Sunday School - 9:30am // Worship Service - 10:30am

The Christian Ethic of Joy and Suffering

Consider with me for a moment Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 6:4: “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (6:10).

How is it possible to be characterized by both sorrow and joy; having nothing, yet possessing everything? At first glance, they do seem to be contradictory or at the least, strange bed-fellows. At second glance, we recognize the harm it would be to experience a life of joy with no sorrow, or on the other hand, sorrow with no joy.

Imagine the danger of experiencing a drowning sorrow that knows no joy or the alternative - a triumphal joy that knows no sorrow. Would not a pure unmitigated sorrow be characterized of hell? And wouldn't a pure, undiluted joyful bliss be characterized of heaven?

Neither an unmixed joy nor an unmixed sorrow would be in touch with reality, which is our situation on earth. Neither mental states would reflect a healthy mindset. For as long as we live on this earth, in this temporal plane, sorrow and joy are mixed in our experiences. For this old-creation world participates in both the common curse as a result of the fall, and common grace as a result of God's Noahic covenant to preserve the world for the redemption of Christ.

And yet, all humankind participates in both common curse and common grace, thus experiencing mixed joy and sorrow, while awaiting the return of Christ who will indeed redeem and judge separating a new-creation heaven (and new earth) filled with joy from the old-creation hell filled with sorrow. But that's not really our topic for the moment. We are considering the mixed sorrow and joy of the believer-in-Jesus as a motivation for serving Christ today. 

Pertaining to the Christian's particular experience, Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, by which he himself overcame death and entered into the glory of heaven, is meant to give us hope in our present suffering.

Without the resurrection of Jesus, we have reason to be hopeless. Paul fittingly concludes 1 Corinthians 15 by reminding believers that death will one day be swallowed in victory, a complete triumphalism. And in fact, our representative, the last Adam, Jesus Christ, has already experienced complete triumph through His resurrection and ascension on our behalf.

In Christ, our triumph has been secured in the heavens. Consequently, our ministry and service for Christ in this present life is not in vain. You see: joy in suffering. On the other hand, we do not want to deny the reality of suffering in this world by pretending that suffering does not matter because our triumph is in Christ secured in heaven.

The incarnation and redemptive work of Jesus on the earth, in the flesh, reminds us to keep one foot in this present world and the other foot in heaven, so to speak. Paul in Colossians 3:1-4 tells us how to maintain this balance. 

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” 

At first glance it looks like Paul is telling believers to be so absorbed with heaven and not concern themselves with earthly things. But if you continue reading through chapter 3 and into chapter 4, you will observe that Paul is masterfully explaining that when the eyes of faith are raised to heaven, when one’s identity is riveted on union with Christ and citizenship in heaven, this faith and identity motivates a Christ-like walk in the here and now.

Believers put off earthly passions (3:5) and put on the spiritual clothes of heavenly character that Paul describes as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and forgiveness (3:12-14). Paul encourages citizens of heaven to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15).

Christ’s peace, ruling in our hearts, underlines the present Messianic rule of Christ in our lives in this present age even as we wait for the victorious consummation of his rule over heaven and earth. The peace of Christ that reconciles the sinner to God through faith will one day be extended by God to reconcile creation under the rule of the Messiah when he returns.

It is this ‘already and not yet’ perspective that is in the mind of the Hebrews writer when he writes regarding God: “In putting everything in subjection to him [that is, Christ] he left nothing outside his control, [but] at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him” (Hebrews 2:8). Going back to the context of Colossians 3, Paul describes the conflicts of life that require a heavenly perspective, a heavenly mind-set and attitude that motivates a way of life that is in keeping with heavenly citizenship, yet while living on earth, on this side of heaven. 

If you have ever had the opportunity to travel internationally, I think you will resonate with this. Before you can travel from your home country, your country of citizenship, you will need a passport and a visa. And if you are traveling to a country that is not, shall we say, very peaceful, it would be wise to notify your nation’s embassy that you will be traveling.

You would alert them as to when you plan to arrive and depart. Once you arrive, you will walk off that plane to receive an official stamp in your visa permitting you to engage in a not-so-familiar culture. You understand that you must honor the laws of the country you are visiting, while at the same time obeying the laws of your own country. 

This balancing act can be very trying, and overwhelming, to say the least, especially, if the country you are visiting expects bribes by law enforcement. During your stay, you will want to keep your citizenship in mind as a motivation to honor your country with your conduct while living abroad. And if something would go wrong, God forbid, you may very well need your country’s assistance.

You may need the embassy to come to your aid. Can you sense the balancing act between the reality of citizenship and at the same time your conduct in a foreign country? 

Paul reminds believers that knowing your citizenship, meditating on your identification with Christ is the key to living in the here and now. If you think that just maybe the apostle is speaking from a theological ivory tower, you have only to observe his personal testimony in 2 Corinthians 6:3-10.

The apostle explains the marks and characteristics of his apostolic ministry as a steward and servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He provides this profound description of his ministry: “But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, by truthful speech, and the power of God …” (6:4-7).

We get the picture. Notice the conflation of two worlds. Paul describes clear and undeniable suffering. It is a reality in his life. Yet, he also describes a heavenly reality at work in his heart. Notice the qualities of purity, patience, kindness, and the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

How do these two realities work simultaneously? Here it is: “As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (6:10). How in the world? Sorrowful, yet rejoicing? Poor, yet rich? Paul lives in two realms. His life according to the heavenly dominion, wherein the Messiah is enthroned, is the place of his citizenship. His life according to the earthly realm, where Christ rules within the heart, he lives in suffering, as a steward of the gospel of Jesus.

To suffer for God’s glory, to get real about his suffering and poverty, Paul draws from the encouragement of His heavenly citizenship to experience honest-to-goodness sorrow, yet mixed with a joy that is rooted and grounded in a living hope.

Paul does not face suffering with some sort of crazy denial. Paul does not make it the ambition of his life to run every time he faces difficulty.

Why? Because he has a heavenly citizenship. He is not insane. He doesn’t find pleasure in suffering like some kind of masochist, or pursue difficulty out of a warped sense of heroism. That’s not it at all. Paul understands the secret of living in light of his citizenship with a mind’s eye toward his identity with Jesus in heaven.