When I moved from North Carolina to Illinois for graduate school, I immediately formed a tight bond with four other men.
We went to class together, studied in the library together, and relaxed together. We made a ritual of gathering every Friday night to eat pizza, drink beer, and watch a movie. It was a break from schoolwork and a time to talk about relationships and debate theology.
One Friday night, only my friend Mark and I were able to meet. After spending a few hours at his apartment, I said goodbye and went home. It was like any other Friday night.
But the next day was nothing like a typical Saturday. Mark and I had planned to grab coffee that afternoon. As I was leaving my apartment, an unknown number showed up on my phone. I usually ignore unknown calls, but this time I answered. It was a police detective. He asked if I had heard the news.
“No,” I answered. “What happened?”
His response forced me to my knees. “Last night Mark’s apartment caught fire. He was succumbed by the smoke, and his body was burned.” I pictured Mark’s apartment engulfed in flames. A haunting thought seized me: Perhaps I could have prevented his death. The fire started only two hours after I had left his apartment.
For weeks I was trapped in a nightmare. My grieving was interrupted by phone calls with detectives and visits to the police station. I wondered if anyone was able to understand my strange mix of emotions: sorrow, confusion, paranoia, and complete exhaustion. Sure, my friends were also mourning Mark’s death, but I felt like they couldn’t understand my situation. I had been the last person to be with him. And as the first one notified of Mark’s death, I had broken the bad news to them. My suffering felt unique and exclusive.
The semester after Mark’s death was hellacious. On top of this pain, I contracted mononucleosis, and my relationship with my then-girlfriend deteriorated. I struggled to complete my schoolwork. My life seemed to be falling apart piece by piece.
But as I pushed forward with what little energy I had, I saw a glimmer of hope. It didn’t come from counseling, prayer, or personal encouragement. It came through my theological studies. I discovered a doctrine—and, more important, a reality—that comforted me and forever altered my view of the Christian life.
The doctrine is called union with Christ. I had heard of it before, but in a class on Martin Luther, I encountered it in a way that excited me.
“Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is his bride’s and she all that is his—for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh—so Christ and the church are one spirit,” Luther preached in his sermon “Two Kinds of Righteousness.”
Coming across this passage, it dawned on me: If I am one with Christ, as he and the Father are one, then he’s always with me, even in this terrible episode (John 17:20–26).
This means that as Christians, we are inextricably linked to Christ, incapable of being disentangled. Nothing and no one can separate us from him or his love (John 10:28–29; Rom. 8:38–39). Not only that, we actually participate in his life. “Mine are Christ’s living, doing, and speaking, his suffering and dying,” Luther added, “mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, suffered, died as he did.” This is a profound mystery, indeed, but it is central to the gospel. As members of Christ’s body, united to him by the power of the Spirit, we follow Christ wherever he goes.
I understood this more deeply after I went tandem skydiving a few years ago. Though I couldn’t see my instructor—he was strapped to my back—as we jumped from 13,500 feet and whipped through the sky at 120 miles per hour, I knew he was there. After 60 seconds of freefall, he pulled the chute, and we soared. Every twist and turn we made, we made together. We were on the same trajectory.
Skydiving provided me an image of life with Christ. We are now “strapped” to Christ. He’s always with us, even though we can’t see him.
And his story, his life trajectory, is also ours.
Signing Our Lives Away
This connection means we follow Christ on the path to glory, to be sure. But it also means we share in his sufferings (2 Cor. 1:5; 1 Pet. 4:13). Being “in Christ” means we are so united with him that we participate in every aspect of his life, even the sore, ugly, and stressful moments of his earthly life—including his death. We cannot choose between participating in his glory and participating in his suffering. Søren Kierkegaard explained,
The choice would not be right if someone thought he was to choose between Christ in his lowliness and Christ in his loftiness, for Christ is not divided; he is one and the same. The choice is not either lowliness or loftiness. No, the choice is Christ.
The most nerve-racking part of my skydiving experience was signing the waivers, which included 20 different ways of saying, “You might die doing this.” Tell me something I don’t know, I thought as I essentially signed my life away.
When we commit our lives to Christ, we also sign our lives away. Paul says,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Rom. 6:3–4, ESV used throughout)
So, paradoxically, new life in Christ comes as we share in the sufferings of Christ (Rom. 8:17).
But what does it mean to share in Christ’s sufferings? He was mocked, tortured, and crucified 2,000 years ago. His suffering seems unique to him: he, infinite and holy God, became a finite human being and bore our sin on the cross.
