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“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.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. mike #

    I wasn’t converted (many years ago) with this particular genre of Gospel. Frankly, I first believed in Jesus Christ and was baptized in order to escape the prospect of damnation in Hell…Period. Back then there was no such talk of “sharing in His suffering(s)” or “becoming like Him in his death”, and little, if any, talk of God’s Love. For those church-goers in my little town, the “Good News” was that we were being offered a choice: Believe or Die. I guess this is why so many of us have a hard time accepting the notion that God actually loved/loves us UNCONDITIONALLY. Isn’t it interesting how the presentation of TheGospel has evolved since then.

    August 2, 2015
    • mike #

      BTW: That’s an Awesome work of Art on the cover.

      August 2, 2015
    • I was just talking with some friends about this very thing last night, Mike—faith as “hell avoidance strategy.” I am very thankful that better and fuller understandings/presentations of the gospel are now becoming more widespread. The “believe or die” approach is appallingly bad theology. You can’t frighten someone into a response of love. Ever.

      (Thanks for the kinds words about the art!)

      August 3, 2015
  2. Thank you. Suffering and pain are not ideas we want to associate with today because our love has is cold. But the more we suffer for and with Christ, the more we experience the joy and the blessing and the glory and the majesty and all that Christ offers. They go together. Love is what makes it possible and necessary to endure pain and suffering and persecution not for what is in it for me but for Love. Love is the whole message and God’s invitation. If only we would teach people more about love than about faith for pleasure and for things. After all, “Now abides faith, hope and love, these three. And the greatest of these is Love.”

    August 3, 2015
    • Well said. Thank you.

      August 4, 2015
  3. Kevin K #

    Ryan, in your experience with suffering in your own life/listening to others describe their suffering, does holding a christian worldview genuinely alter the tenor of one’s suffering?

    In your post you comment extensively on the similarities between those who do and do not hold this particular worldview. I’d be curious as to your thoughts on the differences as well. Particularly as it relates to your question of ‘what is faith in Christ good for?’ I think you were getting to this in your conclusion, just wondering if you could flip quickly through the mental file and pull out a couple examples.

    August 4, 2015
    • It’s a good question, Kevin. I guess I would have to say yes and no. Yes, I have watched some Christians suffer tenaciously and with a deep conviction that somehow the darkness they are experiencing is a participation in the suffering of Christ. I have also seen Christians crumble or descend into anger and despair. I suppose it’s dangerous to make generalizations. Both responses are part of the landscape and everything in between.

      The chief difference that Christianity offers—both in theory and, at its best, in practice—is the simple knowledge that God himself has walked the road of pain ahead of us. In my (limited) experience, this can be enormously comforting. To know that God is not aloof from affliction, indeed that God has descended into the darkest valley for the redemption of the world, means that there is no pain that we can taste that is foreign to the life of God.

      I suppose all of this is simply a way of saying that suffering can be dignified within the Christian worldview. It is not wasted. It can purify, refine, draw us closer to God. It can also cripple and destroy, to be sure, but it need not. To say that suffering is part of the path to all things being made new is to say that it can be a path to newness in smaller things, too (like our lives).

      Not sure if this answers your questions or not, but there’s a first crack at it. Feel free to clarify if you had something else in mind.

      August 4, 2015
      • Kevin K #

        Thanks for your response. I think you pretty much captured it. I particularly appreciated your comment regarding the dangers of generalizations and suffering. I suppose this is also part of the beauty of Christ. That His suffering was specific (on a hill named Golgatha, at a time we can name, with specific people watching it all unfold). That when Paul says, we share in those sufferings, the specificity of our pain is also acknowledged. And, of course, that the resurrection means that the suffering Christ enters our own Golgotha’s, whether they be on a hospital bed, at a graveside, or standing alone in our kitchen in the aftermath of a family skirmish. Which means, of course, that the bed, the graveside, and the kitchen are of course forever different.

        As you say, “I suppose all of this is simply a way of saying that suffering can be dignified within the Christian worldview. It is not wasted” and “God is not aloof from affliction, indeed that God has descended into the darkest valley for the redemption of the world, means that there is no pain that we can taste that is foreign to the life of God.” A comfort indeed. Thanks for the food for thought.

        August 6, 2015
      • [W]hen Paul says, we share in those sufferings, the specificity of our pain is also acknowledged. And, of course, that the resurrection means that the suffering Christ enters our own Golgotha’s, whether they be on a hospital bed, at a graveside, or standing alone in our kitchen in the aftermath of a family skirmish. Which means, of course, that the bed, the graveside, and the kitchen are of course forever different.

        Yes. Well said, Kevin.

        August 8, 2015
  4. To be human is to (at times) suffer. To be Christian is to transcend that suffering. Fraternally, sharing in the suffering of a brother, is love. We shall share in the suffering of others then for loves sake. Theologically speaking Christ does not require our suffering to complete his sacrifice. It is done. The point of faith is to share in it’s glory. We shall overcome.

    August 9, 2015

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