I was once listening to a preacher walk through Paul's letter to the Colossians (crawl is a better analogy). We had arrived at the section which includes "For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit...." (2:5). This unusual and perhaps 'spooky' verse was left untouched, almost as if the preacher hadn't noticed it or had no theological apparatus to interpret it.
The fact of the matter is that we all wear filters and one of the reasons we must listen hard to what the Spirit says to the churches is because we cannot, or worse do not want to, hear the voice of God.
The no-suffering filter is universal, but it's a larger one in the West where it is so easy to believe in Christ. We read verses about carrying the cross and suffering for him and our glazed eyes slide over them as though they weren't there. "For it has been granted (a charisma word no less) to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him but also to suffer for him..." (Philippians 1:29).
Paul and the Cross
For many of us, the cross of Jesus Christ is a 'way back then' event. A great event - the greatest event - a life-giving, a life-saving event. Nothing less, but here's the rub: nothing more.
How different for the Apostle Paul. Paul viewed the cross as a shadow that fell across his whole life and ministry, a mould into which he would pour himself, a paradigm against which to test the authenticity of his discipleship.
Far from being a "way back then' event, it was a present living daily reality.
Take for example his expectation of how a premier theologian, church planter and missionary should be treated. What would you say? Red carpets, OBEs, CBEs, honours? Paul would ask himself, How was Jesus Christ treated? Ah, he was despised and rejected by men - and so that is what he expected: beatings, lashings, prison, nakedness, hunger..... (2 Corinthians 11).
Take for example how Paul would preach to clever types. It's not that he didn't enter their world, but he asked the question, "How can my message be cross-shaped ?" "The cross is weak, the cross is foolish, how can my message reflect the cross?" And so he determined to preach Christ and him crucified.
The only route to Resurrection power
The cross of course is not the end of the story. Paul knew another secret; he knew that the only route to glory was through suffering. If Jesus was exalted because he humbled himself, if he got to glory through the cross, there was no other way available to us. There is no success, no holiness, no fruitfulness in ministry, no influence, except through suffering, hard work, sacrifice and every other thing symbolised by the cross.
So Paul's view of suffering was not morbid, it was filled with expectant hope; that if he bore the cross, resurrection would follow as day follows night. Godliness would flow, churches would be planted, lives would be transformed.
But only if the seed first fell into the ground and died.
The Diagnostic Cross
Over my years of ministry I have come across Christians who think they can buck this Divine Trend and pass straight to glory, influence and power without the cross. They want to be big shots before they wait on tables. They want Gospel success without self-dying, hard work and self-sacrifice. But no fruit appears. And this is the diagnostic reason their ministries never bear fruit, never impact lives, never transform communities: they don't want the cross.They wonder as they reflect on their Christian service "why did I achieve so little, impact so few lives, do the world so little good?" And the answer is they served Christ when it was convenient, when it was easy, when it fit in with their schedule and when it cost nothing.
Those who take up their cross and follow him will prove true disciples and those who suffer with him will ultimately reign in glory.