Suffering and Joy

J. A. O. Preus
Monday, August 6th 2007
Jul/Aug 1997

The pattern that Christ has established for his ministers is his own path of suffering and joy. This understanding was impressed upon me in a very powerful way a few years ago when I returned home from Saudi Arabia, where I had served as a military chaplain in a Marine infantry battalion as part of Operation Desert Storm. Beyond a doubt, that experience was at once the most painful and the most joyful I have ever had in the ministry.

After the war was over, and we were coming back to the States, I came home in the first wave to prepare for the Marines arrival home. The battalion surgeon, CDR Richard Ilka, had stayed over there until the end. I arrived home on Good Friday. The Marines had had an Easter sunrise service on the shores of the Arabian Gulf and the chaplain preached on I Cor. 15: "And just as we have borne the image of the first man (Adam), so shall we bear the image of the second man (Christ)." Dr. Ilka wrote me a letter the next day in which he said, "They took down your tent the day you left and burned your sign and trash, including your homeless person style furnishings. Many here speak about you and miss you. There is an emptiness in the camp without you, our image of the second man."

There was nothing he could have said that could have meant more to me. He was telling me that in my ministry in their midst, in my suffering and in my joy, they saw Christ, the second man. This gave meaning and purpose to my suffering, to the hardship and deprivation I had experienced on their behalf-and it gave depth and substance to the joys I knew there. In all our suffering and in all our rejoicing on behalf of Christ's people, there is no greater reward-no greater burden but also no greater joy-than that in us they may see him.

When you get involved with the ministry of our Lord, just what are you getting involved with? How does Jesus' ministry of the cross, his suffering and his joy work itself out in our ministry? How may our ministry be seen as a participation in the cross of Christ and in his ministry?

I must make something very clear, however, right at the outset. It would be very easy for us (who according to the old Adam, tend always to works-righteousness) to hear what I am saying in the way of the Law. This must not, by any means, be understood in a legalistic way. Rather, to be in the ministry of Christ in the Church is, before anything else, a gift, as is every other gift given us in the cross. It is given to us to live under the cross with Christ, given to us to be in his ministry; given to us to spread his word to far-flung places, in much the same way that our salvation is a gift, or our sanctification is a gift of the Gospel.

The ministry is a gift. To participate in it is a gift which Christ confers by his call through the Church. To be like him, to participate with him in his ministry of suffering and joy must be viewed by us, not as a burden to be borne by us (which leads only to burn-out), but rather as a great, liberating gift. Such a recognition, by God's grace, may lead us to a reevaluation of our ministries, and of the sorrows and joys we experience in them, thus enabling and empowering us to adopt healthier patterns of thought and action.

Paul indicates very clearly in many passages that the ministry of Christ is not only a ministry of suffering, but is also a ministry of joy. In Colossians 1:24, however, these two dimensions of the ministry come together in a unique way: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for your sake, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

Paradoxically, he speaks about both joy and suffering in the same context. The contradiction is only apparent. Paul suggests that both must be held in tension. Jesus invites those whom he calls into his ministry to participate in his suffering and in his joy. As our ministry is a participation in Christ's ministry, it is also a participation in Christ's cross.

Now, this suffering/joy paradigm is not a good-news/bad-news kind of thing. According to Paul, both are good and may be viewed as Christ's gifts to those whom he calls. But both can be misused or abused. To suffer well and to rejoice well are not easy. Nor is this a Law/Gospel thing, for Paul in this passage teaches us that the ministry is a gift given us to do; the sufferings and the joys that come in the ministry are both gifts which may be viewed from the perspective of the Gospel.


One thing is certain: Participation in the ministry of Christ will involve you in suffering. You know that your calling into the ministry of Christ already has involved suffering and hardship, if not the kind Paul suffered, at least enough at times to press you to your limits, perhaps to the point of burn-out, or even despair. What purpose does your suffering serve?

There is, of course, a fundamental difference between Christ's suffering and your suffering for his sake. The suffering of Jesus on the cross was universally salvific. He suffered for the sins of the entire world. He bore their burden and weight on his shoulders, enduring the wrath and punishment of the Father for them. His suffering merited grace and mercy for all the world.

