Monday, January 17, 2011

Suffering and Conflict

For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, having the same conflict which you saw in me and now hear is in me. (Philippians 1:29-30, NKJV).
Paul ends the first portion of his letter to the church in Philippi with something that would hardly be categorized as a "selling point" for the Christian faith: suffering and conflict. And from the earthly perspective these things are indeed negatives. Suffering is, after all, painful. Conflict is the antithesis of peace, and yet the Apostle is expressing these as gifts that have been granted on behalf of Christ to the church, then and there, and here and now.

The key, of course, is the pair of connecting phrases he employs, on behalf of Christ, AND not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer. Christ transforms the essential nature of all earthly experience from mundane and meaningless to sublimely purposeful. He is the only thing in the Universe and in time that can do so. And it is yet another aspect of the profound paradoxes of being a follower of Jesus, the One who provides profit from loss, exaltation through humility, leadership through service, riches through poverty, and life through death.

Life is suffering and conflict, from conception through physical death in this fallen world. Fertilized intrauterine cells struggle to implant and survive against the many forces arrayed against them, even in the womb. If successfully implanted, the fight for survival intensifies throughout gestation, so much so that the odds of a successful delivery into the world nine months later are almost 2 to 1 against. For every infant born alive on this planet, twice that number are not, without even taking into consideration the horrific statistics of abortion.

The New Testament offers no temporal escape from this chronic exposure to pain and conflict. It does not deceptively attract adherents by promising long life, health or wealth, despite what some erroneously teach from many pulpits. In fact, Jesus Himself declares the very opposite: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NKJV).
And it is this very point that Paul is echoing in his letter. Suffering and conflict exist as incontrovertible facts. There is no escape this side of Heaven, and there is no permanent escape outside of Heaven. If you are alive, you will eventually experience both, but these things in conjunction with believing in Christ, and on behalf of Christ or, even more specifically, because of our belief in Christ - these things are redeemed. Instead of mere purposeless negatives, in Him, they are transformed into something else entirely - gifts that are the catalysts that conform us into His image and make us fit for eternal citizenship in Heaven.

And what is the specific conflict to which Paul is referring? It is the very thing to which he confessed a few sentences earlier in this same letter: For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. (Philippians 1:21-24, NKJV).

There is no shame in wanting to go home, to enter into the sanctuary provided under the authority of a loving, benevolent and all-powerful ruler. It is, in fact, a declaration of faith and trust in the promises of that Ruler, who portrays Himself as God, Father, Creator, Brother, Savior, Redeemer and Friend. But for that desire to be God-honoring, we must walk in faith day by day, "occupying until He comes", until that glorious moment of Homecoming takes place. That is what the Apostle Paul is reminding the church, that this suffering and conflict is an inherent part of the gift of salvation. We are to expect it, be unsurprised by it when it comes, to patiently endure it, and to give thanks in the midst of it, trusting that it is for our good and God's glory.

Look, pain, suffering, and conflict are guaranteed. If you are alive, you WILL know these things. You can either let it serve its intended purpose, to draw you closer to God and conform you into the image of His Son, or choose to have it do the opposite: intensify your scream of defiance as you slip into an eternity of darkness and despair.

A person of no less significance than the Apostle Paul was not spared these things, and that makes perfect sense, for the Son of God Himself provided the example. For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, NKJV). And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. (Ephesians 5:2, NKJV).

Christ gave us the example. He became the example. He is the only One who can make the misery and hopelessness of this life into something joyous and beautiful. The only one who can turn our mourning into dancing.