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What makes the church the church? What are its defining marks, the characteristics that set it apart?  In this series of articles, pastor Tim Breen explains that the body of Christ is a community that obeys the Spirit, extends grace, embodies witness, and faces suffering.

A s a young pastor, I was captivated by the idea of the “Prevailing Church.” I encountered that term in a number of leadership materials and thrilled in the vision: Here stands the body of Christ, arrayed against the powers of darkness, marching gallantly, invulnerable to harm, triumphant in all things.

And while the Bible is clear that the church will be lastly and decisively victorious, a broad cross-section of scripture teaches that the community of faith will meet great adversity and suffering along the way. 

The New Testament church understood this implicitly. Christianity was born in a context of severe hardship. Believers were imprisoned. Families were split. Beliefs were maligned. Leaders were executed. 

While outside-in persecution impacts fewer North American believers today, followers of Jesus continue to experience specific forms of pain. There is a special kind of sadness for those who believe Jesus loves justice and rescues the lost, for in many cases hatred and oppression reign on. Christians who trust in a sovereign God must wrestle with the “Why?” questions about disease and natural disasters in ways that those who see the world as the product of random forces may not. There is a special sadness in unanswered prayers. And when society values unbridled materialism, authoritarian rule, and stale self-gratification over kingdom values, those who follow Christ can feel excluded and imperiled. 

TL;DR: There are many reasons for the church to “mourn.”

One of the core tasks of the New Testament apostles was to process and proclaim how their gospel hope—that Jesus is Lord, and that the kingdom’s renewal was underway—aligned with these experiences of heartache and death. Their writings are rich and varied, but three appraisals of suffering are especially notable.

Suffering is inevitable

First, suffering is inevitable. Peter, addressing a community especially hard hit by persecution, wrote that the church should “not be surprised” at their sufferings, as though “something strange” were happening to them (1 Peter 4:12). In many ways, this reminder echoes Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Note that Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are you if…”

Pain and heartache is certain to arise when the church is faithful to Jesus. The values of secular culture, oppressive will-to-power, and unchecked selfishness run so cross-currently to the central proclamations of the Christian family that conflict is practically inexorable. Indeed, it is not too much to say that a church comfortably apart from pain and tensions is a church derelict in its call to minister to a broken and disordered world.

Suffering unites us with Jesus

Second, suffering unites the church with Jesus. Peter continues: “But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13). 

For many today, pain and suffering have no narrative or redemptive value. Brokenness and loss are inexplicable; they are the outcomes of blind forces, the consequences of bad behavior, or the results of their native disempowerment. They are, at any rate, devoid of meaning or purpose.

Against this view, the New Testament writers held that suffering was an appointment given to join the church to Jesus. Or, perhaps more accurately, they understood the Incarnation and Christ’s death were God’s way of participating with us in suffering.

This is a deeper thing than simply suffering “for the same cause” as Christ. In a mystical but powerful reality, the first Christians believed that the church’s pains bound them to Jesus. The crucifixion allied and integrated Jesus’s redemptive work into their experiences of pain and persecution. This was not a flat theological concept but a rich resource for early Christian resilience and joy (James 1:2).

Suffering leads to glory

Lastly, suffering gives way to glory. Peter’s conclusion to verse 13 echoes a number of Paul’s writings: Earthly suffering connects to eternal glory. 2 Corinthians 4:17 says that our afflictions are “preparing for us an eternal weight of glory.” 

This is a remarkable teaching, especially in its time. While the Greco-Roman world lauded glory and honor, suffering and humiliation were marks of shame and dishonor. Glory and suffering were something like polar opposites. 

Incredibly, Paul doesn’t just see them as connected; he considers them linked, contiguous. Suffering is the root; glory is the flower. Suffering doesn’t somehow purchase glory; suffering is glorious. 

Put another way, glory is what suffering looks like from an eternal perspective. It is the honor of God that crowns God’s people. And there will come a time in which all of the church’s shared sufferings will be seen as radiant and beautiful. 

One of my favorite quotes in all of literature is this one from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, a book that probes the depths of human pain. In that story, the hopeful believer Ivan Karamazov articulates the Christian vision of suffering like this: 

I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for … that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.

Scripture is clear: In the end, the body of Christ will stand and shine brilliantly. But the people of God will not proceed painlessly into this victorious future. We will be tested and tried. We will lose relationships. 

Yet in the end, these inevitable griefs will gather us closer to the heart of the crucified King and will reveal his glory in the church for which he died.