Colossians 1:24 "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for His body, that is, the church." (HCSB)
Like most believers, I've read that verse a hundred times and hardly paid attention to what has become, for me at least, one of the most important little phrases in all the Bible. The phrase, "I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ's afflictions...". I suppose that I simply glanced over that verse for so many years, never considering what it meant, how much it would, (and should) upset my apple cart had I paid attention to it sooner, and how much comfort it brings when life begins to bite back at our efforts to walk this world and pursue our dreams.
Like most of us, I was taught that Christ suffered all things on the cross. That His death, being substitutionary, was a complete experience of all that was sinful and wrong with humanity. But this is not true.
Jesus death was substitutionary. There is no question about this. Jesus experienced every punishment for every sin and He bore the wrath of a Holy and Just God for the sins of humanity, on His body that dreadful Friday afternoon.
But while Jesus experienced the wrath of sin and the punishment for sin, He did not experience all the various consequences of sin. Now, for the purpose of this article, I need to define that last statement a bit. There is almost always a distinction between punishment and consequence. Sometimes they are coexistent. But often times they are not. Pregnancy is not a punishment for illicit sex but it can sometimes be a consequence. Drunken wretchedness is not a punishment for alcoholic overindulgence, but it is a consequence of it. (Although wretchedness, it may be fairly stated, might be the cause of the drunkenness and alcoholism) Cancer is not a punishment for sin, but it is certainly a consequence of the sinful fall of man. (There was no cancer or disease of any kind in the Garden of Eden and there will be none in Heaven. This was not God's intention for us)
So, while Jesus certainly experienced the punishment for all sin, there is much consequence, or affliction as Paul puts it here, that He never tasted. Jesus never married, so He never felt the sting of divorce. He never had a child so He never experienced the pain of a stillbirth or the knock on the door in the night and the news that a child is lost to a tragedy. He died at 33 years old, and while He experienced the death of his earthly father, Joseph, He never watched his mother disappear into senility. He never saw the crushing effects of old age as it bent her and made her life harder.
Jesus never lost a home to foreclosure or a business to an embezzling partner. Jesus never filed bankruptcy. Jesus never dealt with an unmarried pregnant daughter or a criminal son. Jesus...the man...never faced a mid-life crisis where He wondered if the first half of his life was meaningful and if the second half would be worth exploring. Jesus never wondered what his purpose was in this world.
Jesus was 100% man and 100% God. It's a mystery that we struggle to grasp sometimes. But He was God in the flesh and as such, the only way that would work was if He willingly chose to limit the abilities of his deity to the restrictions of the flesh. This was done voluntarily, nobody took those powers from him. He walked among us, as one of us, for 33 1/2 years and He tasted so much of what the human experience was and is. But there were obviously many things He just never experienced first-person. Some of those I outlined above.
So when we read Colossians 1:24 in light of this limited experience of Jesus, it begins to make sense and it ceases to be the almost blasphemous heresy it looks like on the surface. I know that when I first read it and paid attention to it I was almost incensed. "Really Paul?" "Jesus was lacking in his afflictions?"
Once I grasped that Paul was talking about the man Jesus, and the human afflictions, not the Savior and his perfect sacrifice, I understood it. Then after understanding it, I received great joy from this verse. Let me explain.
As I mentioned before, Jesus only lived on Earth 33 years. He never married. He never divorced. He never felt the soul-crushing bite of rejection by a spouse and the sorrow upon sorrow that comes with divorce. He never had children so He never missed them in the night. But I have.
Jesus never lost a home and a business and a career and His life dreams. But I have. Jesus never felt the shame of financial ruin, or the fear and doubt of facing his Fiftieth year unsure of what lies ahead and with the enormity of fatherhood pressing on him to hurry and rediscover success. But I have.
Jesus never felt those things Himself, but as He walks through them with me, as He hears my cries and weeps along with me and holds my hand in the darkness and whispers his name in my ear while I rage at him for seeming to abandon me, as He endures these afflictions with me, I fill up what was lacking in the afflictions He faced during his time on Earth. That is what Paul meant. So when I come across a man who is right now going through a divorce and I see the look in his eyes long before he ever tells me he is divorcing, I can tell him assuredly, "Jesus understands. He gets it and He will help you through it. He's been there."
When he asks me "What do you mean? When did Jesus go through a divorce? He never married."
I can confidently tell him that Jesus went through mine with me. When Jesus brings comfort to his followers, when He shows up in the hospital room, keeping his promise to "Never leave you nor forsake you", when suddenly in the midst of a long dark night of the soul because your business is failing and you stand to lose it all and you have collapsed on your floor in anguish and all at once you sense another person there and an unseen arm on your shoulder and you know it is the very son of God...that is Jesus going through it with you. In that moment, when you accept the grace that He promised and lean on him simply for the strength to take another breath, you are filling up what was lacking in his afflictions.
This is why Paul rejoiced in his sufferings. Because he knew that Jesus was there with him...somewhere, somehow...and that this suffering was needed because very soon now, Paul was going to meet another believer who needed to be encouraged, not in some abstract, "quote-a-Bible-verse-at-it" way but in a real, meaningful "look-you-in-the-eye-and-give-you-real-hope-because-I've-been-there" way.
This is hard and very frequently it doesn't bring you comfort during your trials but rather after them. When enough time has passed and enough tears have been shed, and enough long sleepless nights have been spent in wrestling with a God you've often doubted and sometimes hated. But you've had just enough Faith to not give up and that got you through. Paul said that "His grace is sufficient for me..." (II Cor 12:9). Not overwhelming, not falling short. Sufficient. Sometimes sufficient is overflowing and sometimes it's barely enough to hang on. But it's never not enough.
Take courage my friend. Don't give up even though I know you want to and it would probably be understandable if you did. You only see the value of your suffering after you've seen it yield fruit in the life of some other weary traveler. If you are in a desert, dig a well. Leave a gift behind for the next pilgrim. In doing so you make something of value come from something otherwise pointless and you fill up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions. Afflictions I am now convinced He left untouched himself so that we could have a part in his work here on Earth.