We are making a transition tonight from concern with pursuing our desire and its fulfillment in Christ to pursuing the fulfillment of others’ desires in Christ.
What We All Want
And you don’t need to be in any wonder about what the desire of others are. I’ll read you a quote from Blaise Pascal in his Pensées, which I think is true.
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.
So Blaise Pascal thought that all of your deeds are motivated by your desire to maximize your happiness. We have very distorted notions of what it is, and that’s why behaviors are so different. But I think he’s right. As much as we would like to make motives more noble in our sense of what it would be, there is no more noble than to pursue happiness in God.
So anywhere you go in the world, you know what they want: they want to be happy. Your job is to so present the glory of Christ, and his provision for their real need, not necessarily felt need, that by the agency of the Holy Spirit and the instrumentality of the word, their hearts would be open to seek Christ as the answer and embrace him as their chiefest joy.
So I want to move from our desire to their desire. And the topic tonight is suffering, which we talked about this morning as a God-appointed means of satisfying the desires of the nations. I want to be begin with a story that I heard from Richard Wurmbrand, who was a Romanian pastor and wrote a book called Tortured for Christ. He spent fourteen years in jail during the Communist regime.
He tells the story of an interview on Italian television between a Cistercian abbot, the Roman Catholic order of silence — and you live your whole life in silence except for very rare hymn singing and prayers. And the interviewer asked the abbot of this monastery, “What if you were to realize at the end of your life that atheism is true, and there is no God? Tell me, what if that were true?” And the abbot replied like this: “Holiness, silence, and sacrifice are beautiful in themselves, even without the promise of reward. I still will have used my life well.”
I wonder what you think about that answer. Would Paul the apostle have given that answer? The answer to that question is an emphatic no. We know what Paul’s answer was. He gives it in 1 Corinthians 15:19. If you ask Paul, “Given the life you have embraced as a Christian missionary, what if it’s all false?” Here’s what he answered: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” That’s exactly the opposite of what the abbot said.
But what’s wrong with Paul? Isn’t he living the abundant life? If you’re living an abundant life, and you have the fruit of joy and peace and love abounding, what difference does it make if it’s built on a delusion? Because everybody in the end dies and goes to dust and has no consciousness anymore. You lived a good life. So why would you say, “We are of all men most to be pitied,” if we have chosen this life, and there’s no Christ beyond the grave? Why would you say that? This is an urgent question for us in America, in particular, because I think we think of our Christianity here in this posh country mainly in terms of its this-worldly benefits. We talk about the psychological benefits of peace and belief and forgiveness. And we’ll talk about the relational benefits of getting our marriages fixed or our kids fixed — enmity taken away and love and joy and peace and so on.
So what’s to pity? If you’re marketing Christianity for its this worldly benefits, and they come, what difference does it make if it’s built on an illusion? It doesn’t make any difference at all because you’re all going to die and go to nothing anyway, and if it’s working, that’s all that matters if there’s no resurrection. So why say that if there’s no resurrection, the life I have chosen is absolutely foolish and to be pitied? What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t he give the same answer as the abbot?
Recompense in the Resurrection
Here’s the answer: Paul has chosen a life, as a Christian, of embracing suffering, which he never would have chosen had he not believed that there would be a recompense in the resurrection. So how are you doing? Have you chosen a life that only makes sense if there’s a resurrection? Jesus said in Luke 14:12–14,
When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.
Now that’s a little example of inconvenience on Thanksgiving, to have over people who can’t speak your language, for example. It’s going to be awkward. We won’t have as much fun playing Risk. Something’s wrong with the abbot and most American evangelical Christians, I think, who think of the Christian life in terms of this-worldly benefits. Now, they’re good ones, spiritual ones. We all like them. I’m glad marriages go better. We’re glad there can be some psychological healing and relief. We’re glad about those things. But if that’s why you became a Christian, something’s wrong. Something is wrong.
Rejoice in Hope
Paul said, “Yes, there’s joy unspeakable in the Christian life and full of glory.” But it was a rejoicing in hope. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4). So the joy he has now, he has because he’s counting on a resurrection. The resurrection hope of relief and restoration of the losses streams back into the present and gives him an element of joy that keeps him moving toward the resurrection. But if there’s no resurrection, he says, this life is insane — pitiable beyond all other lives.
