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Suffering, faith-union, and Christian ministry

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 18 Jul 2016

Suffering and faith-union part II. The calling to gospel ministry is a calling to suffer.

In last Monday’s blogpost, I outlined how seeing suffering in terms of faith-union with Christ – something that the New Testament encourages us to do (and which the Reformer Martin Luther so lucidly understood and taught) – provides a powerful pastoral resource for helping ourselves and others process, and indeed be blessed through, the suffering we undergo in the course of our Christian lives. Today I propose to explore this theme (albeit briefly) more specifically in relation to the pastoral and missionary calling.

‘Come and suffer’

Suffering as an effect of vital faith-union should inform our expectations of Christian ministry. The vocation of every Christian is ‘come and suffer.’ Ours is a calling to take up our cross as we follow the One who was crucified. If this is what defines the Christian life, we should expect it to define the Christian ministry also. We should note Paul’s commission was strikingly not only a calling to proclaim Christ to the Gentiles, but also one in which the Lord promised he would “suffer for my name” (Ac 9.15-16). This promised suffering was not punishment to make restitution for Saul’s persecution of the church, nor was it (only) the unfortunate but inevitable side-effect of preaching the Light to men who loved darkness. Suffering for Jesus’ name was itself Paul’s commission, just as much as – indeed as a form of – proclaiming that Name. Suffering was to be Paul’s honour, privilege and boast.

Without predicating everything of Paul’s apostolic calling to our own vocations, the same perspective on the vital link between gospel ministry and the sufferings of Christ can and must shape and animate our lives in service to the church.

What kind of suffering?

But what kind of suffering? The New Testament precludes the inclusion of any and every kind of suffering under this banner of the sufferings of Christ. Peter tells his readers to “rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ,” but, he adds, “if you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler” (1 Pe 4.13-15). There are different kinds of suffering; and while some are God-given, evangelical means of grace, others are self-inflicted consequences of our sin for which our suffering is our (rehabilitative) punishment – that is, discipline from our heavenly Father. So what kinds and causes of suffering in the course of Christian ministry can we accurately describe as gospel-sufferings; participation by faith-union in Christ’s sufferings? I propose the following six species of suffering as those which were experienced by Christ and were recapitulated in the sufferings of his apostle Paul:

• Self-denial for the sake of the kingdom (Mt 8.20; 1 Co 9.12).
• Enduring satanic attack (Mk 1.13; 2 Co 12.7).
• Angst for the lost (Mt 23.37; Ro 9.2-3).
• Reproach from the world (Jn 15.18; 2 Co 12.10).
• Sharing others’ griefs and bearing their sorrows (Jn 11.35; Ro 12.15).
• Being poured out for love of others (Lk 22.20; Ph 2.17).

Experientially, these kinds of suffering were – and therefore for us will be – at times physically, emotionally, and spiritually overwhelming – terror, torture, dread and agony (‘anfechtungen’ was Luther’s preferred expression); ‘feeling the sentence of death’ in biblical terms (Mt 26.38; 2 Co 1.9). I The list is far from exhaustive, but it is enough to demonstrate that we can properly describe and process as Christian – as evangelical, some experiences of suffering that we have and will again encounter in the course of our ministries. Grief, exhaustion, agonising sympathy, discouragement, and isolation for instance, become more than trials that develop character, increase experience and train pastoral wisdom: they become in themselves a valuable and dignified part of our Christian ministry.

This adds another dimension to the pastoral vocation. In Luther’s words, “because he dwells in us,” we are to be “Christs one to another” – and that specifically means voluntarily taking upon myself my brother’s burden, misery, sins, poverty and weakness in a mystical continuity with the Christ I am united to and – in a sense – represent to him. Entering into suffering is not a regrettable side-effect of our calling, but close to the essence of Christian ministry; ours, like Paul’s, is a calling for which we are fitted and prepared by faith-union, “to fill up in [our] flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Cl 1.24).

Tom Woolford is a Diocese of Blackburn ordinand, studying at Oak Hill.

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