Our suffering for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel is not like that at all. There is no sense in which our suffering is, like Jesus', vicarious or meritorious. It does not earn God's favor, either for ourselves or for anyone else. What purpose, then, does our suffering for the Gospel's sake serve? How should we view it? What is its source? There are some important clues in our Bible passage, Colossians 1:24: "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

The "now" is emphatic. What's the reference? Is it temporal? "Now" as opposed to when: the past, the future? I think Paul is saying something like the following: "Now, after having been involved in the afflictions since first becoming a servant of the gospel, I rejoice in what was suffered." This, I think, flows most naturally from v. 23, "of which I, Paul, have become a servant." If this is true, then Paul's rejoicing is in view of his ministry of the Gospel.

Notice what Paul says: in what was suffered, not despite; not because of. We are not Stoics. Nor are we masochists. What Paul is suggesting here, I think, is that the sufferings given to us in our service of the Gospel may be viewed by us in a very different way than what we often think of as normal. He points us towards understanding them as gifts which we are granted to bear for the sake of Christ's body, the Church.

There is no question of this verse saying anything that would infringe upon the all-sufficient reconciling death of Jesus Christ. There is nothing lacking in what Christ did. Paul does not suffer on behalf of the Colossians in the same way as Jesus did. Yet there is apparently a relationship between the apostle's suffering of the afflictions on the one hand, and "you," the "body of Christ," the Church on the other hand. This is summarized by the word huper, "for, or on behalf of." This strongly implies that there is value for the Church in Paul's suffering.

Paul does not mention here the specific content of his sufferings and afflictions for the Gospel. He makes no reference to any specific incident from his ministry here (although he does at considerable length in II Corinthians 11). Precisely what experiences come upon an apostle or a pastor is unimportant; what is important is that they are, as Paul says, "for you." This is Gospel language, gift language. These "gifts" provoke joy in the apostle because they point both backwards and forwards to the two most significant days in the history of the world: backward to the day of salvation when Jesus suffered for the sins of the world; forward to the day of resurrection when the Christ who suffered will come in glory to eliminate all suffering. Thus the ground of joy is that our sufferings for the Gospel are reminders, signs of Christ's suffering.

We may summarize the implications of this text for our topic under five points:

  1. The sufferings of the messengers, the "death at work in the apostle" (2 Cor. 4:7), lets the power of Christ and the glory of God truly shine through in the lives of the converts. People see the sufferings of Christ in the suffering of the messenger. It is proclamatory.
  2. The commission and the life of the apostle are one; therefore the proclamation and the suffering of the apostle are one. We can't entirely separate our calling from ourselves. As called, we are witnesses, even often in our suffering.
  3. The apostle is the representative and imitator of his Lord. The apostle's sufferings take on the character of an epiphany, revealing the glory and strength of God in weakness. This is the strongest argument against any triumphalistic vision of the ministry which emphasizes success and glory. The theology of the cross goes to the very heart of the very nature, as well as the functions, of the ministry of Christ.
  4. The apostle's suffering has value for others. We must let the huper ("on behalf of") have its full force. Of course, it is necessary to keep the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ distinct from the subsequent sufferings of Paul or of us. Yet we must also let Paul's sufferings stand, differentiated from Christ's, still of benefit to the Colossians. A triumphalistic theology of glory views these sufferings as signs of weakness, to be avoided at all costs. Such theology commends a vision of comfortable Christianity, safe from the pain and weakness of life in Christ. Not so the theology of the cross.
  5. In this way it is possible to revolutionize our view of the sufferings we undergo in the ministry, to see them not simply as bad things that happen to us and which we must try at all costs to avoid. Nor are we to view them as good in themselves or to seek them out. There will be trial enough for us; we don't need to go out looking for it. Rather, we must see our sufferings for the sake of the Gospel as bearing an essential relationship to Christ's sufferings and to his cross. We should view them as his gifts to us, as reminders and testimonies of Christ's sufferings on our behalf, and recognize their benefits for us and for those whom we serve.

We are not the same as the one whom we represent, that is certain. We are not Christ. But we are not the same as laypeople either. We in the ministry, the designated leaders, are often targets for the world's hostility, lightning rods of opposition, consecrated servants, mediators of the Gospel, and preachers of the crucified Christ in word, deed, and suffering. Ours is a calling that imitates the pattern set by Jesus. Thus, in our ministry we give testimony in our historical situations, in our bodies, to that love which was given unto death so that others might live.