There’s a better way he would say to maximize your pleasures now than the way I’ve chosen in 1 Corinthians 15:32. He describes what you would do if you were trying now with no resurrection to maximize your happiness — maximizing happiness minus Christ after the grave. What would you do? I think a lot of Christians would say, “This is cool. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Because if everything’s an illusion anyway, then I’ve had a good life. I have me a nice car, a nice house, nice family, nice job, a lot of money, good retirement, plenty of health benefits, significant friendships. What more could I ask?” Something’s deeply wrong. I mean, either the apostle Paul is off the wall, or American Christianity is sick.
Here’s what he says he would do. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Now when he says that, what do you think he means? Let’s all be drunks and gluttons. If you want to maximize happiness in this life minus the resurrection, let’s all get drunk and eat more than we should. And that’s not what he means because he knows that drunks and gluttons are as miserable as anybody else. That’s not the way to maximize your happiness. What he means is: Live an ordinary life. Eat, drink, get a good job, have a nice family, have lots of insurance, live in a safe neighborhood, drive a nice car, have a good fat retirement plan, have lots of relationships, play lots of games, keep yourself fit by exercising and eating well — that’s the way to maximize your happiness minus the resurrection. And that’s the way most Christians do it. Is that scary or what?
The Bible is out of step with most American religion. “Let us eat and drink” does not mean let us all be lechers. It means, let’s be normal, simple, comfortable, ordinary, American Christians. Paul didn’t choose that. He chose not to maximize his this-worldly comforts; he chose to maximize his eternal comforts in Christ with him forever. He said, “If that doesn’t come true, we are of all people, we Christians, are of all people most to be pitied.” You can say Christianity is beautiful and meaningful and heroic. But Paul was very conscious of the choice he was making for pain.
Church in Hard Places
Listen to the way he talks. This is now verses 1 Corinthians 15:29–30: “If the dead are not raised at all, . . . why are we in danger every hour?” Do you see what he’s saying? “I choose to walk in cities, preach in places, get on boats in weather systems that are all so dangerous; I would be a fool to do this if there’s no resurrection to make sure it all turns out all right.” So how are your choices? What are your choices? I get so tired of hearing missionary candidates say, “But is it safe for the children? Is it safe?” What has that got to do with it? What would Paul say to that if he were on the committee?
If the dead are not raised at all, . . . why are we in danger every hour? 31 I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, I die every day! (1 Corinthians 15:29–31)
What does he mean by that? What did Paul mean by that? “I die every day.” He means at least this: I make choices every day to do things that I don’t know whether they’re going to cost me my life or not. It would make no sense to Paul to choose not to go to a mission field because you might be killed. That would make no sense to him. Closed countries would make no sense to Paul. Every city was closed if closed means you might get killed if you preach in the streets in Lystra. They can’t control the mobs there. If the silver trade is jeopardized by King Jesus over against Queen Artemis, you could get killed. And Paul says, “That’s where I’m called to go.” Where else are you going to plant the church? Just safe places? It just wouldn’t compute.
If there are people who are going to hell because they don’t embrace Jesus as their only reconciler with a holy wrathful God and enjoy that God becoming their Father and satisfying their soul through the atonement of Christ, if we don’t care about getting to those hard places, no matter how much danger there is, why should we call ourselves Christian? Let’s just pack it in.
Otherwise, every culture in the world has a right to look at American Christianity and say, “It’s just Americanism. It’s just another piece of the posh American way.” Why should anybody be interested? They don’t care about us. They care about their skin. Just give me a nice job, nice car, nice house, nice security, nice family, and add Jesus. Jesus isn’t added. He isn’t added. He’s life, or he’s nothing. You don’t add Jesus as a little fire-insurance policy onto what you really want in life: all those other things. The world can see right through that. They have desires. And deepest down, their desires are for God. They don’t know that. You know that. And you can show them Jesus.
Filling up the Afflictions of Christ
Why? Here’s the question: Why did Paul make these choices? Why did he choose to be in peril every hour? “In danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers” (2 Corinthians 11:26). He lists the litany of his sufferings and his dangers. And you don’t have any doubt why this man said, “If there’s no resurrection, I’m a fool.” Why did he do that? Here’s Colossians 1:24:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
That’s enough to blow you out of the water: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those two words don’t go together for anybody. That’s a miracle. That’s a strange way to live. “I rejoice in my sufferings.” So here’s a very strange man. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Now we’re at their desire, not just his. He’s got his desire, “I rejoice,” and their desire, “for your sake.” That’s just putting them together here. “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh.” My* flesh* — that’s the part that hurts. So to put it in a short form: “I embrace peril every day, in order to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his people scattered throughout the world that ought to be gathered into one body.”
