Currently, I am in the middle of a sermon series called “The Church.” In this series we are thinking about some of the metaphors the Bible uses to help us understand what it means to be part of “The Church” – metaphors like the body of Christ, the family of God, and the temple of the Holy Spirit.
When we talked about the church as “the body of Christ,” one verse in particular struck me as a unique challenge. That verse was 1 Corinthians 12:26, which says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”
On the face of it, the verse is quite simple in calling us to do two things. One, suffer with those who suffer. Two, rejoice with those who are honored. As I thought about these two commands, I found myself wondering which of the two the body of Christ is better at doing? Suffering, or rejoicing?
I started with the assumption that suffering is less preferable than being honored – an assumption I think is largely correct. However, this assumption led me to a conclusion that I’ve come to question. Because I assumed suffering is worse than rejoicing, I concluded that suffering with the body of Christ must be harder than rejoicing with the body of Christ. However, upon further reflection and meditation, I’m not sure this is the case.
After almost two decades of pastoring, I’m convinced that the body of Christ generally does an admirable job of suffering with those who suffer – not a perfect or flawless job, but admirable. I’ve heard horror stories about how churches can be calloused and uncaring, but this hasn’t been my experience in the body of Christ – not even close. Instead, my experience has been that when believers see others suffering, they are often moved to pity and compassion. They want to help even when they don’t know how to help. They will pray, they will donate money, and they will bring food. Yes, I know that sufferers are not “helped” by people saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” but I generally believe that non-helpful offer is genuine. People are willing to suffer with other members of the body, even when they don’t know how to do that, even when they don’t do it perfectly or consistently.
After almost two decades of pastoring – and I’m speaking anecdotally and experientially here – I think it’s harder for most believers to rejoice when other parts of the body are honored than to suffer when other parts of the body are suffering. I think it’s harder for us to genuinely celebrate the victories of others than it is to enter into their suffering. I think pity and compassion and empathy come easily for most believers, so suffering with others is a bit intuitive. I also think that jealousy, envy, rivalry, bitterness, criticism, and gossip come easily for many of us, which means rejoicing with others requires some work.
Think about some of the following scenarios that might be experienced by some of the members of your church – receiving a promotion at work, buying a new house, having children who excel in academics and athletics, being the focus of special recognition for service within the church – each of these scenarios gives you an opportunity to rejoice with those who are being honored in some way. All too often, we smile with others on the outside, while on the inside we are full of dead men’s bones – jealousy, envy, rivalry, bitterness, criticism, and gossip.
In the interest of full disclosure – this same dynamic is at work among pastors. I know from experience, it’s easy to feel bad for the fellow pastor who has been chewed up and spit out by his church. It’s easy to pray for, listen to, and encourage a fellow pastor who is suffering. It’s much harder to genuinely celebrate the ministry successes of the pastor down the street. Why? Because jealousy, envy, rivalry, bitterness, criticism, and gossip come naturally to all of us.
May God make the body of Christ quick to suffer with those who suffer, and quick to rejoice with those who are honored.