In a recent essay, I made a throwaway comment to the effect that Jesus Christ has not only redeemed us, but also our suffering. I then fell prey to a nagging question. “What exactly do you mean by that, Amy?” It seemed right to me that I should follow up on that thought and flush it out more fully. Here is the result.
Suffering is a result of sin, either directly or indirectly. There was no suffering before the Fall – not even anything we could truly call difficult. Following the Fall, we suffer in such myriad ways that we become desensitized to a certain percentage of it in order to simply get through the day. First, you have the obvious aches and pains, an assortment of physical maladies so diverse that it has made the health care industry one of the largest in the world, with plenty of room to grow. Then there is the emotional pain brought about by daily disappointments: friends letting you down, careers going south, opportunities missed, etc.
There is the persecution, both active and passive, faced by so many Christians worldwide, to which the New Testament devotes much of its focus on suffering. There are those times when the universe itself seems out to get you, so bemoaned in Alanis Morisette’s hit tune, “Ironic”. Often ignored is the spiritual suffering we all experience due to the distance between ourselves and God, which is only less painful because we are unaware of what perfect communion with God really feels like. Last of all, there’s the really big one: death.
The good news is that Christians do not suffer in the same way as everyone else. Yes, we are subject to the same kinds of suffering, and anyone who tells you that becoming a Christian will magically make your life suffering-free is either a liar or doesn’t believe in what the Bible has to say. They are setting you up to feel that either you are failing in your faith or God is failing as God, for you will inevitably face suffering. The difference is not that Christians don’t suffer, but rather that through the work of Jesus Christ, our suffering has been redeemed.
When I speak about “redeemed suffering”, I am not referring to what Catholics usually term “redemptive suffering”. In keeping with that doctrine, many Christians over the years have actually sought to increase their suffering as a means of internal purification, hoping that it would enhance their connection with Christ and help ensure salvation for themselves and others. Suffering, they argue, is itself redemptive, endowed with salvific power by the redemption of Christ, which in some sense is ongoing. That is not what I mean at all. (The Catholic doctrine is summarized in Pope John Paul II’s 1984 letter, “Salvifici Doloris”.)
Suffering is the consequence of sin, not a producer of righteousness in and of itself. When the scripture speaks of us being made stronger through suffering, it refers to the way in which God uses difficult circumstances to bring about good and enhance our character. It is not implying that there is something inherently wonderful about a heart attack, or a miscarriage, or a divorce. Those things all came after the Fall. That is why I speak about “redeemed” suffering rather than “redemptive” suffering. In redemptive suffering, human being themselves accomplish some part of their own redemption. In redeemed suffering, the entire work has already been completed by Jesus Christ, who proclaimed, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)
So how exactly did Christ redeem our suffering? I gave it some thought and came up with a few different things to consider.
By defeating death, He ensured that it will not have the final victory.
The Apostle Paul tells us that “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned”. (Romans 5:12) Indeed, the sentence of death was pronounced upon Adam in Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Death is the pinnacle of human suffering, and sin causes both physical and spiritual death. Jesus Christ reversed this curse by ensuring that 1) those who are spiritually dead could be made spiritually alive and 2) those who die physically will be bodily resurrected.
For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
1 Corinthians 15:21-26
Because of what Christ has done for us, death is not the end. His resurrection serves as the proof of our future bodily resurrection. It also demonstrates that God has the power to resurrect us spiritually and will do so for all who believe. This is the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesy that, “He will swallow up death for all time, and the Lord God will wipe tears away from all the faces…” (Isaiah 25:8) Christ has ensured that death is not the end, and thus He has robbed the ultimate suffering of its ultimate fear.
By His atonement He paved the way for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our Comforter.
The title of “Comforter” for the Holy Spirit comes from the King James translation of the Gospel of John.
And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.
John 14:16-18 (KJV)
The more modern translations typically use the word “Helper” instead of “Comforter”, but this does not take away from the fact that the Holy Spirit does comfort us, and apart from Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Spirit would not have indwelt believers. Jesus went on to say that “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you…” (John 14:26-27a) I believe that Christ is here linking the Spirit with peace. Although He is to depart from the disciples physically, they will receive continual comfort from the indwelling Spirit, who will remind them of all the promises of Christ.
Jesus told His disciples that, “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.” (John 16:7b) Now, Jesus’ going away was dependent upon His death and resurrection, as was our justification that allows the Spirit to indwell us. Therefore, we have this comfort in our suffering on account of what Christ did, a comfort not enjoyed in previous ages.
By becoming our Mediator, He ensured that we would always have an advocate before the Father to whom we may pray in times of trouble.
Prior to the Atonement of Christ, the people of Israel would approach God through their priests, who served as mediators. The priests themselves were sinful and had to make sacrifices for their own transgressions. Thus, they were really only pointing forward to the perfect Mediator, who is Jesus Christ. Consider the words of the author of Hebrews.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? For this reason He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that, since a death has taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.
