As evangelicals, we’re convinced that Christ’s work is finished, complete, and utterly sufficient. For many evangelicals, this is the gospel: Nothing can take away from Christ’s work, and surely nothing can be added to it by my works or my penance, by self-denial or sacraments or sacrifice. Nothing is lacking in the afflictions of Christ. Jesus has done it all and He’s done it forever.
But Paul disrupts our complacency: “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh,” he says.
We compile New Testament quotations – mostly from Paul – that announce that the death of Jesus has accomplished our salvation once and for all. The Father sets forth Christ as a propitiation in blood. We have been justified by His blood. Christ died for our sins, He was wounded for our transgressions, He bore our sins in His body on the tree, He freed us from our sins by His blood, and the blood of Jesus – not the blood of Peter or Paul or Polycarp – cleanses us from sin. Once the blood of God has been wrung from the body of God, how can we need anything more?
And yet Paul stubbornly says, “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.”
If Paul is saying that Christ’s death fell short, he seems to be contradicting himself. Just a few verses earlier, Paul says God has reconciled all things through the blood of the cross, things in heaven and things on earth. There’s nothing left to reconcile that hasn’t already been reconciled by the Jesus’s death. Later in Colossians, Paul says that Jesus nailed the certificate that stood against us to the cross, and so cancelled our debt. If the debt is paid in full, how can Paul say that the death of Christ lacks anything? Does Paul think that he pays some of the debt by His own sufferings? Is Paul setting himself up as a co-redemptor?
Paul doesn’t contradict himself, and he doesn’t put himself on a par with Jesus. But we cannot ignore what Paul says: “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.”
Whatever can he mean?
Let’s start simply. Whatever Paul means, he obviously doesn’t believe that the sufferings of Jesus dispense with his need to suffer. We may think that Jesus endured pain and anguish so that our lives can be painless and easy, but Paul says the opposite. Jesus didn’t die and rise so that we wouldn’t have to go through the messy inconvenience of dying and rising ourselves. Jesus died and rose so that we could share in His death and resurrection. So too His afflictions: The Head suffered so that the Body and each member could participate in His sufferings.
Whatever Paul means, we can say one other thing: He doesn’t think his sufferings have any value in themselves. He rejoices in his sufferings, and knows that his sufferings benefit the church only because he knows they are not his sufferings. Jesus was afflicted so that we could share His afflictions; He suffered also to lay claim to our sufferings. Paul’s passions are Christ’s afflictions.
This is what Paul means when he says that he suffers the afflictions of Christ “in the flesh,” in his own flesh. Paul labors, is beaten times beyond number, he continually faces death. He has been lashed, shipwrecked, in dangers from Jews and Gentiles, threatened in city and country, hungry, thirsty, cold. And besides all this, he has the daily pressure of concern for the churches; he is weakened by every weak brother, he’s intensely concerned with every Christian who is led into sin. But all these afflictions he endures for the sake of the church, all the afflictions he experiences in his own flesh are not his own, but Christ’s.
People deal with pain in all sorts of twisted ways. People often boast in their pain. The reason is not hard to find. When you’ve lost your health, and your marriage, and your kids, and your dignity, and your job, and your friends – when you have nothing else, at least you have your pain. When you’ve lost everything, you can cling doggedly to your loss. Pain seems sometimes to be the only thing we can call our own. Paul won’t let us have even that. Whatever afflictions you suffer, whatever pain, whatever loss, Jesus has claimed that too. It all belongs to Him. He doesn’t just want the best parts of you, the strong and healthy members. Jesus claims all of you, even – especially – your weaknesses. He claims them, so let Him have them, and know that your afflictions are Christ’s afflictions working out in your flesh.
Paul goes further. He knows that he has more to suffer. He has not yet experienced all the afflictions of Christ that he will experience in the course of his ministry. So long as he is still alive, there is something lacking in his personal share of Christ’s afflictions. Christ’s afflictions culminated in the cross, and not until Paul dies for the churches will he share fully in the fullness of Christ’s suffering. Even when Paul experiences the limit of Christ’s afflictions by dying a martyr’s death, even then Paul knows that his sufferings are not his own. The Image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, became flesh and died on a cross so that He could become the firstborn from the dead. It’s not enough for Him to be the first to come from the Father; He has to be the first to burst through the grave, because in everything He must have preeminence. Jesus is Lord of life, Lord of your life; He has become also Lord of death. Heidegger was wrong: Not even your death belong to you. Your death belongs to Jesus, the Living One who holds the keys of Death and of Hades.
Paul is saying that when he dies for the churches he will fully experience the sufferings of Christ in his own life and body, but that is not all Paul has in mind. He is also saying the very thing we cannot believe he is saying. He is telling us that the sufferings of Christ have not yet been filled out or filled up. Christ suffered once for all, and that death is sufficient for all time. But time goes on, and until the end of time the Spirit will keep imprinting Christ’s one sufficient death into more and more lives, the Spirit will keep dealing out shares in Christ’s sufferings, the Spirit will work and worm His way into the lives of countless future believers to mold them into the shape of a cross. The power of Christ’s singular death spreads when believers share in His afflictions, suffering for the sake of one another and for the sake of the church. Thus Paul, and we, fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.
Paul knows what he’s talking about. He saw it happen. He saw the fullness of Christ’s affliction filled up. He was standing by as Stephen preached about Moses and Christ, as Stephen saw the vision of Jesus in glory, as Stephen asked God to forgive his murderers with his dying breath. Paul knew that as soon as Stephen died, the Spirit was unleashed on Samaritans, then Paul himself, then to Gentiles. By his sufferings in the flesh, Stephen filled up what was lacking in the afflictions of Christ, and when he did the church scattered to the corners of the earth. When Jesus died, He handed over His Spirit, and when the stones tore into Stephen’s body the Spirit he had received from Jesus went out.
So we too fill up the sufferings of Christ as we share His afflictions, confident that the blood we shed finally belongs to Jesus, certain that the Spirit flows from our mangled bodies as He did from Jesus and from Stephen.
Lent focuses our attention every year on the sufferings and death of Jesus. But Lent is not a time to gaze on Jesus’ afflictions from a safe distance. Lent is not an icon or altarpiece. Lent is a school of suffering, a discipline for death, an annual liturgical reminder that we share in Christ’s afflictions. We observe Lent so that we know more and more what it means to bear in our bodies the dying of Jesus. We observe Lent so that we can learn to rejoice with Paul as we fill up in our flesh what is lacking of Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of His church, the Body of the One who fills all in all.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis. This was first published in Credenda/Agenda in 2011.