It is a privilege to be writing this for you and I want to share some of my thoughts on perhaps the thorniest of affairs between man & God—that of suffering and death. I have shared this with the men I have had the blessing of leading in a weekly Bible study. In order to adequately address such weighty topics, we need to identify to which source(s) we might turn for illumination. So I began with the following question: Why do we believe that the Bible is true & the only source of spiritual knowledge? The answer to this question is not as follows: “Well, I was told it is true and I have believed it all my life.” That will not hold up to the 21st century skeptic, nor should it suffice for the born again Christian. The great B.B. Warfield reminds us that faith is conviction grounded in evidence. The religion of the Bible is a frankly supernatural religion. By this it is meant that God has intervened extraordinarily in the course of the sinful world’s development for the salvation of men otherwise lost. The religion of the Bible announces itself not as the product of man’s search after God, but as the creation in men of the gracious God, forming a people for Himself, that they may show forth His praise. The religion of the Bible presents itself as a distinctly revealed religion. To be more precise, it announces itself as the revealed religion, as the only revealed religion. It sets itself as such over against all other religions, which are represented as the art and device of man.
By way of background, my wife, Barb, and I were blessed with one son, Andrew. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma (a rare & fatal form of bone cancer) at age 15, he valiantly battled this unrelenting enemy for 6 years. He died two months after his 21st birthday. Andrew was a committed follower of the Lord Jesus and was a testimony to Paul’s statement in 2 Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (ESV). To my Bible study group I posed the following questions based upon some conversations I have had in the years following my son’s death: Is it proper for the Christian to fear death? Is it proper to pray that we do not suffer—in death or any other situation?
In a response to that question, I was hoping to share some wonderful insight which I have gained from my continuing study of Greg Harris’ treasure, “The Cup and the Glory”. Chapter 5 of this book is entitled, “The Fellowship”. It is about our fellowship in suffering with the Lord Jesus Christ. I had a recent discussion with an individual about death. Now, please understand that I am by no means suicidal. But I did mention that I do not fear death, and that I long to see my Savior, and to see my son. It has been 6 years and 3 months since I last held Andrew. I am fully on board with Paul: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
I thought about my son—he suffered for 6 years. He had no say or choice in the matter. And what of my Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His sufferings? Are not believers called to be prepared for suffering, not to be surprised or ambushed? Paul goes on to say in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for His sake.” James tells us to count it all joy when trials come our way (James 1:2).
Back to Greg Harris’ book. He buried twins. He knows that the death of a child stands alone as a source of pain & affliction. And he wonderfully addresses the following thorny question: How do you as God’s representative represent God accurately in a situation that causes many to question the existence of God, and even more so His love? Barb & I are no strangers to this inquisition from those in our sphere of influence who knew & loved Andrew. Wanting to know why such tragedies occur has been an ongoing ache of mankind for all time.
I can tell you that the only way for me to function this side of Andrew’s death is to focus on the promises of God and to look for God to display His works and His power. God knows firsthand what it is like to watch His own child die. Even more amazing is that He possessed the power to prevent His child’s suffering & death at any time. The truth is that God wants to be part of our grieving. He wants to be the source of comfort & hope to all who ask Him. He knows that the resulting sorrow of human tragedy is too much to endure alone. When I came to this realization during the 6 years of Andrew’s battle with cancer, I entered into the fellowship of which Paul speaks.
Paul wrote of Christ in Philippians 3:10, “That I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.” Not only did Paul know such sufferings existed (cf. Philippians 1:29), he actively sought fellowship with Jesus in the midst of them. Remember, Paul wrote to the Philippians while living under house arrest in Rome. I marvel at how believers benefit from the fruit of Paul’s imprisonment. Doctrinal truths were essential, but they emerged from a living Person. Paul kept the Person of Jesus Christ at the forefront of his life & pursuits. He never divorced doctrine from the Author of doctrine. Living words from the living God sustained Paul throughout his Christian walk.
Paul knew suffering. He abandoned his days of Jewish prosperity to follow the Lord Jesus Christ wherever He led. Paul did not view himself as a loser but a gainer. Remember his words in Philippians 3:7-8? He had lost everything—but he had gained life. He was more than content with the transaction. I am reminded of the words of Jim Elliot (I hope you know who he is): “He is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.”
What about Paul’s wanting to know the fellowship of Christ’s suffering? To return to an earlier question I posed, we do not see in Scripture where Paul sought to suffer, and neither should we. Truth be told, we do not count the same way Paul did. He counted all things loss for the sake of knowing Christ, even His sufferings. We want to know the power of His resurrection. If we are honest, the fellowship of His sufferings is of little interest to us. Not Paul. He wanted to know experientially, to be a firsthand witness, and not merely a reader of someone else’s experience with Christ.
To know Christ and the fellowship of His sufferings requires a much stronger commitment and a deeper walk. But what riches await. Most do not see suffering as a gift from God or as part of a deeper Christian walk. This became the turning point in our lives as Barb and I watched cancer dismantle our son. We realized that, if responded to properly, suffering forces us to find comfort and mercy in the present fellowship with Jesus, and to look to Him for hope for the future (Revelation 21:1-5). In the words of Thomas Chisholm in the hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness, “Strength for today & bright hope for tomorrow”. Suffering makes the world less a place where we feel at home. Heaven becomes a distinct reality. But if we look for heaven on earth we will live a life of disillusionment and we will be extremely disappointed with God. Suffering is not a comfortable place to park. Enduring suffering stretches one’s intellect and faith in a way never before imagined.
Barb & I have come to trust that suffering will be used of God for His purposes—especially in getting us to know Him in a manner we never knew existed. So, what exactly does “the fellowship of His sufferings” mean? I must quote Greg Harris, for I have never heard it stated better: “Knowing the fellowship of His sufferings means you know Him better—not about Him better. It is similar to knowing your parents better after you have children. You have an experiential basis because you realize the sacrificial labor & love involved in raising children. Often, we in our suffering question whether God knows or cares. We want others to know what it is like for us. The fellowship of His suffering is just the opposite: We learn what it was like for Him. We understand Him more and walk away with a clearer definition & greater appreciation of His love.”
Yours in Christ,
Jim Benecke MD