Yesterday I reflected on how we might think Christologically about our suffering. Jesus united with our suffering and we unite with his. We become one and together endure the suffering. We share the fellowship of his suffering just as he shared ours. Thus, through suffering we are one with Christ. It is journey through suffering together as he pioneers a path out of the suffering and into glory. Our suffering, then, is never meaningless –though it is often and sometimes impossible to find any specific, particular meaning– in the sense that is shared suffering with Christ on the journey to glory.
I find great comfort in my identification with Jesus in suffering. I don’t want to distant him from my suffering when he came to suffer with me. And I don’t want to distance his suffering from myself as I want to experience Christ, both in the fellowship of his suffering and the power of his resurrection.
Another source of comfort in suffering–and part of the perfecting that takes place within suffering–is pneumatological. The presence and function of the Holy Spirit provides the real ground of comfort and hope in our present endurance and groaning. There are several dimensions of this “Spiritual comfort” as I see it.
1. Presence. God has poured out his love into our hearts in the person of the Spirit. Romans 5:3-5. We boast in our sufferings because it produces character and character produces hope. But this is only because God’s love is present in us through the poured-out Spirit. We experience the love of God by the Spirit.
2. Groaning. The Spirit groans with us. Romans 8:26-27. Our groanings in the midst of suffering are neither irreverent nor improper. The Spirit validates our groaning by groaning with us. He groans alongside of us and for us. He speaks words we cannot express and connects us with God in ways that are beyond human words. When I groan, God groans with me.
3. Hope. The Spirit gives hope to our hearts. Romans 8:24-25; Romans 15:13. Here it is easy to “water down” hope as some sort of “future longing,” “wishful thinking,” or “pie in the sky kind of expectation.” However, this hope is both a present reality (and thus comfort) as well as a future expectation. This hope is the presence of the future in our hearts. By the power for the Spirit, the God of hope fills our hearts with comfort and joy. Authentic hope is living in the present as if the future has already arrived. It is the certain joy of the future.
Comfort in the midst of suffering is not achieved by human psychology or by “getting hold of ourselves.” Authentic comfort–a comfort that is abiding, eternal and empowering–is a gift of God by the power of the Spirit. The community of God might be the instrument by which God gives this peace, and thus the community is extremely important in partnering with God in this comforting, but the comfort, I think, is a direct experience/encounter with God that yields peace, joy and contentment.
It is not a momentary or instanteous event. It is a journey, a process. It involves community. It involves spiritual disciplines. It involves communal worship and private time with God. But it is ultimately God’s act. God gives comfort; we don’t comfort ourselves.
A theology of suffering should reflect on the triune character of God’s involvement with our lives. The Father created us, loves us, and pursues us. The Son suffers with us and for us. The Spirit lives within us to comfort and engender hope. The Triune God will reverse the curse of the fall, put an end to all suffering and renew his earth for our embodied existence with the Father, Son and Spirit in a fellowship of shalom and joy.