We've spoken at length about the suffering that is involved in the ministry of our Lord. But it is also, as Paul says, a ministry of joy. He proclaims, "I rejoice in what was suffered." Are you joyful in your ministry? Are your joys grounded upon the same foundation as Paul's?

The joy of the ministry is, like suffering, a reflection of Christ's ministry. We don't often think of Jesus as having been very joyful. Apparently the Gospel writers didn't see much need to give details about Jesus' rejoicing, about his sense of humor, and so forth. But we can assume that there were occasions when he rejoiced.

Some of his parables indicate that he certainly knew what joy was. In Luke chapter 15 Jesus tells three parables which culminate in great joy. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (15:3-7) speaks about there being much rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents. In the Parable of the Lost Coin (8-10), there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son (11-32), there is feasting and celebrating, music and dancing, over the son who was found. Jesus certainly knew about joy.

In his Upper Room discourse, in very tender terms, Jesus mentions his joy and the desire that his disciples may have "the full measure of my joy within them" (15:11; 16:20ff; 17:13). Here he not only indicates that he is joyful in his ministry but that he also conveys his joy to those whom he calls.

Jesus knew joy. And so do those whom he calls into his service. Ours is a ministry of joy. It is a participation in Christ's joy. Paul says, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church."

There are a few insights which we may glean from this passage relative to the joy of the ministry. First, the reason for the joy is the same as the reason for the suffering: huper ("on behalf of"). Paul rejoices on behalf of the body of Christ. The basis for apostolic joy is the mystery kept hidden for ages, but now disclosed to the saints. There is a Christ-relatedness to our joy in the ministry. The true reason for rejoicing in our ministry is for the sake of the Body of Christ, the Church. Second, because of the above, the joy of the ministry is a joy that is deep and profound. It is built upon the foundation of the glorious riches of the mystery of the ages (vv. 26-27), forged out of the energy of Christ working powerfully in the apostle.

These insights have several implications for our understanding of the joy of the ministry.

  1. The joy of the ministry bears an essential relationship to Christ and his body the Church. The rejoicing flows from the ministry, and ultimately from Christ himself. This joy is a gift, it is not a selfish joy. It is not the product of human accomplishment, nor the result of the acquisition of wealth. It is not the contentment of job security, nor having a cabin on the lake, nor a good medical and pension plan (although good things in themselves). The joy of the ministry can never result from exercising authority over people's lives (the power of lording it over them). It is not the good feeling we get when people look to us as experts, nor what we feel when we are recognized for our fine preaching or our excellent bedside manner. These are false joys, the products of a fallen theology of glory. They are not the joy of Christ in us, they do not flow from our participation in his ministry, in his cross.
  2. Secondly, it is out of character with the very nature of the ministry when pastors are constantly complaining, constantly negative about their ministry. It is inappropriate when pastors complain incessantly about their parishioners, their living conditions, and their low pay. Our ministry is fundamentally a ministry of joy and so we may learn to be, like Paul, "content in all circumstances" (Phil. 4:11).
  3. Third, the joy of the ministry is not a giddy, bubbly, superficial, "don't worry, be happy" kind of joy. It is not based on emptiness, blind optimism or positive thinking. The joy of the ministry is forged out of the hurts and sins of God's people, the weight of which we as undershepherds are called upon to bear. This joy, therefore, has a depth and breadth to it which makes it realistic, aware of the trials and the suffering that life in Christ, life under the cross will bring. It is the joy of Christ, "who, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Heb. 12:2).

As ministers of the cross, our ministry is a reflection of the ministry of Christ. In our call, Christ invites us to participate with him in his ministry of reconciliation. Our participation in Christ's ministry involves many things, among them the paradox of joyful suffering. In the light of Christ and on behalf of his body, the Church, we are granted a new way of suffering and of rejoicing, which in many ways transforms our actions and our attitudes in the ministry.

Of course, our reflection of Christ is imperfect, always marred by sin, always far short of the perfect suffering and joy of Christ. It is only an imperfect image, only "as through a glass darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12). Yet, when we fail, there is forgiveness for us-a strength, in the Word of the one in whose name and by whose command we serve.

Monday, August 6th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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