Lent is a time to reflect on Jesus’ work on the cross. Why did He have to suffer and die for our salvation, and what did Apostle Paul mean when he said “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death”? Pastor Tan Kim Hock shares his understanding with City News.
Easter is celebrated worldwide as a Christian holiday, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ after His crucifixion. For us in City Harvest Church, it is a time to remember the complete victory of the Cross over sin and death. Every Easter is also a time where we actively invite our friends for our Easter services, with prayers and hopes that they too will experience the love of Christ and live a blessed life of significance. This has been a great “tradition” that we have developed over the years and rightfully so.
However, for the more traditional churches such as the Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Reformed, Lutherans, Methodist and others, the Easter celebration is preceded by Lent, a period of 40 days (not including Sundays). The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word “lencten,” which means spring. The 40 days represent the amount of time Jesus spent in the desert, fasting and preparing for His ministry. “40” is a significant number in Jewish-Christian traditions, representing the duration of the Great Flood of Noah in Genesis; the preparation of Moses in the wilderness before the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and also the period the Israelites spent in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
Today, many Christians around the world spend the 40 days preceding Easter fasting and preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday, though the practices may differ according to the respective denominations. Lent is often a time of reflection, repentance and renewal in one’s commitment to the Lord and charitable works to others. The period of Lent will lead up to the Holy Week before Easter, starting off with Palm (or Passion) Sunday (Jesus’ triumphant entry to Jerusalem); leading to Maundy Thursday (Jesus’ last supper with the disciples), Good Friday (Jesus’ crucifixion); Holy Saturday (Jesus’ body in the tomb) and finally Easter Sunday (Jesus’ resurrection).
THE ROLE THAT SUFFERING PLAYS
As a Pentecostal church, our Spirit-led and faith-filled Christian lifestyle is based on the complete work of the Cross. We believe in the Great Exchange of the Cross, where Christ has turned all the negatives into positives, and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in Him (Eph 1:3). Over the 33 years of City Harvest Church’s short history, we have indeed seen God prospering many of our members in their health, families, career and ministry. By the grace of God, we have seen many souls saved and many families transformed by the power of the Gospel.
However, in retrospect, most of us also have our “fair share” of personal challenges, trials and difficulties. Corporately as a church, the last decade was probably the most challenging period of our church ministry. Like many believers, I also struggled to come to term with questions like, “How can a good God allow injustices, pains and sufferings?” or “If Jesus’ work is completed, why do many believers have to face the harsh realities of life, such as divorces, sicknesses, bankruptcies, calamities, etc?”
When I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2017, these questions became so real to me—I found myself where the “rubber meets the road”. I was praying and believing that God will wave His “magic wand” over my life and in an instant, I would be delivered from this life-threatening situation. God was indeed very gracious and merciful to me, as I went through two successful operations and recovered speedily within a period of five months.
Just when I thought everything would be all right, I suffered a relapse in 2019, and this time, the cancer had spread to the liver. Since then, I have had my mountain-top experiences—where God blessed me tremendously in many areas of my life—as well as dark valley anguish when my condition seemed hopeless. It was especially difficult for me between June and December 2020, when the cumulative effect of the surgeries, radiotherapy and chemotherapy caused me so much pain that I pleaded with the Lord to take me home. Thankfully, God did not answer this prayer, but brought me through a period of silence and solitude where I had the opportunity to reflect, repent and renew my devotion to the Lord.
As I reflect upon my journey, I realised that many of my sufferings are consequences of my pride and presumption, often taking God’s grace for granted. I spent many nights in tears and repentance, as I became aware of how far I have drifted away from a simple heart of trust and dependence on God.
Today, I am still going through medical treatment, but my condition is very much under control. Despite still having cancer in my body, I am physically in better shape and state of health. But more importantly, I have encountered God’s love in greater depth and received many personal revelations that transformed the “old stubborn me” to be more Christlike. I am still far from perfection, but I’m grateful that God did not give up on me.
