The “Must” of Suffering in the Christian Life: Insights from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Cross-Shaped Discipleship

This from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship, which I referenced in my message this past weekend, “Baptized with Water and Spirit”:

Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the “must” of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.

To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity. It is not the sort of suffering which is inseparable from this mortal life, but the suffering which is an essential part of the specifically Christian life. It is not suffering per se but suffering-and-rejection, and not rejection for any cause or conviction of our own, but rejection for the sake of Christ. If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering. The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross. But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ. The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him deliberately to run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death-we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time-death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1960), 96, 98-99.

Four Aspects of Suffering in Joseph

josephs-coat-diego_velc3a1zquez-1630.jpgLet’s reflect on four aspects of suffering that we see in the life of Joseph:

  1. Joseph’s family dynamic brought suffering down upon him. Joseph did not choose to be born into the dysfunctional and broken family system of Abraham’s generations, but that was the context of his birth and growth. The tensions between Joseph and his brothers reflected the tensions between their mothers, Leah and Rachel, as well as with their father, Jacob. These tensions went back a generation before into Jacob and Esau’s broken interactions, as well as that of their parents Isaac and Rebekah. There was a social and relational brokenness that brought suffering down upon Joseph. We see and experience this in our own lives, when the cycles of family sin and brokenness bring suffering down upon us, even if we were not the cause of them. Suffering as a result of social, relational dynamics is real.
  2. Joseph’s personal attitudes and decisions brought suffering down upon him. Clearly, Joseph made decisions himself that brought suffering down upon him. The way in which he swaggered around, wearing that the regal robe given by his father, did not endear him to his brothers. The dreams, although given by God, were freely shared in a way that did not add anything good to his prospects. When Joseph’s brothers reacted with anger in a plot to kill him, some of this came from beyond him while some parts of it were a result of Joseph’s personal decisions. We also see this in life. There are any number of people who wonder why ‘bad things happen to good people’, while all the while ignoring the ways in which their decisions and attitudes have led to some of their suffering.  Suffering as a result of personal attitudes and decision is real.
  3. Joseph’s cultural context and systemic brokenness brought suffering down upon him. While it was the familial relationships and Joseph’s personal decisions that brought about the situation where he was thrown into a cistern by his brothers, it was the cultural context and systemic brokenness that brought rise to the slave trade route on which that cistern was located. As the Midianite traders passed by within the real systemic evil of slavery, Joseph suddenly found himself caught inside of suffering that was much bigger than his own sin and his family’s sin. The way in which sin, evil and brokenness worked their way into fallen systems that marked the culture of his day and time brought suffering down upon Joseph. Again, we encounter this in our own day were certain aspects of suffering come down upon us because we simply find ourselves caught in the midst of a web of cultural and systemic evil that we cannot avoid. Suffering as a result of our cultural context and systemic brokenness is real.
  4. Still, God was present and somehow at work in the midst of every level of Joseph’s suffering. While Joseph’s cultural context, familial dynamics, and personal decisions all brought suffering upon him, the account of his life in Genesis makes it clear that God was not imprisoned by these other aspects. Does God cause these things? No. Does God allow these things? Yes. There is no other way to be human in a broken world than to have the capacity to choose evil or good. The necessary result of this is the capacity for personal, relational, and systemic sin, brokenness, and evil to exist, even as truth, beauty, and goodness may also exist. Even when suffering comes down, God does not throw up His hands and say, “Well, I guess I cannot do anything about that now.” No, even in these different aspects of suffering, Joseph’s life tells us that God is somehow still present — “the Lord was with him” (Genesis 39:21) — and active — “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (50:20). God’s power and presence in the midst of our suffering is real.

We do well to learn from Joseph to pay attention to all of these aspects of suffering. Many times we ask why suffering happens, and we should ask that question. However, when we drop one of these aspects of suffering out of our equation we often come up with partial or simplistic answers.

[This post is drawn from my message “Descending,” the first part of our series The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering.]

The Context of the Life of Joseph

As we begin our series “The Life of Joseph: God’s Sovereignty in Our Suffering” from Genesis 37-50, I cannot emphasize how important it is for us to understand the context in which Joseph’s life takes place. Certainly, we must pay attention to both the historical context of Genesis and the relational/familial context of the generations of Abraham’s family. We also must not miss the covenantal context of God’s work to bring forth blessing to all the nations through Abraham’s seed. I appreciate the way that this video on the second half of Genesis from The Bible Project helps us grasp the context of all these aspects together.

The Cross in Shadows

This is my message from our “Journey to the Cross” worship service on February 14, 2018. This begins a journey with the life of Joseph at Eastbrook Church throughout Lent both in our weekend sermon series and through a daily devotional.

 

Coventry Cathedral cross.jpg

In the book of Genesis, we read about the creation of the world, of the overwhelming flood in the time of Noah, and the life stories of the first fathers and mothers of our faith. When you read their stories, you quickly realize that there are many things we can hold up as strengths and more than a few things we see as weaknesses. Still, again and again, God uses their flawed human lives to display His strength, infusing His grace into their frailty, and shedding His light into the midst of the dark places in their lives and the world.

One of the most notable stories is that of Joseph. Joseph is the son of Jacob and Rachel, and the great-grandson of Abraham and Sarah. In Joseph’s life, as told in Genesis, chapter 37-50, we not only see someone go through the ups and downs of life, but also develop a deeper life with God in the midst of it.

At times Joseph seems to bring suffering down upon himself, while at other times he endures unjust suffering. Throughout his story, he interacts with characters who are for him – like his father and the king of Egypt – and others who are against him – like his brothers and a woman who falsely accuses him. Throughout Joseph’s life, God is at work, sometimes readily visible and at other times apparently hidden.

Over these next six weeks, we are going to journey with Joseph in our weekend sermon series and through a daily devotional. As we walk with Joseph we will see again and again that God uses flawed Joseph to display God’s strength, that God infuses His grace into Joseph’s frailty, all the while shedding divine light into the midst of dark places.

Near the end of his life, Joseph responds to some of those who brought suffering upon him with words of great depth:

You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20)

It is good to consider this question: how do we become people who can speak like Joseph does there?Read More »