By Ps Lee Kok Wah
Human suffering is universal, but the suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ is unique. He is the only human who is divine, and he is the only human who is righteous (without sin and have a right relationship with God). Yet, Jesus suffered. The sovereign God became the suffering God (Phil 2:6-8).
Timothy Keller, in his book Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (Penguin Books, 2013) observed that the gospels describe Jesus experiencing the ordinary pressures, difficulties, and pains of normal human life, including weariness, thirst (John 4:6), distress, grief, and being “troubled in heart” (Mark 3:5; John 11:35; 12:27). His suffering was such that throughout his life he offered up prayers “with loud cries and tears” (Heb 5:7; cf. Luke 22:44). He knew the pain of being completely misunderstood by his friends and rejected by his family and hometown (John 7:3-5; Matt 13:57; Mark 3:21). He was also tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13). During the final week before his crucifixion, Jesus was abandoned, denied, and betrayed by people whom he had poured his life into. On the cross, he was forsaken by even God the Father (Matt 27:46). God is sovereign over suffering and yet, God also made himself vulnerable and subject to suffering. The main reason that Christians can trust God in the midst of suffering is that God himself has firsthand experience of suffering.
Jesus “learned” from what he suffered (Heb 5:8). He experienced what it is like to be human by learning “trusting-obedience” in God the Father through pain and suffering. In a similar way, we learn and grow in Christlikeness by trusting and obeying God through our pain and suffering.
The Apostle Paul understood the role of suffering in spiritual growth. Union with Jesus was so precious to Paul that he wrote: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ… I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:7a, 10-11).
While Christians may be enthusiastic about knowing the power of Jesus’ resurrection, we who follow Jesus have our reservations when it comes to participation in his sufferings. Jesus understands our natural tendency to withdraw from suffering. His invitation to his disciples to take up their cross and to share his yoke reflects his compassion for them regarding pain and suffering.
Jesus says that those who want to be his disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow him (Luke 9:23). To “take up the cross” does not mean to look for pain, to search for a problem or to be hard on ourselves. It means firstly to acknowledge where we are suffering and to trust that God is with us through it all. There is always some hardship in our lives permitted by God. That hardship is our cross. Are we acknowledging it? Are we accepting it as a discipling process from God (Heb 12:7-11)?
The second thing that Jesus asks of his disciples is to follow him. Jesus is inviting us to make the carrying of our cross part of our discipleship journey. We are invited to connect with him and to come to him – God’s way. That way is to take his yoke – to share in his suffering for the whole world, for it will prove to be an easy yoke (Matt 11:28-30).
While discipleship courses may be helpful, these cannot substitute the transforming role of carrying our cross in our daily, real life. This is the mystery of Christian discipleship. Jesus did not come to take our hardship away or to take our cross away. Jesus came to invite us to connect our burden with his burden, to connect our suffering with his suffering, to connect our pain to his pain. It is an invitation to remain connected to Jesus who wants to give us his burden as a light burden because it is a load that he has already carried for us on his cross. Our suffering is still hard. Our pain is still a burden. But connected with Jesus, it becomes something new and lighter. We connect with him through prayer. Let us bring it all to the Suffering Sovereign God who has endured all and lived it all.