What does it mean that Christ is now our perfect Mediator? The author of Hebrews also wrote that Christ “lives to make intercession” for believers (Hebrews 7:25), while the Apostle John stated that “we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…” (1 John 2:1b) This means that whenever we cry out to God, we have the Son of God Himself sitting at the Father’s right hand, interceding for us. We are no longer separated from God forever, but He is calling us to Himself. “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) This ought to place our prayer life in a very different light, for we know not only that God is aware of our sufferings and has compassion for us, but that the Son actually intercedes on our behalf. He is absolutely for us even in our most difficult trials.
By uniting Himself with His Body, the Church, His sufferings became our sufferings.
Strange as it may seem, Christ’s saving work has actually caused Him to become united with the Body of Christ, which is the Church. The Apostle Paul tells us that, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” (Ephesians 5:29-30) He says of Christ elsewhere, “He is also the head of the body, the church…” (Colossians 1:18) Furthermore, Paul writes of the Body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26) Now, if we are all members of Christ’s body, then He suffers and rejoices alongside us. The 17th century theologian John Davenant wrote of this union described by Paul,
Now it is customary for every one to attribute to himself those injuries which are inflicted upon any part of his body. Thus wounds of the hand or foot are properly said to be the wounds of the man himself; and it is usual for him to exclaim that he is wounded in the hand or in the foot. So also, in the same manner, the Apostle, because he is himself a member of the body of Christ, calls his afflictions the afflictions of Christ…Because Christ and all his members constitute one mystic person.
We are united to Christ so thoroughly that our pains are His pains, and vice versa. But there is even better news than that, for as we are joined with Christ in His sufferings, we are also joined with Him in His resurrection. Paul declares his desire “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11) Christ is with us in the good and bad, in our tears of joy and tears of sorrow. We are not alone. He feels what we feel, and He has compassion on us. He takes on our sufferings and allows us to take on His life.
By justifying us, He made it possible for us to be sanctified through trials.
Even people who want nothing to do with Christianity talk about suffering as a means by which we can develop character. Yet, it must be said that there is a difference between “developing character” by self-effort, as opposed to true sanctification, which comes only from God. I am not dismissing the value of the former, but declaring it to be thoroughly different from the latter. For all the strength a person may gain from going through trials, this strength will get them no closer to God and make them no more holy without the working of God Himself in their lives.
It is only on account of the work of Christ and the ministry of God to us day by day that the difficult things in our lives can actually be used to increase our sanctification. That is why it is a fool’s errand for people to go running after suffering in the hope that it will make them better. It is the sovereignty and working of God that place us in just the right situations and enable us to grow in faith, not anything we cook up on our own.
James did write, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2) However, we must note that this is all predicated upon faith, which is itself a gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Peter 1:1; Philippians 1:29) The Apostle Paul makes a direct link between the justification we have in Christ, our hope in God, tribulations, and character.
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Therefore, the experience of suffering can help to develop our character and increase our sanctification, but only because of the way God uses it. If we grow in our knowledge of and dependence upon God as a result of trials, then we are indeed better people for it. If we sink into bitterness and move away from Him, then our suffering has done our sanctification more harm than good. If we look upon it as an opportunity for self-improvement, self-focus, and self-righteousness, we have missed the boat entirely. The really good news is that due to the cleansing brought about by Christ, our suffering can now be harnessed for sanctification, whereas that would have been impossible without the Atonement.
By laying down His life and thus being glorified by the Father, He made it possible for us to share in an eternal weight of glory.
As Christians, we ought to be spending our lives attempting to glorify God rather than ourselves, for it is to Him that all glory is due. Yet, Paul makes a rather interesting statement with regard to this topic of glory.
Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Paul tells us that our suffering on earth is temporary, but our glory in heaven is eternal. This is all dependent upon Christ’s death and resurrection. On the night before He was to be crucified, Christ prayed, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life.” (John 17:1b-2) That is remarkable enough, but it gets even more remarkable. “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one, just as We are one…” (John 17:22)
The suffering of Christ paved the way for us to share in His glory. When we do His will, He is glorified in us, even as we are glorified in Him. This is also true when we suffer on His behalf, or suffer in a way that is honoring to God, persevering by the power of God. It is when we seek the glory of God that we are glorified in Him. There is another important passage where Paul speaks of how our adoption as children of God and fellowship with Christ allow our suffering to lead to glory even as His suffering led to glory.
The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.
What a tremendous hope this is in the midst of suffering: that it leads not to hopelessness but to glory!
There may well be other ways in which Christ has redeemed our suffering, but these were the ones that sprung to mind most immediately. I dare say they are enough to prove to us that when we suffer as believers, we do not suffer as those who have no hope. We suffer as redeemed people given life by our Redeemer. Yes, our suffering is no longer for naught. It has been redeemed by our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
A special thank you to Rev. Daniel Hyde of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad, California, who pointed me to the wonderful commentary by John Davenant. He is suffering for Christ with an ocean view. Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 Davenant, John. An Exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians – Volume I. Translated by Josiah Allport. (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1831) Page 272.