Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why This Emptying?

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake... (Philippians 1:29 ESV)

Jillian* stares at the ceiling and sobs quietly as we read to her.  A year ago, she had been an active and self-sufficient professional woman living on the coast. Now, she passes the gray Midwest winter days recumbent in a small room in her aging parents’ home.  One who has spent many years in a career dedicated to supporting the health and mobility of others, she finds herself unable to heal her own physical challenges. She’s a strong Christian, but she wrestles with understanding God’s purposes in allowing her body to betray her as it has.  And it is that search for answers that summons my husband and me to her bedside.

It is an uncomfortable position to be in—sitting able-bodied next to someone suffering and trying to convince her that her pain is God ordained and for her own good. I open Octavius Winslow’s Morning Thoughts entry for the day, and almost with embarrassment I read to her, “The Lord has been leading you along a path of painful humiliation. You have been emptied; He has brought you down and laid you low, step by step, and yet, oh, how wisely and how gently, He has been leading you deeper and yet deeper into the valley.” He anticipates her questions and asks and answers, “Why this emptying? Why this descending? To bring you into a union and communion with Jesus in His life of humiliation.” But why she and not I, and why so disproportionately among the souls I met in Ethiopia last fall? I don’t have an answer. The next lines lift my own spirits: “Is there a step in your abasement that Jesus has not trodden with you, and trodden before you? Is there … a cross he has not borne, a sorrow that has not affected him?” These words I can recite with conviction.

In the book of Philippians, Paul echoes Winslow’s words.  In chains himself, he sends a letter of encouragement and instruction to the young congregation of believers facing persecution. He frames the Philippians adversity as a privilege “granted” to them not only to believe in Christ, but to “also suffer for his sake (1:29)." Of his own suffering he writes, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Christ this will turn out for my deliverance (1:20)," acknowledging that in addition to advancing the gospel, it is serving as a sanctifying work. Of the work the Lord is doing in his life and among the Philippians, he expresses his confidence that God, “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (1:6)."  

Jesus himself models the way of the believer—emptying himself, laying himself low, “becoming obedient to the point of death,” then being exalted by the Father. And so, recognizing the great reward—gaining Christ, Paul embraces suffering and writes, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).” William Gurnall says of that climb, God is at the bottom of the ladder, and at the top also, the Author and Finisher, yea, helping and lifting the soul at every round, in his ascent….” Along the path, the Lord ordains trials and even suffering meant to form us in Christ. But he is also our source of strength and consolation. 

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice,” Paul encourages the Philippians, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:4-7).”  Her pain and anguish are real, palpable, as we sit with her, and I worry the prescription to rejoice seems trite. But as we read the Psalms and sing a hymn, and she is reminded of his goodness, the sorrow lifts, and her heart is encouraged.

Father, whate’er of earthly bliss
Thy sov'reign will denies,
Accepted at Thy throne of grace,
Let this petition rise.

Give me a calm, a thankful heart,
From every murmur free;
The blessing of Thy grace impart,
And let me live to Thee.

Let the sweet hope that Thou art mine
My life and death attend;
Thy presence thro' my journey shine,
And crown my journey’s end.

(Anne Steele, 1760)
*name changed

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