An Unformed Pauline Thought on Living and Dying with Christ

In the Pauline Epistles class I teach, we talked today about the “overlap of the ages” that Paul portrays in his depiction of the redemption of the world in Jesus Christ. Believers exist in a present age that is “evil” (Galatians 1:4) and marked by sin and death (Romans 5:12-21), but in the death and resurrection of Jesus the “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17) has dawned and now exists as an incursion of the future into the present. The light of the new creation’s dawn is diffused into the fog of this present age (2 Corinthians 4:4) in such a way that we have real hope that the light will one day burn the fog away completely. Nonetheless, that day is not yet. And so we groan, eagerly awaiting the consummation of the redemption that has been inaugurated (Romans 8:23). The light has come, but not yet in its fullest glory.

All this was old hat to my students. Anyone who has studied the New Testament for any length of time knows this framework of “inaugurated eschatology.” The reign or kingdom of God is both already here (Matthew 12:28) but not yet here in all of its fullness (6:10).

And many people think they know what this framework means for considering the ethics of homosexuality—and particularly the question of “changing” one’s sexual orientation. The usual perspective, for an evangelical Christian who’s been schooled on the complexities of the eschatological tension, is to try to balance the hope of “the already” with appropriate reservation in light of the “not yet.” Richard Hays, for example, writes:

On the one hand, the transforming power of the Spirit really is present in our midst; the testimonies of those who claim to have been healed and transformed into a heterosexual orientation should be taken seriously. They confess, in the words of the Charles Wesley hymn, that God “breaks the power of cancelled sin; He sets the prisoner free.” If we do not continue to live with that hope, we may be hoping for too little from God. On the other hand, the “not yet” looms large; the testimonies of those like [Hays’ celibate gay Christian friend] Gary who pray and struggle in Christian community and seek healing unsuccessfully for years must be taken with no less seriousness. Perhaps for many the best outcome that is attainable in this time between the times will be a life of disciplined abstinence, free from obsessive lust.

In the same vein, Baptist pastor John Piper, commenting on Stanton Jones and Mark Yarhouse’s research that speaks of “significant shifts” on a continuum of change rather than a decisive “reorientation,” recently had this to say:

This is a wise and cautious balance. It is wise not only because with God all things are possible, but also because “either-or” thinking is especially unsuitable when dealing with sexual orientation.

There are not simply three groups: Heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual. There are hundreds of variations of impulses that make up our peculiar sexual identities. This means that “change” is not a movement from one of three groups to another of three groups. Rather, it is a totally unpredictable reconfiguration of dozens of impulses and desires. And these desires and impulses are interwoven with dozens of personal and relational and spiritual realities, all of which are moving and shifting as God and his word and his people come to bear on the totality of a person’s life.

Is change possible? From this perspective change is inevitable. We are all changing — in a hundred ways including how sexuality fits into our lives. And for the Christian, the Spirit of God and the word of God are gloriously in the mix. It is a lifelong quest. Jones and Yarhouse sound a warning not to promise too much or to hope for too little.

What struck me and my students today in my Pauline Epistles class, however, was a subtly different way of thinking. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Paul writes,

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Notice how Paul does not characterize his sufferings. He does not here attribute them to fallenness or view them primarily as the result of living in an “evil age.” All of these things are no doubt true explanations for Paul’s sufferings, but he does not describe them in those terms (or, perhaps better said, not exclusively in those terms) here in this text. Rather, here he says that his bodily ailments and afflictions and persecutions are his participation in the dying (nekrosis) of Jesus. Suffering here is not ascribed to the fall, despite the fact that Paul does, elsewhere, trace death back to Adam’s sin (Romans 5:12-21). And so, because of that, suffering is not here viewed as something Paul is seeking immediate escape from. Instead, he gives his suffering a Christian shape. It becomes his sharing in the passion of Christ. Living out the condition of death is itself for Paul also a sharing in the risen life of Jesus. He dies not because he is “in Adam,” but because he is “in Christ.”

Philippians 3:10—”that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death”—makes the point even clearer, perhaps. As James D. G. Dunn comments,

What is particularly notable is the way Paul speaks of Christ’s sufferings after he speaks of his resurrection. The process of sanctification does not consist in an initial dying with Christ followed in the course of that process by an experience of Christ’s resurrection power. Paul’s doctrine of salvation is quite different. The resurrection power of Christ manifests itself, and inseparably so, as also a sharing in Christ’s sufferings. The process of salvation is a process of growing conformity to Christ’s death. Only when that is completed (in death) can the final resurrection from the dead be attained (the resurrection of the body). Only when believers are fully one with Christ in his death will it be possible for them to be fully one with Christ in his resurrection.

