The more I grow in my knowledge of the Lord (by his grace) the more I see the utter centrality of the church, the local church, in his plan for his people. The more I learn of him, the more I see what a jewel the church is—what a blessing, what an honor it is to be part of something so amazing, so other-worldly. This is something that has been brought home to me in recent years primarily by the joy and privilege of being part of a faithful local church. But it has also been emphasized through many of the books I've read.A little while ago I read Ligon Duncan's book Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?, a book that deals with suffering. There was something in there that really grabbed my attention in this context of the local church.
You may be familiar with these words from the first chapter of Colossians:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
These are words I've read many times over the years, and yet somehow Duncan's application of them was entirely fresh. In the chapter that provides the context for these verses he is explaining what God may be accomplishing through suffering and one of the four points he brings up is this one: Suffering serves to build up the church. Have you ever considered that through your suffering God is strengthening your church? He says, "Our suffering aids the maturity of the whole body of believers. It is extraordinary that our suffering is designed not only to work godliness in us as individuals, causing us to prize Christ more, but also to work maturity within the whole church." And this is exactly what Paul points to in the opening verses of Colossians. "Suffering is God's instrument to bring about the maturity of the whole church. God ordains for our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ's body, to bring about in the church the purposes of Christ's affliction. In other words, sometimes God appoints his children to suffer so that the whole body will become mature." We all know that as members of the church we are to rejoice together and to mourn together, but do we understand that these occasions of mourning are given for our maturity? If we truly are a body, each part dependent on the other, then it cannot be any other way. One person's suffering is every person's suffering; one person's maturing is every person's maturing.
Can't you see how this must be true? Can you think about some of the Christian men and women whose suffering you have witnessed and see how their example has served to strengthen the church? I can think of all kinds of examples. Some of them are people who suffered far away from me, far from my local church, but whose suffering served to strengthen even those Christians whom they had never met face-to-face. Others are people who have been a part of my local church or still are a part of my local congregation, whose suffering has been witnessed by only a few; but those few have been strengthened by their witness. I think of people who suffered through illness or joblessness or the loss of a child; they grew in maturity through the suffering but, remarkably, so did those of us who wept with them.
Duncan says, "These 'lacking' afflictions of Christ's do not indicate that his suffering was insufficient for our salvation. They are simply a recognition that when you become a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you become a part of his body. Since you are part of his body, your sufferings are his sufferings. What are the sufferings that are lacking in Christ's affliction? They are the ones that have not been experienced yet by his body, the church. They will continue to be experienced by his body until he comes again and makes an end of all suffering for his people." Duncan goes on to say, "The apostle Paul is telling us something amazing. The afflictions of the body of Christ are intended to bring it to maturity. That is to say, God ordains, by the Spirit and by faith, for our suffering to bring about in the church the purposes of Christian affliction. These purposes are: Christ in us, the hope of glory, and every one of us being made mature in Jesus Christ."
So I guess this is something we ought to keep in mind during those times that it is God's will for us to suffer. Our suffering is not pointless; it is not meaningless. At least in part, our suffering is mandated by God so we can strengthen and edify our brothers and sisters in Christ so that they, and we, may strive toward Christian maturity. "Your suffering does not just belong to you. You are members of a body. Your suffering is for the body's maturity as much as it is for yours. Your suffering is there to build up the church of Christ. It is there for the people of God to be given faith and hope and confidence in the hour of their trials. Your suffering is also the body's suffering because one of God's purposes in suffering is the maturity of the whole church."