Suffering and the Church
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake,
and in my flesh I am filling up
what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ
on behalf of his body, which is the church...
Many people, especially non-Christians, think that it is nonsensical to rejoice in one’s sufferings, even though unbelievers and others often use the expression “No pain, no gain” – recognizing that some good things (such as building muscles or creating some great accomplishment) inescapably require some amount of suffering (unless they are selling some “pain-free” alternative that is usually results-free).
But for the Christian, suffering has an infinitely greater positive dimension: a mysterious participation in the sufferings of Christ.
It must be noted here that when St. Paul speaks of “filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” he is in no way implying that Christ’s sufferings were insufficient. Indeed, just a few verses earlier (19-20), St. Paul is eloquent regarding the cosmic sufficiency of Christ’s death on the cross.
For in him
all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him
to reconcile all things for him,
making peace by the blood of his cross (through him),
whether those on earth or those in heaven.
Christ’s sufferings are infinitely and eternally sufficient and yet he chooses to give us the blessing of sharing in those sufferings in real yet mysterious ways.
Nor does Christ extend to us the opportunity of sharing in his sufferings simply for his glory or for our individual salvation. These sufferings, rather, are “on behalf of his body, which is the church.”
As Paul continues in this passage and beyond, he specifically relates his sufferings to the Church. On one level, he is suffering because of false teachers within the Church, while on another level, he is suffering in the intensity of his labors on behalf of the Church.
But there are many more levels to what St. Paul is saying here and many more levels, deeply spiritual, to the suffering he describes here: he shares Christ’s love for the Church as well as Christ’s heartbreak at sin within the Church, he shares Christ’s sufferings as he preaches from his own heart about Christ’s sufferings, and he shares Christ’s sufferings in the rejection, scorn and even violence that the world inflicts on him.
Thus St. Paul’s words are more than just comforting words in the face of any kind of suffering (although they are that), they are words to encourage us in our own following of Christ and our own participation within the life of the Church.
Many times we may have been blessed with a new enthusiasm for the faith and for the Church, only to be disappointed, discouraged, and dissuaded by the imperfections of its people and even some of its leaders.
St. Paul’s words are an invitation for us to persevere and even to rejoice as we each share, in whatever ways are given to us, in the same work and the same sufferings: the work and the sufferings in Christ that by his grace bring us all closer to the goal given to the Church and its members:
...that their hearts may be encouraged
as they are brought together in love,
to have all the richness of assured understanding,
for the knowledge of the mystery of God, Christ,
in whom are hidden
all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.