The question I left unasked in class but which I’m pondering now is—what would an understanding of “change” for gay Christians look like if 2 Corinthians 4 and Philippians 3 provided the paradigm? Could the suffering that goes along with being gay (for a Christian who is committed to celibacy) not be seen primarily as some result of the fall to be “prayed away” but rather as the occasion for finding one’s identity in the cruciform story of Jesus? The cross of Christ, writes J. Louis Martyn, “is in one sense followed by the resurrection, [but] it is not replaced by the resurrection.” The life of the new creation breaking into the present doesn’t so much cancel out the suffering of the cross as it gives that suffering its true, redemptive meaning. Likewise, I wonder, isn’t it legitimate for gay Christians to speak of their homosexuality not simply as their share of the world’s fallenness but as their way of joining Jesus on the Calvary road—for the sake of sharing Jesus’ life with others, for the sake of love?

Certainly various degrees of “change” may come, just as Paul’s own experience of suffering ebbed and flowed. But what will never change is our need to see our suffering in the light of the cross, where it can be grasped as our fellowship in the dying and rising of our Lord.

13 thoughts on “An Unformed Pauline Thought on Living and Dying with Christ

  1. When I read your post I want to place it within the shape of an arrow: one bottom point says “healing and transformation.” The other bottom point says “suffering and contentedness” and the top/directional point says “mission.”

  2. Great thoughts. Coming out of the Lutheran tradition. The fallen nature is the law and something we ultimately can’t carry. It might edify, but it doesn’t help. What you have traced sounds like the gospel. Our sufferings in the now are a participation in Christ and also something that He has carried for us.

  3. This is a good article; very thought provoking. But for some reason I always struggle with the phrase ‘gay Christian.’ It almost seems (to me) that the phrase indicates one’s identity is in the ‘gay’ rather than in Christ. I mean, we don’t find Christians in the NT described as ‘unrighteous Christians’ or ‘idolater Christians’ or ‘drunkard Christians’, etc. but we do find Paul saying, ‘But such were some of you.’ So why do we want to use a phrase that Scripture seems to suggest would be an oxymorone? Why not say ‘a Christian who struggles with homosexual urges but is in the process of sanctification,’ or as the title to your excellent book suggests, ‘Washed & Waiting.’

  4. Thank you for your encouraging words. This viewpoint provides a nobility and a high call to answer for pressing on to know and walk with Christ in His suffering as one chooses to abstain from what one naturally desires….especially when current culture applauds deviant lifestyles.

  5. Well said. I think I found myself so engrossed and agreeable to your view because I think it works across the line for all sorts of suffering. I am a firm believer in healing, but as a process which is God’s (not ours) and calls us to patience, perspective, faith, and hope. I *love* your emphasis on our present state is *in Christ* and not just *in the world* (or in ‘Adam’). He has not left us alone,…. (Some Psalms of Lament, e.g. 22, may then not only be applied to the lips of Christ and his suffering but *also* ours today–rather than just one or the other.)

  6. Beautifully expressed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church counsels in a similar way, albeit in dryer systematic terminology. “These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.” (paragraph 2358). Union with Christ is available in all circumstances as he fulfills his name of Emmanuel.

  7. As is often the case with these things, I don’t see an either/or dichotomy, but a both/and scenario, which is why I really enjoyed your post. I think the sufferings described by Paul can be, and maybe SHOULD be, viewed in both the “inaugural eschatology” sense that you initially described as well as the our opportunity to participate in the sufferings of Christ , primarily because the first necessitates the second. Isn’t it precisely because we share in the world’s fallenness that we are called to die to ourselves and to that world by “bearing about in the body the dying of Jesus” so that the life of Jesus can invade us, and, in turn, this age?

  8. Just a quick reflection…

    There is suffering because of sin, and there is also suffering for following Christ, the one who came in the flesh to defeat sin. What I thought about when reading this post was that perhaps the suffering that takes place in Christ is suffering in the sense that conformity to Christ (sanctification if you will) is completely contrary to our natural human state. Naturally, I want to do things that please myself rather than glorify the LORD. When we pray for our Father to “not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Mt 6:13; Lk 11:4). It is a joyful thing to resist temptation, but it can also be painful because it denies the human state (at least this seems to be true from my experience).

    If sin is our sickness or injury, sanctification (for those in Christ) is our medicine or physical therapy. It may taste bad, be hard to swallow (in regards to medicine), or rigorous and painful (in regards to physical therapy), but it will make us better. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings ought to be welcomed, even if not gladly welcomed. Whether suffering internally from resisting temptation or externally from ridicule or persecution, we are dying and yet becoming more alive because to share in the sufferings of Christ, we are like him in his death (Phil 3:10), and as death is working in us…LIFE! (2 Cor 4:12).

  9. Pingback: In Response to Wesley Hill on Suffering | Letters to Christopher

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