Engaging the Body of Christ
Why does God allow his people to suffer? In our first article in this series we saw from Romans 8:28-29 that God uses hardships to make us more like Jesus. Yet that answer can leave us in the world of abstraction and preacher-talk.
What, specifically, is God up to when we face hardships? While we can’t know with absolute certainty—our names are not written in the Bible—how God is using any specific situation to make us like Jesus, we can discover major themes in the Bible and we can ask God to show us if these are part of his agenda for us.
In our previous articles we unpacked four of seven specific ways (the Seven E’s) that the Lord uses our hardships for our good: to enhance our relationship with him, to help us experience a measure of Christ’s sufferings, to expose our remaining sin, and to exhibit to others Christ’s work in us.
Today, let’s explore a fifth way God uses trials to make us like Jesus. God wants to use our hardships to engage us more actively in the body of Christ. Suffering becomes an opportunity for us to draw closer to our brothers and sisters in our local church. It can lead us to depend on each other in meaningful ways—not in desperate, codependent, idolatrous ways, but to properly support, serve, and pray for one another when hard times arise.
The Apostle Paul’s Encouragement
A pair of passages from Paul’s letters pictures this dynamic. In Romans 12:15, the apostle urges us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and to “mourn with those who mourn.” We readily embrace the first reality. In times of joy we want our friends to join with us to celebrate our blessing. But mourning with those who mourn can present a challenge. Instead of seeking help, some people facing hardship prefer to isolate themselves from others, even others who can help them—hence the need for Paul’s encouragement.
Or, consider 1 Corinthians 12:26, which is part of Paul’s extended metaphor of the church as a body and each believer as an indispensable member of that body. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” For a member in the body of Jesus to bear a heavy burden alone betrays the failure of that believer or that church, or both, to embrace and live out this apostolic vision.
“The physical presence of other Christians,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, Life Together, “is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” Citing the examples of Paul and John longing for other believers (1 Thessalonians 3:10; 2 Timothy 1:4; 2 John 12), Bonhoeffer continues:
The believer feels no shame, as though we were still living too much in the flesh, when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians… The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian in exile sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of the gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body…
The Danger of Isolation
The sad reality is that during a trial we are sometimes tempted to do the very opposite—to pull away or wall ourselves off from others. We don’t feel like fielding a phone call, even from a caring friend. Our church attendance decreases. We are embarrassed about our suffering state, ashamed of our sin, or humiliated by our weakness. So we retreat.
But God’s agenda in our suffering is to engage us in the life of the body. He wants to extend us, stretch us, and connect us more firmly to the brothers and sisters in our church family.
In my church-based counseling ministry as a pastor (Open Door Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC), I seek as much as possible to link my counselees to mature believers. Sometimes this involves encouraging them to bring a mature Christian friend (or couple if it’s marriage counseling) who can help them in various ways during the session (e.g., helping the counselee voice concerns) and after the session (encouragement, accountability). Sometimes this involves securing their permission to invite their small group leader to the session itself or to assist in other follow-up ways.
In virtually all cases it involves assigning, or at least recommending highly, for them to connect (or re-connect) to a small group. This may include guiding them in what to say or not say—the proper mixture of vulnerability and confidentiality—to their group. Counselees who connect with others in these ways show faster, more sustained growth than those who remain isolated in their struggles.
Could it be that God is using some hardship in your life right now to push you to engage more actively in the body of Christ?
Join the Conversation
How has God used a hardship in your life to create a deeper relationship with your fellow Christians? How have you served suffering friends by drawing near to them in deepening fellowship?