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“Making Sense of My Suffering”

Sept.25/16 Col.1:21-29


We live, it seems, in a world of hurt. Neighbours and relatives find themselves in hospital. A massive flux of refugees on foot and in boats is seeking refuge from various trouble-spots in the world. First responders are called to extract drivers from vehicles in ditches and put out house fires. That new and persistent ache or bump practically cries out for a doctor’s attention. Suffering is all around us in various forms.

      Of course, suffering can be caused by all sorts of factors. When we’re suffering, it’s important to pray and try to discern what the actual cause of our suffering might be. Sometimes it is DISCIPLINE. God has designed the natural world with a built-in moral framework to some extent: so that if we sin by abusing our bodies, being slothful or unwise stewards of our resources, if we treat our neighbour wickedly and go around causing harm, sooner or later we are likely to reap the results of our sinful behaviour. For example, in human relations, Ps 37:14f “The wicked draw the sword and bend the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright. But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.”

      With regard to substance consumption, Scripture warns too much drinking can bring on misery: Prov 23:29f “Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine.” Sometimes we hurt because we’ve messed up, and God has set up the universe to deal out some straightforward discipline.

      But let’s avoid the trap of Job’s friends who made a beeline straight from his suffering to some presumed sin. Or like the disciples who in John 9 assumed in the case of the man born blind that it must have a direct result of either him or his parents sinning. The roots of suffering can stem much further back, all the way to Adam and Eve and the time of The Fall, that initial earth- and Shalom-shattering misdemeanour in the Garden of Eden. Since that day humans began to die. We might call this source DISORDER: all nature is ‘out of whack’, resulting in things going wrong quite apart from our present actions. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8(20ff) that creation is “subjected to frustration”, it’s in “bondage to decay”, “the whole creation has been groaning...right up to the present time.” Tsunamis, earthquakes, genetic defects – much cannot be blamed on particular human fault, it’s just ‘wired-in’ to creation’s imperfect state ever since Genesis 3.

      There is a third source of suffering, besides Discipline and Disorder: this we could call DIABOLICAL. Evil is at work in our world, opposing godly agents, seeking to overturn what’s right and seize power. Jesus taught His disciples in Luke 6:22, “Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.” Here, as opposed to the dynamic of Discipline where doing what’s sinful brings grief upon our heads, it’s doing what right and good that gets us into trouble – others persecute those who try to act in godly fashion. In Job’s case, Satan could wait to take away Job’s children and wealth and health, precisely because the Lord was pleased with Job’s righteous life.

      Today as we continue our study of Colossians, we see Paul succeeding in MAKING SENSE OF HIS SUFFERING. When we’re hurting, other worldviews in culture may get us confused. The evolutionary philosophy might suggest that it’s all just random, coincidental, haphazard, no rhyme or reason – just the way the dice rolled. Darwinism and naturalism would lead in the direction of life being basically meaningless, chaotic. Other religions like Greek mythology or perhaps animism might suggest a plurality of gods who are impish, arbitrary, capricious: some supernatural being just “zinged you” with a lightning bolt! Unseen forces ‘out there’ are inflicting misery on a whim.

      The Bible doesn’t sugarcoat our day-to-day reality. Life is tough. Ps 34:19 “A righteous man may have many troubles...” I always appreciate Jesus’ realism in the Sermon on the Mount, right after the verse about “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and His righteousness” – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” The incarnate Son of Man gets it, doesn’t He? Life is tough. Jesus understands your mess.

      But as we see Paul sort out the meaning of his troubles, he comes to the conclusion that our sufferings will make sense in two different time frames – both THEN and NOW.


For the key to this theme, let’s hop in at the middle of this passage and branch out from there. Paul’s been talking about the heart of the gospel message – that Jesus’ work on the cross made it possible for those who were formerly enemies of God to be reconciled, put right with a holy God. Col 1:24 “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Wait a minute, Paul – “rejoice in what was suffered”? How nutty is that? How can that even be possible, finding joy when you’re hurting?

      By “what was suffered for you”, Paul here is likely referring to his imprisonment in Rome, where Epaphras the church leader from Colosse has hunted him down. Under house arrest, in custody 24/7 with a Roman soldier watching your every move. And Paul had already gone through a whole ton of hurtin’ just to get that far: read 2Corinthians 11:23-28 sometime for the whole list – beatings, floggings, imprisonments, shipwrecks, exposure, hunger, and so on. Yet, he can actually REJOICE in such punishment?!

      Then Paul adds an interesting phrase, “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, which is the church.” He’s not saying his sufferings are earning salvation at all the way the death of the perfect God-Man did. He’s saying that as one of Christ’s servants to the church, he becomes identified with Christ and thus susceptible to the persecution and abuse Jesus suffered. He’s “taking his turn at bat” to use a baseball term. That gives his suffering meaning, in that he sees his suffering – being persecuted – as an extension of Christ’s own experience. Also note the phrase “for the sake of” – that’s a purposeful clause. He’s suffering for the sake of Christ’s body, the church. Paul’s whole ministry, accompanied by the pot-shots he has to endure along the way, is geared to strengthen other believers in the church. He sees the effect it has in building up other Christians. That gives it meaning, too.

