My father’s funeral service was held at ten in the morning on August 20th. It was a fitting time to find some closure and express grief before our God who draws near to the brokenhearted.
As I prepared my eulogy for the service, I knew that properly honoring my father and my relationship with him would require giving voice to the good, the difficult challenges and our sins against each other, and all that Christ did to reconcile and heal our relationship. I recognized I would be straying from the norm for such speeches, which tend to focus only on the positives of someone’s life. However, I saw this eulogy as an opportunity not only to heal from my own grief, but to minister to others in theirs. I decided to enter these harder places to share how Christ met me and my father and healed our relationship when it was most broken.
While hitting all the high notes of our relationship, including my father’s faithful presence and loving care, I also expressed the difficulties and breaches of trust we faced in our relationship. I shared that our relationship was difficult for the better part of 8 or 9 years, which included almost an entire year where we barely saw or spoke to each other. I also shared how our own insecurities, combined with our sinful actions and attitudes, created the breach that took so long to heal.
Yet it was in this sad, dark place where I was able to share how faith in Christ, how his tender love and forgiveness, led to the healing and reconciliation of our relationship. There was good news to be shared at this funeral service, even if it required the risk of my own vulnerability and exposure.
I received many passionate and thankful comments after the service, but one stands out above the rest. An older woman from the congregation of my father’s Methodist church came up to me and said, “We hear about forgiveness and reconciliation all the time. We’ve been told our whole lives by pastors we need to forgive. Rarely do we see an example of forgiveness and reconciliation actually happening. Even rarer is a pastor willing to share his own failures, his own need for forgiveness in his relationships, and real hope for reconciliation to happen. You made an important, lasting impact on our church today.”
I was deeply moved by her comment, and I am grateful that God has chosen to bless my labors. As I’ve thought more about her words, I have been reminded of Paul’s words to the Colossian church about the relationship between his suffering and his ministry. Colossians 1:24 says this:
Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.
This verse is one that can trip us easily up. What could possibly have been lacking in Christ’s afflictions? We do not need to read much farther in Colossians to see that even within this one letter, Paul saw nothing lacking in Christ’s salvific work and sacrifice (Col 1:19-20, 2:15). Far from denying the efficacy of Christ’s finished work, Paul was teaching us something important about the nature of Christian ministry.
When we ascertain theological truths, particularly about Christ, we enter a kind of knowledge and relationship with Christ that is very good, but also one that is largely theoretical. Abstract truths about Christ’s love and grace are wonderful, but when they are left at an intellectual level the person of Christ can still seem more like a distant idea rather than an empathetic, compassionate, and personal Savior. While our intellectual knowledge of Christ may be strong, the depth of our relationship and experience with Christ may feel fragile.
This is what Paul meant by “what is still lacking”; not Christ’s salvific work, but our experience and relationship with Christ in suffering. It is not the accomplishment of salvation which remains unfinished, but the ongoing application of it in a deeply personal relationship with Christ.
The Apostle Paul saw suffering as a necessary aspect of his ministry (Acts 14:22). In fact, Paul longed for a deeper fellowship with Christ in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10) so that he might be able to bring a deeper comfort of Christ’s love to the church (2 Corinthians 1:5-6, 4:10-12). In other words, in his joyful endurance through suffering, Paul saw himself as a tangible expression of Christ’s own joyful endurance through suffering (Hebrews 12:2). Paul viewed his suffering as a doorway through which others might enter and encounter Christ.
What does all of this mean for us? As we think about our own ministries – and every Christian has a ministry – how can we “fill up what is still lacking” in Christ’s afflictions?
At minimum, this verse is an invitation to see our suffering and afflictions as an opportunity to have a deeper fellowship with Christ’s afflictions. Every Christian I know who senses an ever-deepening relationship with Christ has gotten to that place on the road of suffering.
But more than that, this verse is an invitation see our afflictions as an opportunity for ministry. For Paul, there was no ministry if there was no suffering. American Christianity has often wanted us to believe that we can only have ministry when there is no suffering; that only the strong among us make the best ministers.
But weakness is the way, my friends. When we are weak, Christ is strong (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Vulnerability is scary, and empathy can be draining. But when we seek the mindset of Paul to “fill up what is still lacking,” we become a blessing to Christ’s body. Our own faith and relationship with Christ are strengthened, and we become a means for others to draw closer to him as well.
And that seems worth it to me.