The more I grow in my knowledge of the Lord (by his grace) the more I see the utter centrality of the church, the local church, in his plan for his people. The more I learn of him, the more I see what a jewel the church is—what a blessing, what an honor it is to be part of something so amazing, so other-worldly. This is something that has been brought home to me in recent years primarily by the joy and privilege of being part of a faithful local church. But it has also been emphasized through many of the books I’ve read.
A little while ago I read Ligon Duncan’s book Does Grace Grow Best in Winter?, a book that deals with suffering. There was something in there that really grabbed my attention in this context of the local church.
You may be familiar with these words from the first chapter of Colossians:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.
These are words I’ve read many times over the years, and yet somehow Duncan’s application of them was entirely fresh. In the chapter that provides the context for these verses he is explaining what God may be accomplishing through suffering and one of the four points he brings up is this one: Suffering serves to build up the church. Have you ever considered that through your suffering God is strengthening your church? He says, “Our suffering aids the maturity of the whole body of believers. It is extraordinary that our suffering is designed not only to work godliness in us as individuals, causing us to prize Christ more, but also to work maturity within the whole church.” And this is exactly what Paul points to in the opening verses of Colossians. “Suffering is God’s instrument to bring about the maturity of the whole church. God ordains for our suffering, as a participation in the suffering of Christ’s body, to bring about in the church the purposes of Christ’s affliction. In other words, sometimes God appoints his children to suffer so that the whole body will become mature.” We all know that as members of the church we are to rejoice together and to mourn together, but do we understand that these occasions of mourning are given for our maturity? If we truly are a body, each part dependent on the other, then it cannot be any other way. One person’s suffering is every person’s suffering; one person’s maturing is every person’s maturing.