The transformation of suffering
“Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:8)
When the Apostle Paul made his defence before King Agrippa, described in Acts 26, he spoke as a Jew to Jews. He was therefore able to make a number of assumptions about things they held in common, prominent amongst which were, first, that the Jews were God’s people, living in expectation of his promises, and, second, that God is supreme, and therefore capable of fulfilling what he promised.
Paul’s argument, therefore, was that he was still living as a faithful Jew, even whilst proclaiming the risen Christ as Lord:
The Jews all know the way I have lived ever since I was a child, from the beginning of my life in my own country, and also in Jerusalem. They have known me for a long time and can testify, if they are willing, that according to the strictest sect of our religion, I lived as a Pharisee. And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. (Acts 26:4-7)
Now it is true that there were differences in Judaism about the expectation of the resurrection. The Sadducees, famously, did not believe in the resurrection, or in angels. Paul was well aware of this, and had exploited that difference in the recent past. But the Sadducees were a minority, and in any case, as Paul pointed out to Agrippa, nothing is impossible to God, so why would anyone be shocked at the message of Jesus’ resurrection?
Yet as Paul knew perfectly well, the message was shocking, and it made many people angry. And Paul knew that because he had once been shocked and angry himself, and had gone about persecuting the Church as a result. But why were people shocked and angry? It was not, as Paul had just observed, at the notion that God raised the dead, but at the notion that God had raised “this Jesus, whom you crucified”, making him Lord and Messiah.
Paul’s view of the world, in other words, was not changed by coming to believe in the resurrection. He already believed in the resurrection, as did most of his fellow-countryman. What really changed his world was realizing that the Messiah was the crucified one. When the risen Jesus appeared to him on the Damascus Road, Paul realized not that he had been wrong about the resurrection, but that he had been wrong about Jesus.
Certainly Paul preached the resurrection, but it was the resurrection of Jesus. And Paul’s message to people was not ‘resurrection’, but the resurrected Christ. Hence this man, whose life was transformed by an encounter with the risen Jesus, could write to the church at Corinth,
When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Now this is important, because there are many today for whom the resurrection of Jesus is becoming the central message, with the cross as a kind of preparation for that. Rowan Williams does it eloquently in his book titled Resurrection. What the resurrection does, according to him, is to present the resurrected Jesus back to those who judged and crucified him as ‘the judge of his judges’ (3). However, the judgement he pronounces is on their judgement:
The exaltation of the condemned Jesus is presented by the disciples not as threat but as promise and hope. (3)
Salvation, then, is found not in the work of Jesus on the cross, but in accepting those we have rejected, just as the rejected Jesus accepted his judges and rejected their rejection of him.
But we find it in far more simple applications than that. Here is a clergyman writing in a recent newsletter:
The significance of Jesus’ resurrection is not just that one man rose from the dead but that the transformation of his cruel and lonely death is a sign of the transformation that is possible for all of us who trust in God as Jesus did. [....] For the first Christians and for Christians now, the resurrection of Jesus captures what God is seeking to do for every human being throughout history, taking the sorrow and suffering and wickedness and turning and changing it to inextinguishable life with him [...].
Of course, it is not wholly wrong to say that God is working to transform us, and indeed to transform the world. But here the work of God is manifested in taking our suffering, as he took the suffering of the cross, and transforming it into something else — as the cross gave way to the resurrection.
In other words, God is seen in the triumph, not the tragedy, and we are back with Luther’s ‘theologian of glory’.
Now the mistake is innocent. There is no malice in what was written, nor is there unbelief. Yet the effect is to change the entire understanding of the Christian life, for God is not seen in the death of Christ on the cross, but in the life of Christ in his resurrection. As he writes,
... this transformation is not a ‘cancelling out of the cross’ but rather the life which is born through it ...
It sounds fine, but it is precisely where the fault lies, for the result is that God will not be seen in sorrow, suffering and wickedness, but only in overcoming sorrow, suffering and wickedness. Now we see Luther was right when he wrote that the theologian of glory prefers “glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil.” The theologian of glory also prefers resurrection to crucifixion.
And who wouldn’t? But the message of the cross is precisely the message that the cross is God’s work and God’s way. And so the Apostle Paul wrote a very different testimony about God’s answer to prayer from the ones we would like to give:
To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. (2 Cor 12:7-9)
What is transformed here? It is not Paul’s experience but Paul’s understanding of his experience, and therefore Paul's response to his experience. Of course Paul knew God could answer prayer by taking away the cause of his torment, and at first he believed that God would answer this prayer in that way. There is no argument here for giving up prayer.
But the answer he received was not an alternative to God’s gracious goodness, but an expression of that gracious goodness. And the answer was not that Christ’s power would overcome his weakness. It was that the weakness was the power. And this is the message of the cross: the power of God and the wisdom of God.
We must never make the mistake of imagining that the cross is the weakness of God and the resurrection is the power of God. For if we do, then there will be many times in our lives when we will be wondering when we will see God at work instead of seeing precisely that God is at work in the things we are waiting for him to change.
For the great work of God in the first instance is this: that we should be transformed into the likeness of his son; the son who, the writer of Hebrews tells us, was made perfect (which is to say ‘complete’ or ‘finished’) through suffering.
It is indeed not incredible to anyone who believes in any God Almighty that God could raise the dead. What is incredible is that God Almighty would be at work in the sufferings of the righteous one. Yet that being the case, all suffering is transformed.
9 April 2009