While I often shrink back when I think about future suffering, pain has consistently pulled me into the heart of Christ, an unforgettable place of mystery and wonder. As I share in Christ’s suffering, I find an unusual closeness to Jesus that offers a rare glimpse of his glory.
The apostle Paul talks about sharing in Christ’s sufferings, wanting to know him and the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10). That is, to know by experience, to know personally and intimately, not merely intellectually. Suffering brings an intimacy with God, a mysterious and sacred fellowship that cannot be captured in words.
Somehow, suffering can transport us into the throne room of God, where we feel the tenderness of his embrace, an otherworldly sense of joy, and a fellowship unlike anything else we’ve ever known. For a moment, an awareness of his presence can so completely envelop and overshadow our pain that we become immersed in fellowship with Jesus, unaware of anything around us. Knowing Christ this way has changed me. It’s impossible to forget that closeness, even after the suffering has passed. It has marked me.
“Suffering brings an intimacy with God, a mysterious and sacred fellowship that cannot be captured in words.”
Admittedly, I still don’t welcome the suffering that draws me that close, often preferring to know about Christ’s sufferings intellectually rather than through experience. Even in the midst of it, I’m begging for relief, wanting the pain to go away. But as I submit to him through suffering, something shifts in me. My heart becomes more aligned with his. My union with Christ, a reality for every believer, melts into sweet communion in my pain.
Meeting Christ in Suffering
Jesus fully understands me, but I can understand only the mere edges of him. Yet as I identify with his suffering and yield more fully to him in my sorrow, I possess more of him.
Whatever you are dealing with, you can find your suffering in Christ’s. He knows what it’s like to hunger and thirst, to endure sleepless nights and exhausting days, to experience agonizing pain, and to pour himself out for others who are hostile in return. His cousin was murdered, his family misunderstood him, his hometown rejected him, and he watched as a sword pierced his mother’s soul. People used Jesus, flattered him, criticized him, lied about him, betrayed him, abandoned him, mocked him, humiliated him, whipped him, and watched him die an excruciating death.
So where can you identify with him in your suffering? If you have ever been betrayed by a friend, someone you loved and trusted, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering. Or if you have ever begged God to remove your anguish, and God denied your desperate request, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering. Or if you have experienced tormenting, all-consuming physical pain with no relief, you can know a little of Christ’s fellowship in suffering.
There is no suffering we can experience that our Lord cannot relate to. And as we experience a portion of what he did and yield to him in it, we find a precious intimacy with him.
When the Worst Pain Comes
Joni Eareckson Tada understands this sacred experience, as she lives with crushing pain on top of her quadriplegia. In her latest inspiring book, Songs of Suffering, she tells of a friend who has become my friend as well. Barbara Brand, who has MS and brain lesions that cause excruciating pain in her head, gets regular injections into her skull and neck (about forty at a time) just to relieve the uncontrollable pain and nausea. Barbara, who is mostly bedridden, says of these injections,
Whenever the needles sink deep into my head, the extreme pain brings into sharp focus Jesus and his crown of thorns. The image calms my heart, but best of all, it binds me to his love. I picture my Savior yielding to the spike-like barbs, wholly embracing his own suffering to rescue me. So when needles plunge into my skull, my heart is cheered knowing that he is beckoning me into a deeper sanctum of sharing in his sufferings. Wonder of wonders, in some small measure, lowly me gets to identify with and enter his grief. The Bible tells me to be an imitator of God, so I get to imitate Jesus and his glad willingness to submit to the Father’s s terrible, yet wonderful, will. It’s the only way I can, through Christ, do everything. Even these awful injections. (115)
“As I submit to him through suffering, something shifts in me. My heart becomes more aligned with his.”
This is sharing in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings. We want to know that Jesus understands our suffering, which he does, but there is an even deeper fellowship when we understand a little of his. And when we can, like Barbara, imitate Jesus and his glad willingness to submit to God, we experience a profound kinship with him.
Not Only in Suffering
As we share in Christ’s sufferings, we also share in his comfort (2 Corinthians 1:5), not a thin set of platitudes that make us feel better in the moment, but an explicable fellowship that carries a sturdy peace. The weightier the suffering, the greater the comfort, the richer the fellowship, and ultimately the deeper the joy. And that joy will only increase when his glory is revealed (1 Peter 4:13).
Furthermore, the more we share in Jesus’s sufferings, the more we understand the power of his resurrection, and the more we can see his glory. Suffering can open our eyes to God’s glory — we see and experience it rather than learn what glory means intellectually. And as we behold God’s glory, we are being changed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18), becoming more like him. Even more mysteriously and astonishingly, sharing in Christ’s sufferings means we will one day share in his glory, a glory that will make today’s sorrows seem light and momentary (Romans 8:17–18; 2 Corinthians 4:17).
If you are in a season of deep pain and loss, you have a particular opportunity to know the Lord Jesus more deeply. To know him by experience and not just academically. While we can know more about Jesus through Bible study, small groups, books, and sermons, some of the richest dimensions of our relationship with him will be forged through suffering. That relationship bound through sorrow offers not only comfort and communion, but also a glimpse of glory that will transform our faith, make us more like him, and prepare us for the unspeakable glories that await in eternity.