The ministry and pain—especially emotional pain—go together. Except for a few Pollyanna types who keep their heads buried in the sand, most of us know that times of suffering, sorrow, despair, grief, depression, and heartache are part of life. It is not until one is privy to many lives, however, that it becomes clear how pervasive these experiences are.
Fortunately, for most of us, not all of life is miserable. For many of us, life is mostly a positive experience. If we are particularly fortunate, we may escape the traumas of abuse, divorce, a straying child, extreme poverty, or a debilitating physical condition.
We must distinguish between suffering in general and suffering because of our faith. Many of our brothers and sisters are suffering intensely throughout the world—not because they are humans—but because they are Christian humans. We think of children who have been beheaded by ISIS, others maimed and tortured. “Convert to Islam or die!” they demand. And many have remained true to Jesus and suffered anguish so awful it makes us sick to imagine.
In our nation, we are losing the freedoms and privileges we have had as Christians. Evangelical Christians are among the most disliked people groups in our nation, and prejudicial attitudes that are condemned toward blacks, women, homosexuals, and other groups are not only permitted—but even encouraged—against us. People who don’t even know us dislike us a priori simply because we claim to be born-again followers of Jesus Christ.
Doctrine for These Times
Certain doctrines fade into oblivion when they are not needed or challenged. We can find them within Systematic Theology books, but they remain lodged within dusty covers. But when we need them, it is time to bring them back into the limelight. So it is with the mimetic sufferings of Christ.
When we talk about Jesus dying on the cross, we are right to put the emphasis where the Bible puts the emphasis: Jesus died to atone for our sins, propitiate God’s wrath, pay our debt, suffer in our place. Yet in our proper concern to protect the main emphasis of the cross, we sometimes completely ignore a secondary aspect of Jesus’ suffering: the mimetic aspects of His death.
The General Nature of Mimetic Suffering
What do we mean by “mimetic?” The word “mimetic” is a form of the word “mimic,” to imitate. When we talk about following Jesus, our sufferings as believers are—in a sense—our mimicry of Jesus’ sufferings.
The idea that Christ died as an example to somehow dignify our sufferings derives from 1 Peter 2:18-21 (ESV):
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.
The text addresses slaves who were being abused by their masters, not for doing wrong, but for doing right. Since Peter does not specify what he has in mind by “doing right,” we can imagine that it includes things like suffering for ones profession of faith in Jesus, being conscientious and thus making others look bad, or receiving the brunt of a master’s bad mood.
The text seems to tell us that part of the intent of Jesus’ death was to offer an example for us, namely, we must expect to suffer for doing good. The idea here is not just that of general suffering—although it may be included—but primarily of suffering unjustly.
For centuries before the time of Jesus, many Jews believed that the sufferings of the Jewish people atoned for sin. From my book, The Amazing Doctrines of Paul as Midrash:
In some Orthodox Jewish circles, the belief persists that human suffering—and in particular Jewish suffering—is the means by which God atones for the sins of either Israel or the world. Some believe that their deaths atone for their sins. (63)
The New Testament affirms that this Jewish belief is misguided; it took the sinless Lamb of God to make atonement (1 Peter 1:19), not sinful human beings. Nonetheless, the idea that suffering affects our spiritual nature is solid.
Such suffering makes us conscious of God by affirming we are following in Jesus’ footsteps:
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:11–12)
Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. (John 15:20)
Our Calling to Fellowship With Christ in Suffering
Verse 21 tells us that part of our calling as Christians includes suffering, and Jesus is our example of this suffering. Dr. Constable writes, “The Greek word translated ‘example’ (hypogrammon) refers to a writing or drawing that someone placed under another sheet of paper so he or she could trace on the upper sheet” (Thomas L. Constable, 1 Peter 2:21 comments, soniclight.com).
Jesus’ death was not only an example, but also a pattern. Just as Jesus identified with us in His baptism, so we identify with Him in our baptism. The same appears true when it comes to suffering as a believer.
Does this mean we should intentionally suffer so we can fellowship with Jesus? Should we, like Medieval monks, lash ourselves and punish our bodies so that we can be more spiritual? Certainly not!
Colossians 2:20-23 describes harsh rules and behaviors some thought would make them godly; Paul corrects this in verse 23:
These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
Ravi Zacharias explains:
There is also a mimetic aspect to the sufferings of Christ. Peter tells us that Christ in His passion left us an example to follow in His steps. (1 Pet.2: 21)
The Bible makes it clear, however, that pain and suffering are not to be sought after for their own sake. That would indicate a psychologically perverted, masochistic mind-set which is the very antithesis of the Christian mind. Thus, Jesus could ask God in the garden of Gethsemane to take away the cup of suffering, thus displaying not just His humanness but His psychological robustness. In the will of God, however, Christ and His followers can be expected to meet with suffering and even rejoice in it as they engage the dominion of Satan in spiritual warfare.
This introduction to the mimetic sufferings of Christ is truly the tip of the iceberg. The primary applications, however, are obvious. We can expect to suffer because we do God’s will and serve Jesus. In some lands, this suffering is physical and can mean forfeiting one’s earthly life. We need to remember our suffering brothers and sisters in prayer! We set aside one Sunday in November to pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters and specially remember them.
In the West (at least for now), that probably means suffering emotionally and relationally. A person being forced to suffer just because they follow Christ is wrong and unacceptable. But it is part of the package of the Christian life.
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic in Cicero, Illinois. During his senior year in high school (1974), Cicero Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute. He has served as pastor of Highland Park Church since 1983. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has written many weekly columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers at his church website. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul’s Teachings.