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Success through suffering

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Not many people have a theological epiphany in the context of doctoral research. But I did.

I embarked on my PhD research in 16th-century Anabaptist theology, motivated by a scholarly curiosity regarding the origins of my Baptist faith. Little did I know that my research would change my outlook significantly and open the door to an important shift in my theological self-understanding. In short, I became an evangelical Anabaptist.

It all started when I read the spiritual pilgrimage stories of the Anabaptist leaders I was studying. Virtually all of them had experienced a new awareness of the gospel message through an encounter with the work of Martin Luther, but all expressed a sense of nagging discomfort – something was still lacking.

For the early Anabaptists, Luther’s emphasis on liberty in Christ didn’t completely encompass what they were experiencing in their new faith. Also, it couldn’t account for the suffering they endured as a result of persecution from both Catholic and Protestant church officials.

These believers found an anchor for their faith in Scripture. It didn’t take away the trouble, but it did demonstrate that their suffering wasn’t a sign of God’s disfavour.

Following in Jesus’ footsteps

Hebrews 2:10 asserts that Christ our Saviour was made “perfect through suffering.” This doesn’t mean that Christ had to be purified; he was already blameless and holy. The word translated “perfect” refers to the fulfilment of God’s purpose for Christ, which was to suffer and die for the sins of humanity.

Clearly, Christ could not have accomplished God’s plan apart from an embrace of the suffering which lay before him. This christology formed the core of the Anabaptist understanding of discipleship – following in the steps of Christ.

Put simply, Anabaptists took seriously the idea that Christians – literally, “little Christs” – should imitate the example of their Saviour and leader. It wasn’t enough to give internal assent to the truth of Christ’s atoning work. They understood that true belief is revealed in the active embrace of suffering for one’s faith, just as Christ embraced suffering and death on our behalf.

Not surprisingly, Anabaptist leaders who emphasized the importance of following Christ were accused of preaching works-righteousness, but these Anabaptist pioneers understood well that discipleship arose out of Christ’s unique atoning work. They depicted it as evidence of the transforming power of the Spirit, not as something that initiated transformation.

No more performance anxiety

The liberating power of this revelation may not be immediately obvious, but it became clear through the example of Anabaptist martyrs who gladly followed their Lord into horrible deaths. For me, it’s an antidote to the performance anxiety than can plague Christians – when we associate faithfulness with success and achievement, and attribute misfortune to divine punishment.

It also safeguards me from misguided triumphalism in my own Christian life; troubles remind me the victory I experience in Christ is just a foretaste of what I will ultimately experience. I’ve felt God’s presence most meaningfully during the painful episodes of my life, and have been assured of the purposefulness of God’s direction. Even in my darkest moments, I’m aware that my Lord has experienced the same pain.

And, most wonderfully, my perfection is guaranteed by the sacrifice of the one who gave himself to death for me – “he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14 ESV).

Following the example of Christ’s suffering isn’t a “misery loves company” type of scenario. It’s about the fact that God’s sovereign plan isn’t merely revealed in the suffering of his children, it is incarnated in their suffering. And our perfection in Christ is not in doubt; in Christ, it is assured. That is no small comfort.

Praise be to God for the suffering that completes our salvation!

Brian Cooper is associate dean at MBBS-ACTS in Langley, B.C., and serves as chair of the Canadian conference’s board of faith and life.
Hebrews 2:10
(link to BibleGateway.com)

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. ESV

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