Sunday, March 13, 2016

That I may know ... the fellowship of his sufferings.

You cannot reasonably argue that my Dad was anything but a great and natural educator.  For one thing, I still remember things he tried to teach me 45 years ago ... things which didn't "take" with me at the time, but which I am perhaps now just beginning to apprehend.

One such teaching of my Dad's took place over and over again in Family Devotions.  For those of you who were not raised in Evangelical Christian households, "Devotions" was a family time of Bible Study, discussion, and prayer, in our case, led by the family patriarch.  Think of it as homeschool catechism, if you like.

In our family devotions, Dad seemed to come back over and over again (annoyingly, I thought) to a few themes.  One of them was that Christians, as a Free Bonus for believing in Christ get to share in the sufferings of Christ!   Imagine my joy at hearing this!  I don't think I was unusual among 10-year-old kids in thinking that this was a very bizarre and distasteful idea.  My idea was a rather more Old Testament (as I saw it then) concept of where I believe in God and try to do good things, and then God heaps up giant heaps of blessing on me.  (Some, such as Joel Osteen, have never got past this 10-year-old's conception of the Christian faith.)  But my dad kept pounding it into us that our reward for being Christians would be to get to suffer for and with Jesus Christ.  
Among his chief texts was Philippians 3:10:

"That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death."

But I think he also used Philippians 1:29, 1 Peter 4:13, and Colossians 1:24.

But I didn't really internalize these verses. All they really did was to make the New Testament a kind of minefield to read through, filled with the wonderful promises of God that I would suffer for his sake. I should not have been surprised. My namesake, St. Paul, knew it well. What did the risen Lord Jesus say to Saul of Tarsus when he first spoke audibly to him? Was it, "Hey, Saul. I'ma call you Paul, and we shall be best friends! I'm going to make you so happy." Not quite. It was:

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.  “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

And (worse and worse), here is what he told Ananias, the man to whose house he sent poor Saul:

“Go! This man is my chosen instrumentto proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Really? Wow. What a friend we have in Jesus, as the song goes.

So, I didn't internalize or absorb this teaching. Life went on. I tried to avoid suffering in the usual ways we humans do. I found interesting things to do that seemed to bring me joy. I learned to play guitar, and played in a few bands. I drank a lot of beer. I took up bodybuilding. I started making oil paintings. I started fixing up old cars. I got a cool tattoo. These things (except, sadly, beer) have all remained with me to this day. But for a while now, the joy seems to have gone out of them. The things which used to make me happy didn't really work any more.

I started to try to help people. Surely concentrating on making other people's lives better would make mine richer, and bring me joy? Right? But, in the end, not so much. In the end, there was pain and disillusionment. It was as if every new pursuit, hobby, or friendship was a bright door with the word "JOY" written on it. I opened the door, but inside each door was a kind of very long children's playground slide. I enjoyed the ride down each time, I suppose, but every time one of these Joy Slides dumped me out at the bottom, there I was, mired in the sufferings of Christ.

Someone recently asked me, "Do you think that by God taking the joy out of these things you used to love, He is telling you to find a new thing to do?"

I thought about, but I know the answer is No. There is only one way forward now. God has allowed me a participation in the sufferings of Christ. I seem most often to be in torment because of them. No, the way forward is not to find another JOY door through which I can escape the sufferings of Jesus. The way forward is to find the fellowship in these sufferings. That's what has been missing. The way forward is to beg Jesus to be in fellowship with me in these sufferings.