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Suffering With Christ

By March 16, 2007 No Comments

by L. Ann Jervis

In Romans, Paul is convinced that believers take on sufferings in addition to those of the common lot of humanity. We suffer not only “in Christ” but also “with Christ.” Suffering “with Christ” goes beyond our bringing our sufferings into Christ to our sharing Christ’s sufferings and our suffering for Christ’s sake.

Suffering “with Christ” is voluntary in the sense that it is only because a person believes in Jesus Christ that she takes on these additional sufferings: unlike the sufferings we share with humanity, these sufferings could be avoided. On the other hand, suffering “with Christ” is not an option once one is “in Christ.” It is rather the normal state of things for those who are “in Christ.”

Paul speaks directly of this aspect of believers’ suffering in Romans 8:17: “since indeed we suffer with [Christ] in order that we may be glorified with him…. . [The best interpretation of this contested phrase is that] Paul regards suffering “with Christ” as an unavoidable aspect of being “in Christ.” Our conformity to Christ (8:29) requires ongoing suffering “with Christ.” It is to be noted that suffering “with Christ” is not the same as being baptized into Christ’s death. The latter idea refers to our incorporation into Christ through faith. What we are talking about here is rather the inescapable activity of suffering with and for Christ that ensues upon our incorporation into Christ.

Paul hints at the concept that Christ’s own sufferings continue in this time of incomplete salvation, and that they do so through believers. Paul (or a follower of his) says something similar in Colossians 1:24: “I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” These ongoing sufferings of Christ embodied now in believers must be redemptive, just as were Christ’s sufferings on the cross. Our suffering “with Christ” is, like Christ’s suffering, experienced on behalf of God’s creation (human and non-human). The groaning of believers as the creation waits for our identity as God’s children to be revealed (which revelation will mean creation’s liberation, Romans 8:19-23) is more than sharing the pain, more than groaning “with respect to ourselves.” It is groaning occasioned by an acute awareness that we are essential to the birthing of the age of liberation. It is, in other words, a groaning not only for ourselves but for all that is. In this we suffer “with Christ.”

While believers, according to Paul, are required to suffer, we may do so in hope and with insight. However, the provision of hope and insight is not just sweet. It is also bitter, for, while our expectation and our perception allow us to suffer with a degree of peace and joy, they also are the cause of the peculiar tribulations we know.

Suffering “with Christ” in Hope

Suffering “with Christ” takes place within the horizon of hope for the end of sufferings. Paul claims that the sufferings we experience are not endless and permanent. There is something coming that is suffering’s opposite: glory (8:17- 18). This glory will be known by us and by all creation. As Ernst Käsemann says, Paul speaks of a hope that “reaches beyond believers to creation as a whole.”1 Paul opens a window onto the hope of participating in glory, which is to participate in God’s being, a reality from which sin is excluded. Suffering is neither the only reality nor the only possibility; the reality of suffering and sin is juxtaposed with the reality of glory.

Paul raises believers’ eyes to the hope of glory experienced completely, which is at once freedom from suffering, since it is complete separation from sin. The hope of believers–the hope of sharing in the glory of God (5:2)–is at the same time the hope of release from all travail. While we suffer now, we do so with a certain confidence, for Christ’s resurrection and glorification assures us of our own resurrection.

We suffer knowing that we are now children of God, as Christ is God’s son. As Christ inherited God’s glory, so will we (8:16-17). Christ’s death resulted in his glorification, in his being all that humanity was intended to be–beings basking in the glory of God. This is the inheritance that waits for us.Because of God’s love, seen most clearly in Jesus Christ, whom God gave up for us all (8:32), we then suffer in hope, and so our suffering is limited by the certainty that we are being “conformed to the image of [God’s] son” (8:29). Just as Christ Jesus, the revealer of God’s love (8:39), knew both suffering and glorification, so do we. We suffer knowing that the outcome of suffering is glory and so we will receive “all things with [Christ Jesus]” (8:32).

The horizon of future hope, while at a distance, at the same time frames our current reality. The future hope shines into our present. The context of our sufferings is, then, both a future and a present hope. We suffer in hope of the end of suffering and the embrace of God’s glory. We also suffer in the presence of that hope.

Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the presence of hope is that the Spirit of God, which is to say, the Spirit of Christ, lives in us (8:9). The Spirit’s power may encourage us in hoping as a result of God, the giver of our hope, filling us with “all joy and peace in believing” (15:13). The Spirit’s presence is, in this sense, the presence of hope.

In the present time the Spirit is the presence of the future–of that time when God’s will alone prevails. Believers, who are “weak” (8:26–presumably because of our former bondage to sin), are recipients of the Spirit’s intercessions on our behalf. These intercessions are, Paul says, according to God’s will (8:27). That is, the presence of the Spirit is the presence of what we long for–complete accord with God’s will–which will be the same as the end of suffering.

The Spirit is the “first fruits” (8:23), the guarantee that new life is on the horizon. Because we now have the Spirit we live in the presence of the hope that our identity as children of God will be realized.

