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Part IV - I Thought Jesus Came to Keep Me FROM Suffering!

September 28, 2009
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The issue of marriage within the church—namely the noticeable lack of distinction between Christian and non-Christian marriage, given our equal propensity to divorce—is not about the preservation of a tradition or institution. The reality of marriage and our apparent lack of respect for that which “God has joined together” ultimately reveals a gaping chasm between biblical Christianity and cultural Christianity that must be closed if the church wants to be faithful to its mission.

In essence, I am convinced that the recent diminution of marriage—both within the church as well as in the culture-at-large—originates in a fundamental theological misunderstanding among many Christians. 

As I (and many others) have begun to argue recently, the gospel of the kingdom has—over the last century or more—suffered a serious reduction to little more than a privatized prescription for personal salvation. Among other things, this severance from the kingdom has resulted in an undue emphasis on the individual’s eternal blessing in the future (i.e., saved from hell), rather than on the Savior and his present kingdom that orders and directs our daily lives. As a result, we tend to live and remain largely within ourselves—citizens of this world—never really working to advance the kingdom in a meaningful, biblical way.  

The apostle Paul, writing to the Philippians, urged them to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, ESV)—and according to the Scriptures, the gospel of Christ is the good news of his in-breaking reign or kingdom. This theme is better reflected in the original Greek, which can be translated as, “Only behave as a citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ.” This better captures Paul’s play on words here and later in Philippians 3:20 when he writes “our citizenship is in heaven” (NKJV). Later in the same sentence, Paul emphasizes “standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (v. 27). In the very next verse, Paul explains that this unity is a “clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God” (v. 28). Paul is stressing our responsibilities associated with our new citizenship in the kingdom and that our foreign citizenship is essential to the witness of the church.

In his excellent series addressing “the vexing question of God’s goodness and the presence of real evil in the world,” my good friend Dr. John Armstrong quotes Dr. David Bryant, a mutual friend and author of Christ is All! Speaking to the problem of our anemic kingdom perspective, David says:

We speak of Christ’s greatness in the past tense and in the future tense but rarely do we speak of it in the present tense. We speak of his work of redemption and of his coming again to judge and to save. But too few of us speak of his greatness right now, i.e., in the present tense. [I suggest] that Christ’s kingship does not come up in Christian conversations and living because, for all intents and purposes, he is not a part of our daily lives. This is why we do not see Christians pursuing a “purpose driven life” because the Person who gives our lives real purpose does not presently reign in our understanding and affections.

As to the nature of Christ’s reign, herein lies perhaps our greatest misunderstanding, which is ultimately rooted in our misunderstanding of God himself. Here again John is helpful in citing a “moving essay on the subject of divine power and human evil” by Donald McCullough:

Jesus, the Crucified One, reigns as our suffering Lord. That means he understands and participates in our pain; his regal throne sits not in the clouds but in the middle of broken human life. Therefore we assert that the essential character of his power is not domination but suffering love. We need a revolution in our thinking. We may no longer think of power as control over something or someone; the Lord who freely takes our pain unto himself teaches us that authentic power reveals itself as power for self-sacrifice with and for others (“If Jesus Is Lord, Why Does It Hurt?” in The Reformed Journal, 35:7, 1985, 14).

Thus the essential character of Christ and his kingdom is not found in a monarchical dominating power but in a “suffering love.” On this fact rests the radically upside-down nature of the kingdom into which we enter and from which Christ reigns in our hearts and history. It is the power of Christ displayed through his people by a long-suffering love that is the mark of our citizenship in the kingdom. Expanding upon the nature of this kingdom, Dr. Armstrong writes:

The present kingship of Christ is more real than any kingship in this present age. And this reign is continually increasing in scope throughout this age. … It will never look like the kingdoms of man because this is a kingdom “within you.” It is not found in the places of external power, like London, Washington or Moscow. And it operates in a realm that transcends the powers of man. It transforms all that it touches. This kingship means that we must live under his supremacy in sickness or in health, in trial or in blessing. We are a kingdom of priests “chosen to be obedient to Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2) and we presently reign as “a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). This gospel of the kingdom, and of the reigning king, needs to be recovered and preached with joy (John Armstrong, Jesus, the Crucified, Reigns: Part Two)

This means that we believe Christ is reigning now, that nothing occurs apart from God’s sovereign purpose, and that in the midst of even the most severe trials we can rest in the assurance that God will somehow use these things for good. With this much we can readily agree, but where we begin to struggle is in this disposition of suffering love. “Wait a minute!” we say. “You mean I have to love the one who causes my suffering?” Yes! Furthermore, this love is not just some internal dialogue but an attitude that yields real expression.  It is here that we practically work to the advance of the kingdom, rooted in the power of Christ and only realized in our lives by grace. It is here that we say, “Lord, I can’t do this but you can—please help me!” 

