Several years ago, I had two friends die on two successive days. One succumbed to a head injury he had sustained the previous November. He left behind three young children and one of the best marriages I have had the privilege of witnessing. One killed himself. He left behind a grieving wife who had more questions than any pastor had answers. Both loved Christ (though, one loved him better than the other). More importantly, both were loved by Christ.
This double confrontation with death has made me think a great deal about the Christian’s union with Christ. Maybe I am just guilty of being the stereotypical Reformed and Presbyterian pastor – too theological for my own good (and the good of others). But, I am convinced more today of the importance of the Christian’s understanding of this important truth. Our union with Christ assures us in trials that God has good purposes for his people.
I love a good story. I think its fair to say that no good story is complete without deep trials and struggles. And, no good story is worth reading without a clear-cut hero. So, as God rewrites the life-story of his people, he writes one worth reading – wrought with trials and struggles and woven with His Son as the hero.
I remember talking to my wife in our hotel room and looking out at the building where our friend had killed himself. With tears in her eyes she said, “Why does it feel like death is winning?” It wasn’t a theoretical question asked in the abstract, it was the deep cry of her soul longing for comfort and hope. And, she wasn’t asking me.
Trials and struggles put a little weight on those fortresses of identity and hope, and they quickly start to crumble. Suffering has always been the essential context for the work of God among his people. The cross comes before the crown. The path of suffering is the path that Jesus walked in his ministry on the earth, and it is now the path that he is working us through in our union with him. He dwells in his people by his Spirit and so what goes for the head of the New Creation also goes for the people of the New Creation. This is the new Story that the Christian finds himself or herself participating in by our union with Christ.
This Story of redemption is truer than our experience. For the Apostle Paul, the outworking of his union with Christ in his life was the new story he was living out of, “that [being found in Christ] I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). It is the startling ‘by any means possible’ that we see Paul interpreting his trials and sufferings in light of a new Story. The Story that is true. The Story that ends with resurrection but is always interrupted with death. The Story of the crucified and risen Christ and the Christians union with Him. United with him in his resurrection and united with him in his death.
In my ministry, the discussion on the daily grind of the Christian life is a frequent topic. I want to hear the stories – stories that are full of suffering, trials, and failures: eating disorders, depression, addictions, pornography, and sexual abuse (I am no longer surprised by anything that I hear). How do you answer all the questions of a girl who was sexually abused by her father? How do you answer all of the questions of the widowed woman whose husband killed himself? I don’t know. I don’t think you can.
But, I do want them to no longer define themselves by the story of the past, and instead interpret themselves, their trials, and their failures by the true Story of their union with Christ. Our discussion usually ends with a student or friend saying, “this is so simple, but so difficult.”
The Christian life is not complicated, but it is filled with difficulties that find their root in my heart. But, isn’t this the very reason we need the Fatherly discipline of God to rewrite the story that our hearts default to: the story of self-reliance, self-glorification, and self-righteousness. Suffering not only draws me out of myself because I lack strength, but it draws me out of the story of Adam and into the story of Christ because I need a new identify and a new hope.
The Christian who is united to a suffering Savior finds themselves in the ‘normal’ context of suffering. Jeremiah Burroughs, a seventeenth century pastor says, “God’s ordinary course is that His people, in this world, should be in an afflicted condition . . . usually when God intends the greatest mercy to any of his people He brings them to the lowest of conditions.”
The struggles of the Christian aren’t a sign that something is terribly wrong, but a sign that something is amazingly right. Again, for the Apostle Paul, the Christian who experiences trials is doing so because Jesus holds onto them ever so tightly, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Cor 7-12).
In the midst of our trials, the Christian’s union with Christ reminds us that the Story has an end that is different than our current experience. I constantly find myself wondering which direction my struggle with sin and temptation is going – up or down. I feel this struggle when ministry is a grind, when I see my failings as a parent, and when two of my best friends die in one week.
But, isn’t this the constant temptation of the Christian: to believe that the current chapter of our experience is the final chapter of our experience. The temptation to believe that things will never improve (and the more difficult the situation, the more tempting it is to believe this).
When, by faith we look at Jesus and our union with him, we know that things will improve. Our story is already finished in our union with Christ. We are now raised with Christ and our life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:1). The last chapter of our lives has already been written and Jesus is now living in our happily ever after. His resurrection is our assurance that things must get better at his return. On that day, we will know by sight what the Christian believes by faith – sin, Satan, and death do not win. Our little stories, in God’s grace, begin to mirror the bigger Story simply because we are united to Christ.
For the Christian who is united to Christ, our current experience of suffering needs to be seen in light of the immortal words of the Paul Harvey, “now you know the rest of the story.” So, maybe its just my tendency as a Reformed and Presbyterian pastor to be too theological. But, I’m beginning to think that the problems that I, my people, and my family face need to be met with a deeper and more fixed theology that gives me the freedom to hurt, cry, and hope – all at the same time.