Truth We Can't Handle (Pt. 2)

Michael Metzger

Colonel Jessep was right about something else. He told Lieutenant Kaffee that Santiago’s death, “while tragic, probably saved lives.” In scripture, suffering and salvation share a connection. Seeing it requires a deep and wide understanding of salvation.

Last week we began feeling our way into the mystery of suffering. Suffering is connected to salvation – a mysterious view of salvation. It goes like this: believers have been saved, are being saved, and will be saved. Salvation is a past and completed action, a present and ongoing endeavor, and a future state. Believers have been saved – “for by grace you have been saved; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). Believers are being saved – “for the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor. 1:18). Believers will be saved – “the one who endures (suffers) to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22).

In those seven words – the one who suffers to the end – we peer more deeply into salvation. Christ’s sufferings and death, while tragic, saved lives. His past sufferings are sufficient for our past salvation. However, his present sufferings are not yet completed for our present and future salvation. The Apostle Paul wrote that believers are privileged to “fill up” what is still lacking in Christ’s sufferings. “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” (Col. 1:24). Our sufferings fill a gap.

This is a deep mystery. Suffering is what “saves” saved believers so they will reign with Christ. “If we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him” (II Tim. 2:12). This is why the question is not why God allows suffering. It’s what do we get out of it? Believers get the fullness of salvation. This is not “works” salvation. Rather, it’s “working out” our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). Fear and trembling has everything to do with a sobering metaphor Paul used to picture the Christian’s life on earth.

In I Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul warns “saved” Christians of a clear and present danger. He pictures being saved as similar to building a home. Christ is the only foundation – we have been saved. “But be careful how you build.” Our home can be constructed with six materials – wood, hay, straw, gold, silver, and precious stones. When Christ returns, he’ll test the home’s quality with fire. Fire vaporizes wood, hay, and stubble. Fire refines gold, silver, and precious stones. It’s worth quoting Paul at this point.

If any man’s work that he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire (I Cor. 3:14-15)

The image is of a man barely escaping a burning building. He’s saved and, in the best case, only singed, reeking of soot and smoke. In the worst case he is horribly marred. Believers can be saved yet singed. Worse, they can be tragically disfigured. This is not the end of the story however. Chapter four of the gospel is the final restoration. Believers will be fully restored in eternity. Eye has not seen nor has ear heard all that God has in store for eternity, but the opening scene might look like this.

The final restoration begins with believers being judged (II Cor. 5:10). This is the burning home that Paul imagined in I Corinthians 3. Those believers who didn’t suffer and fill up Christ’s afflictions will suffer loss. They will be marred or, even worse, horribly disfigured. Tears will be shed. There’s an old Fram Filter commercial: Pay me now or pay me later. Christians can suffer now or suffer later. At the end of the day Christ’s afflictions will be filled up. Believers can participate now or later – but they will partake and suffer. Suffering means tears will be shed – here and now, or then and there.

This final purifying is due to destiny. Believers are destined to be the Bride of Christ. But given Paul’s warning of escaping a burning home, a disfigured bride is a distinct possibility. Tears in heaven would indicate this happens, and that the bride not ready to be married. Have you ever read how, after the judgment, Jesus leads his bride “to springs of living water” to “wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17)? It might be that the tears are only momentary. In the final restoration, there shall be no mourning, nor crying, nor pain, “for the former things have passed away” and everything is made new (Rev. 21:1-4). Once the bride is fully and finally restored, the couple enjoys a sumptuous wedding banquet and later consummate their love. Christ’s afflictions are finally and fully filled up.

Granted, we only see these mysteries through a glass darkly. Suffering reminds us there are limits to what we can understand. God has a greater responsibility than we can possibly fathom. That’s another thing Colonel Jessup got essentially correct. As he told Lieutenant Kaffee, “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it!” The Apostle Paul, who was imprisoned, savagely beaten times without number, often in danger of death, and shipwrecked, said he rejoiced in suffering (II Cor.11: 23-25). That might be why he wrote: Who in the world do you think you are to second-guess God? (Rom. 9: 20-22).

To be saved is to be one of God’s elect. Lesslie Newbigin understood election as taking “our share in Jesus’ suffering.”1 The practice of Lent recognizes these mysteries. It is a time of restraint and remorse – pay now or pay later. It’s also a time to remember how suffering is designed to stretch our hearts to their maximum capacity. It’s part of the mystery of the gospel written right in our bodies as male and female. We’ll keep feeling our way into our bodies next week, before this year’s Lenten season is officially over.

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1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 82-87.

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