Ask anyone who has ever seen me in a gym (There are very few who have!). If there’s a struggle bus, I’m the first to get off it! But struggle (or in New Testament language, “suffering”) is necessary for growth.
It makes sense, right? No pain, no gain. You have to “feel the burn!” There’s supposed to be a “good kind of sore” when you workout. (I don’t know these things personally. It’s what I hear.)
But in spiritual growth, why don’t we expect pain? Why don’t we expect to ache? Why don’t we expect the bumps and bruises of spiritual development?
I mean, we may expect to experience struggle and suffering in life. We aren’t surprised by the loss of a job or the heartache of strained and broken relationships. But it seems that we don’t expect to work very hard in spiritual development.
We expect to read the Bible without God’s Word shaking us to the core. We expect to pray without stretching and groaning toward a God who is very near yet often feels distant. We have conversations, listen to sermons, and share stories in small groups. But we don’t expect people to challenge and reshape our hearts.
In short, we expect to grow without pain.
In Philippians 3:10-11, Paul writes about “knowing the power of the resurrection, and knowing the partnership of his sufferings. It means sharing the form and pattern of his death, so that somehow I may arrive at the final resurrection of the dead.”
This doesn’t sound painless.
Especially since Paul has gone to great length to describe how pointless his accomplishments are (v. 7-9)! There is pain there. There’s soreness and fatigue that comes from acknowledging truth. Your social status and personal accomplishments do not help your “covenant status” (v.9).
We know this. It’s a theological truth. But is it a personal truth? Do you see and feel the fact that you cannot do anything to earn a good covenant status with God?
I’ve often heard about the joy that we should experience in the light of this truth. But I seldom hear about the heartache this causes. It can and should cause pain. You let go of things that define you. You give them up for the identity and status that Christ offers you. There should be sorrow, grief, and pain.
Only then is there genuine joy.
Why do I think this? Well, I’ve definitely experienced it. But, listen to how
Paul continues on in Philippians 3:12-14.
“I’m not implying that I’ve already received ‘resurrection’, or that I’ve already become complete and mature! No; I’m hurrying on, eager to overtake it, because King Jesus has overtaken me. My dear family, I don’t reckon that I have yet overtaken it! But this is my one aim: to forget everything that’s behind , and to strain every nerve to go after what’s ahead. I mean to chase on towards the finishing post, where the prize waiting for me is the upward call of God in King Jesus.”
Why else does Paul use this athletic image? Running, striving, straining…these are words of struggle, pain, and suffering. Of course, this picture is one of struggle that results in victory. And the prize is already guaranteed!
But the pain is there. Sound easy?
No, but there is very good news about this. According to God’s design, Paul lays this truth in a very un-American context: the struggle is a family matter! Look at 3:17.
“So, my dear family, I want you, all together, to watch what I do and copy me.”
Did you get that? Paul is saying, “Do what I’m doing. Struggle and strain toward Christ. But don’t do it alone.”
The truth is here to grasp if you want it. We must struggle. We must suffer to let go of our markers of identity. These interfere with genuine joy in our covenant status. The status that Christ has purchased and given to us.
But God’s design is that we struggle side-by-side.