By Bob Hiller –
This past week, I was caught off guard by a conversation with one of the dear saints in my congregation. In normal pastoral fashion, I was asking him how our church could pray for him. In a typical response, he asked that I pray for his unbearable arthritis pain. It was just your typical pastoral conversation. But then my friend said something that took me by surprise. After asking for prayers he said, “But you know, I just think about Jesus suffering on the cross, bearing the sins of the whole world for those six hours, and the pain he endured for me. If my Lord can do that for me, I’m sure I can deal with this pain if it is His will.”
Maybe this is the sort of thing that other pastors hear all the time. I don’t know. But it is not a typical conversation for me. Shoot, it is not a typical thought that I have when I am going through a rough patch. I tend to complain a great deal more. I tend to beg God to take the ailment away from me. I fall far more easily into a “woe is me” mentality. Also, when I pray for the congregation God has called me to, I typically pray for healing and end there. It is hard for me to recall the last time I prayed that God’s dear saints would suffer faithfully, just as their Lord did for them.
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that every time someone in the church is in pain or suffering we should say, “Well, don’t you know how badly Jesus suffered for you? His suffering was way worse than yours! Surely you aren’t in nearly as bad of shape as Jesus on the cross.” Such “pastoral” advice borders on spiritual abuse.
However, my friend’s comments helped me see a place for how we can speak of Christ as our example in suffering. I think there is a Biblical case to be made for Christ as our example, especially when it comes to suffering. I know, I know, I’m supposed to write for some “Radical Lutheran” blog where we don’t talk about Christ as our example. But I’m sure I’ll be forgiven by those “radicals” out there for such legalism. (In fact, I know I will. Those guys tend to be awfully gracious!)
When we talk about Christ’s example in suffering, we need to be very clear with what mean by example. I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to say that Christ’s example of suffering sets the pattern for the suffering of the Christian. The servant is no greater than his Master, and if the Master suffers in this world, the servant should expect the same treatment. The Master’s suffering is an example of how the servant will suffer. Jesus suffered the attacks of Satan, the temptations of the flesh, and the ailments of the body on the cross. Now, where we so often fail in our sufferings, He remained faithful to God and did not sin. He did this in our place (vicariously) and gave us credit for it when He rose from the dead for our justification. As Baptized children of God, we are credited with Christ’s faithfulness. We put on His image.
Now that we are identified with Christ, His life is the example of what we should expect in terms of treatment from the world. Christ as our example doesn’t mean that we will suffer without sinning, but it does mean we will suffer the same attacks. In facing such attacks, we should expect temptations to come, the devil to strike, and the flesh to suffer. A simple struggle with arthritis becomes a temptation to turn on God when He doesn’t remove it, an opportunity for the devil to fill our heads with doubts, or a reason to become self-loathing.
We are not the first to face such trials. Jesus himself faced greater sufferings, the greatest of sufferings, and overcame them for us. Now, as the One who has come through the valley of the shadow of death victorious, He comes with His Word back into the valley to show us the way out. His promise of forgiveness, His promise of resurrection, and the promise of His presence make His promise that we will have trouble in this world something we can face. He simply puts His cross before our eyes and says, “See what I have suffered for you. I did it gladly. Now, though you must suffer a little while longer, joy will come in the morning.”
Christ’s life is the example of how we as Christians will suffer. But His life is also the promise that our suffering does not have the final say. Like my dear friend, Christ gives us His cross as the example of how to endure suffering, and then he gives us His empty tomb to show us how it will all be overcome and undone. Or as Paul says of Baptism, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5) Jesus lived, died, and rose for you. His life is an example of how you will live, die, and rise again. See how Christ stood firm for you. Stand firm with Christ, dear saint! Weeping will tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning! (Psalm 30:5)