Obviously, we don’t take credit for the redemption on the cross—we don’t bear the sin of the world. But there is a sense in which we have died with Christ on the cross. This is a mystery, but Paul indicates that whoever believes in Christ has been crucified with him (Gal. 2:20). We have died a spiritual death and have risen to a new spiritual life.
In addition, Jesus’ sufferings cannot be reduced to the last week of his life. His whole life was marked by suffering. And he suffered in ordinary ways, ways you and I suffer. He lost loved ones, knew heartache, and was moved to sadness; he was unappreciated, reviled, maltreated, and even betrayed. And we are now united to the One who experienced all that.
To be sure, Christ did not experience firsthand every kind of pain we experience. He wasn’t sexually abused. He didn’t endure the agony of cancer. He didn’t have a stillborn baby. Yet he bore all our afflictions, not just our sins, in his body as he hung on the cross (Isa. 53:4–6). Jesus felt and carried the weight of our pains, and can therefore sympathize with us in the midst of suffering. He bore them so that, someday, we may be ultimately freed from them.
But there is a converse side.
God with Us, Always
In a 2013 NCAA basketball playoff game, Louisville player Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome compound fracture. Players collapsed on the court at the sight of it; some cried and some even vomited. Most of Ware’s teammates turned away in horror, with one exception: Luke Hancock rushed to Ware, held his hand, and prayed for him. After the game, when asked why he did that, Hancock said he didn’t want his friend to be alone during his extraordinary pain.
Because our redemption was wrought by Christ’s suffering, we know that he is no stranger to suffering. In fact, he is uniquely present in our sufferings. He is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). Weakness, pain, and even death—these are places Christ inhabits, just as he did in his earthly ministry.
This doesn’t mean we should deny our need for consolation or pretend we feel God’s presence when we don’t. Our union with Christ actually helps us to make sense of times when we feel that God is far away. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Christ’s passion is his cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Son, who enjoyed uninterrupted fellowship with the Father from all eternity, apparently felt abandoned by God.
Jesus was reciting Psalm 22:1. By speaking that line, he articulated that one aspect of grievous suffering is to feel Godforsaken, and that helps us to understand what happened in that dark hour.
In the opening of the psalm, David asks why God has abandoned him. Eventually he is reminded of God’s deliverance: “For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him” (22:24).
David realized that God was with him all along, even when he felt abandoned. The moment when he felt most disconnected from God was actually a time when God was incredibly near, inspiring David to prefigure Christ’s crucifixion.
Similarly, even though Jesus felt forsaken by the Father, the Father was with him all along, reconciling the world to himself. Luke’s gospel indicates that Christ sensed the Father’s presence just before he died: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (23:46). And Isaiah prophesied, “Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge” (53:11, NRSV), meaning that in the darkness of his suffering, Christ nonetheless saw light.
This has several implications for those united to Christ.
First, even during the darkest patch, when we feel forsaken by God, he is, in fact, present—as the Psalms and the cross reveal to us. If we share in the fullness of Christ’s life, we at times will feel Godforsaken. And in those moments we know something beyond our feelings: that God is present mysteriously at the moment he seems most absent. Furthermore, just as Christ saw light—the fruit of his suffering, salvation for others—as he was still suffering, so we have hope in the midst of our suffering, knowing that God will work all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
Second, all our sufferings are significant. The twists and turns of life aren’t obstacles to God’s plan for our lives but necessary steps to get there. God uses our sufferings that we might share in the life of Christ. As Paul put it, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11, NIV).
Suffering is not something we want to avoid. Rather, like Paul, we want to pass through it, for it is a key means of experiencing deeper union with Christ.
This side of eternity, we live in the tension between death and resurrection. While we sometimes feel that death overpowers the new life we have in Christ, we know that death will not be the resolving note of our lives.
And I felt that tension after Mark’s death. I knew God was present and active in my life, but he often seemed far away. And I knew that God would somehow work good from such tragedy. Yet years passed before I could sense how God was using Mark’s death to refine my trust in and love for him.
Despite my perception of reality, I could trust that God was present—not to mention good, loving, and powerful—all along. United with Christ, we can face the trials of this life with patience and confidence, knowing that the dissonant notes will eventually lead to melodies more beautiful than we can imagine.
Kevin P. Emmert is assistant online editor for CT. Follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.
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