“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.” Colossians 1:24
What commonly strikes us about this passage is the phrase, “I rejoice in my sufferings,” and it is startling, indeed. Most of us are not accustomed to, much less comfortable with, suffering so we wonder how on earth someone can say something like this. It dawned on me, however, that the substance of Paul’s statement is not about his suffering, but about the institution and people for whom he suffers. In fact, Paul’s vision of that organization, the Church, is so powerful his sufferings pale in comparison. But do not make the mistake of thinking they become less important to him because of the surpassing importance of the Church. His suffering does not “fade into the background” – it becomes something new and powerful and a reason for rejoicing.
The Church is just that important to people who are called to give their lives to the church. Pastor, this means you. And disciple of Jesus Christ, you are not exempt.
Paul suffered greatly in order to take the most important message a human can hear around the Mediterranean world and many of his exploits are dramatically recounted in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. There are pastors and Christians around the world today who still face the same kinds of obstacles and trials because they bear the name of Christ, but many in the West (today) do not experience suffering of the same sort. This does not mean, however, the pastor does not suffer for the flock.
Try building a meaningful vocation in which the definitions of success are diametrically opposed to the definitions of success in the culture around you. This means that when people look at your work and gauge your value, they are measuring apples (which often do not exist in “desired” numbers) when you are striving to grow oranges. Not only is the tension of success a struggle brought to the pastor from outside him or herself, it sits deep within their own hearts. We grew up in this culture, too. We also see the celebrity and financial status of those who have “succeeded” and we wonder what has gone wrong with us. We need to have poison drawn from our own minds as well, and it does not always leave easily.
Pastors and committed disciples of Christ rejoice when someone comes to put their trust in Christ, and they rejoice at every step along the way when that life shows signs of Christ himself. But because our work is so connected with the people God created and loves, we feel deep pain at those who drift in the opposite direction. In some ways, the life of the pastor is constant heartbreak. At the end of Paul’s list of stonings, floggings, and shipwrecks, he lists what sounds like the greatest burden he endures, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (vs. 28).
But the life of the Church and those within it is so valuable, Paul has actually learned that when he exerts tremendous effort, when he prays until he weeps himself dry, when he exhausts himself and the Church is built, it is all joy.
Do we seek exhaustion and pain? Of course not. But can we learn to place our trials and efforts for the sake of Christ and his Church in a new context? Of course we can – and we should. And it begins with reevaluating what we consider valuable in this world and what we are willing to give for its health.