Tag Archives: imitating Christ

The Importance of Suffering.

When I go overseas to Africa or elsewhere, one of the universal factors I see is trials and suffering. A pastor friend of mine once talked about when he went to teach some pastors in Africa, and when asked what they wanted to learn about, they wanted to be taught how to stand up under suffering and difficulty. My pastor friend at that point felt unqualified to speak on that subject. And this is what got me thinking.

I’ve been in church my entire life. I’ve heard sermons on Christ’s suffering, and lots of sermons on how God will carry you through suffering. But the attitude towards suffering by the preacher, and until the last few years by myself as well, was that suffering was an arms length transaction. That it was not normal or God’s will or something that we should consider as an integral part of our faith.

But then I started noticing some passages in the bible that rarely if ever get preached on, and a lot of things began to make sense to me. The first idea that I had to put away was that Christ did all the hard work and therefore my work is easy. On the contrary, although Jesus provided his own life for our salvation, he also provided the example by which we should live. He became the perfect imitation of God the Father so that we by imitation of Jesus would imitate the Father. Essentially we imitate the Father through transitive property. In the book of John it says, “44Then Jesus cried out and said, “He who believes in Me, believes not in Me but in Him who sent Me. 45And he who sees Me sees Him who sent Me. 46I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness. 47And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. 48He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day. 49For I have not spoken on My own authority; but the Father who sent Me gave Me a command, what I should say and what I should speak. 50And I know that His command is everlasting life. Therefore, whatever I speak, just as the Father has told Me, so I speak.”

Ok, so Jesus is the perfect imitation of the Father, but how did he become this. It’s easy to say Jesus was born as God, but he was also born as man, so something had to happen along the way. After all, the fall from perfection for man came through Adam by a choice that he made, so Jesus’ perfect imitation of the Father had to come as a choice as well. But when did this happen?

The thing that got me thinking about this were some verses in the book of Hebrews that I’d never known about until recently. I’d read them of course, but never paid attention I guess. I’d certainly never heard anyone preach on them. The first verse is Hebrews 2:10 “For it was fitting for Him, (speaking of God the Father) for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” The second verse is in the same chapter, verse 17. “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”

Ok, so wait a second. How could Jesus, being perfect, be perfected? I mean, he’s already perfect, right? The answer to that comes in the book of Matthew, right at the beginning of Jesus ministry.

“Matthew 4:1 “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry. 3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” 4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’ ” 5 Then the devil took Him up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down. For it is written: ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and, ‘In their hands they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7 Jesus said to him, “It is written again, ‘You shall not [a]tempt the Lord your God.’ ” 8 Again, the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to Him, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’ ” 11 Then the devil left Him, and behold, angels came and ministered to Him.

So how many times have we read this and not really thought about it? Jesus and the devil were out in the desert and Jesus proved he knew the scripture better than the devil did. Right? But I never asked the deeper questions about it, like; What was the point of all this? or If Jesus was God and perfect then what was the point of tempting him? Or “Why did Jesus fast for 40 days?”

There are all kinds of conclusions I’ve come up with, but I’m only going to touch on a few here. The first is that, just as Adam had to make a choice, and one that he ultimately failed, it was at this point that Jesus had to make a choice. Jesus being born both God and man, he had the choice of will to go down either path. It was at this point, while under the self-imposed suffering of fasting and the temptation of the devil, that he made the choice to become the perfect imitation of the Father. After all, it doesn’t do any good for the devil to tempt someone with something for which they have no desire. But where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded and so became the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

Which leads to my second point and the one that more directly applies to us. And that is that perfection that is not tested through trial is not perfection. If Jesus himself was not perfected without suffering, how much more must we, who were born in a fallen state, suffer trials and affliction in order to imitate Christ?

Am I suggesting that we need to seek out trials and afflictions and be sad and mope about all the time in order to be a better imitator of Christ? No. There is a season and a time for everything. Our problem is that we have largely told ourselves that suffering is not part of the Christian walk. This is a lie. Not only is trials and suffering a part of the Christian walk, it is essential to gaining wisdom, to denying self, and to being effective in ministry. I looked for a good verse to illustrate this, but they were frankly too numerous to pick just one. Some notable places to look though are in the book of 1st Peter and the first chapter of James. The early apostles had a much better understanding of suffering, and in very few cases did they ask that those trials be removed, but rather that they would grow and gain wisdom from them. This is exactly what I find when I go to the hard places in the world. Pastors don’t ask us to pray that their trials would be removed, but rather that they would be given the strength and the faith to stand up under trial. They understand that every trial is an opportunity to be more like Christ, that the miraculous salvation that he gave would then be played out to the lost nations and peoples around them. They understand that when they stand up under trials and persecution, the lost people around them see that God has done a work in them. They become imitators of Christ in his suffering and in so doing, they become the face of Christ to the nations around them.

James chapter 1 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds. Because the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” Lacking NOTHING it says. Immediately after this it says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” So when we go through trial, we are not told to ask that the trial end, because as it says above, “perseverance must finish its work,” but rather, that we are to ask for wisdom. This is the choice we have, to avoid suffering (though in practice this is not really possible), or to use the suffering and trials that come as an opportunity to gain wisdom, become more like Christ, and to fulfill the purpose for which we were placed on this earth. The only thing worse than having to bear a trial is to bear a trial for which I learn nothing.

I know this is not an easy message today, but it is an essential one for the Christian walk. For those who feel they are trying to stand up under a weight they feel they can’t bear, first of all, understand that it is not for nothing. Ask God for wisdom, both in dealing with it but also in what is to be learned from it. Also understand that you’re not alone. There is nothing you’re going through the Christ didn’t also suffer through. I’d like to finish with a story about the apostle Paul. This is one of the only passages I can think of where someone asks that a trial be removed. The apostle Paul says that he had a “thorn in his side”. Now what this was we don’t know. It could have been a recurring sin he had to deal with, it could have been a sickness, it could have been something else. The point is that it was something that tormented him. Paul asked God on several occasions to remove it from him, but the answer Paul received was different from what he asked for. The answer Paul got was, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” It is Paul’s acceptance of this answer that is even more telling, because he understands what it means, and his reply is this; “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

A South Sudanese pastor weeps. “Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better.” Ecclesiastes 7:3

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)