As we approach this Easter, while I am still confident of the complete work of the Cross and its victory, I have a newfound appreciation for what the Lord Jesus Christ went through before His resurrection on Easter Sunday. The term “Via Dolorosa” (Latin), which is often translated as “the Way of Suffering”, is a processional route in the old city of Jerusalem. It represents the path of excruciating pain and suffering that Jesus would have taken on the way to His crucifixion. It gives us insight that the Work of the Cross is preceded by the Way of the Cross! To fully appreciate and experience the fullness of God’s blessings, we must have a clear understanding of the extent of Christ’s sufferings.
UNDERSTANDING WHAT JESUS WENT THROUGH
If we just know Christ in His victory only, our understanding and appreciation of Him will be limited and partial. I am convinced that every believer must have a right “theology of suffering”. It is something that we don’t hear or talk about much in faith-filled churches like ours, yet it is crucial if we want to emerge stronger through every storm of life. The great apostle Paul’s greatest cry in his personal life was “to know Christ experientially” (Phil 3:10) and to “attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil 3:11). Yet Paul was very clear that he needed to experience Christ in a two-fold dimension—“the power of His resurrection” and “the fellowship of His suffering” (Phil 3:10).
The Cross probably represents the greatest paradox in human history. On one hand, it is the symbol of all that is positive—new life, blessing, healing, deliverance, glory, victory and resurrection. On the other hand, it symbolises death, curses, sickness, shame, defeat and suffering. Even Jesus’ life and ministry on earth demonstrated this reality. He was the Son of God who calmed the storm, healed the sick, set the captives free, provided for the needy and fearless in the face of insurmountable odds. Yet the same Son “learned obedience by the things which He suffered”, often with vehement cries and tears (Heb 5:7-8).
Let us be clear, God does not delight in human suffering. God is good and “His thoughts towards us are always of peace and not evil” (Jer 29:11). He has “pleasure in the prosperity of His servant” (Ps 35:27). Suffering and pains are the results of the fall of mankind, when we sin against God in pride to live independent from Him. In this fallen world, suffering is inevitable. God does not cause suffering; rather we are the ones who choose to rebel and suffer the consequences of sin.
Some may ask, “If God is so good, why didn’t He do something about our present suffering?” The good news is that He did, and that’s why we celebrate Easter. The perfect Son of God, who need not go through any suffering, intentionally went through Via Dolorosa, the ultimate suffering, so that man can finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
THE TRUE VALUE OF SUFFERING
Therefore, the true value of suffering does not lie in itself. Suffering in the fallen world is senseless and hopeless, as it is simply the consequence of sin. However, if suffering can lead us to the God of love and comfort, making us realise our desperate need for a merciful God that “makes all things work together for our good (Rom 8:28), we can “make sense” of our suffering. Paul puts in simple terms in 2 Cor. 1:3-7, that “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, comforts us in all of tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in trouble …” and as we become “partakers of the sufferings, we will also partake of the consolation.”
So, to know Christ in the “fellowship of His suffering” is not to suffer the consequences of sin, since Christ has already redeemed us from all of that. Rather, it is to share in the suffering of Christ—suffering not for one’s sin, but for righteousness’ sake, so that those who are lost and still suffering can find the same hope and comfort that we experienced. Just like Jesus suffered so that He can give us His peace and comfort, we will also suffer (because this fallen world is enmity against God) for the gospel’s sake, that light of Easter may penetrate the darkness of sin (Matt 5:10-11).
If we adopt the right “theology of suffering and glory”, we will be able to navigate the “already and not yet” in this journey of faith on earth. We will be able to declare like Apostle Paul, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17) and therefore we can “take pleasure (cheerfully make up my mind) in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake.” Like Apostle Peter, you can “rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Pet 4:13)
This Easter, let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, “who for the joy that is set before Him, endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) Jesus endured the suffering on the Cross, because He saw you and I, redeemed and delivered from the suffering of sin, and living a victorious life, regardless of any circumstances in this fallen world. Let us see the passion of the Christ and develop the passion for Christ in every challenge of life. Amen!