Has it ever occurred to you how much of what they show on TV is about suffering? I don’t mean the programs, necessarily (though many of them are, too)—I mean the commercials. For one thing, many of them are so bad, they make you suffer . . . More than that, though, suffering is really what they’re about. First, you have all the drug commercials. “If you suffer from depression . . .” with these grey-lit shots of gloomy, exhausted people—then, after they tell you about the drug, the same people in the sunshine with smiles on their faces. “If you suffer from high blood pressure,” or “high cholesterol,” or whatever—they all boil down to the same thing: Got a problem? Take a pill. Sure, there are side effects, but they aren’t as bad as this, are they?
Alongside those, though not as frequent, are the “pay an expert” ads. The ones that still come to my mind, though I haven’t seen them in ages, are ads for “the law offices of Buckland & Shumm” that used to run incessantly during Perry Mason on the Bellingham station. Different lawyers out here, but the same basic message: has someone hurt you? Sue their pants off. We’ll be happy to take all their money for you, and we’ll even let you have some of it! Also in this category are ads for counseling services and the like, and these I have a lot more respect for; I’ve been through counseling a couple of times myself (I came out still odd, but happier about it), and I know just how much good a good counselor can do. What does concern me, though, is that there’s still the idea here that suffering is a problem which needs to be fixed, and that you need an expert to fix it for you. There are times when that’s true; there are also a good many counselors who are wise enough not to foster that idea when it isn’t; but there are too many more who aren’t.
As well, we have the bread and butter of commercial advertising: Is there a need in your life? Buy our product. Dishwasher soap not getting your glasses clean? Not attractive enough to the opposite sex? Feeling flabby and out of shape? Driving an old, uninteresting car? Losing your hair? Losing your energy? Why suffer? Buy Our Product, and all will be well.
Besides these, I can think of one other type of TV ad that’s all about suffering: political ads. And no, I don’t primarily mean your suffering, real though that no doubt is. Rather, stop and think about negative political ads for a minute, because they tend to be about playing on the suffering, real or perceived, of the voters they’re trying to persuade. The most common kind of negative ad is the “distort the record” ad, which makes all sorts of exaggerated statements about the opponent’s political positions and actions that really boil down to one premise: you’re suffering, and either my opponent is the reason why, or if they win this election, they’ll make it worse. These sorts of ads give us a third response to suffering: if you can’t take a pill or pay an expert to fix it, then find someone to blame. (Just imagine if we combined these with the lawyer ads . . . “Hi, I’m Joe Schmo, and I’m running for Congress. My opponent beats up old ladies and burns down their houses. Vote for me, and after I win, I’ll sue him for millions of dollars on your behalf.” The possibilities are endless.)
All these ads run off the underlying assumption of our society that we shouldn’t suffer, that we shouldn’t have to, and that if we do, something’s wrong—something needs to be fixed, somebody’s going to pay, something has to change. In the most extreme cases, this gives us the euthanasia movement, which tells us that if we’re suffering and it can’t be fixed, we can’t change it, then we shouldn’t want to live anymore. In lesser cases, we’re urged to take a pill, see a specialist, call a lawyer, file a complaint. Behind it all is the idea that a life without serious suffering is the norm, or ought to be, and that we should expect no less; that creates a gap between expectations and reality, which creates stress, which only makes matters worse.
By contrast, the apostle Paul had a very different view of suffering. I don’t imagine he enjoyed it any more than anyone else does, but he didn’t see it as something to be rejected, to be avoided or fixed or blamed on someone else. Instead, we see him say here (and in other places), “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” That doesn’t mean he wanted to suffer, but that in the midst of suffering, as bad as it was, he was able to find joy—not despite his suffering, but in it; he was able to find his suffering a cause for joy. Why? Because he saw a purpose in it, a reason for it, and a benefit to it. He isn’t suffering for no reason, and his suffering isn’t meaningless; he’s suffering for the sake of the Colossians, for the sake of the whole church, and for Christ.
But what purpose, what reason, what benefit, could he have found in his suffering? The answer to that question begins with one key fact: Paul was a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, and there was no doubt in his mind that he was doing what God had called him to do—and he understood all his sufferings, all his afflictions, in the light of that fact. Much that he suffered, of course, was in direct response to that, as his opponents tried multiple times to destroy him (and came very close once or twice); but even those pains which came in the normal course of life, such as the hardships of life on the road, came in the course of a life devoted to serving God. With everything he did focused on following Jesus, he could and did regard all his suffering as suffering for Christ; and so the mission that gave his life meaning also gave meaning to his suffering.
This is why he says, “in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Paul is not saying here that Jesus’ crucifixion was insufficient for the salvation of his people (and still less that Paul’s own sufferings are necessary to complete that work); rather, he’s drawing on the Jewish concept of “the woes of the Messiah.” In Jewish thought, this was the time of distress and suffering that would precede the coming of the Messiah to put all things right and make all things new; a roughly similar concept in Christian thought is the time of the Tribulation. The idea was that it was necessary to pass through this time in order to enter the kingdom of God. What Paul’s working with here is the thought that there is a definite measure of suffering that must be filled up before Christ will come again, and that in taking on more than his own share of suffering, absorbing more than his share of affliction, he’s reducing the amount that his fellow Christians will have to endure.
This is a strange thought to us (though I would think it must have made sense to the Colossians), but it underscores two key points: first, suffering for Christ is not something to be avoided, but something we need to accept, and even embrace, because when we suffer for Christ, it draws us close to him. Paul makes this explicit in Philippians 3:10, where he writes, “I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the participation in his sufferings, by being conformed to his death.” We cannot experience the power of Christ’s resurrection, which we have through the Spirit of God, if we are unwilling to walk his path of suffering; these two are inextricably linked. As well, if we suffer for Christ, then we suffer with Christ—we do not suffer alone, but in our suffering, we share in his suffering—and so we are drawn closer to him, we come to know him and share in his life in a deeper and more intimate way than we ever could otherwise.
The key is that, in joys and in sorrows, whatever may come, we keep focused on Christ. That’s the example Paul sets us here; and note the way he uses his example to help set the Colossians straight, and bring them back to that focus on Christ. Remember, they’ve fallen in with these teachers who are promising them an experience of God in his glory if they will just obey all their rules and regulations; the teachers are holding up those rules and regulations as the Colossians’ hope of a fleeting experience of glory. Paul points them, and us, to a far greater hope: the true riches of the mystery of God are not locked away from everyone except the select few who can manage to obey him well enough—instead, they’re available to everyone, because the mystery is that God was in Christ, and by his Holy Spirit, Christ is in you.
That, Paul says, is the hope of glory: the promise that we can live life, even in this fallen, broken world, in the constant presence of our loving God, and that when death comes, we will be gathered fully into his presence, able fully to experience his glory—and not only to experience it, but to share in it. That’s the hope, that’s the promise, that enables Paul to rejoice in his sufferings, because he knows that whatever he may suffer now as a result of his service to Christ will only contribute to the glory he will experience later; and it’s the hope and promise that enables us to do the same. It’s the promise we were given by Christ himself, who is our sure and certain hope of glory.