Suffering is integral to the Christian vocation, God’s calling

image: Raluca Popescu

When we think of the concept of vocation, we think of words such as career, job, training, profession, craft and skill set. Perhaps we think of one’s calling in life. The word “vocation” actually is derived from the Latin word vocare, which means “to call.” In the biblical sense, vocation refers to a divine calling, a summons that is issued by our sovereign God. He calls people not only to preach, but to play instruments, to cook food, to design buildings, to program websites, to enforce the law, to repair cars, to lead corporations, to raise children, and of course, to many other purposes. There are as many vocations for which we may learn proficiency at as there are needs that human beings have.

But do we consider as a vocation the reality of suffering in life?

In one current Sunday school class at St. Andrew’s, Bob Ingram is expertly teaching through Ephesians. Yesterday morning, New Year’s Eve, we reached chapter four, where Apostle Paul teaches, (Ephesians 4:7-8) “… grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.'”

In this passage, Apostle Paul pronounces the beauty and diversity of the various gifts Christ has given his church, which itself is his gift to the world. Drawing from the theme of Psalm 68, Paul illustrates with a vivid picture of the same Christ as a conquering ruler in the ancient world who, after scattering his enemies and winning his capital, leads his subjects out of the shame and ignominy of their bondage, and goes forth dividing and distributing the spoils of war among his people, the beneficiaries of his victory.

Though we don’t instinctively associate suffering with a conquering hero, this classic Reformed theological motif of Christus Victor does have an undetachable component of suffering. Colossians is another epistle from Paul that parallels Ephesians in many ways. In Colossians, Paul develops a corollary aspect of the triumphant picture of Jesus’ reign that he presents in Ephesians. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church …” (Colossians 1:24). With a cursory read, Paul’s choice of words might be rather puzzling. Surely, he’s not saying that Christ didn’t suffer enough, and therefore, Paul as an apostle now has to suffer to make up for it on behalf of the church? That reading of the passage doesn’t comport with the larger context of Colossians, where the apostle so clearly labors the sole sufficiency of Christ for salvation and the completeness of Christ’s suffering to achieve atonement for his people.

What is reflected here is the broader concept found throughout the New Testament that the believer is called to participate in the afflictions and the humiliation of Christ. Jesus had a mission to be incarnated on earth, perfectly obey the law, deliver the gospel, bleed to death on a cross and serve as an atoning and final sacrifice for his elect people. In all this, Jesus was predicted in Isaiah 53:3 as “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Yet, Jesus experienced joy in voluntarily laying down his life for his sheep. All this is known in Reformed theology as Christ’s vocation. Since the servant is not greater than his master, why should we do no less than to partake in Christ’s suffering?

One of my late pastors, R.C. Sproul, had health ailments that caused pain, limitation and discomfort for several years before he recently died. In his 2006 book, A Taste of Heaven: Worship in the Light of Eternity, R.C. ruminated, “When I die, I will be identified with Christ’s exaltation. But right now, I’m identified with His affliction.”

At that stage in his life, R.C. was living out the words he wrote years 35 years ago, when he was younger, healthier, and helping others wrestle with the reality of various types of hardships. Consider his thoughts in Surprised by Suffering:

“… the church participates in Christ’s suffering. But this participation adds nothing to Christ’s merit. The sufferings of Christians may benefit other people, but they always fall short of atonement. I cannot atone for anyone’s sins, not even for my own. Yet my suffering may be of great benefit to other people. It may also serve as witness to the One whose sufferings were an atonement. The word for ‘witness’ in the New Testament, martus, is the source of the English word martyr. Those who suffered and died for the cause of Christ were called martyrs because by their suffering they bore witness to Christ. What is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus is the ongoing suffering that God calls His people to endure. God calls people of every generation to suffer. Again, this suffering is not to fulfill any deficiency in the merit of Christ, but to fulfill our destinies as witnesses to the perfect Suffering Servant of God.”

People suffer in many ways: health problems, disease, career disillusionment, infertility, interpersonal difficulties, financial hardships, the frustration of living uprightly as a single Christian, the concerns of marriage and being able to to provide for a family, grief over losing loved ones, mental illness, abuse, broken relationships, vindictive coworkers, loss of property from natural disaster, the general infirmities of aging, working through the consequences of sin and shameful feelings, overcoming unbelief, and facing the imminence of one’s own death. There are innumerable facets of suffering, both in Scripture and in secular philosophy, that time fails us to explore.

Perhaps one of the least-often mentioned ways Christians suffer is in sacrificing what we are inclined to do that is wrong, in order to accomplish what we are disinclined to do that we know is right. Often, there is more suffering involved in complying with God’s standard of holy living than there is in indulging in sin. This is part of the Christian walk and this kind of suffering is unavoidable. In fact, we should go so far as to say that if a person doesn’t know what it is to suffer in obedience, then that person doesn’t truly know Christ.

To embrace suffering and to suffer well does not necessarily mean we learn to like or look forward to suffering. To derive joy in suffering is not some sort of deluded Christian masochism. It is to accept suffering as God’s sovereign will and expect it as part and parcel of the Christian walk. It is to be driven by the injunction to find (Psalm 119:50) “my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life,” and to (James 1:2-3) “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness,” because we are Christ’s heirs, (Romans 8:16-17) “provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.”

Though the apostles’ tone often is one of encouragement, at times the tenor of their teaching is admonishment. For instance, Paul pointed out that unless we’re willing to take part in Jesus’ humiliation, we won’t take part in his exaltation (II Timothy 2:12).

We can rest in the assurance that though our flesh and our hearts will fail us (Psalm 73:26), those who are in Christ are promised a final glorification in the conquering hero’s heavenly kingdom and the resurrection of perfect bodies, even as Christ now dwells in a perfect body. Such is the encouragement of I Peter 1:3-9, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

Vocation is at once profoundly ordinary and profoundly divine. The God who is sovereign over our victory is also sovereign over our anguish. You and I might or might not be currently experiencing suffering. But you and I are creatures living in a fallen world, a world groaning for redemption and the final consummation of Christ’s kingdom. So it’s not even a question of whether we will suffer, it’s simply a question of how well we will suffer. To suffer well involves remembering that although the immediate purpose of our suffering isn’t always easy to discern, that the only suffering that is in vain is that suffering which fails to culminate with heaven’s eternal felicity.

Our instinct as creatures is to passively disengage and retreat from pain and suffering. Instead, let’s consciously resolve to engage the suffering and to suffer well, accepting it as our honored vocation as Christians, to even refine and cultivate suffering as a craft, and to be certified in it at the end of our earthly careers with a crown of life. To the Master’s call to endure, we say with the courage that he himself provides, “Once more unto the breach.”

Of course, to suffer well is not a resolution we should have that is distinctive to any given year, but a mentality for all of life.