I have neglected my blogging for several days. I am in the midst of continuing an online conversation with two of my summer classes, and this keeps me busy (along with everything else that life brings me on a day to day basis). Nevertheless, I promised a note on some ideas that Rubel Shelly and I kicked around in the month of May during a Wednesday evening series. I will, of course, be responsible for these musings and they do not necessarily represent my friend Rubel, though he has been a partner over many years in thinking about these things with me (beginning with his classes at Freed-Hardeman in the 1970s).
“Perfected through Suffering” takes its cue from homily addressed “to the Hebrews”. Specifically, Hebrews 2:10, 5:8-10, and 12:2-3.
This could be understood in a couple of ways. For example, a primary meaning might be something of the value of suffering as a refining fire in our lives, or a maturing of our faith. Our faith is “perfected” (made whole, complete) through suffering. This would be consistent with a kind of “soul-making” theodicy (such as that made famous by John Hick). Suffering shapes us, and has the potential to shape us into better people.
However, I think if we simply abstract “perfection” in terms of “character development” or “spiritual maturation” we will miss the more fundamental point. If the only function of suffering is to make us better people or that is the primary role suffering has in the lives of God’s people, then I want to protest. Can we not be matured in ways other than suffering? Cannot our character developed in more positive ways? Is suffering necessary for our perfection? I don’t think so–at least not as originally conceived by God in the Garden. Shalom without suffering; conformation into the image of God without death–that was the experience of the Garden.
I think we have to go a bit deeper here. Certainly, suffering does have the fucntion of “perfecting” or “maturing” us. God does use it to bear the fruit of righteousness in our lives (Hebrews 12:11). But there is more and if we stay here, I think we will miss the real point.
“Perfected through suffering” is explicitly Christological. It is directly connected with the fact that Jesus is the “author” (pioneer, pathfinder, frontrunner, path-maker) of our salvation and “perfector” of our faith. He has run the course ahead of us, and has plowed the ground of our own faith.
Christologically, the Logos follows us into suffering. We created the suffering; we created this world. But the Son becomes one of us to share our suffering to experience it alongside of us. Jesus took on an Adamic (fallen) body in order to join us in our suffering. He embraces the suffering for our sakes in order to overcome it, defeat it and liberate us. We fell and he became fallen. We brought death and he followed us into the tomb. He pursued us into the grave, even the death on the cross.
But Jesus suffered and death in order to create a path out of the suffering. He followed us into the suffering in order to lead us out of it. He suffered so that he might bring others to glory. He leads captivity captive, and shows us the way (by plowing the ground ahead of us, by being our pathfinder, by pioneering the trail) to glory. He is perfected through suffering so that he might perfect us.
Here is the basic Christological root. Just as Jesus shared our suffering, so our suffering is sharing Jesus’ suffering. We suffer with him just as he suffered with us. Our ministry (discipleship) is a sharing of the affliction of Jesus. We know the fellowhsip of his suffering. But we will also share his glory just as he shared our suffering as we also know the power of his resurrection (not just in the future, but even in the presnt).
To think about “perfected through suffering,” then, is not simply to think about how we are made “better people” through suffering. Rather, it also to think Christologically–to view our own suffering as sharing the suffering of Christ who suffered with us and for us. It is to see with “Jesus’ eyes” the path of suffering as a way to glory. We follow Jesus who has pioneered a path to glory for us and he invites us experience the glory through suffering just as he did.
More tomorrow….on the eschatological (both present and future) dimensions of “perfection through suffering.”