So here’s the key question for tonight: What does it mean to fill up with the afflictions of Jesus, fill up what is lacking, through your suffering with joy? What is that? If you were to walk out of here and you say, “I want to do that,” what would you want to do? What is to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Jesus through your suffering with joy? What is it? So let’s spend the rest of our time trying to answer that question.
Transporting the Gift
Here’s what I don’t think it means. I don’t think it means to add to the worth or value of the atoning sufferings of Jesus — that when he died on the cross, something’s deficient, something’s defective about the worth of the sufferings, which are the basis of your forgiveness. That is not what he means. That would be blasphemy. That would be heresy. When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant, “It is perfect. This is perfect to bear the sins of all those who believe in me, everywhere in the world.” Well, what does he mean then? What does fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Jesus mean? And I’ll make a suggestion of what I think it means, then I’ll take it to the text where I got that interpretation.
I think he means not that the worth or value of the sufferings of Jesus are defective or deficient or lacking but that the extension and presentation in personal form of those sufferings to the people for whom he died is missing. The personal presentation of the sufferings of Jesus to those for whom he died is missing, is lacking. And you’re called, I’m called, to complete that lack in our sufferings with joy, so that in your suffering, you extend the sufferings of Jesus so that they see his sufferings in your sufferings and believe. That’s what I think that verse means.
Now where did I get that interpretation? Why do I say that? Because you could probably put a lot of meanings on this verse, but I think that’s the one that Paul wanted you to put. Why do I think that? I get it from Philippians 2. I commend all of you to buy a Bible program for your computer. Get a good one that does word searches. If you’ve ever studied Greek, get one that’s got some Greek in it, Greek and Hebrew. And then just do your own word searches to figure these things out. That’s all I do. There’s nothing fancy about this. You just type in “lacking” and “fulfill” and see: Do those words occur together anywhere else so I can figure out what this verse means here? And they do. Not in many places. And the most clear parallel is Philippians 2.
There’s a story here. Epaphroditus is a representative of the church in Philippi, and they’re gathering together some money and some books and something that Paul needs. They’re going to send it with Epaphroditus to Rome where Paul is in prison, and Epaphroditus takes it. He risks his life. He almost loses his life Philippians 2:27 says. So he’s in peril in this process. He’s sick unto the point of death Paul says, but God spared him. Then verse 29 tells us that you’re supposed to honor people like that. And verse 30 says why. Philippians 2:30 says,
For he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete [same word] what was lacking in your service to me.
Now we’ve got a clue. He almost died. “He suffered to fill up what is lacking in your service to me.” Now what is that? What was lacking? It wasn’t that the money wasn’t in the bag or the books weren’t in the satchels or the letters weren’t well-packaged. It was all there. He had it in the satchel or in a bag or on a donkey or something. What was missing? Paul didn’t have it. It’s in Philippi. He’s in Rome. How are you going to complete the love, complete the sacrifice? Answer: Get it to Rome. Get it to Rome. So Epaphroditus takes the gift and takes it to Rome, and he almost dies in the process. That’s exactly what I think Colossians 1:24 means when it says, “I, in my body, through my sufferings, complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ.”
Those Who’ve Never Heard
So picture it like this. On the cross, Christ prepared a gift — the most valuable precious gift in the world: a gift of justification before a holy God. A gift of forgiveness of sins, of reconciliation with God, so that no matter how defiled your conscience is, no matter how many sins you’ve committed, you can get right with God tonight, and for the rest of your life by faith in him. That’s the gift prepared at Calvary for all who would receive it. Now what’s missing? What’s missing is vast peoples don’t know about it. It’s happened in Jerusalem, and they live in you name it — maybe across the hall from your dorm room, the hardest place to go. It’s easier to go to the inner city on the weekend than across the hall. Or it might be a people group in the Near East or North Africa, Southeast Asia, or China.
Vincent was a commentator on Philippians a hundred years ago. And this is what he wrote to interpret Philippians 2:30:
The gift to Paul was a gift of the church as a body. It was a sacrificial offering of love. What was lacking, and what would have been grateful to Paul and to the church alike, was the church’s presentation of this offering in person. This was impossible, and Paul represents Epaphroditus as supplying this lack by his affectionate and zealous ministry.
So to fill up what is missing, lacking, in the sufferings of Jesus is not to increase the value of those sufferings or add to the atoning worth of those sufferings; it is to take that full complete package of salvation bought for us at the cost of the life of the Son of God, and take it to those for whom he died. That’s completing what is lacking.
