Ben and Laura Harrison’s first child—Jonas—was born blind. This raises the vexing question of why God allows suffering. The simple answer is, he doesn’t. God requires suffering. Ben and Laura have been elected to top off the tank of Christ’s afflictions.
Life was full of challenges for Ben and Laura Harrison, serial entrepreneurs, and then Jonas Paul added one more. What started as an uneventful pregnancy ended with a troubled observation. Jonas appeared healthy at first, but Laura noticed something wrong with his eyes. “Does he have pupils?”
Jonas Paul has “Peter’s Anomaly,” a rare problem that has, over two years, required multiple surgeries. Doctors made initial improvements in Jonas’s sight, so he needed eyeglasses. Ben, with a degree in design, found children eyewear styles to be abysmal. So he and Laura, sensing a call while running two other businesses, launched a third—Jonas Paul Eyewear.
I met Ben and Laura in October of 2014. In February of this year they spent a weekend with my wife Kathy and I. We were soon discussing how friends debated why God allows suffering. I suggested that he doesn’t. The Apostle Paul said his sufferings were filling up what was still lacking in Christ’s afflictions (Col. 1:24). Ben and Laura have been elected to suffer, topping off the tank of Christ’s suffering.
To go further on a tank of gas, drivers will top off their tank, filling it completely full. Paul is saying the tank of Christ’s sufferings is not yet completely full. Paul’s sufferings fill what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ. This is required to achieve the fullness of salvation.
The Bible speaks of salvation in three tenses. We have been saved (in the past: Eph. 2:5,8; 2 Tim. 1:9; Titus 3:5), we will ultimately be saved (in the future: Rom, 5:91 Thess. 5:9-10, I Pet. 1:5), and we are being saved now (in the present: I Cor. 1:18, 15:1-2; 2 Cor. 2:15). Christ’s afflictions are 100 percent sufficient for our past salvation. That tank is full. Being saved is another matter. That tank is not yet full. To achieve the fullness of salvation, Christians must share in the afflictions of Christ, to top off this tank. It’s how two become one.
Sharing in suffering can bring about bonding. The aim of the gospel is bonding, two becoming one. Jesus aims to marry a bride, the church. Like all grooms, he longs for a bride who longs to bond with him, who pants for him. That’s right, pants. The psalmist wrote: “as the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for you” (42:1). Sharing in the sufferings of Christ is how the church gets ready for the marriage bed, to enjoy nuptial union to the fullest with the groom. It’s topping off the tank of Christ’s afflictions so the bride is fully prepared. It’s how we’re being saved.
This is why a place called purgatory might exist. The tank of Christ’s suffering will be topped off, here or there, now or later. If not here and now, it could be then and there in a place called purgatory. Purgatory is purging impurities. It is suffering to produce a pure and panting bride. If, during its time on earth, the church fills what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions, topping off the tank, then suffering is complete. But if the church fails to fill what is lacking, impurities will be purged later. It will happen, one way or another.
Suffering is a deep well and no one can see to the bottom of it. For instance, Ben and Laura’s situation doesn’t explain suffering by those who don’t know Christ. It does however explain the doctrine of election. Lesslie Newbigin noted how most Christians see election as a static position before God. It’s not. It’s a dynamic privilege, and includes death and suffering, where Christians “take our share in his suffering.”1 I don’t know of anyone who would select suffering, but Ben and Laura have been elected to top off the tank of suffering, to fill up what is still lacking in Christ’s afflictions. It’s a privileged calling and how God creates a breathless and beautiful bride.
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1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 87.