      The two words “Christ’s afflictions” point us back in a way to v22, where Jesus’ own suffering is spelled out further: Col 1:22 “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation...” NRSV translates it “he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death...” Is Paul being a little redundant here – ‘fleshly body’ or ‘physical body’? Isn’t a body automatically fleshly/physical?

      Remember the context at Colosse: various secular philosophies were creeping in, including Gnosticism. There was a group called Docetists who held that Jesus only seemed to suffer on the cross – actually the ‘spirit-Jesus’ slipped out through an escape hatch and didn’t have to endure the pain and death on the cross, it was another person there, a stunt double or fill-in. So Paul is likely adding emphasis here that Jesus suffered in a REAL body like ours and died a REAL human death, a perfect substitute in our place.

      There are other religions in the world in which that god has nothing to do with human suffering. Deists believe God wound up the universe like a clock then walked away, not even remotely involved with our day to day situations. In Islam, Allah demands submission, rather than identifying with our woes. No Hindu god or goddess comes to die in order to set people free. Are you starting to see how unique Jesus Christ is? In Him, God Incarnate comes concretely to suffer alongside us and deliver us. Hebrews 2:14a,18 “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death...Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

      Jesus GETS whatever it is you’re going through! He suffered in a fleshly body just like you’re experiencing – and much more excruciating suffering. He can help because He understands, He’s ‘been there’.

      Note the little word “to” in the middle of v22 – “He has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death TO present you holy in His sight, without blemish and free from accusation...” That “TO” is a small but majorly important purpose-phrase: WHY did Jesus die? In order TO present you holy in God’s sight, spotless, blameless, unreprovable. When you stand before God’s judgment seat, He will see Christ’s own righteousness imputed to you, applied to you in a legal sense. You will be totally acceptable to a holy almighty God because Christ’s sacrifice has rendered you holy, through your faith in Him.

      Other verses talk about this “THEN” aspect. Jesus said when we suffer persecution, Mt 5:12 “Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Suffering has a purifying effect over the course of time; Romans 5:3f “...we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” 2Cor 4:14,17 “...we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence...For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” James 1:3f,12 “...you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.Perseverance must finish its work so that [PURPOSE STATEMENT!] you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything...Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” And from the New Testament book that talks more about suffering than any other, 1Peter 1:7 “These have come so that your faith— of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire— may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” You will look back and see how your hardships have prepared you, refining your character, helping you become mature and complete, reflecting Christ’s own glory and beauty. THEN.


But it’s not just about a glorious crown into eternity, THEN: Paul goes on to describe also how trusting in Jesus gives meaning to our sufferings NOW. In vv 25-26, with a glance sideways at the so-called “mystery religions” that were infiltrating the Colossian church, with their supposed secrets reserved only for a select few, the initiates, providing fulfilment only for them – Paul outlines how God commissioned him to unpack to “the saints” - all Christian believers - the “mystery” that WAS kept hidden for centuries, but is now being disclosed, presented, made known, proclaimed (vv25ff). V27 “To them [the ‘saints’ or believers] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles [all the non-Jewish peoples] the glorious riches of this mystery, which is CHRIST IN YOU, the hope of glory.” This is the absolute wonder of Christianity: that very God comes to live inside us, pouring out the Spirit of His Son into our hearts! Eph 3:17 “...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Gal 2:20a “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Rom 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Right NOW, right here, down on this grubby planet, right where you live, inside your skin! Isn’t that a wonder? Doesn’t that change everything about how you approach hardships?

      In v29 Paul describes how Christ-in-him empowers him for a purpose, that of proclaiming and broadcasting Jesus far and wide, so church folk are taught and made wise so they will THEN be presented “perfect” or mature or complete “in Christ” (v28). Col 1:29 “To this end I labour, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” It’s a labour, yes; it’s a STRUGGLE, yes. But what secret factor do we have on our side, on our INside? “Struggling with all HIS energy, which so powerfully WORKS [WHERE?] IN ME.” NOW, here where I live, inside me. Having that secret source changes everything!

      In closing, a great companion passage here is 2Corinthians 4. Here Paul contrasts the claylike “jars” of our own selves with the divine power within that assists. It is in fact AS we suffer, AS we cope with hardships, that it becomes obvious to onlookers that there’s something different about us: an extra Helper inside who alone can keep us going. 2Corinthians 4:7-11: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. [NOW WATCH HOW HE REPEATS THAT LAST IDEA FOR EMPHASIS] For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body.

      So that WHOSE life may be revealed in our mortal corpse? HIS life – Jesus’ life.

      Is there anyone here today that’s going through what seems like severe hardships and needs God’s Spirit inside to help you cope? If you haven’t received Jesus as Lord, would you like to do that today so you can KNOW for a fact inside His strengthening, His supernatural life? We’d be happy to pray with you for that. God’s waiting, He’s EAGER to unpack this mystery right inside your life.

      Let’s pray.