How Suffering Fills Up
Now here is the rub: Paul says, “The way I do this is in my sufferings.” “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” So now let’s complete the picture like this — almost complete it. There’s one more step after this one. How do you present the sufferings of Jesus to those for whom he died and who haven’t heard that he died? How you do it? Do you go there and preach? The answer is yes. You open your mouth and you speak. But that’s not what this verse says. This verse says, “In my flesh and by my sufferings I complete what is lacking.”
Which means (this is the point of the message), God’s appointed method of taking Christ’s suffering for sinners on the cross to the nations is through the sufferings of missionaries on their cross. That’s God’s design to get it done, which is why I’m on this crusade to recruit a radical thousand. Ordinary Christians don’t believe this. They won’t embrace this. They’ll reject this. It’s too dangerous. This is so counter-cultural, this is so different than the simple middle class add-on Christianity they grew up with, where Jesus was just stuck on all the other things they wanted to relieve their conscience. This message, that Christianity might be the embracing of peril and suffering, so that others might see, in your suffering for them, Christ’s sufferings for them, that’s just too radical. That is too hard.
I’ve had several people come up and say, “You preach a hard message.” But I thought I was a Christian Hedonist. I thought I was here to help everybody maximize their pleasure, which I am. My first message is not compromised by anything I’ve said so far. I am out to be the happiest man I can be in eternity. I’m not interested in a happiness that’s ninety-nine percent. I want a hundred percent, and I’m not interested in a happiness that only lasts eight hundred years. I am not. I will have a hundred percent, and I will have eternity, or I’m not interested in your offer — especially not your offer if it only lasts eighty years. I am not just a teeny-weeny, run-of-the-mill average hedonist. I am a radical hedonist. I will have it all or nothing. I will eat, drink, and be merry and forget that Christianity stuff — unless, in a million years, John Piper will still be soaring into more and more happiness in God. Then I’m interested. Then I’m interested.
So Paul says here, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” Those of you who these are hard messages, you’re right. The Calvary Road is a hard road, but it’s not a joyless road. When I was writing the book Desiring God about fifteen years ago, when I looked for quotes, when I looked for real-life examples of this vision of God — that is, this vision of life that’s maximizing your happiness in him no matter what — do you know where I had to go again and again to get my most juicy quotes? Suffering people, missionaries, missionary biographies. That’s where I had to go to get the best quotes. It’s the people who’ve suffered most who have tasted Jesus most sweetly and talked most lavishly about the rewards of suffering. It’s amazing.
You don’t find any juicy quotes from average, run-of-the-mill, easygoing, middle-class American Christians. They don’t have anything to say except, “My team won the game,” or something like that. I mean, who cares? Sports is one of the biggest hoaxes in America. It’s a hoax. This is a parenthesis. Sorry, all you athletes. Why should there be an entire section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune called “Sports” and no section called “God”? All the following all the bowls right now is a hoax. It’s a moneymaking hoax.
And if you’re going to sit there and watch these guys play, you need to watch discerningly about what’s happening to you, and to them, and to America. It’s artificial war. And I’m going to tell you there’s a real war, and there are real stories to be told, and there are real triumphs to be had. Don’t invent artificial ones and spend your whole life trying to create meaning in your life with hoax war. There’s a real war to be fought. Spend your life in it, and then you’ll have something significant to say when somebody says, “What did you do with your days on earth? And what do you do for significance and meaning and joy and what’s your life about?” And you say, “Well, I know all the statistics of quarterbacks,” or whatever. Tell it to St. Peter. So get weaned.
All for the Gospel
Let me close with a couple of stories. I wanted to just illustrate now what I mean, just put flesh on it. When I was working on Let the Nations Be Glad — that’s my missions book and I hope you’ll go to the bookstore and look at it, because there’s so much I want to say about missions I can’t say here. I was at Trinity Seminary, holed away in a little room to write this thing, and I heard that J. Oswald Sanders, a great missionary statesman — he was eighty-nine years old about seven years ago, and he’s died since. And I wanted to go hear him, and sneak in the back, and I did. And I listened to this man, at eighty-nine, talk about how he’d written a book a year since he was seventy. Start writing when you’re seventy, and write nineteen books. Wow, what a great way to die. It’s a lot better than golfing in Arizona.
