Worthy to Suffer
So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. (Acts 5:41)
Recently this idea of rejoicing because one is considered worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus came to my attention again. I distinctly remember feeling very uncomfortable with this concept many times whenever I read this or heard it discussed and it still is not well resolved in my mind so I feel I need to do some intentional digging into the Word to unpack this for my own peace of mind.
What I think might be disturbing me the most about this is that it seems that whenever people talk about this it seems to often be couched in a subtle assumption that somehow 'suffering for Jesus' in some way creates 'brownie points' with God, creating some sort of merit that may count toward a better position in heaven or some other such desirable result. Yet anything that smacks of earning favor with God or contributing to our own salvation through any deeds of supposed righteousness of our own flies directly in the face of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. I think this may be the core issue that has troubled me for so long about this idea of being counted worthy to suffer.
Of course, in addition to the theological conflict in this concept I also am not a sadist who finds delight in suffering to start with. Not to imply that Jesus was such a person, yet because of my dark pictures of God and very confused beliefs about why Jesus suffered and died in the first place, any 'worth' supposedly generated by my 'suffering for Jesus' just doesn't make much sense at all. Given the typical dark legal model of Jesus having to be punished for my sins in my place by an angry deity venting His wrath on Jesus to save my hide, in that context filling up the sufferings of Christ (Col. 1:24) sounds a little like Jesus' suffering wasn't quite enough to cover all my sins. Of course that is even more blatantly blasphemous and yet such thinking lurks not far beneath the surface in too many of our teachings about the gospel.
Having my picture of God and my understandings of the reasons for the cross radically challenged and altered has given me the ability to revisit all of Scripture with new eyes, to reconsider all of these things that have confused and baffled me for so long through different lenses allowing me to see how they fit together and make sense like never before. I keep realizing how vital it is to establish a correct concept of how God feels about us before launching into attempted explanations of most other doctrines. If our picture of God is faulty then the rest of our theology will be confused at best and destructive at worst.
To discover why anyone would find cause for rejoicing in being persecuted for Christ's sake, I must find a clearer explanation of why Jesus suffered in the first place. If my theology is based on Jesus suffering at the hands of an angry God venting wrath on Him instead of us, then suffering for Jesus makes no sense whatsoever. However, if I begin to see that Jesus came to present a compassionate Father longing for us to change our opinions about Him, to induce us to trust Him so we can be made safe enough to come close into His presence, then everything suddenly takes on a whole different perspective. When the true light of Jesus shines on our interpretations of why Jesus came to suffer and die it begins to help things fit together better to make sense out of why some people might value the opportunity to suffer along with Him.
I did a word study this morning on this word worthy and learned some important things from Scripture. Rather than being along the notion of earning worth like I had too often assumed in the past, worthy has more to do with trust. I now see more clearly that the reason Jesus suffered at the hands of sinners – not at the hands of God – was because sinners resist love and resist truth that exposes their true condition. Whenever sin and goodness come into close proximity to each other there is always friction involved which creates conflict. The more in tune with God a person's character is the more likely they are going to experience the same friction with everyone who are unlike God just as Jesus did when He was here on earth. Given this understanding I can now start to see that whenever this kind of suffering comes into the life of a true Christian, one who is coming to reflect the true nature and goodness of God like Jesus did, they become aware that God is entrusting them with the privilege of allowing that friction and persecution to come into their life for the express purpose of revealing again the truth about Himself to the world just as Jesus revealed it when He suffered. In essence, those who are allowed the privilege of suffering persecution for living like Jesus lived, who represent the truth about God to a world hostile to everything He is during that experience – they realize that God is demonstrating faith in them; God is believing that, like Job, they are mature enough to be trusted to represent Him in how they will react under increased pressure from the hostility of sinners.
Given this context I can now better appreciate how the early believers could view it as an honor to be beaten and abused and slandered for the Name they had come to love and admire and emulate. As their lives became more and more out of sync with the lives and values of sinners who were living in rebellion against God, their living example of what God is really like and how He relates to people inevitably created tension and disturbance wherever they went and sooner or later induced violent resistance. Yet because of their perceptions from knowing Jesus and by keeping their minds in the context of the higher perspective of the intense struggle between good and evil as God sees it, they were able to re-frame their circumstances and depend on the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in them to demonstrate again as Jesus had done what true godliness looks like under fire.
