Christianity does not have a monopoly when it comes to suffering as a means for higher spirituality. The virtue of self sacrifice is exalted in virtually all religions. Concerning Christianity, what does the Bible say about suffering? Let us take a close look at the suffering of Christ to see if our perception of suffering with, or for, Him is indeed what the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote Romans 8:17.
16The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) - if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:16-17).
Suffering as a spiritual discipline
There is no need for one to be a Christian to possess the world view that there is great value in suffering. Suffering can be through the hands of others, sometimes it is self inflicted, sometimes it is in some form of deprivation of senses, pleasure, even needs. There are myriad expressions of suffering as necessary condition to higher spiritual attainment. The key verses we're studying here is the suffering of Christ, and we in turn are admonished to suffer with Him, therefore the question we must first ask is: Why did Christ have to suffer? What is the underlying motive for His suffering, and does it match with the objective of the world, at least of the Christian world, as it tries to suffer with Him?
What Christ did not suffer for
There are several things about Christ’s suffering that we know for certain. Christ didn’t suffer because He thought it was necessary for Him to attain a higher spiritual perfection. He didn’t suffer because he had to obey certain principle concerning suffering. He didn’t suffer in order that the sinful part of His may be purified—of course we know that being God He is sinless. There are probably ten thousand more reasons why suffering is a good virtue, but rest assured that Christ didn’t need to adhere to any of those for a simple reason: He is Almighty God.
If these aren’t the reasons for Jesus’ suffering, then neither can they be our reasons when we wish to suffer “with” Him. None of these that come from the flesh can produce anything spiritual, and yet virtually all the world’s religions prescribe them as highest virtues, including sadly a large segment of Christianity (Colossians 2:20-23).
Let us study some Greek. The phrase “suffering with” is keyed to Strong number 4841: sumpaschó, with the following Thayer’s Greek Lexicon definition:
STRONGS NT 4841: συμπάσχω
συμπάσχω (T WH συνπάσχω (cf. σύν, II. at the end)); to suffer or feel pain together (in a medical sense, as in Hippocrates () and Galen): 1 Corinthians 12:26; to suffer evils (troubles, persecutions) in like manner with another: Romans 8:17
The definition above confirms that whatever Christ suffers for is what we’re asked by the main verse to suffer with Him. This leads to the next section where we determine what Christ’s purpose is in His suffering.
Christ’s purpose in suffering
One simple goal clearly expressed in the Bible: to carry the weight of the sin of the world and be crucified on the cross.
In the Old Covenant, the animal to be sacrificed must be as perfect as it is deemed acceptable by the presiding priest. Exodus 12:5 writes concerning selection of the lamb for the first Passover: “Your lamb shall be an unblemished male a year old; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.” The unblemished lamb is a type of the sinless Christ to be offered once for all to take away the sin of the world. This is the main reason for Christ’s suffering. Christ does not suffer just for the sake of suffering itself, or as if there is any virtue in the suffering so that He may benefit from it. The requirement for this task is not only that the sacrifice must be sinless, but must be God Himself, perfect in every way.
Here comes the challenge to everyone who wants to suffer with Christ in the same manner as defined in the Thayer’s Greek Lexicon dictionary: Do you have what it takes to suffer with Him in this endeavor? Are you sinless? Are you the Second Person of Godhead? Whose sin are you going to die for—let’s not forget no one can die for his own sin except he’s sinless which is a contradiction? Now are you ready for 39 lashes and nails on hands and feet and hung on the cross until death?
So far we have ruled out every reason one might think of as a motivation for suffering with Christ. We can’t suffer with Christ, and yet Romans 8:17 asks that we suffer with Him. Therefore Paul must not have referred to this suffering in the way the world does. The way of the world, or the flesh, is always something that we do, but the way of the Spirit is through faith.
There are many spiritual blessings we inherit through faith alone. We enjoyed a righteousness bestowed on us through Christ. We received the gift of being dead and buried with Christ though physically we’re still very much alive. The law of God requires that all sinners must die, but Christ died and He attributed it to us. The boldness to enter the throne of grace. The freedom from all condemnation. We inherit the gift of eternal life because Christ rose from the dead. We inherited all these great blessings entirely through faith in Christ.
Romans 8:32 writes this:
Indeed, he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?
All things include righteousness, being dead and buried with Christ, access to the throne of grace, immunity from all judgements, might we also include the title of being co-sufferers with Christ as part of the “all things” expressed in Romans 8:32 above?
Paul might very well have written Romans 6:4 as follows (note that the bracketed, bolded and underlined text in the verses below were added just for effect):
Therefore we have [suffered and] been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may live a new life (Romans 6:4).
Or the key verses of this article might have been written by Paul as follows:
16The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God’s children. 17And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) - if indeed we suffer, [are dead and buried] with him so we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:16-17).
The point being made is wherever the deeds of being dead and buried is expressed, suffering might very well be included as part of it, too, and they all belong to Christ alone, not to be shared with any fallen flesh and blood because “to Him be the glory forever and ever (Romans 11:36)”. Nevertheless they were shared with us, as an imparted gift as if we had actually undergone the physical suffering, as we place our trust in Christ.
If we follow the context leading from Romans 1 all the way through to our main verses of Romans 8:16-17, we’d see that Paul was trying to convince the Romans of the full benefit of being in Christ, he wanted them to step fully into the New Covenant relationship with God. It is clear many in the first churches of Christ still had a hard time identifying themselves with Christ and the cross, which includes his suffering.
A practical application point is though some, perhaps even a large majority of those who come to Christ, may never experience hardship or persecution for their faith, they nevertheless become co-sufferers with Christ by the virtue of their placing their faith in Him, hence they become included “in Christ.” And if they’re in Christ, His suffering then becomes theirs through faith. It is a gift from God to those who call by His Son’s name.
Perhaps this is a good place to refer to Romans 12:2
Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God - what is good and well-pleasing and perfect (Romans 12:2)
Are we thinking like the world concerning the concept of suffering?
- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen
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