I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Suffering and Resurrection
In my studies recently, I have come more and more to see suffering as key to the broad concept of salvation. Don’t get me wrong; right off the bat I want to point out that I don’t think suffering is some kind of requirement to be saved, or believe in something like “justification by suffering” rather than by Christ. But what I have seen is a basic order and connection being a major theme: suffering and vindication, death and resurrection.
What do I mean? Throughout Scripture, one of the ongoing realities is the suffering of God’s people at the hands of enemies, and His promise to both save them and vindicate them, prove that they were in the right, against their enemies. This can be mostly clearly seen first in the Exodus. God sees His people suffering under Egyptian oppression, declares that He is their God and they are His people, and proceeds to rescue and vindicate them. This continues to be the pattern as Israel faces many other enemies, especially those who taunt them and boast. In the Psalms there are repeated prayers for God to alleviate suffering and prove the righteousness of His people or His chosen king. This theme is also present very much in the prophets, especially Isaiah, though certainly in all the rest as well.
In between the Old and New Testaments, the theme of martyrdom in this regard grew especially strong. The Maccabean revolt etched into the Jewish worldview the importance of individuals who heroically suffered for God, even unto death, in the hope of future vindication and even resurrection. This set the context well for Jesus, who completely fulfilled this ideal of suffering and vindication in His own personal, physical death and resurrection, as the Scripture says:
He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death —
even to death on a cross.
For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name.
And as well:
Therefore I will give Him the many as a portion, and He will receive the mighty as spoil, because He submitted Himself to death, and was counted among the rebels; yet He bore the sin of many and interceded for the rebels.
I could produce a host of other texts, but that shouldn’t really be necessary. God has always saved His people as they patiently endure suffering, and ultimately proves them right over and against their enemies. The final climax of this is resurrection to undo the suffering and shame of death, a fate which so far only Christ has experienced in fullness.
This last part is the key. Jesus in His own self summed up the redemptive motion that God had been up to with His people since the beginning: He suffered, He died, and He rose to new life. We have been saved by Christ’s fulfillment of this dynamic between God, His people, and the world.
The significance of that for our own lives in particular is the realization of how Scripture connects these things to Christians. Just as Christ suffered, those who are in Christ are expected to suffer1. Yet this suffering is not seen as simply an isolated kind of event, a problem that will happen to us with no inherent meaning or significance. Our sufferings are directly connected to the suffering Christ experienced. His death is our death, and our sufferings are His. This means that the same end that Jesus experienced after His suffering—public vindication and physical resurrection—will also be applied to us through the Holy Spirit2.
I’ll step back and sum up the idea. We are saved through Christ’s suffering and vindication, His death and resurrection. We are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore our sufferings as Christians assure us that we are involved in His life, His saving life, and so our story will end in the same way as His: new life and eternal glory. Moreover, our sufferings can produce fruit in us of Christ’s resurrection life here and now, not just on the last Day.
Suffering and the Flesh
I want to look at that last statement a bit more. First Peter 4:1-2 say this of suffering:
Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will.
What does this mean? Does suffering sanctify, and if so how? Why does it say that the one who has suffered in the flesh has finished with sin? The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in a proper understanding of the “flesh.” Contra the NIV, “flesh” should not simply be taken as “sinful nature.” The flesh appears to be, Biblically speaking, a reference to the merely natural aspect of human nature and existence, the part of human life which is not truly distinguishable from animal life. The one who lives according to the flesh lets natural desires run his life: the drives for sex, food, survival, security, etc. None of these things are evil things, but when the desires for them are unchecked by anything higher than mere man, they run rampant and destroy. Yet “flesh” in this sense can also be used more neutrally. Jesus being descended from David according to the flesh merely means that David is His ancestor from a natural, physical point of view.