I have come to realize that Jesus suffered and died because He demonstrated total love and forgiveness even though extreme pressure was applied to induce Him to react like sinners react under similar abuse and insult. Jesus came to expose as lies the assertions of Satan that God would become angry and want revenge if He could just be antagonized sufficiently. This is precisely why Jesus came to this earth as a human – so that humans and demons alike could take their best shot at trying to get God to act in any way like them do. If Jesus could be induced to even feel desires for revenge or embrace even fleeting feelings of offense even for a moment, Satan's accusations would find some foothold for validity. This was the real battle taking place between Christ and Satan during Jesus' whole time living on this earth.
Jesus' primary task while living as a human among sinners who were seeking to do everything possible to get Him to act like them in some way, was to demonstrate to the on-looking universe the true heart of the Father. Jesus came to prove explicitly under the most severe pressure of persecution that love really is more effective than fear; that force, shame and condemnation never have to be used to keep order in God's government and that the principles God has set in place to guide and govern our lives are the only safe way to live if we want to live. Far from doing away with the law of God, Jesus came to prove it is the only way to be synchronized with heaven and to thrive in life. Jesus said Himself He did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it – to show it to be valid and viable and true.
All who allow the grace of God to fill them and have their lives transformed into harmony with heaven's principles of living will find themselves increasingly at odds with the world around them that is living in resistance to those principles. As their life becomes more in tune with heaven the friction of this resistance will cause increasing antagonism and anger and persecution. Rather than producing some sort of merit with God, this friction is simply an indication that the person is actually reflecting the truth about God enough to now make a noticeable difference between them and the world. As they consistently reflect love and forgiveness under pressure, the same message about God that Jesus came to reveal is again conveyed to an astonished world that has so long resisted these truths about God. Once again in the life of His suffering disciples, the true character of a God of compassion and love is clearly manifested to unbelievers who have insisted God cannot really be that good. And unfortunately a vast majority of these resistant unbelievers are in the folds of religion claiming to teach the truth about God while rejecting the true power of His love.
The disciples and the martyrs throughout the ages came to realize that harmony with God will always result in disharmony and tension with the world, even when the opposition is found under the label of Christianity. Harmony with God is not found in perfecting an outward performance of piety and legal compliance; rather, harmony with God must always originate in the heart that has become enamored with overwhelming, transforming truths about God's grace, beauty and fairness. The more a person comes to reflect the goodness of God the more they will be trusted by God to encounter hostility that will highlight these truths they are now experiencing and reflecting.
Given a proper view of reality and why suffering comes into the life of a true disciple of Jesus, I can now see why people would consider it an honor and a high privilege to suffer for the name of God. These people are not proud of their status as persecuted Christians because of pride in their own ability to resist evil; on the contrary they are amazed and humbled that God has considered them worthy enough to trust them to be persecuted so as to more fully reveal His character in their responses to such treatment.
Now it makes more sense why Paul could talk about crucifixion as something he experienced every day. As he allowed the presence of Jesus to abide in him each day, just as Jesus invites all of us to do, Paul could honestly confess that suffering for Christ was the highest privilege a person could be entrusted with by God.
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
The inevitable question then follows, where do I fit in to this? When I find myself under attack, when someone lashes out at me and humiliates me publicly, how do I react under such pressure? Do I have a strong enough heart connection with Jesus and a good enough picture of God that I can respond with similar reactions as how Jesus responded to similar treatment? I shrink from answering these disturbing questions. Too often, rather than viewing such treatment as an honor I usually run in terror from them or react defensively in a spirit similar to what is directed against me.
I am coming to realize that it is not by trying harder to resist getting upset or to resist feeling insulted that I allow Jesus to demonstrate His true character through me under pressure. Rather, it is only by spending sufficient time meditating on the beauty of Jesus when He was under pressure and constantly updating and improving my perceptions about God that will effectively shape my reactions under such circumstances. The only way I can be prepared to be trusted by God to reveal the truth about Him is if I immerse myself so thoroughly in His presence and soak in the truth about what He is like that my reactions will become spontaneously like His; so that Jesus will be allowed to respond from within me rather than my natural reactions and impulses taking over. Then in amazement I may find myself also rejoicing that God has finally transformed me to the point where He can trust me to also be exposed to increasing opposition and know that I have enough humility to accurately demonstrate the same forbearance, forgiveness and continuous compassion and love that Jesus did when He was attacked.
Father, obviously You have a long way to go in my case. Please keep working inside of me and show me Your face more clearly so what is reflected in my life under trying circumstances will look more like Jesus rather than like me. Cleanse me of everything that is not like You and replace all the lies about You in my heart with fresh revelations of Your beauty and perfection and loveliness. Increase my capacity to know You intimately and dwell in me more fully so the world can once again be privileged to see clear demonstrations of how You feel toward sinners and saints alike. Do this in me for Your reputation's sake, Amen.