Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Taking a beating for another's soul

In Acts 16, we read the story of Paul and Silas going down to Philippi. There they meet Lydia at a place of prayer, and by listening to their word, she becomes a believer. After a run-in with a demon-possessed woman who had been quite profitable to some Philippians, they are beaten badly and thrown into a jail. But when an earthquake strikes and the jail doors are thrown open, the jailer is about to kill himself. Paul and Silas quickly stop him, and he asks them the most important question any person can ask: Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30). They preach the gospel to him and he is saved, he and his whole family together. After some time Paul and Silas are released and go on their way.

Paul and Silas suffered in the body quite a bit during their brief time in Philippi; it was not exactly a fun vacation for them. But their sufferings resulted in the salvation of a few people, and through these few, many others would eventually be saved as well. I should think it obvious that both Paul and Silas would have been glad to suffer more, if it meant that more people could be saved from the darkness and ignorance of sin and brought to the light of the truth in Jesus Christ.

They took quite a beating for the sake of the salvation of another's soul. And I think any Christian who sees that his sufferings are effective, that they produce something, undergoes them gladly. What is important is that a person see that her suffering means something, that it isn't utterly pointless; apparently gratuitous and senseless suffering -- that is intolerable and makes life a hell. On the contrary, if a person's sufferings lead to the salvation of others, they can be seen as a further participation in the sufferings of Christ, which were for the salvation of all people whatsoever. Thus Paul tells the Colossians:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col 1:24).

Christ's sufferings "lack" -- not in efficacy towards the forgiveness of sins, but in efficacy towards the concrete process of conversion. For those who do not yet know about Christ's death on our behalf, the mere fact of the death by itself is not enough to win them over. What is needed is a person who is willing to bring that message to them, and to undergo suffering for their sake, so that they might hear the true message of God's gospel and believe and be saved. In this way, the activity of the Christian can be understood as a kind of extension of the process of the incarnation, specifically in Christ's ministry of the gospel and suffering for the sake of the other person.

Thus Christianity offers a way for us to make our sufferings intelligible. If we suffer because we bring the message of the gospel to others and we find that they resist us, or else others who are intolerant of us wish to oppress us, then our sufferings are just a further participation in Christ's own suffering. Yet we know that Christ didn't suffer in vein; his sufferings were for our sake, and they were done out of obedience to righteousness, and his reward was resurrection to immortal life. So also our sufferings, so long as they are a participation in Christ's, are not senseless but for righteousness's sake.

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