As I read At the Heart of the Gospel I am continually impressed with L. Ann Jervis‘ graceful presentation. Moving easily between exegesis and exhortation, at times it feels more like I am reading a sermon than a textual study.
Philippians: Suffering that Shapes
During my pastoral ministry, I prayed with grieving mothers, cried with family members in chronic pain, and sat for hours with those whose most cherished relationships have been shattered by tragedy. In each case, even if left unsaid and even if mature believers were involved, the question of “why?” loomed. With that question in mind, Jervis directs us through the text of Philippians to point out a powerful reality: Christ-followers who suffer do so “in” Christ and their pain is not lost, fruitless, or random. On the contrary, because we suffer in the light of the resurrection our suffering produces life not death.
Whether they be the tragedies of death, the humiliations of age, the challenges of illness or poverty, believers may suffer knowing that the power of life is greater than the power of suffering and death. This may affect the present experience of affliction, allowing the affliction to produce life both in the person who suffers and those to whom he or she is connected…This suffering is not a choice but part of the package of being “in” Christ. What is a matter of choice is whether or not to recognize and embrace and participate in this suffering (p. 74).
In the context of Philippians, the believer’s suffering is not punishment for sin but suffering which can produce life. Paul spoke about his own sufferings as one who had the righteousness of God (3:9). The purpose of suffering then isn’t to purge a heart of sin or for punishment; on the contrary, Paul’s suffering was shaped by the form of Christ’s death. Jervis explains,
This strange response liberates him [Paul], as it may liberate other Christians sufferers, from drawing inward in response to suffering. It may free us from getting drawn into the vortex of suffering, seeing ourselves as the center around which pain and loss swirl. Our suffering is not our fault, and so we need not focus on ourselves, but on the one in whom we lives, the one who will bring life out of the darkest and most painful experiences. For the believer, the experience of suffering, whatever its cause, may focus on making us fit for resurrection life. This fitness requires not purging of sin and wickedness from our souls and bodies, but our being shaped into beings dominated by life and not by death (p. 71).
I wonder at this point, if Jervis had not consistently limited herself to making only those conclusions derivable from the immediate texts with which she is interacting (Philippians in this case), she may have appealed more plainly to a doctrine of the Spirit.
In the Christian life, the engagement to which she exhorts the suffering believer to pursue – embracing suffering as that which produces life – is an engagement in which the Spirit is active. Remember how Paul described his labor for the Gospel? Paul’s “labor” was his but not his alone; he struggled “with all his [Spirit's] energy which so powerfully” worked in him (Col 1:29). Considering she drew this out from 1 Thessalonians – that faith, hope, and love are Spirit-induced responses to suffering – I wonder if her claims concerning suffering’s shaping power may have been even fuller had she built on or referenced that insight here.