This creates the tension intrinsic to our present hope: we suffer at sin’s hands at the same time as we know the opposite experience–life, which is the result of righteousness (8:10). While this tension produces hope, it may also add to our suffering. We who have the “first fruits” of the age of liberation are stretched between that time and this. We are pulled between our firm knowledge (given to us by the Spirit) that there will be an end to pain–the redemption of our bodies, and our acute awareness and experience of the sufferings of this present time.

We Suffer Because We See. Paul works to give believers insight into our sufferings. This insight does not take away our pain. Paul’s view is, rather, that we suffer in part because we know too much. For instance, Paul can see the predicament of his fellow Jews and exposes for others to see his wrenching anguish over their unbelief (9:1-3). He further helps believers recognize the source of some of our anguish. We are, Paul says, excruciatingly aware of the pain of creation, for we are the ones who know (8:22) the travail creation is in.

Our suffering is partially due to the fact that we cannot hide from the pain that is. Our very sight is our suffering. We see that creation is in bondage to corruption, that decay hangs over everything (8:21).

Moreover, we know that now is the time of waiting for salvation (5:9-10), of waiting for our resurrection and our glorification, and so it is the time of our suffering. The drama of Christ’s life is the drama of our own, and we know that we are in the period before resurrection and so will suffer. We know that our present context is one of suffering with Christ (8:17) and hoping to share in glory with Christ; we hope for glory and, while we hope, we suffer.

Paul opens his hearers’ eyes to the reality that there is a shape to our sufferings: they are shaped by our call to be conformed to Christ (8:28-29). By virtue of being caught between the time of Christ’s resurrection and the time of our own we recognize that we will suffer as we hope for glory.

We Suffer Because We Can Resist. Our suffering “with Christ” is caused not by our enslavement to sin but by sin’s pressing its deteriorating but still powerful muscle against the bruises left from our prior indenture.

Like the post-colonial country that is no longer required to take its identity from the colonizer or obey the colonizer’s wishes but which nevertheless finds it exceedingly challenging to live out of an identity of freedom, so Paul recognizes that believers, while freed from sin, are still profoundly shaped by our previous servitude to it.We are nevertheless strong enough to choose to resist sin’s force, and so we will know struggle. Although we are not fully healed or fully free of sin’s devastating force, we are empowered to count ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11; cf. 6:7). As we have seen, this context allows us to see our inevitable sharing in humanity’s suffering in the context of God’s life and love, but, as we shall see, it also produces an inevitable increase in our sufferings. We are liberated from sin in order to struggle against it.

Believers have insight into the reality that there is a battle going on between God and sin and that, even though the outcome of the battle is known, the time for that outcome is not yet. We suffer difficulties (8:35), but these manifestations of sin’s muscle need not terrify us, for believers know that these sufferings will not separate us from Christ’s love and that we are promised all that Christ has now received (8:35, 32). Nevertheless, we recognize that we are now in the line of sin’s fire and so must “put on the armor of light” (13:12), which is to say “the Lord Jesus Christ” (13:14). Believers know that we have to fight against sin and maintain vigilance as we claim our place in the context of God’s peace and life and freedom and righteousness.

Paul commands believers not to let sin reign in our bodies (6:12) nor to let them be used in sin’s service (6:13). We are commanded to put ourselves at God’s service (6:13). We are part of a battle for justice, for the existence of righteousness in this world. Peter Stuhlmacher writes: “Christians should … place themselves at the disposal of God to be vanguards of the righteousness which corresponds to God’s will.”2 The high stakes and the challenge of this battle are emphasized by Paul.

To serve God is to be assured of becoming holy as God is holy and of sharing in the divine life (6:22-23). That Paul strains to encourage believers to act as slaves of righteousness, slaves of God, indicates how challenging it is to do so.

Clearly, believers can be drawn to the familiar patterns of sin, even though we know that that is a dead end. Paul labors to clear our vision of the bright lights of sin so that we can see the real landscape of reality: there is a battle taking place between sin and God, and God requires that believers stand with God. As Käsemann says, “baptism means that we become Christian soldiers in the corporeal sphere and in daily life in the world.”3 Paul’s appeal that his hearers present their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1) recognizes that living for God requires “giving of one’s body and life in the service of righteousness.”4This struggle exists not only outside ourselves, that is, between God and sin, with our serving on God’s side, the side of righteousness (6:18). The struggle also takes place within ourselves. In the depths of our being there is a battle going on that mirrors the battle for justice that is taking place throughout creation. This battle inevitably contributes to our suffering.

Paul describes this struggle in Romans 7. While the current scholarly consensus is that the person describing the challenge posed by sin in Romans 7:7-25 is one who is not “in Christ,” I have argued that Paul is here depicting the battle that takes place within the believer. This, of course, is the classic view going back to such as Luther and the mature Augustine. Here we will proceed without argument on the basis of the understanding that Paul is speaking here of a struggle germane to the believer… .