I think that it should not take much detailed explanation and defense to show how this makes sense of the use of “flesh” in Scripture. So if we tie that the concept of suffering for Christ, it is not difficult to see how suffering kills sins. When we share in Christ’s sufferings, we learn from experience to deny the desires of the flesh, and indeed the more you actually suffer and deny the flesh, the more you become able to do so, just as is the case with all learned behaviors. When we learn to deny the flesh by our sufferings for Christ, we find that we are more inclined to seek satisfaction in Him than to fulfill our natural desires. We become liberated from the constant compulsions to satisfy our desires for food, sex, security, and survival which so inhibit our abandoned pursuit of Christ as we continue to deny these desires in suffering for His sake.
Suffering and Fasting
This brings me to the most recent realization in conjunction with these themes. See, not all of us experience Christian suffering. Most of us do suffer at some time or another, death or sickness or poverty or broken hearts. Yet few of us suffer for Christ, voluntarily accepting suffering precisely because of our commitment to Him. Instead of by choice for God, we suffer by external factors which we try to escape or mitigate. This kind of suffering, while empathetic and in need of grace, is not the suffering that trains us to kill sin. But this is something of a blessing. We do not suffer for Christ because we have a degree of religious liberty, and are allowed to worship as we please. So we are free to pursue holiness and share the Gospel. On the other hand, we miss out on something, because God gives His people blessings through suffering3.
So what? Are we forced to miss out on these blessings as long as live in a safe place for Christians? By no means! For if indeed suffering for Christ sanctifies us by training us to deny the desires of the flesh, there is another way to experience these same benefits. This can be done by a discipline taught and practiced by Christ, used widely in the Church’s past, but mostly neglected today. What is this? Why, fasting, of course.
See, fasting makes it possible to deny the flesh and seek Christ in a very tangible, voluntary, and powerful way. When we fast, we make a commitment that binds us for a time, pressing us to neglect our natural desires (particularly food, which is easily the most powerful) so that we might instead devote ourselves to prayer, Scripture, and love. When we do this regularly, we develop the habit, enriched and sanctified by the Spirit through these devotions, of denying self for Christ’s sake. This is, in fact, what Christ Himself did to prepare for His ministry. In order to maintain His strength, resist all distracting temptations, and train for the hardships of His ministry which would climax in death on a cross, He spent 40 entire days fasting. No food for over a month, denying His natural desires, His flesh, for the sake strengthening His resolve in the Spirit. This was the very first thing the Spirit led Him to do after His baptism, and the foundation of all He would do later. If He could actually dedicate Himself to God for 40 days without food—if He could push through that kind of intense hunger and desire—then He could withstand anything else He would need to do, even be crucified.
Following this pattern that Jesus Himself set down is exactly what we need. When we fast, we participate in Jesus’ life and death, His saving sufferings, and by this we kill the power of sin in our lives by the Holy Spirit. When we fast, we experience in part the benefits of godly, Christian suffering. Fasting is a powerful and necessary part of our spiritual disciplines by which we grow in Christ through the Spirit, alongside prayer and Scripture.
Oh, and Pizza Hut
I should add one more thought to this before I finish. See, while fasting is criminally neglected among modern church practice, it’s not altogether absent. It still does happen. Yet even when it does, I’ve noticed that it is rarely the traditional practice of abstaining from eating, or even any other basic human desire. I see people fast Facebook, sweets, sodas, Twitter, or sometimes even the entire Internet. These are useful and sometimes necessary fasts which can benefit our spiritual health. But I get the uneasy feeling from the sheer flood of these kinds of fasts that the full fasting of food has become a rarity, and that this is because in the American church we, well, have an idolatrous love of food. We are widely and deeply guilty of the sin of gluttony.
I believe this applies to most of you reading this, along with myself. We love food too much. We let it drive and control us. There’s a reason I often crave a Pizza Hut buffet, and every time I go I eat more by myself than many families get for a whole day around the world. There’s a reason that I cringe, fear, and delay when I think about fasting food. I am an idolatrous glutton, and for that I repent and impose upon myself a fast that I might learn to deny the flesh for Christ. Yet I am not alone, and I can only pray that more of us will gather the conviction to crucify our natural desires, even the desire for food, that we may be freed for holiness.
In fact, that last sentence is pretty much the whole point of this post. So with that I’ll end with a good quote:
Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.
St. Basil the Great