Recovering From a Heart Attack (Part 4): Experiencing God & The Fellowship of Christ’s Sufferings

Recovering From a Heart Attack (Part 4): Experiencing God & The Fellowship of Christ’s Sufferings September 26, 2022

In this series, I am recounting the work of God in my own life. This is a personal testimony to the reality and goodness of God. I testify to this in the context of a very common type of contemporary trial: a heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery and ensuing recovery. While many will be skeptical of personal testimony as evidence of anything supernatural or transcendent, the Bible tells us specifically that it is by the blood of the Lamb (that’s Jesus) and the testimony of the saints (that’s Jesus’s Church) that sin, death and the Devil are defeated (Rev 12:7-12).

One aspect of human sinfulness, and the Devil’s primary attribute, is their capacity to deceive. And so, in the end, it is the power of God’s people testifying that dispels the lies of the enemy. At the same time, I have addressed the skeptic throughout this series, although I have refrained from using abstract argumentation for now. Still nothing I say here by way of personal account diminishes the more forensic historical and philosophical arguments for both God’s existence and His goodness.

In the first post, I talked about how the Christian man or woman approaches suffering when God takes him or her “on a detour” in life. Then I spoke about the beauty of God’s people, His Church, and how the Church is the greatest consolation to suffering souls in times of trouble (even if that role is often marred by great evil within its confines). In the third post, I spoke about the direct experience of God’s glory, as well as the reality of God’s enemies, namely, of demons. Now I will turn to something a bit harder to articulate, yet nevertheless of great importance: how do we speak of God after we experience Him “face-to-face.”

Religious Experience and The Accommodation of Language

In a recent interview about his latest book, Dale C. Allison, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, talks about various kinds of transcendent religious experiences. Throughout the interview, and I assume the book, Allison clarifies an important point: it is very, VERY hard to describe or articulate in language what actually occurs in a religious experience. However, that doesn’t mean it is impossible or that it isn’t attempted. It only means that any linguistic articulation of an experience of God will be deficient in its ability to describe the reality.

To experience God is one thing. To talk about that experience of God is a very different thing. The Bible puts it simply (and poetically); echoing the words of the prophet Isaiah, Paul writes to the Corinthians about the revealed knowledge of God:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11

1 Cor 2:7-10

There are deep things of God that God reveals to men through the Spirit. Some of those deep things relate to God’s historical plan of salvation. Others can be more personal, revealed to the individual. These deep things are not grasped by the senses, however, they are supra-sensible (2 Cor 12:1-4). They are “seen,” but it is questionable as to whether they are seen through the eyes and processed by the visual cortex. They are “heard,” but it is baffling as to whether they are audible. There are sensations: warmth, comfort, ease, a calming pressure or soothing touch; but it is hard to know exactly their source or how they are interacting with the physical body.

Yet millions of people, from diverse cultural backgrounds and throughout space and time, have these experiences. They are neither hallucinations nor illusions. They can occur under unusual conditions or entirely mundane and quotidian ones. They are indeed something other, and their cause is external to the mind. One of the more common ways to describe them, as Allison does, is to say something like: “it [the experience] was more real than reality.”

And so what I related in the last post, about my experience of God’s manifest beauty and mercy, has only been partially captured in these articles with their many words. To move from the experience of God to talk of God is to move from reality to shadow, from the mysterium tremendum et fascinans itself (See Otto, The Idea of the Holy) to our own fragile human conception and articulation of it.

Words can be powerful, to be sure, but they are not the Power itself. Only God’s Word is the power that can bring existence from non-existence, life from non-life, new life from death. Human words, in comparison, are mere murmurings. Nevertheless, to honor God, we make every attempt to speak, usually via analogy, about Him and His power.

The Fellowship of Christ’s Sufferings

For the Christian, however, the mysterium is no longer a total mystery. The identity of the numinous Power that so many through space and time have experienced has been revealed to us in flesh and blood. Jesus Christ is the Power. Paul tells us in Colossians that Jesus is the fullness of God (Col 1:15-20). John opens his Gospel telling us the Word became flesh and dwelt among men (John 1:1-14). Peter tell us it is “this Jesus;” the one delivered up according to the plan of God and who was crucified and killed by lawless men who is both “Lord” and “Christ” (Acts 2:22ff). The mystery of God is Christ Jesus, the Godman.

But perhaps even a greater mystery than the incarnation itself is the reality that God has given us the opportunity to be filled with the same fullness of God as Jesus Christ

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power, through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

But what could it possibly mean to be “filled with all the fullness of God” when God is infinite and we are finite? That is a mystery I think none of us can grasp, at least not at this time. Yet it is true. What we can know, however, is that for the fullness of God to dwell in us, for Christ to live in us, one way that that happens is through sharing in the sufferings of God– through sharing in Christ’s crucifixion (not literally per se, although sometimes literally or close enough).