At 7:8b Paul turns his attention to life in the new sphere “apart from law”–a sphere that did not exist until the manifestation of God’s righteousness “apart from law.” This is a different reality from the reality that existed before the law. In this new reality sin is dead, and this for two reasons. First, because this reality “apart from law” is the reality of the revelation of God’s righteousness (3:21), from which sin is excluded, and secondly because sin has lost its most effective instrument: it is the law that counts and increases sin (5:13, 20).

Paul recalls how he (or a representative person) once found himself in the blissful place apart from law (7:9a). The speaker here remembers the position of knowing himself freed from sin, of being apart from law and so of being alive. We may legitimately, albeit speculatively, propose that Paul’s conviction that those “in Christ” are dead to sin and alive to God and should reckon themselves so (6:1-11) is rooted in this experience. While this experience was only temporary, it may have formed Paul’s understanding of the basis and possibilities of life “in Christ.” Karl Barth’s comment on 7:12-13 is that it expresses “the longing for the recovery of the lost immediacy of my life in God.”5

This trajectory of freedom was, however, impeded when the “commandment” came (7:9b). This commandment, which in 7:10 Paul describes as a commandment meant to lead to life (and so, as I argue, it cannot be a commandment of Torah), is the requirement to live in the “obedience of faith.” After reckoning with his liberation, Paul comes to see (and he wants others to share his insight) that the freedom God grants “apart from law” and “in Christ” is freedom to serve God’s righteousness (cf. 6:18, 22), and this means struggle.

Servitude to God is at once conflict with sin. For while sin may be mortally wounded in this time of the revelation of God’s righteousness and wrath (1:16-18), its pernicious presence has not been obliterated. It still has enough strength to revive (7:9b) and afflict the believer. In fact, the believer is particularly attuned to sin’s ways. Believers can actually see (7:23) the battle with sin taking place within ourselves. As C. E. B. Cranfield writes: “in the Christian believer … (there) is a growing knowledge and … deepening hatred of sin.”6 We are aware that sin lives in us.

Unfortunately, insight into the conflict with sin that believers undergo does not lessen the fierceness of that battle. By serving God, the righteous one, we are necessarily the enemies of sin. We become, then, particularly important targets of sin. The fact that we are now sin’s enemies is complicated by the fact that we once belonged to sin. Having been once sin’s slaves (7:14) means that, even though we know we are no longer required to serve sin, our tendencies, shaped by our former captivity, draw us toward doing that very thing. Having once been the property of sin means that in effect sin still lives in us, even while we may be dead to it.

Paul is realistic, perhaps because of his personal and pastoral experience, about the abiding influence of sin in the life of faith. In fact, the life of faith may be a life in which sin’s influence is most clearly seen. The commandment which leads to life (7:10), that is, the obedience of faith, challenges sin such that sin revives itself for the purpose of attempting to re-enslave the one who seeks to obey God’s righteousness. For complete obedience to the commandment of God is lethal for sin. Such obedience, as Christ’s own perfect obedience demonstrates, renders sin dead.

The anguish Paul expresses in 7:7-25 is that of the believer struggling continually against sin. This is an experience of suffering peculiar to believers who have insight into the nature of the task to which God has called us. We are on the side of justice, of righteousness, and are called to and capable of resisting sin’s proliferation of suffering. (Though the speaker in Romans 7 says he fails to resist sin, he is anything but apathetic. The drama of this discourse comes from his attempt at resistance.) This challenge is, however, not uncomplicated, for our former indenture to sin still shapes us.

We Can See God’s Love When We Suffer. Paul does not let believers forget that the battle that rages within and without ourselves is circumscribed by God’s love, which is at once Christ’s love (8:35, 37, 39). Divine love defines for believers the limits and the outcome of the battle. The battle against sin is framed by the fact that God’s love is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:39). Jesus, whom, as God’s Son, was handed over for all of us (8:32), epitomizes love–a love that shares our pain in order to take away our pain. Sin’s power, in other words, was decisively limited at the cross.

This means that, as we stand against sin, we can know ourselves to be “more than conquerors” (8:37) even as we know ostensible defeats (8:35) and ongoing struggle (7:9-24). For we are enabled by divine love (8:37) to recognize and resist: to recognize that sin’s power, manifested in suffering, is in fact weaker than love– the cross and resurrection is proof of this; and so we may resist the temptation to dumbly succumb to sin’s terrors–we may instead trust God.

1. Commentary on Romans (Eerdmans, 1980), 234.
2. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary (Westminster/ John Knox, 1994), 93.
3. Kasemann, Romans, 363.
4. Stuhlmacher, Romans, 188.
5. The Epistle to the Romans (Oxford University Press, 1933), 256.
6. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (T. & T. Clark, 1975), 359.

L. Ann Jervis is an Anglican priest and professor of New Testament at the Toronto School of Theology. This article is excerpted with the permission of the publisher from her book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message (pp. 103-113), forthcoming in 2007 from the William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. The book examines Paul’s treatment of suffering in the epistles of 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, and Romans, here comparing his conceptions of Christian believers’ suffering “in Christ” with their suffering “with Christ.” Most footnotes have been eliminated and the formatting is slightly altered.