Topping Off The Tank

Michael Metzger

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

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1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 87.

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10 thoughts on “Topping Off The Tank”

  1. April Holthaus

    I’m confused. Haven’t heard you say some of things before. But then you are heads over my brain and figuring. So…thanks for talking about suffering. I get some of it, but the long part about purgatory is confusing. I didn’t think Evangelicals went that direction. Love ya.

  2. April,

    This is confusing but I too am grateful for the topic of suffering being approached without fear. However, Mike you have confused two categories of suffering and the the scripture’s response to it. And that confusion allows for speculation of a non-biblical and heretical doctrine – purgatory.

    Natural suffering (disaster, disease) happen to all peoples and is addressed by Jesus in Luke 13. Yes, this suffering is required by God, but not for the purpose of making us like Christ. Among many reasons it is for the purpose of displaying attributes of God we would not otherwise understand, in addition to driving us to repentance and dependance upon God. The unanswered question at the end of the post “this doesn’t explain suffering by [non-christians]” would be a great response to Ben and Laura’s, and anyone else’s, physical suffering of the cursed creation that eagerly awaits restoration.

    This however, is distinct from the suffering experienced by a Christian for being in Christ, speaking of Christ. publicly identifying with Christ and His message and ways. The verse from Colossians, with parallel statements from Peter and Jesus in John 15 discuss our sharing in a narrow spectrum of suffering: again suffering for representing Christ and speaking for Christ – see also the disciples in Acts 4. However, this does nothing to add to our purity, righteousness, or holiness before God. Among many reasons, that purity and righteousness is infinite, and would require either an infinite being transferring it to a finite being(jesus to man by faith alone) or a finite being working or suffering in “purgatory” for an infinite amount of time to accomplish it. Paul’s letter to the Colossians is refuting the very idea that anything can add to our right standing before God – either in ongoing salvation or after death.

    We are suffering, Jesus tells us, because the world that hates Him can’t get to Him, because He’s gone back to heaven. So the world that would keep crucifying Him, if they could, fight against His body, those who name Him. So very much yes, we share in oneness with Christ, but in a narrow sense of suffering, not in all suffering. And we know all kinds of people that “select this suffering.” Each of us ought to be one of them – as Jesus says in the beatitudes (Mt 5:11)and Matthew 10:33.

    The 3 parts of salvation that were mentioned are wonderful truths, but the role of each cannot be jettisoned with the other. The penalty of sin is fully dealt with in justification Mike, therefore there is no tank to be filled up in any sense of purification – either in ongoing sanctification, or after death. Ongoing sanctification, deals with the power of sin, as Paul states in Colossians 3 (putting off and putting on), and then the problem of the flesh is completely resolved in glorification when our new bodies cannot be corrupted. Paul deals with this clearly in 1 Corinthians 15. But that is a supernatural instantaneous act, not one of temporary purification.

    So what is “filling up”? Paul makes clear that is not about a personal or individual experience. It is filling up the world with pictures of what Christ went through, in order to show the lost, rebellious world what kind of love Christ showed 2000 years ago. Epaphroditus did the same thing in Philippians 2:30. And yes, what a gift to be selected by God for this wonderful task! But this is distinct from suffering of natural disaster and disease. Not that our suffering in those things is in vain – we glorify God in this and so also show the world His glory of sustaining us in our future looking hope.

    April, you are right about purgatory not being an evangelical doctrine; it only fits a catholic schema, which is dependent upon justification before God that is incomplete and requires ongoing infusions of grace in order to justify a person before God. If a person is not declared righteous until they are actually righteous, then purgatory is a possible speculation to consider. But, as scripture teaches, if a person is declared righteous, fights against the remaining unrighteousness (flesh, satan, world), and then is given a new body, satan is cast in the lake of fire and a new heavens are brought down to earth, the doctrine of purgatory is non-biblical precisely because it is unnecessary.

  3. HEB 5:8 – “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered”

    My guess is that Father will not change the discipleship syllabus/curricula for me!

  4. Philippians 3
    10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

    12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

    Following Paul’s Example
    15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

    17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

  5. Justification, sanctification, glorification.
    Directly attributing suffering IMO should be done with caution.Expressing compassion should also take wisdom.

  6. Mike, my disabled daughter has brought great joy to my life but also tremendous suffering and pain. People outside of this circle can never really understand the quiet desperation we endure with God’s help, but they ask. “How is it you can handle _________?” Fill in your not-so-private pain they see. I agree with Jeff. This gives the world a chance to ask, and us to answer “…for the hope that is within us.” Salvation is not completed by suffering, though it will change you mentally and emotionally. I think you may be confusing the two. Just as prayer more often changes us not by giving us what we desire but purifying that desire, so suffering can be the crucible used to refine us as human beings living in a fallen world.

  7. Are ‘Harvest times’ relevant also ? Clearly ‘fruits of the spirit’ can grow now ? Should we grow in our salvation ? Is suffering compulsory to this growth?

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