in cruciform terms. Paul does this while referencing our general human lowliness and weakness in several places (e.g. 1 Corinthians 1:26-28; 2 Corinthians 4:7; 12:9) including his own lack of bodily strength and skill in public speaking (2 Corinthians 10:10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5). So although this kind of suffering isn’t unique to Christians, we view it and respond to it as a part of the way of the cross. Which is what we turn to now.
Viewing our suffering through the lens of a cross
There are many things we can do to find comfort, help and strength when we suffer. But here we’re looking at key aspects of a fundamental attitude or approach to our suffering.
1. Freely accept your suffering, whether it’s suffering that comes from our love and service to others, or from rejection and persecution, or from living in a fallen world.
Yes, pray for deliverance from suffering (Matthew 6:13, Philippians 1:19). Yes, use the means God makes available to you to overcome suffering, for instance treatment if you’re not well (1 Timothy 5:23). Yes, pray for healing. God loves to heal and he does so to glorify his name and to have mercy on us. Yes, if you can escape from persecution you are free to do so (Matthew 10:23).
And as we learn from the examples of Jesus and Paul we can even press God three times on a matter before we accept it. Jesus prayed three times to be spared the cross (Mark 14:32-42). Paul prayed three times to be spared his thorn (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). But once God said no three times, they accepted their suffering – without bitterness – and lived into it as God’s choice for them.
In the same way once we know that God wants us to go through this suffering, at least for a time, accept it and move forward knowing that God is in it.
2. In faith endure suffering knowing that it’s not the last word. It’s something we go through for now, but there’s an end and there’s great blessing in the end.
Hebrew 12:2 says, “for the joy that was set before him (Jesus) endured the cross.” The joy set before him was what was on the other side of the suffering – resurrection and blessing. In the same way Hebrews 12:1 encourages us to “run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
As we saw in the three stages of the cross, after our lowliness and suffering comes resurrection and blessing. And God will come through for us just as he did for Jesus:
- The lowly will be exalted (Matthew 23:12)
- Those who suffer for the sake of the kingdom will be blessed (Luke 6:20-26)
- and whoever loses their life for Jesus will truly gain their life for the world to come (Mark 8:35).
So we ought not give up no matter the pain of our suffering. Because of God’s promises we know that suffering is not the last word and so we can have hope in the midst of our suffering.
3. Our suffering helps bring about the kingdom of God. God used Jesus’ cross suffering to establish the kingdom; the great reversal. Because the powers of evil, both spiritual and human, the same ones who preside over this broken world that we suffer in – because they killed an innocent Jesus, they are judged and brought down, while he is saved, vindicated and raised up.
In the same way, although our suffering doesn’t establish our salvation, we participate in this process that Jesus has begun of bringing down the powers of evil and advancing the kingdom, until this is completed with Jesus’ return. God uses us and our suffering to advance the kingdom of God, which puts a new light on what we go through.
Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28 – “For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” Notice he’s not just saying there will be a reversal. He’s saying that God will use us to help bring about the great reversal; “to shame” and “bring to nothing” the powers of evil. God uses our lowliness and suffering to advance his kingdom.
Seeing our suffering through the lens of the cross gives us a different perspective on our suffering, and one that can sustain us to endure in the midst of it.