As Romans 8 builds to the crescendo that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39), Paul inserts a jarring Old Testament quotation: “for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Ps. 44:22). What a downer. Why does Paul quote from Psalm 44 here? Why not go straight to the magnificent promise of final deliverance? Cruciformity—that’s why. Paul grasps with utmost clarity the way of the cross during the time in between Christ’s first and second coming. Dripping from every one of his letters is a deep understanding of the nature of the cross and the cosmic and personal import of Christ crucified for his own life, and the lives of Christians who are in the now-not yet tension of this new age that has dawned in Christ, but still awaits its consummation. As Jonathan Linebaugh explains in his recent book The Word of the Cross: Reading Paul, while “the cross is the site of weakness and shame, of degradation and death…God acts in and at the nothingness of ‘Christ crucified’ to contradict and overcome the conditions of the possible” (xv). The impossible folly of the cross is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” as it “bring[s] to nothing things that are” (1 Cor. 1:23–24, 28). Paul’s rich theology of the cross offers a full-bodied understanding of suffering and a deep hope for what is yet to come in the eschaton.
A Cruciform Life: Paul as Theologian of the Cross
In Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 he contrasts the theologian of the cross with the theologian of glory “who prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly” and thus, Luther argues, “does not know God hidden in suffering.” In contrast, Luther suggests that “he deserves to be called a theologian…who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” I can’t help but think of Paul here. Paul, in following the way of the Master, is a true theologian of the cross. Consider just a sampling of the Pauline corpus.
For to you it has been granted on behalf of Christ, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, engaged in the conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.(Phil. 1:29–30)
That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.(Phil. 3:10–11)
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world…From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.(Gal. 6:14, 17)
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless,and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.(1 Cor. 4:11–13)
But as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.(2 Cor. 6:4–10)
The list could go on. But perhaps one of the most curious references to suffering Paul makes is in Colossians where he writes, “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” (Col. 1:24). Of course, nothing lacks in Christ’s work of salvation; it is complete and full. But communicating that salvific work to the world frequently calls forth an embodiment of Christ’s afflictions in the lives of Christians. Charles Ellicott’s commentary is especially helpful here. He notes that “the afflictions of Christ” in this passage are “not the Cross of Atonement, on which He alone could suffer—and in which any reader of St. Paul must find it absurd to suppose that he would claim the slightest share—but the Cross of struggle against sin even to death, which He expressly bade us ‘take up if we would follow Him.’” Christians not only take up Christ’s name, they take up his cross as well, and in so doing fill up, as Ellicott puts it, “what is still left unfinished of [their] Master’s afflictions.” Not suffering in any redemptive way, but suffering in the “natural body for the mystical Body of Christ.”
Paul offers here in Colossians and throughout his epistles not only a deep identification with Christ and his sufferings, but also an understanding of how afflictions and persecutions for the faith can serve an evangelical and edifying purpose. This is not to say that suffering should be sought after or tritely instrumentalized, or that it serves some magical effect, or is a church growth strategy (we do well to remember how some historical persecutions have virtually snuffed out the church in certain regions of the world). Rather, the reality is that Christ’s body the church reflects and embodies Christ’s afflictions. Scottish pastor and hymn-writer Horatius Bonar captured this powerfully in his 1843 hymn “Go, Labor On.”
Go, labor on: spend, and be spent,
Your joy to do the Father’s will:
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?
Similarly, missionary to India and prolific poet Amy Carmichael wrote in “Hast Thou No Scar?”
Yet as the Master shall the servant be,
And, pierced are the feet that follow Me.
Both capture some of the spirit of Paul’s cruciform theology.
A Cruciform Hope: Paul’s Hope and Ours
While these passages about suffering could be viewed as a letdown or lead to fatalism, Paul is putting forward Christianity’s unique approach to suffering. He doesn’t suggest we dismiss it stoically, pretend it isn’t happening, or think positively to magically wish it away. He certainly doesn’t tell us to look for God’s approval based on how good or bad our circumstances are—that leads only to pride or despair. Instead, as Christians, we mourn, we lament, we hope. Christ is found most fully in suffering and in weakness. This is part of the death-and-life, now-and-not-yet tension of Christian identity which will be resolved fully and finally in the new heavens and new earth and the telos of the cosmos in the wedding of the Lamb and his bride.
Richard John Neuhaus notes similarly in Death on a Friday Afternoon: “The way of the Christian life is cruciform. Jesus did not suffer and die in order that we need not suffer and die, but in order that our suffering and death might be joined to his in redemptive victory” (158). Christ has taken into his actual body the darkest shadow and deepest evil, the bleakest suffering and foulest sin, and his bodily resurrection from the dead in real history guarantees that what he bore fully in his very body, soul, and heart was for us. And so, we honor, celebrate, and bow before the Christ and his cross, and receive as pure gift “a wisdom beyond the world, a power beyond the possible, and a miracle whose name is Jesus Christ” (Linebaugh, xvi). We absorb this cruciform, paradoxical, upside-down miracle that is Christ crucified and we too bear in our own bodies an extension of Christ’s sufferings which heralds Christ’s name to the world.
Neuhaus then offers an intriguing connection: “those who have tasted of the wine that is now become blood are bound in covenantal solidarity with the one who is risen never to die again. The Christian way is not one of avoidance but of participation in the suffering of Christ, which encompasses not only our suffering, but the suffering of the whole world” (159). Here Neuhaus suggests a link between suffering, supper, and savior. The ancient church made similar connections between suffering and sacramental identity. Each martyr was participating with the Martyr, Christ, which they believed, incorporated them more fully into the Eucharistic meal. In his analysis of early martyr accounts, William Weinrich explains that “to commune with the Body and Blood of Christ was to be bound with Him who was Himself the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev. 1:5)….Participation in the Supper of the Lord, therefore, bears within itself the destiny of martyrdom — should that be according to God’s will and purpose” (10).
Polycarp prays before his martyrdom, “I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body.…Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice.” Consider as well Ignatius, who prays in his Epistle to the Romans, “Allow me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”
Perhaps the ancient martyrs took this concept too far, but at the very least the eucharistic overtones evidenced above reveal that their sense of Christian identity ran so deep that in their bodies they longed for union with Christ’s body—in partaking of his body and blood, and even in imitating his death. In the sacramental eating of Christ they found not only forgiveness of sins but a deep identification and union with Christ and with his living body, the church.
We too, are incorporated into this living body, and we too long for the day when we will be fully united with the Bridegroom who loved us and “gave himself up for [us], that he might sanctify [us], having cleansed [us] by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27). This was Paul’s hope. This too, is our hope.
Joshua Pauling taught high school history for thirteen years and is now a classical educator and furniture-maker. He is head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, Salvo, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.