Suffering. Illness, job loss, financial problems, family or marital stress. Suffering is often the root cause of despair: we see no way out, no resolution, no solution.
So it was for the two disciples talking on the Road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. The suffering, the crucifixion of Jesus seemed an insuperable problem. They did not expect the Messiah to suffer. There was no constructive room in their theology for suffering, "they crucified him, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel..." (Luke 24:21)
The Masterful response of the Master
In their despondency and confusion, Jesus comes beside them and teases out their wrong theology of suffering - so that he can correct it. Their problem was two-fold:
First, they could not see any constructive role in the suffering of the Messiah, and conveniently overlooked all the verses which spoke about his suffering. They were selective in their readings and listenings! They loved the bits about power and glory, but not the portions which spoke of suffering, death and defeat. Jesus had to show them that suffering was in line with God's great plan for his Messiah, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things?" Suffering played the constructive role of paying for our sins!
Second, they could not see that suffering was an essential step to glory! "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" Suffering was the route to glory. There could be no glory without suffering, no Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Jesus was raised and exalted because he laid down his life.The Messiah could not leap over Good Friday and get to Easter Sunday!
You see their big problem? Suffering had no constructive place in their theology, and as a result they could understand neither the cross nor the resurrection of Jesus.
Our Problem too
This is exactly our problem too. When suffering comes we whinge, moan, complain and are perplexed - because we too have an inadequate theology of suffering. We want glory and power and think that this ought to be the normal Christian life, and so we are surprised by pain, loss and pain. We want it all to be zapped, prayed and slain away!
And there is no doubt that God is sometimes pleased to relieve us in this world, and no doubt that he will completely deliver us of pain in the world to come, where there will be no curse. But in this fallen world, that is not always - and perhaps not even very often - his way.
What we need is a three-step theology correction plan:
(1) The cross and resurrection are the pattern for our lives too
Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not merely events that happened to Jesus way back when; they are also models for our lives. To be a disciples of Jesus we must place our feet in the footprints of suffering and resurrection.
(2) We should expect suffering
Far too many verses to list, but here's one, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him." (Philippians 1:29). One of God's gifts (unwanted by most of us) is the gift of suffering.
(3) We should expect glory - to follow suffering
We should also expect glory, to be sure; but only in the wake of suffering. We don't get to glory, by which I mean fruitfulness, power, holiness, Christlikeness, directly, but only through suffering. Remember, Good Friday first, Easter Sunday second. Far too many Christians want to get to glory without the cross. This is the great attraction of meetings which promise instant solutions to problems. But God's way, the Jesus way, is glory following on the heels of suffering.
Despair to Joy
Those two disciples, their theology of suffering now transformed were filled with understanding and joy, and made the trip back to Jerusalem to tell their friends!
And we too, armed with this theology of suffering now face our suffering in a new light. We see it as necessary and even the prelude to glory of one kind or another. We can see, at last, what the apostle James was on about when he wrote:
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything..." (James 1:2)