This plea goes contrary to our feelings and represents that small step of faith that is pleasing to God. We take this step believing, by faith, that God’s grace is sufficient and therefore we surrender our fate into his hands, trusting him regardless of the circumstances. It is here we move from mere belief to active, saving faith. This is the life “worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This is the kind of life—suffering love—the church must display, for according to Paul, this brings conviction to the lost sinner and testifies to our salvation through Christ Jesus. 

Would this same disposition be required of the Christian in marriage? If we were obedient to Christ in these matters would we not only divorce less but also be much more likely to experience marital bliss? Might the world take note of such people and relationships? 

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven


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Response from : Brandon  

September 28, 2009 10:04 AM

Hi Michael, appreciate your comments as always. Curious if you have read N.T. Wright's book "Surprised by Hope". He seems to touch on much of what you have been discussing as of late around the reduction of personal salvation. I am curious to know if you will be addressing topics of eschatology in future articles. N.T. Write in the afore mentioned book did a nice job of helping me see the importance of Christ's resurrection as the future hope we have in the resurrection. End times theology (at least in my American Church experience) has always seemed to be this march towards Armageddon but I know have more hope and joy after reading his response. Just curious if you have read or have plans to address... keep up the great work and thanks again!

Response from : Martin Van Dyk  

September 28, 2009 10:33 PM

I appreciate your articulation of scriptures to be holistic. Every square inch of our culture, behaviour, property, belongs to God.

In my recent reflections I seem to find that the word "spiritual" is used in order for Christians to added special meanings and therefore acceptable identity within a community. Do people hide behind such a term?

What does the scriptural term, "spiritual" mean? Could you relate its biblical definition?


Response from : Kevin Taylor  

September 29, 2009 10:23 AM

This is the kind of thinking, the "renewing of the mind", which if turned into action,
could turn this nation and the world to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
"If my people, who are called by my name, would humble themselves..." Let the power of God rule and reign in their day to day, walking around, working 9-5 lives, WOW!! what a difference!! What a kingdom transformation!! If only "we", if only "I", instead of thinking if only they.

Response from : Kathleen M. Ormsbee  

October 2, 2009 11:11 AM

Thank you ....I'm afraid I've been one of those Christians that live in the past/future and not present.
My husband divorced me because I am a "messy" and a hoarder; tired of living in a "storage area".
Are there other Christians with this malady??

Response from :  

October 7, 2009 4:50 PM

Michael is absolutely on target with this line of thinking.

Response from : Leonila Inojales  

October 7, 2009 10:42 PM

I agree with the statement. There were lines of a song that says," He never said we only see sunshine, He never said they'll be no rain, He only promise a heart full of singing..." With my personal experience in my great pain of lies and betrayal, God let it happened to me but I learned a lot, and it made me kept calling on Him to comfort me. The pain still there but hope and singing heart comforted I felt. Hating the person hurt me? No, i didn't. It is hard but I only told God, for you I will do it and I know in the long run, I can. And i will understand why? Jesus takes our sin and suffering from the wrath of God, but trials remain to make us strong and ready to His coming for us again.

Response from : Heather  

October 8, 2009 7:37 AM

I thank God for bringing me out of an abusive marriage that was killing me. Literally. Suffering is constructive, but to be destroyed is destructive. I have been and celibate for years now and I never want to get married again (unless Jesus indicates otherwise, of course) but of course I hope not! If I hadn't left I would have been dead, that is a fact. I'm sorry but needing to end a marriage does not necessarily indicate the degree of commitment to Christ's principles. Since I left my husband I have led a number of people to the Lord and at present I am witnessing to and supporting a number of non-Christian woman going through a painful time. I am a keen evangelist, thanks to God and that means daily. My church attendance and involvement is regular as always. I have bought a house and provided a home for young people and immigrants. I work with people with disabilities and many are from Christian homes however they now live in group homes and don't have many Christian contacts so I am privileged to be one of the few they have. We pray and worship together which is especially important as they often can't attend church. The journey is so wonderful and challenging. I love knowing God will always provide and sometimes in the nick of time but I know He always will. We have so much food that I have started to give it to neighbours and now I know about ten of them... lesson? It is not whether or not one's marriage lasts that is the barometer of a Christian's commitment to their faith/beliefs. At work I get spat at, kicked, hit, punched and otherwise attacked, but then they still tell me they like me and want to pray with me. A darn sight better than the marriage I had.


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