“All Will Finally Become Beauty”
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
— Philippians 3:10-11
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what faith in Christ is good for. If someone were to ask, “why ought I to sign up for this whole Jesus business?” what ought we to say? Faith doesn’t seem to make life much easier. Christians appear to struggle along with the same problems and challenges as everyone else in life. It doesn’t offer the pathway to material blessings, however desperate the many enthusiastic (and wealthy) religious hucksters are to convince us that this is so, and however dependent their wealth is upon their listeners’ believing that this is so. Faithful Christians seem to occupy every position along the socio-economic spectrum. And it is, of course, laughably absurd that a religion that ostensibly claims to follow a poor wanderer from Galilee who said, “blessed are the poor” could ever get this kind of message off the ground. Faith doesn’t offer a way out of failure and pain and sorrow. Christians are not immune from the many things in this world that inflict pain upon its inhabitants. It doesn’t forestall death. Christians die at precisely the same rate as every other human on the planet.
So what is faith good for? What’s the point of following Jesus? Is it to produce better humans to negotiate the thickets of life described above? Perhaps. Sanctification is an important part of the Christian faith, and faith in Christ has undoubtedly produced many admirable human beings who have run the race of life well, who have lived lives of love and courage and service to God and neighbour. But the critic will easily point to the many people who claim to follow Jesus and whose lives exhibit precious little of the fruit that we might hope to see—people who are nasty and angry and reactionary and full of toxic judgment, hatred, and defensive self-righteousness. Does Christianity consistently produce better humans? I suppose the jury might still be out on that one.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a handful of people in my life who are going through dark times right now—people for whom words like “death” and “suffering” and “doubt” and “pain” are not comfortable theological abstractions, but daily existential realities. And this morning, I’m thinking about them through the lens of Paul’s words to the Philippian church quoted above. What if, in the end, faith isn’t nearly as much about utility as we so often make it out to be? What if the proper question is not, What is faith in Christ good for? but Who do I want to know and be known by? And, How is this One known?
This morning I read these words From Samuel Wells’ excellent collection of short essays called Be Not Afraid. Wells is reflecting upon Philippians 3:10-11:
First, [Paul] says, “I want to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.” If Christ wasn’t raised from the dead, the Christian story is a tale of doomed love in which God makes one last pathetic attempts to win our love back. It’s a story that ends in agonized failure on the cross. But if Christ is raised from the dead, if Christ is raised… then God’s love is not finally in vain, our love is not finally in vain. Agonizing as it often feels, all that is done for love will finally become fruitful. Death does not have the final word. Hope really is the shape of tomorrow. All our pain, shame and regret will finally be redeemed. Nothing is finally wasted. Fear will finally pass away and joy will prevail. All will finally become beauty.
We might prefer to linger with this beautiful hope, to exult in the glorious truth that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes all of this wonder possible. But Wells pushes us further into the truth of what Paul is expressing here. Because knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection happens in a very particular way:
Then, second, Paul says, “I want to share in Christ’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death…” If Jesus is a device for getting us to earthly comfort or eternal blessing, then Paul’s desire to suffer is bizarre, meaningless, or misguided. But Paul is talking about love. Paul is saying, “I don’t just want to be the beneficiary of Jesus’s resurrection. I want to enter into the process by which the resurrection came about. I want to go into the heart of darkness with Jesus, that I may come to discover more wonderfully the splendor of light.”
These are hard things to want, if we’re honest. Most of us would probably be quite delighted to be the beneficiaries of Jesus’ resurrection and leave all the suffering bits to him. But this is not how our story goes. This is not how life goes. There is no path from A to B that does not involve us in pain.
So, in the end, perhaps the proper response to the question this post began with is a profoundly counterintuitive and unmarketable one. The point of faith is to share in the sufferings of Christ. The point of faith is to enter fully into the darkness with Jesus. And God knows there’s plenty of darkness out there. The sharing of sufferings is how we become like Jesus, how we demonstrate that we are his and he is ours.
But as clear as Paul is that to be a Christian necessarily involves us in suffering, he is equally clear that this suffering is the path to something more wondrous than our minds have the capacity to comprehend. Resurrection. The power of life that will swallow up the curse of death. The glorious promise that “hope really is the shape of tomorrow” and that—against all odds!—“all will finally become beauty.”
The image above is a creation my kids made with matchsticks and paint this year during Sunday School.