But what kind of suffering does this refer to? It is clear that not all suffering qualifies.
For example, suffering as a criminal or meddler is not suffering that can be commended in this way. Beyond this, however, it can get difficult. If I fall ill, in exactly the same way that an unbeliever does, is this “suffering with Christ”? What if my car is broken into? Does it count if it is broken into while parked outside church?
I struggled with this question, but in the end I decided that for this post, it would be more helpful to be cautious rather than expansive. Different types of suffering need different kinds of Biblical “medicine” to treat them – for example, many types of suffering benefit from truths about the suffering-free world that awaits us in the resurrection. But in this post I want to focus on those cases where we can definitely say “I am suffering with Christ”. My purpose is that by being a little more limited in scope, we might be more confident in recognising those times when we are in fact suffering with Christ, and benefit more from that thought.
Characteristics of suffering with Christ
So what are the essential characteristics of suffering with Christ? I think answers to that are found in a number of passages that draw a close connection between our sufferings and his. I won’t make too much of a distinction between terminology like suffering “for him”, “with him”, and “sharing” in his sufferings, which seem to very close in usage.
We suffer with Christ when we suffer for his name, or “as a Christian” — that is, when suffering comes our way specifically because we follow him and are targeted as believers.
1 Peter 4:12-16 talks about this very clearly:
Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.
It seems the suffering focused on here is specifically that which comes due to our connection with the name of Christ, which brings deliberate attacks from other humans who hate him.
I think there is a broader if slightly weaker form of this, in which people may not be consciously attacking us due to our visible association to Christ. In the first instance, it seems that part of hostility described in John 15:18-19 can be due to Christians simply not belonging to the world, and not being like them, without the world necessarily being conscious of our connection to Christ.
Going further, we could also think about passages like Revelation 12:17, which describes the response of Satan to Christ's followers:
Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring – those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
In the rest of Revelation, we then see human beings being driven along by Satan and demonic powers.
So when Paul and Barnabas are faced with a mob of Artemis worshipper who are essentially protecting their financial interests, can we say it is because of the name of Christ specifically? They don't know anything about Jesus, and care only about their loss of profits. But we are surely right to see this as part of Satan’s rage against faithful believers, being worked out through unwitting agents.
A second way in which we suffer with Christ is when our behaviour in suffering is like his, especially in being patient and not retaliating despite unfair treatment.
1 Peter 2:18-23 describes this:
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.‘He committed no sin,and no deceit was found in his mouth.’
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
There is a clear parallel to Christ's suffering and the kind of suffering we are called to as Christians here, and the key elements are 1) the unfairness of our suffering and 2) the patience and restraint of our response.
We share in Christ's suffering when the cause of our suffering is the same as his – specifically, when the path of obedience and saying “no” to sin brings suffering into our lives. See Hebrews 12:1-4:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
The author is drawing a comparison between our sufferings and those of our Saviour. He fought against sin, choosing the path of obedience and refusing Satan's sinful shortcuts. That path lead him through great suffering and ultimately to death. The author tells us that we haven’t got to that point yet – we’re still breathing! – but we are on the same path as him if our insistence on obedience or saying no to sin makes life harder for us.
There are many ways that can happen. We might miss out on a promotion that was rightfully ours due to integrity in the workplace. We might suffer loneliness, and continue in it because we refuse the relief of an inappropriate relationship. These things, and many more, can be a form of sharing in Christ's sufferings.
We participate in the sufferings of the Lord Jesus when our purpose is the same as his – namely, the good of his people, the church. In Colossians 1:24-29 we read:
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the Lord’s people. To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.
He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
Paul here goes as far as describing his own sufferings as a fulfilment and extension of Christ’s – not that anything can be added to what Jesus accomplished, but it can be fulfilled in our lives. His sufferings come to fruition in our lives when the same love that powered him powers us, overflowing in labours and pains taken for the sake of God’s people. That includes, as per Paul’s ministry, labours for those who are part of God’s elect but don't know it yet, and need to hear the gospel for a first time, and those who we are labouring to see mature in Christ.
When mentioning this type of suffering or labour, we should mention emotional labour for Christ’s people, which to Paul was apparently worthy to be put last and highest on his list of sufferings in 1 Corinthians 11:
Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
Other parallels with Christ’s suffering
I think the above are the main distinctive characteristics that separate suffering in general from “suffering with Christ”. There are, however, many other features of Christ’s sufferings that we might (or might not) see in our own experiences. These details can be a special help to us in seeing the parallels between Christ’s sufferings and ours, and I think it is right that we use them in this way. They include the following:
Great physical pain, such as that which Christ went through at the cross.
Mental strain and emotional distress, for example in Mark 14:33-34:
He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’
Weakness, including the need of help from others, as Jesus showed in the passage quoted above.
The pain of betrayal by close friends. We’re offered an insight into that in Psalm 55:If an enemy were insulting me,I could endure it;if a foe were rising against me,I could hide.But it is you, a man like myself,my companion, my close friend,with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowshipat the house of God,as we walked aboutamong the worshippers.
Feelings of abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The public humiliation and loss of reputation that was a key part of crucifixion.
The disgrace of defeat, illustrated, for example, by the soldiers looting Jesus’ possessions so casually.
A feeling of failure, captured by Isaiah 49:4 which I think should be understood in Messianic terms:But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain;I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
There are probably many more things that could be added to this list!
What difference does it make?
If are able to rightly and confidently conclude that we are suffering with Christ, then I think it can provide us with immense comfort, and great strength to persevere.
For example, Hebrews 12:2 is worth meditating on:
…fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
As well as great promises for the future, I think we also need to know that our suffering with the Lord Jesus and for his sake is something very pleasing and precious to God in the present. For example, 1 Peter 2:19-20:
For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.
1 Peter 4:14 adds to this:
If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.
It’s important to note that the truth of this verse – that glory rests on us — is something that has to be accepted by faith, and usually will not be at all apparent to our natural feelings. Insults do not make us feel great! They hurt precisely because they humiliate, and if we are suffering from humiliation and disgrace then by definition it will not feel like glory. It’s at this point that we have to accept God’s very different assessment of the situation, and recognise the amazing glory we share – right now in the present, as well as one day in the future – with Jesus Christ himself.