Once when he was very young, I remember my son looking at me through the very real pain of getting a shot at the doctor’s and saying in surprise and accusation, “It hurts!” I was his mother. I wasn’t supposed to allow such pain, much less engineer it. In his dependance on me, it must have seemed like a betrayal. “It hurts me more than it hurts you,” I’d have liked to have said, but I don’t think he would have believed me, that I would have spared him if not for the ultimate good the injections promised.
The pain of sanctification feels something like that. God carves out the footholds of the devil in my life, the fleshly desires that corrupt, and infectious worldly attitudes that impair my new life in Christ. Because I don’t see right, He goes to work on my eyes. I don’t walk properly, so He begins operating on my limbs. My arteries are blocked, so He does open-heart surgery. It’s all very unpleasant. And my surprise and accusation towards Him feels the same as my son’s: “It hurts!” I say to Him. He’s my Father, isn’t He? Only I know it hurt Him more than it does me, because of the cross.
There on the cross, He was “despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, He was despised,and we held Him in low esteem. Surely He took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered Him punished by God, stricken by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed…. the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Is. 53: 4-6).
Because of the cross, I’m going to heaven. Still “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt. 7:14). Even though Christ atoned for my sins once and for all, as one who truly belongs to Him, it means I will “take up [my] cross daily and follow [Him]” (Lk. 9:23), walking in His footsteps. Not only the cross of a lifelong Lenten self-denial, but the cross of trials and physical afflictions.
But unlike Lenten observances, I don’t get to choose the form of my cross. My Heavenly Father does. The cross is as He designs: the people who place me there, the afflictions that pierce like nails, the manner of shame and scorn and sorrow, and the fists of tribulation that strike and wound. With Christ-likeness, I must submit, humbly, “under the mighty hand of God,” casting my anxieties on Him, knowing He cares for me and that one day in heaven I will see Him face to face (1 Pt. 5: 6-7).
Getting me ready for heaven, this process of sanctification whereby I am being transformed into Christ-likeness, isn’t an easy job for my Master. But I take heart that it wasn’t easy for Him to accomplish even in the apostle Paul. Paul endured much persecution and pain and affliction, but at the end of his life he was able to say, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race” (2 Tim. 4:7). If sanctification for that great apostle to the Gentiles meant enduring as much as he did, how much more must I? “I die every day!” he exclaimed to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 15: 31).
Yet he was able to say by the Holy Spirit within Him as every Christian can:
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
2 Cor. 4: 7-11
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.