|Rejecting the Cross
by Elizabeth Sendek
A response to Ajith Fernando's 'To Serve Is to Suffer'
In his insightful article, Fernando laments a contemporary idea of vocational fulfilment in ministry that has removed the cross from its core while adopting efficiency as its measuring standard. He points to three consequences of that view: inability to endure frustration, commitment to work rather than to people, and rejection of physical hardship. His ministry and friendship with Christians in both Eastern and Western hemispheres frame his reflections.
My response comes from Latin America. Here, the emphasis of evangelicals on the resurrected, exalted, and returning Lord has emboldened believers when facing diverse forms of suffering due to their faith and their socio-political circumstances. But in large sectors of the church we also find it difficult to 'embrace suffering in service.'
We too witness the idolatrous appropriation of efficiency and productivity as the highest values of our day, the yardsticks to evaluate Christian service. Adoption of worldly patterns is a way to fill the void created by a defective view of our faith. I agree with Fernando that setting aside the cross is at the core of the problem.
You hardly see a cross in evangelical churches in Latin America, and if you wear one as a pendant you can appear suspicious in some churches. This reveals more than a rejection of the Roman Catholic crucifix. It expresses an understanding of the death of Jesus as merely a symbol of God's love and forgiveness, unrelated to his incarnation. The cross's agony is ascribed only to the horror of spiritual separation from the Father. When the cross carries no sense of hideous pain or shame, its message only focuses on the benefits it offers: forgiveness, healing, deliverance, power, and glory. Should the minister of such 'good news' even think of embracing suffering?
Another face of frustration in ministry emerges, one born out of craving the status and social influence that historically belonged to the church brought by the Spanish conquest. If efficiency and productivity as measures of vocational fulfilment produce a sick and shallow church, this longing for influence brings the temptation of trading the shame of the cross for social prestige. We begin to consider financial and political power equal to expansion of the kingdom of God. This does not echo Jesus' warning to his disciples that rejection from the world was inherent in serving him, since he himself had been rejected (John 15:18; 16:4). True, lack of suffering does not necessarily mean lack of faithfulness, but public acclamation does not mean true service either. Have we forgotten the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, and many of those who preceded us in the history of the people of God?
Fernando is right when he warns about the dangers of 'not sticking with people' as a way of avoiding pain in ministry. Yet, because our unity should be primarily in Christ and the gospel, and our commitment to the people we serve, the pain we are called to bear at times means precisely letting people go. This is particularly true in cultures where the importance of leaders is measured by the number of their protégés. In such settings, the suffering involved in freeing others to find vocational fulfilment outside one's sphere of influence will make us their true servant.
We are reluctant to accept suffering as an innate component of fruitful and fulfilled Christian service because we have lost sight of the role it plays in God's purpose. Suffering is the setting in which the true nature of our faith, hopes, and loyalties is demonstrated (1 Peter 1:6–9; James 1:12). Pain also has a pedagogical function. Through it we are perfected in obedience (Hebrews 5:7–10; 12:1–12).
One of the expressions of evil in our fallen world is the hideous suffering we humans can inflict on others. Precisely for that reason it is imperative that we recover a central truth of Christianity: God defeats Satan, evil, and sin through suffering. Is that not the case in Job's experience? Is that not the case in Jesus' acceptance of the most shaming and cruel death of his day? He triumphed over the ultimate enemy precisely by surrendering to it. We, like his disciples, have bought into the notion that demonstrations of power are the way to deal with the evils that threaten us. Unfortunately, rather than following the example of the Servant King, we are prone to choose the way of worldly power.
A popular saying in Colombia states: 'Both marriage and burial originate in heaven.' Both joy and suffering are inherent to service in the kingdom of God. Is it possible to be faithful and fruitful in ministry when we accept the joys while rejecting the cross?
Elizabeth Sendek is professor of New Testament, as well as academic vice president and dean, at the Biblical Seminary of Colombia.
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