We’re finishing up our series on Christians and suffering today. Last time we looked at three kinds of suffering we go through as Christians.
- First, there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes from living in a fallen and sinful world – sickness, brokenness, tragedies and death.
- Second there’s the lowliness and suffering we freely choose, in that we lower ourselves to love and serve others.
- And finally there’s the lowliness and suffering that comes our way because of our connection to Jesus – rejection and persecution.
Anytime we go through these kinds of suffering it unleashes a struggle within us. Will we remain faithful to God? Will we take the easy way out of the test? Will we lay down our cross to find relief?
This struggle is a part of what I’m calling the inner cross. And my message today is this – the secret to being victorious in our times of suffering is to overcome by the Spirit in the realm of the inner cross.
First we look at –
Jesus’ inner cross: Mark 14:32-42
When Jesus faced his greatest trial – the cross – he experienced the inner turmoil of it all. Jesus was fully human and as he said to the disciples about humanity, “the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).
Mark tells us, “And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’” (Mark 14:33-34). Jesus doesn’t want to die, and certainly not the shameful death of a criminal or blasphemer on a cross (Hebrew 12:2).
Three times he prayed for deliverance. This, even though he knew it was God’s will for him to go to the cross. (He told his disciples this three times – Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). But this is a final discernment. Is there not some other way, God? “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.’” (Mark 14:35-36). (See also Hebrews 5:7-8)
During these times of prayer he received help from the Spirit. As he said, “the Spirit indeed is willing” (Mark 14:38). The word “willing” can also be translated as “eager to be of service” or “ready.”
We see the evidence of the Spirit’s enablement in two ways: 1) Jesus prayed, “not what I will, but what you (Father God) will” (Mark 14:36). He submits his heart to the Father. And then 2) He rose up from prayer to do God’s will. He said, “The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” (Mark 14:41-42). And he then went to the cross.
By the power of the Spirit Jesus crucified his human desire to live and be honored. He denied himself and took up his cross (Mark 8:34). He received strength to endure arrest, slander, shame, torture, crucifixion and death.
So there’s a death within before there’s a death without. He finds victory by the Spirit at Gethsemane, which allows him to find victory in his circumstances of suffering at Golgotha.
Paul’s teaching on the inner cross – Romans 8:1-17
There are several points of contact between Paul’s teaching here and the story we’ve just looked at. Paul seems to have Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane in the background as he teaches. 1) There’s the struggle between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 8:5-8). 2) He talks about prayer to “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). 3) There’s a theme of suffering (Romans 8:17; also 18-39). 4) And he highlights how the Spirit enables us to overcome (Romans 8:3-4, 13). We’ll focus on this last theme.
Because Jesus suffered for us and overcame, we receive the benefits of God’s salvation. After presenting in Romans 7 the futility of trying to obey God from the heart without the Spirit, Paul describes this salvation. We are forgiven – “there is now no more condemnation” (Romans 8:1). And we receive the Spirit of God into our lives (Romans 8:9, 15-16).
And because of our new relationship with God and the presence of the Spirit within in us we are enabled to fulfill “the righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4). We are empowered to do God’s will. And we can do this because we “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4).
More specifically, we are enabled to crucify the desires of the flesh by the Spirit. Paul says, “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13).
Paul is saying here that by the power of the Spirit within us, we are strengthened to be able to crucify our own desires that oppose God’s way. “By the Spirit we put to death” these desires and thus any deeds that would come from these desires. As he says in Galatians 5:16, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Again, the Spirit is key. And again the inner cross – putting to death our wrong desires by the Spirit – is the key to walking faithfully before God in our times of suffering.
Let’s look at –
How this works
When we’re in a time of testing and suffering, and we’ve discerned that it’s God’s will for us to go through this, and we’re struggling within – so that “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Galatians 5:17), like Jesus – we can call out to God our Father for help.
And in prayer we can receive encouragement and strength from the Spirit. Without the Spirit we would easily cave in. The desires of our flesh want to avoid suffering. The flesh wants the easy way out, it wants comfort and security. Or it leads us to just give up.
But the Spirit strengthens us to say no to the desires of our flesh. And when we say no a crucifixion takes place. There’s a death within to our own desires, so that we don’t act on these unfaithful desires of our flesh. By the Spirit we put them to death (Colossians 3:5). Our “old person” (Romans 6:6) dies a little bit more. This is the inner cross.
Also, there’s a resurrection within. The new person God is creating us to be is strengthened to walk in the path God has for us. We are raised to new life within so that we can walk in newness of life without.
Just as Jesus had to gain the victory at Gethsemane before he could gain the victory at Golgotha, so it is with us. We must prevail in the realm of the inner cross by the Spirit, before we will prevail in our lowliness and suffering.
Let me end with –
A word of encouragement
1. We’ve been given all that we need to overcome by God’s grace. As 2 Peter 1:3 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness.” We’re not left to our own resources. We rely on God’s Spirit and power. As Paul says in talking about suffering, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” – Romans 8:37.
2. Even if we fail, God’s grace is sufficient. It’s true, as James tells us, “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). We will not always respond correctly to our times of trials and cross bearing. But as 1 John 1:9 teaches, //“if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” And then we can move forward again by God’s grace.
3. God will come through on his promises. As we’ve seen, the faithful will be exalted and blessed (Matthew 23:12, Luke 6:20-26, Mark 8:35). As Romans 8:17 says, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
On the day of the great reversal, when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will inherit the blessings of the kingdom and we will be lifted up by God to receive honor and glory.