Article Apr 10, 2017

What the cross means when you're feeling crushed

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.” (2 Cor. 4:8)

Suffering can be so painful and dark that normalcy can seem like a distant memory from another life—an easier one, a happier one.

Like a dead weight bearing down upon our hearts, pain puts pressure on our faith and stirs up emotions that we find hard to confront or push back. “I don’t know how much more of this I can handle,” I’ve thought to myself. “Could my circumstances get any worse? I just want things to be normal again.”

Even if we know the hope of the gospel and believe it with all of our hearts, we still feel this pressure. Pain and suffering were never meant to be a part of our everyday experience and so they feel wrong; but, because sin entered the world, it is part of normal life to feel, from time to time or all the time, “afflicted in every way,” just as Paul described to the Corinthian church.

When Paul says “in every way,” he means it. He was one hard-pressed man:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24-28)

Danger. Exposure. Violence. Pressure. My guess is that you can resonate with Paul’s words, not because you’ve gone through similar struggles but because of the overwhelming pressure of the struggles you have known. What affliction is threatening to crush you right now? What suffering is testing your faith?

Maybe you’re fighting a malignant disease. Maybe it’s a short-term illness that is keeping you from carrying out your plans. Or maybe you lost your job this week, and you’re worried about feeding your family. Are you in the middle of a nasty relational feud? Or married to someone who is not following Christ?

Lyme disease threatens me. Because of Lyme and its ill effects, physical pain and weakness are my frequent visitors. There are times when, after an extended period of feeling well, stable, and hopeful, they rebound with a vengeance. I reach my limit during these regressions, as my faith feels pressed and my struggle to believe the gospel intensifies—and out pour the tears. I often cry because I’m angry, fearful, and worried. I wonder how much more I can take, if the struggle will ever end, and if any good will come of it.

I am tempted to believe that because I am afflicted in certain ways, I cannot get out of the downward spiral into being crushed in spirit as well as in body. How I long for my heart-cry in suffering to be like Paul’s! How I long to believe this beautiful truth: I am afflicted in every way, but not crushed.

Oh, don’t you want this? To have the confidence that the pressures of suffering will not defeat you?

Where to look

How can we learn to say along with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed”? We look to the cross, and to the One who was hanged on it.

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. (Isa. 53:4-5)

Jesus, the perfect God-man, decided to drink the cup of suffering given to him by the Father. He was violently nailed to the cross by the Roman authorities. He was spat on, mocked and hated by onlookers. As his lungs slowly failed him from crucifixion, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Even God, with whom Jesus had enjoyed a perfect relationship from eternity past, had turned his face away.

And all because of our sin.

Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. He shouldered the burden of our sin upon his shoulders. Jesus willingly took the penalty of sin that we deserved, drinking the cup of spiritual death for us.

But this was not the end of the story:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. (Isa. 53:10)

When Christ was nailed to the cross, God’s will to save sinners was prospering. In drinking the cup of suffering, Jesus became the offering for our guilt, and his offering was joyfully accepted by God. This is why God raised him from the dead three days later; Jesus overcame death by willingly entering into it as the perfect sacrifice.

In the words of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, “Suffering is overcome by suffering, and becomes the way to communion with God” (The Cost of Discipleship, page 92).

God has taken our gravest affliction—death—and has overcome it in Christ, so that we would never be overcome by it. The Father crushed his Son so that we would never be crushed by sin and death, so that we would spend an eternity of joy in his presence.

The cross and right now

But what about right now? An eternity of joy with Christ awaits us, which is beyond amazing, but what about our present afflictions? What does the cross of Christ mean for the pressures laid on us today?

The cross means that God is not condemning us. If you have trusted Jesus, then he has been punished for your sin—all of it: past, present and future. You will never be eternally condemned by God. You can know that your trials are not expressions of God’s anger, because all of it was poured out upon Jesus. There is no wrath left for those whose sins were borne on the cross.

So when you wonder if your affliction is God’s way of getting back at you for something you’ve done, remember the cross. If you think you cannot come to God in worship and prayer when you experience pressure, remember the cross.

Yes, some afflictions are the natural consequence of our sinful choices, but the ultimate consequence has been nailed to the cross as Jesus bore our sins there, and God’s purpose is never to punish his children, even when we sin against him. He may be disciplining us, so that we would see where we are in danger of running from him. But because of the cross, you can rest assured that God is not out to condemn you.

The cross means that God is for us and loves us—even when we cannot see what he is up to; even when we cannot see any purpose of discipline; even when suffering seems pointless. Because of the cross, we are free to view daily pressures through the lens of God’s love and his work on our behalf. We know that God is for us, not against us, because he gave us Jesus.

The author and preacher Jared Wilson writes, “There is one great sign that you are loved more than you thought. It is the cross. And there is a still further sign that you will live in this love forever. It is the empty tomb” (The Wonder-Working God, page 59).

The cross of Christ does not end in death, but leads to life! The resurrection of Jesus was the stamp of God’s divine approval on his sacrifice.

Jesus Christ was crushed for you because the Father is for you and loves you. This gospel truth is your assurance and comfort when the pressures of suffering seem too great to bear. Surely the Son of God has borne your griefs and carried your sorrows. He was crushed so you would never be. Your afflictions are temporary because your sins have been dealt with. Your future is secure because he rose to life. You can say confidently along with Paul, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed.”

Note: This post is an excerpt of Sarah Walton and Kirsten Wetherell’s new book Hope when it hurts: Biblical reflections to help you grasp God's purpose in your suffering. Watch Sarah and Kristen’s video about their personal trials that led to this book.

ERLC2018