The Beauty of Shared Suffering

Fellowship with Christ

“When do I get to have my wheelchair, Daddy?” Five-year-old Matthew looked up into the face of his father, his liquid brown eyes doleful and pleading. Matthew and his brother, Stephen, had spent a week with their parents volunteering at one of our Joni and Friends Retreats. They made buddies with scores of boys and girls who used crutches, walkers, and wheelchairs. I laughed when Jim, their father, relayed to me Matthew’s request. This little boy doesn’t need a wheelchair. He has no use for one. But try telling him that! A wheelchair, for Matthew, would top his Christmas wish list.

A wheelchair means a joy ride. It also means an initiation into a wonderful club: a special group of kids who enjoy a special relationship with Joni. This five-year-old hasn’t a clue about the pain and paralysis, the heartaches and hurdles. He discounts all of that, disregarding the dark side. All he desires is a chance to be among my best friends, a chance to identify with me, be like me, a chance to know me. If it means having a wheelchair, great. He’ll welcome it.

It takes a child like Matthew to illuminate the true emotion behind the apostle Paul’s words, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him. . . . I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:8–10).

Matthew wanted to join a club, but the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings is not an inner circle of elite believers. The word fellowship in the original text was koinonia—the experience of sharing something in common.

Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross

Nancy Guthrie

This collection of 25 readings, compiled by Nancy Guthrie, features writings and sermons from classic and contemporary theologians and Bible teachers, each encouraging thoughtful contemplation of the cross and resurrection during the Easter season.

God delights in identifying with us in our suffering. When the apostle Paul was on the road to Damascus, the risen Lord didn’t say, “Saul, why are you persecuting my people?” God said, “Why are you persecuting me?” (see Acts 9:4). He considers our sufferings his sufferings. He feels the sting in his chest when you hurt. He takes it personally.

Jesus is a Savior who can “sympathize with our weaknesses . . . one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). My blind friend Peter shares how humiliated he was when, as a teenager, he fell after striking his head on a low branch. Sprawled on the ground in front of his friends, he felt hurt and embarrassed. His confidence in God was shaken: You don’t understand what it’s like to be blind, God. To not know where the next blow might come from! But Jesus does. “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’” (Luke 22:63–64).

He Sympathizes with Weakness

Another friend, Gloria, fell into deep anguish over the dismal prognosis of her daughter’s illness. Little Laura had already suffered enough from the degenerative nerve disorder she had been born with, and now the doctors’ forecast included more suffering and impending death. One night after leaving her daughter’s bedside, she spat, “God, it’s not right. You’ve never had to watch one of your children die!” As soon as the words escaped, she clasped her hand over her mouth. He did watch his child die. His one and only Son.

The invitation to know God— really know him—is always an invitation to suffer. Not to suffer alone, but to suffer with him.

Early on when I realized Jesus is a Savior who could sympathize with our weakness, I was passionately telling everybody how “Christ was paralyzed on the cross,” how he understood how I felt. A stressed-out firefighter happened to cross the wake of my enthusiasm. In the diner where we met, I offered, “He’s been there. He understands.” Outside, taxis honked and trucks rumbled by, but we were oblivious. The fireman’s gaze held mine—me, cheerful and sincere; he, disbelieving and with scorn lining his tired mouth. “So he understands. Big deal. What good does that do me?” he bristled as he raised his arms from under the table. His rolled-up sleeves revealed the smooth ends of two stumps where hands should be. “Burned off in a blaze. Lost my job.”

I was taken aback. I was fresh out of the hospital and certainly no theology student or expert on the Bible. Cheer drained from my face. I answered as honestly as I knew how. “I don’t know all the answers. And I’m not sure if I did that it would help. But I do know the One who has the answers.” A long pause. His gaze lowered. “And knowing him makes all the difference.” I had never spoken with such confidence, but I sensed the espirit de corps with this man with no hands. I then shocked myself by saying for the first time since my accident, “I’d rather be in this chair knowing him than on my feet without him.”

The fireman didn’t need a briefcase full of words. He needed the Word. The Word made flesh—gouged, with nail-pierced wrists, hands nearly ripped off. Spat upon, beaten bloody, with flies buzzing and hatred hammering. These aren’t merely facts about Jesus. This isn’t love as an abstract idea. This is love poured out like wine as strong as fire. In that diner, the fireman stopped thinking of God as a meditating mystic on a faraway mountain. No longer was he an abstract deity. Nothing neat and tidy about him. God got messy when he smeared his blood on a cross to save people from hellfire. This held a strange appeal for this man who had injured himself rescuing others from the flames.

An Invitation to Suffer

Programs, systems, and methods sit well in the ivory towers of monasteries or in the wooden arms of icons. Head knowledge comes from the pages of a theology text. But the invitation to know God—really know him—is always an invitation to suffer. Not to suffer alone, but to suffer with him. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34–35).

The fireman was gripped. God didn’t merely expose the fireman’s sin, he entered it. He came into it. Like entering a burning building to hand a baby out the window just in the nick of time. But Jesus lost more than his hand; he lost his life. Thankfully, he was not scorched by death. He burst back to life. What power! If I’m to be held steady in the midst of my suffering, I want to be held not by a doctrine or a cause but by the most powerful Person in the universe.

Amazing love, how can it be? That God should plunge the knife in his heart for me—all the while, me, dry and indifferent, cool and detached. That he, the God of life, should conquer death by embracing it. That he should destroy the power of sin by letting it destroy him.

This article is by Joni Eareckson Tada and is adapted from Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross: Experiencing the Passion and Power of Easter edtied by Nancy Guthrie.

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