How to Find Comfort in the Cross When Suffering Because of Christians
* This article was originally published in rougher form here a couple years ago, then refined some for publication in the Barnabas magazine which is produced by the Sovereign Grace Fellowship of Canada. I have been asked for a digital version, so I thought I would make it available on the blog now.
To Be Cross-Centred
Saying that the world we live in is prone to fads is like saying that the Toronto Maple Leafs lose a lot. It’s a given. And the evangelical world is certainly no different. If you have been in evangelical circles over the past couple of years you’ve probably heard phrases like “cross-centred” or “gospel-centred.” Whether or not the terminology is just a fad, I pray that the underlying concept will be something that takes root and lasts.
If you’re like many evangelicals, you probably think the idea of being cross-centred sounds great, but you’re not quite sure what it means or how you’re supposed to apply it. Back in January, Christian author and blogger Tim Challies (www.challies.com) asked the question, “What does it mean to be gospel-centred?” His answer was very helpful:
Living a gospel-centered life is really simply living in such a way that this gospel is central. Thus when any kind of a situation arises we can say, “How does the gospel apply to this situation?” When I am dealing with a particular sin or temptation I can ask, “How can I apply the gospel to this sin?” When I am confused about parenting, how I am to raise my children, I can ask, “What does the gospel tell me about my task in parenting?” The primary reality of the Christian life is this one: Christ died for our sins and was raised. Thus everything else flows out of that gospel and every question is answered in reference to it.
So, being gospel-centred means consciously thinking about the gospel: the good news of what the Father has accomplished for us through Jesus and applied to us by his Holy Spirit. It means that the message that “Christ died for our sins and was raised” (1 Cor 15:3-5) is more than a doorway to the Christian life—it is the foundation, the frame, the structure, and the walls of the house in which the Christian lives.
The message of the cross is not a message that is once believed—for salvation—and then abandoned, any more than water is something we need to drink once to never be thirsty again. Just as all living beings must continually return to food for strength, so the Christian must continually return to the gospel in every situation of life. And just as there are different meals appropriate for different times of day, so there are different aspects of the message of the gospel applicable to different situations in our lives.
To speak of being cross-centred in theoretical categories is a little helpful. Perhaps more helpful would be giving a living, breathing example. What I hope to do in the remainder of this article is to model something of what it means to be practically cross-centred in a specific situation.
Here is our hypothetical scenario: a fellow Christian has sinned against me and hurt me deeply. How can I seek to be cross-centred in the middle of all that I’m feeling? How does the truth that “Christ died for my sins and was raised” impact my thoughts and responses when I’ve been hurt by another believer?
The Problem: Christians Hurting Christians
We must first state that this is a legitimate and genuine problem. Christians hurt Christians. Badly. Often. And we need to know how to respond. If the gospel, the message of the cross, can’t relate here then we’ve missed something huge.
There is a profound sense in which the saddest of all evils are those which are committed by Christians against Christians. Why sad? Because regardless of who is guilty of sinning in this situation, Christ had to pay the just penalty for the sin. And so, at first blush, even justice seems sad. I’m not like King David who was clearly in the right, and could rejoice at God’s future justice on his enemies. In almost all Christian-Christian conflict, neither party can claim 100% innocence of action and motive before the God who searches hearts. And even if I am completely innocent, justice (in the case of another Christian) just leads to the suffering of my Saviour who bore their sins. And that makes me sad.
So in my heart, what I quickly find is that when I’m in the midst of conflict I don’t want the blood of Christ to cover their sins, but I want some kind of retribution. I want the person who has offended me to see and own up to their offence and to bear (at least in some measure) some consequence for it. And with that, even if I was innocent in the initial conflict, I have become the unmerciful servant of Matthew 18. So what is the answer? How can I genuinely find comfort in knowing that I’ve been sinned against, hurt, distanced from those I love, and that Christ is the one who must suffer as a result?
What follows is how one’s thought process might go.
How Does the Cross Give Comfort In This Situation?
As I think about the cross, there are many ways I can find comfort. Here are a few.
My debt is paid.
For every time I have been sinned against as a Christian, I’m sure there are at least a dozen occasions when I’ve sinned against another Christian. My debt is greater than that owed me by the offender in this case; and yet my debt has been forgiven. Foundational to all my thoughts, attitudes and words, as I deal with someone else’s offence against me, must be remembering that I am a forgiven offender.
It pleased God.
I don’t understand the dispensations of providence. Sometimes I think I don’t even want to. But yet, here is comfort: somehow, it has pleased my Lord both to crush Christ on my behalf (and on the behalf of the offending brother or sister) and also bring these circumstances into my life, at just this moment in time, in just this way, so that he might further conform me to the image of his Son. I don’t understand that, but if it pleased God who loves me, then there is comfort in it for me.
It might just give me insight into the Father’s heart.