Commenting on Philippians 3:7-11, G. Walter Hansen expounds on Paul’s overall grasp of the order of Salvation in Christ:

As he describes his own personal experience of new life in Christ, Paul provides a theological outline of the entire scope of salvation in Christ: justification, receiving righteousness from God by faith in Christ (v.9); sanctification, knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection and participation in his sufferings (v.10); and glorification, attaining to the resurrection of the dead (v.11)

Hansen, PNTC Commentary, 231

The fellowship of Christ’s sufferings need not be strictly physical in nature, as Hansen also points out. One can, like Paul, suffer by relinquishing one’s ethnic identity, national heritage or social class (Hansen, 232). Or, as Jesus tells us, we can fellowship in His sufferings through the loss of our closest biological relationships (Matt 10:34-39), something Muslim converts to Christianity know much about. However, sometimes our fellowship in Christ’s sufferings is physical. As Christ was fully man, and as His body experienced the full range of human pains, so then can our physical pain relate to His and His to ours.

The Taste of Cold Water

The first thing I noticed as I woke from the anesthetic slumber induced for the sake of my quadruple bypass surgery, was the terrible thirst I had and the tremendous dryness of my lips. For the first several hours, I was not allowed to drink water, due to the remnant effects of the anesthesia. Water might have made me vomit, which could have caused the fresh 12″-scar down my chest to tear or burst. Instead of drinking, therefore, the nurses in the ICU brought a sponge drenched in ice water to my lips and gently rubbed it over and under my lips and on my tongue.

I thought to myself: Dear Jesus! I never thought water could taste so amazing! The sensation was that incredible. A sensation of the one thing our body most needs and that we are most accustomed to taking for granted: water. Even this, the taste of that water, cannot be grasped by mere words. My mind turned immediately to the historical center of the Gospel, to Christ’s own passion.

At our Lord’s crucifixion, the writer of John’s Gospel records for us something the other Gospel writers do not. Of course, John was at the foot of the cross, present to see and hear the Messiah speak His last:

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

John 19:28-30

A few hours later, after tasting water for the first time after this major surgery, it struck me. Here was I, a sinner, who thirsted. What was I given? I was given cold ice water to refresh my parched lips. Knowingly or unknowingly, whichever nurse or nurses who did this for me fulfilled God’s command of love (Matt 25:35).

But I considered the situation further. For as I received the cup of cold water in the here (St. Jude hospital) and the now (September 6th, 2022), there (on a cross outside Jerusalem), and then (in or around 33 AD), was my Savior, God of all Creation, who was given not cold water, but sour gall to drink. Momentarily I was able to almost share in my Lord’s suffering, but even then what I endured seemed so infinitely small compared to the Great Sacrifice on my behalf. For I received what I asked for, and He did not. 

To Know Christ Is Our Gain

Paul says in Philippians that he desires “to share in [Christ’s] sufferings” and “become like Him in His death” (Phil 3:10). To share in the sufferings of our suffering Messiah is the pinnacle of holiness. The prophets and apostles, the saints and martyrs of God’s people, the Church, have longed to suffer as Christ suffered. Knowing all the while that we could never really do so. But the willingness to fellowship in Christ’s suffering provides two things to the man and woman of God.

First, suffering with Christ expels fear. For us to suffer unto Christ, is to have no fear of any trial, fiery or not, that might befall us. Why? Because we desire to know our God more than anything else. And if suffering faithfully is one means to do so, then we cannot be afraid of it. The world thinks we are crazy, but what of it? Christ has conquered the world.

Second, our suffering unto Christ allows us to become a comfort to the world. For only those who have suffered with God, can become true light and love to a world that does not know Him. The Church does not venerate men and women of the past who upon coming to Christ, only then decided to go on holiday. All of God’s great saints, past and present, have, in coming to know Christ more deeply through participatory suffering, also become more caring towards God’s creation. 

Finally, our suffering with Christ is in light of our one, great hope: to share in His Resurrection. Christians are not masochists, a slander that has been slung throughout the ages against God’s people. We do not long for pain or suffering for the sake of pain and suffering. Our participation in them is always aimed at the highest good: eternal, resurrection life with Christ and His family and the moral purification of our souls.

To truly thirst, and then receive cold water on the lips. That sensation; I cannot think of an analogy more fitting for the suffering and the exaltation that comes in genuine fellowship with Christ. Jesus used the same analogy when He encountered a poor woman on the road through Samaria:

13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.[b] The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

John 4:13-15

In the next and final part of this series I will discuss how suffering can change our life course, opening us to a greater reliance on God’s will and God’s way for our lives.

 

 

 

 

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