The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rm. 8:16, 17).
K. P. Yohannan made a simple yet profound statement regarding suffering in the life of the Christian. He said that we as Christians are to seek actively our cross and carry it, for no one is going to throw it upon us; we ourselves must pick up the cross of suffering, deny ourselves, and follow Christ. And we must do it, for the cross we are to pick up is not icing on the cake of Christianity or a merit badge for the holier among us, but it is essential and salvific, for we, as the apostle declares in his letter to the Romans, will not be glorified with Christ apart from suffering with him.
For all who have been baptized into Christ share completely in his identity. For they who were baptized into him were baptized into his death in order that they might also share in his resurrection. And as Christ’s life and death did not come apart from suffering, so our lives and deaths (if we are indeed followers of Christ) shall not come apart from suffering with him.
What then is Christian suffering, and how do we pursue it? First, Christian suffering is a denying of one’s self daily. Christ said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Therefore, Christian suffering is not the suffering that is common to all men (e.g. illness, financial woes, etc.), but it is the suffering that comes from denying one’s self and following Christ. It is the fulfillment of obedience to all of Christ commands, for all of his commands can be summed up in these two words–love God with all your being and love your neighbor as yourself. For when a person fulfills those two commands, he is by nature a self-denier, for those two commands cannot be fulfilled apart from self-denial.
Secondly, we pursue Christian suffering by obedience to Christ’s commands. We do this by looking at our lives, which up to a point have consisted entirely of self-gratification, and purge them of selfishness by asking, “How do I love God will all my being in this particular aspect of my life? How do I love my neighbor as myself with my present conduct?” As we ask these questions of every facet of our lives, we will begin to see areas for improvement everywhere. And if we obediently seek to remedy those discovered shortcomings, the result will always be self-denial and suffering.
A great negative example of this is the rich young ruler to whom Christ spoke in the Gospel of Matthew. He was bidden to follow Christ so that he might inherit eternal life, and the rich man claimed that he was obedient to all of the commandments of the law. Christ, however, was not deceived, and he instructed the rich man, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). For in his accumulation of wealth, the rich man had not loved his neighbor as himself, for, if he had, he would not have not hoarded up for himself earthly treasures thereby neglecting the poor among him, but he would have denied himself so that he could love his neighbor as himself thereby storing up for himself treasure in heaven. As it was, however, the rich man would not suffer self-denial and abandon his love of wealth, and he therefore went away to his destruction.
We, like the rich man, are called by Christ to poverty. We are not called to poverty for the sake of poverty, but we are called to poverty so that we might love our neighbor as ourselves. For if we truly love our neighbors as ourselves, we will give to them the very things that we give ourselves. And by doing so, we will suffer with Christ, who denied himself of his own kingly status and infinite wealth so that he might become poor for the sake of those whom he loves. For to those who are given much, much is required, for the wealthy by nature have a greater burden of self-denial for they must give away substantially more so they might love their neighbor as themselves and thereby fulfill the law.
To American Christians, much has been given to them and therefore much is required. We, however, like the rich ruler, have neglected this aspect of the faith and instead have conjured up for ourselves a gospel that denies self-denial so that we might find peace in our wealth. We are the rich young man, for we are very religious and feel that we understand the heart of God and will inherit eternal life, yet we are unwilling to part with our wealth so that we might love our neighbors. We, rather than actively pursuing our crosses, actively turn a blind eye to those who have needs, both in our country and around the world, thinking that we will be safe in our acquired ignorance. We however are not safe, and the warning that rested upon the rich man in Christ’s day now rests upon us, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23, 24).
All of us, being wealthy, will only enter into the kingdom of heaven with great difficulty. For after having tasted the wealth of this country and the pleasures it affords, it is nigh onto impossible to turn from those things to God. Christ said that it is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than it is for us to get into the kingdom of heaven. The only way that our entrance into the kingdom is possible is to have our fattened souls trimmed down by the Spirit of God through self-denial and suffering. Then, and only then, will we be fit to pass through the narrow gate that’s entered only by those camels who have been trimmed down to the size of thread.