There is a sense in which the Father is satisfied with the dispensing of his righteous wrath. There is another sense in which he absolutely delights to display the wonders of his mercy. The cross is the perfect solution—bringing free grace to me through the outpouring of his wrath on his Son. And yet there is another sense in which it was profoundly sad for the Father. While he delighted to accomplish his purposes, there is another sense in which the crushing of his own Son—the pure and innocent One—must have grieved him. In my situation, I can rejoice in showing mercy even though the circumstances that brought about the need for reconciliation—and even the process of reconciliation itself—may bring grief. Maybe now, through this grievous, yet joyous, experience of offence and reconciliation, I can identify a little more with the heart of my Father.
Jesus, my elder Brother, has gone before me. He perfectly endured unjust suffering. He perfectly endured shameful back-stabbing and betrayal that was far worse than I could ever know in this life. Disciple after disciple, and friend after friend abandoned him in his most pressing moment of need. Where I fall short and am tempted to despair, he endured. He is worthy of my faith because he endured where I cannot. He is worthy of having my hope placed in him because he knows; he can identify; he is a faithful High Priest who will continue to love me, show patience to me and pray for me as I struggle through this situation.
I’m not Jesus.
In my rejection and suffering, I must recognize that while the temptation is sometimes to lash out in anger, at other times the temptation is to think that I’m going through what Jesus went through. I can sometimes think of myself as a “martyr,” just like Jesus, when others sin against me. But I need to remember that what I’m going through is nothing like what Jesus went through. There are similarities from which I can draw comfort, but I must be aware of temptation to self-pity and the glorification of hardship and suffering. There is a strange temptation that offers fake joy and self-righteousness in melancholy. In our suffering we have not yet resisted sin to the point of shedding blood. Jesus has. Our suffering is nothing compared to his—and when he suffered, he neither lashed out nor pitied himself, but persevered for the true joy that was before him.
Better than I deserve.
Carl F.H. Henry is quoted as asking, “How can anyone be arrogant when he stands beside the cross?” When I stand beside the cross, I see my sin and I see its end. I see what I deserve at the hand of God. I see that I deserve to have not only people, but even God himself turn his back on me. I deserve wounds and mocking, betrayal and abuse, scorn and shameful exposure. What I’ve tasted in the hurts caused by my friends are only the slightest hint of the beginnings of what I deserve—not from men, but from God—for my sin. What I deserve is to have the Father turn his back; I should be the one crying out, forsaken by God. When I think of the cross, even the hurt I’ve received in this life is better than I deserve.
It’s not my identity.
My worth and my value are not tied up in what others think of me. Paul was glad to be called a fool for the sake of the cross. He understood that his identity was not bound up with how others perceived him or treated him. If I am trusting in the cross-work of Jesus, then my identity, my sense of worth, my feelings of being loved, my joy, and my hope are all tied up in this reality: in the cross God has loved me and because of the cross he has welcomed me and called me his child. That truth matters infinitely more than what someone else thinks of me or how someone else treats me.
For thousands of years God endured the sins of men and women. For thousands of years he held a longingly outstretched hand to sinners who hated him. Humans the world over rejected him, denied him, told lies about him, believed wrong things about him, and at times, flat-out ignored him. Yet he loved. He was willing to forgive. One might rightly ask, “But how could this be just?” He waited; he endured. He was patient for generation after generation, knowing that the cross would accomplish all his just purposes. I must learn to trust the cross in the same way. I must have patience when offended, trusting in the reconciling power of the cross, lovingly, longingly, and quickly seeking reconciliation, but knowing that my timetable for justice and reconciliation may not be God’s.
God is more just than me.
My sense of justice, together with the affections of my heart, are skewed and perverted. What I think justice looks like and what I think justice feels like are not necessarily representative of true justice at all. But here, in the cross, where God becomes the justifier of the unjust while proving himself completely just, I see that his justice is greater than anything I could imagine. In what looks like injustice—the righteous dying while the guilty go free—God vindicates himself as ultimately just. His ways are not mine, his thoughts are not mine. There is comfort in knowing that he will accomplish justice in a way that is greater than I ever could if I were in control. This conflict may not play out as I think it should; but that’s a good thing. God is more just than I am…whatever he does.
So I might serve.
The church—and indeed, the whole world—is full of people who have been hurt. Why should I think for a moment that I would be able to minister to a world of people who are hurting without ever having gone through hurt myself? Christ endured what we must endure so that he might faithfully minister to us. Christ took on death before us, that he might bring us through it. Am I better than Christ? I only pray that somehow God will use the circumstances of my suffering to enable and equip me to serve others who are hurting.
For the Christian, the cross is the place of forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God. It is the place where we are justified and made right with God. But that right standing with God is the foundation of so much more: it is the place of refuge in any and every situation in life. We must learn to be intentional in interpreting all of life through the cross. Are you being faithful to remember the cross in your circumstances? Are you being changed by it?