Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church… (Colossians 1: 24)
This enigmatic passage from Scripture recently entered my reflections, via a fine post on redemptive suffering by fellow blogger, Christina Chase, (see divineincarnate.com.)
I don’t claim to understand suffering, much less redemptive suffering. However, I continue to write on the topic, opening myself to the Spirit to guide me as together we struggle through these mysteries.
Forgive me if I seem to repeat myself. I sometimes need to summarize in order to reenter the topic…
Suffering exists in our world because evil exists.
Evil exists because God created beings who were capable of loving Him. Love cannot occur without free choice, for that which is compelled cannot be called love.
The ability to choose love requires that there also be an option to choose its opposite, which we call “evil”.
Let us look to the beginning times for further understanding.
Many consider the creation account in the book of Genesis to be myth. This suggests that its genre was not one that set out to recap a specific historical event but to tell a story that communicates certain core beliefs or truths.
Some of these truths, as I understand them, are as follows.
In this story, we are told that God created man and woman as beings who, made in His image, had the freedom to choose love, to choose Him.
It is also implied that God had created other free beings before us, some of whom chose to create an “evil” way, i.e. a way opposed to His Way of love.
God created our earth and humankind to be perfect. However, those of the evil way were allowed to enter our world and offer human beings the choice they inevitably faced as free beings.
Although the story talks of an apple and a serpent, the primary truth is that a way of living that was not the Way of love entered into the minds of our early ancestors.
This alternate “way” went something like this:
Choose the way of God or choose to make yourself god.
To make the latter option sound that much more appealing, a little lie was inserted: God doesn’t really want us to share in His divine life but insists on our obedience to keep us from it.
And our early ancestors were taken with this tempting notion, foolishly imagining that they could become God through some means other than love.
Through this choice, “The Fall” of humanity came about.
This Fall had consequences for these first human beings as well as for all of us who came after them.
We would not go through our life cycles mindlessly like the lower species. Rather, we would be acutely aware of our struggles, our pain and our death.
In other words, we would suffer.
And we would not suffer simply for our own misdeeds. Were this the case, perhaps we could save ourselves by learning to refrain from them.
Instead, evil took root in the human experience and perpetuated itself through all generations, making suffering among men a universal reality.
Clearly, if we were ever to be freed of this dilemma, God would have to intervene. As human beings, we were too far off the path to return to The Way by our own power.
We needed a Savior.
I will not attempt here to recap all of salvation history. (There is some limit to my hubris; also I have written of my understanding of salvation in other posts, e.g. What kind of victory).
However, I will highlight an awareness or two that relates to our current reflection.
If Jesus were only a human being, he could not have saved us. He would be as lost as the rest of us. Even if He were a very good man, he would not have the capacity to set things right for all of humanity.
If Jesus were only God, He would have had to save us as one outside of our condition, eliminating our universal dilemma by Divine decree.
While this latter notion might seem quite desirable to us, it makes no sense. If, as God alone, He removed our suffering and all consequences of sin, He would simultaneously eliminate human freedom.
Can you follow where I am going with this? We would had no choice but to be saved. Without choice, we could not love and thus be joined to Him in the fullness of life.
Hence, salvation could only be made possible for us if He entered our world as both God and Man. And this is what He did.
As the God-man, Jesus took on the consequences of The Fall and entered our suffering voluntarily, though He had no personal need to do so, i.e. He had no need of salvation Himself.
He entered our suffering deeply, profoundly, humbly.
He did not save us by His suffering but by His love – a love more perfect than any of us can comprehend.
Yet His act of love required suffering, the sacrifice of self, in order to be the complete undoing of that initial, fundamental choice by humanity to try to make ourselves gods.
In Christ’s saving act, self is not glorified but sacrificed out of love.
There is nothing incomplete about Christ’s saving act – and this is not at all what Paul intended to communicate in his letter to the Colossians. (We know enough of Paul’s thinking to know that the very idea would have horrified him.)
Let us review again what he wrote (Colossians 1: 24):
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church…
Paul rejoices in his suffering “for your sake”. Why would he (or anyone) rejoice in suffering?
Suffering in and of itself has no meaning or value. It is not something to rejoice about.
However, in Christ, suffering becomes sacrifice, an act of love for others.
Paul is rejoicing here because he has chosen the way of Christ, the way of love. He is doing what Christ did: sacrificing himself for the body, the church.
It is likely that Paul wrote this letter to the people of Colossae during his two-year house arrest in Rome. Hence, he could not travel but longed to bring “together in love” (Colossians 2: 2) the communities of believers he had never met.
By imitating Christ, by lovingly bearing affliction for the sake of the Church, he knew he was being made more and more like Christ.
He rejoiced in this but knew that his task was not yet complete. He was not yet fully one with Christ.
While some commentaries suggest that this is what Paul meant by “what is lacking”, let’s take this reflection just a bit further.
If Christ’s sacrifice was perfect and complete, how could Paul have written that something was lacking? Something that he, a mere human being, could “fill up”?
Perhaps we do not see the answer because it is so obvious.
What is lacking is the part that Christ could not do without diminishing our freedom and thus depriving us of our ability to love.
The Lord Jesus could not do our part. To act within the divine Plan, He could not choose for us.
And certainly Paul knew this. He knew that the task of sacrificial love did not end with Christ.
To choose the Way of love, to choose to follow Christ, requires much more of us than simple assent.
Although salvation is freely given to us in Christ’s eternal sacrifice, our receipt of this gift can never be passive. We must actively choose and participate in it.
We do not fully returned to the Way of love if we do not immerse ourselves with Him in sacrificial love. For a love that does not sacrifice for the other is not love but mere words.
Paul immersed himself in Christ, “filling up” the part that Jesus could not do for him, i.e. his choice to sacrifice and bear affliction for the sake of the body, the Church.
You and I are called to do the same.
But how, I might ask, am I to do this? How can my personal suffering become part of the sacrificial love of Christ for the Church?
Paul was shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel he preached.
My sufferings, on the other hand, seem so disconnected from anything remotely meaningful for the life of the Church.
I suffer with migraine. I suffer with bruised ego. I suffer with spiritual doubts and confusion.
Of what redemptive value is any of this?
As side note, it is important to understand what “redemption” means in this context.
None of my suffering or sacrifices will ever free anyone, including myself, from sin and its consequences. Christ alone accomplished this.
What is “redeemed” is the suffering itself. No longer need my afflictions be pointless or without value, whatever they may be.
When I follow the way of Christ, my sufferings become a gift to be shared with others. They are redeemed.
And so how does this come about?
The language of my childhood would say, “Offer it up.”
Sadly, this language was so often overused and under-explained that it became, for many, a meaningless and trite response to suffering.
Yet it holds a fundamental truth of our faith.
To live in Christ, to actively choose to be part of His sacrificial love, I take whatever affliction I have and I offer it to my Savior as a gift, as a sign of my love.
I bear it as patiently as I can.
I ask Christ to help me carry it, for I am weak.
I think of someone else, known to me or not, and ask that my gift to the Savior become a prayer for that person.
Or I may offer it as prayer for the Church as a whole. Or even for the world.
And the meaning of such a prayer?
If I think of my sinfulness, the ancestral as well as the personal, it is not hard to imagine it putting a negative, destructive energy into the universe.
It may be an energy that causes suffering to an individual; it may be an energy that poisons the entire spiritual atmosphere of the planet.
Either way, it is undoubtedly destructive.
The prayer of sacrificial love then does just the opposite.
It showers drops of love on one person – or on a million. It is not for me to know.
It is enough only that I join myself to Christ in love.
So be it.
+To Him be glory forever.