“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Death and Resurrection, Part V

…This death to self involves more than a growing intellectual awareness of our sinfulness and God’s perfections. Real pain and suffering is a necessary part of sanctification, and a part of following Christ (of course, the glory of resurrection far outweighs this cost – see Romans 8:18):

  • “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” – Acts 14:22
  • “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” – 2 Timothy 3:12
  • “We are… heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” – Romans 8:17

Suffering here and now, even martyrdom for some, is a design of God that accomplishes the greater purpose of our participation in the cross of Christ (Philippians 1:29, 3:11; Colossians 1:24) and our growth into people who become more like Christ and see more deeply the riches of the cross and the fullness of God.* It is a necessary part of the rebirth of a dead world (Romans 1:22-23). God speaks of refining his people Israel through suffering in Isaiah 48:10, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.” It is for their good, and ultimately leads to a greater joy in God and glory given to God (v. 11).

The Bible is clear that supreme joy will replace all suffering in the end and render it as nothing, but it also conveys the message that this life is a bittersweet mixture of joy and sorrow – particularly for those who follow Christ. Remarkably, though, the sorrow serves to heighten the joy that is present in its midst – indeed this is the great purpose of all sadness (see “How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?” of The Reason for God, by Tim Keller), and it is at work even now. This is one of many instances of what might be called the beauty of paradox. J. R. R. Tolkien writes in The Lord of the Rings, “Their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness” (The Return of the King chapter 4, “The Field of Cormallen,” which is my favorite chapter in the trilogy). In his letter, James the brother of Jesus even encourages his readers to “consider it pure joy…whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). It seems almost contradictory. How can one be, as Paul says, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10)? There is a kind of joy that can, I think, even be strengthened and made to grow by suffering. Despite the tension and contrast – even because of it – there is a powerful mystery and deep wisdom in Paul’s words, the same divine wisdom that is present in all God’s redemptive works. That such great beauty and joy and goodness could be brought out of things of great sorrow and evil points to the wisdom of the One who designed it all. I for one desire to taste the joy of which Tolkien and the apostle Paul speak, even if it is to be found amidst suffering...

*John Piper poignantly describes God’s great purpose for the suffering of his people in chapter 10 of Desiring God, “Suffering: The Sacrifice of Christian Hedonism,” available online here.

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