Oh, the American dream of retirement’s another hoax, folks — worse than sports even. But don’t get me going on retirement. It’s a long way off for you, I hope. In fact, I hope you never, ever get there. Not because I hope you all die, though some of you will, but I hope you just don’t believe in it when you get there. The reason airlines give senior citizen discounts is so that you can go to mission fields cheap. Yeah, I hope you’re clapping in sixty years.
Beautiful Are the Feet
He was eighty-nine. He told the story of an evangelist in India, an indigenous missionary who had become a Christian. He was a simple man who knew the basics of the gospel. He loved Jesus and wanted to go back to his hometown where nobody was a Christian. And he went back. He was tired at the end of the day, trekking all this way, and decided that he would not wait until the morning because it was so urgent. And he went in and he gathered some of his old relatives and some of the people around. And he told them the story of the gospel. And they just laughed him to scorn.
And he was so discouraged, he went out of the city, lay down under a tree and fell asleep until just after dusk. And suddenly, he woke up, and it seemed like the whole village was there, with the chief men around him bending over him, and he thought, “Oh, they’re going to hurt me or something.” And the main man said, “We’ve come out to listen to your message again because when we came to look at you, we saw your bleeding feet, and we knew you must be a holy man that you would care enough to walk all this way and tell us. And now we would like to listen.” And many believed.” Oswald Sanders, through firsthand experience, told that story.
Now isn’t that a picture of completing in your body the afflictions of Jesus so that people see Jesus in your sufferings and the love of Jesus flows through your body and your sufferings and opens them like a flower to the cross that you want to proclaim. If your life is a cross, people will see the cross.
The Entire Village
And the other story is just like it. Michael Card told this story in an article. He was at the Billy Graham itinerant evangelists gathering. And he wrote this story about Joseph the Masai warrior. And he talked to this Joseph. In fact, Joseph was introduced to Billy Graham, and he lifted his shirt to show the lacerations from the barbed wire, which is in this story. And Billy Graham said later that he just felt like he should bow down in front of a person like that. And I’ve felt that too. I had a man from Nepal come to our church one time with a missionary. And he was limping, and the missionary said, “This brother has planted 39 churches, and he’s had his legs broken for Jesus.” And I had the temptation to get down on my knees in reverence of such a person. Nobody’s ever threatened to break my knees. But the story of Joseph is a very simple, like the other one. I’ll read it to you.
Joseph began going from door-to-door, telling everyone he met about the Cross of Jesus and the salvation it offered, expecting to see their faces light up the way his had. To his amazement the villagers not only didn’t care, they became violent. The men of the village seized him and held him to the ground while the women beat him with strands of barbed wire. He was dragged from the village and left to die alone in the bush.
Joseph somehow managed to crawl to a waterhole, and there, after days of passing in and out of consciousness, found the strength to get up. He wondered about the hostile reception he had received from people he had known all his life. He decided he must have left something out or told the story of Jesus incorrectly. After rehearsing the message he had first heard, he decided to go back and share his faith once more.
Joseph limped into the circle of huts and began to proclaim Jesus. “He died for you, so that you might find forgiveness and come to know the living God,” he pleaded. Again he was grabbed by the men of the village and held while the women beat him reopening wounds that had just begun to heal. Once more they dragged him unconscious from the village and left him to die.
To have survived the first beating was truly remarkable. To live through the second was a miracle. Again, days later, Joseph awoke in the wilderness, bruised, scarred — and determined to go back.
He returned to the small village and this time, they attacked him before he had a chance to open his mouth. As they flogged him for the third and probably the last time, he again spoke to them of Jesus Christ, the Lord. Before he passed out, the last thing he saw was that the women who were beating him began to weep.
This time he awoke in his own bed. The ones who had so severely beaten him were now trying to save his life and nurse him back to health. The entire village had come to Christ.
Hardest Places, Highest Reward
Now those are two vivid examples of what I think Paul means in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” And what is lacking is not the worth of those sufferings but the presentation of those sufferings to those for whom he died, and particularly, in the form of your own peril, your own risk, your own sufferings. And not your own sufferings begrudgingly, but joyfully that you would be counted worthy, like they said in Acts 5 to suffer shame for the sake of the name, knowing that you are not living your life in vain. Nothing is in vain because there’s a resurrection.
That’s the end of 1 Corinthians 15:58: “My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Nothing is in vain. So we take our desire, satisfied in God, and we endure peril to go to the hard places. And through the very hardness of it, by God’s design, people see Christ for the kind of love that he really has for them, which isn’t the kind of love that only stays in the safe places. It’s the kind of love that risks everything to make their desire and your desire one satisfaction in God.