Felicitas, a young Christian mother to be in Carthage, was accused of worshipping strange gods. Ordered to offer sacrifice Caesar, she refused and was thrown in prison to be used as sport with the lions. While giving birth in the cell beneath the Coliseum, she cried out in agony. Her guard questioned her, “If you can’t handle the pain of childbirth, how will you stand up against the lions?” Thinking of the curse given to mortals as a result of our sinfulness--specifically the pain given women in childbearing--she replied, “Today I suffer the consequences of my own sinfulness. Tomorrow I won’t suffer alone, but Christ will suffer in me.”
A defeated, powerless Christian is an oxymoron. Not because he is righteous on his own, nor because he has the strength in himself to overcome sin, death, and the devil, but because Jesus has won the victory on Calvary and works it into him as he suffers with Christ dying daily to himself and daily finding new life in him. This is no “pie in the sky” overcoming (“everything will be good when you finally die”) or a willful suppression of the difficult facts of our existence (“everything is just rosy in my life”). Our victory happens now, in time; it is costly and deals with our sins honestly.
We would like victory without suffering, but it can’t be so. We would like to coast into God’s heaven having hardly broken a sweat, but Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me[i].” A victorious life is one of suffering because it is one of constant struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil.
Victory comes through combat. Combat implies pain. Christ suffered and said that we would too. St. Peter wrote about this to churches in Asia Minor, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God”(1 Peter 4:1-2). This is the battle—for whom are we living? For whom are we fighting?
When St. Paul exhorted his protégé Timothy to “fight the good fight,” he twice used the word from which we get the word “agony.” There is no victory without suffering because it hurts to say no to the temptations of the flesh. It is not easy to choose the narrow path of obedience over the attractive offers of the world and the devil.
But to do so in the power of Christ is to participate in his victory. Note the identification of the believer with his Lord. Since he suffered, so will you. We’d rather stress the vicarious nature of our salvation story - “Since he did it, I don’t need to.” It’s become an article of faith in the weakened Protestantism of today: since we are saved by grace through faith, we had better not attempt to do anything. This, of course, uses the means of our salvation (Christ’s totally gracious self-offering for us undeserving sinners) as a screen for ignoring the divine command to live a life like Jesus. No, we can’t earn the merits of the blood of the lamb no matter how perfectly we begin to live. As Archbishop Cranmer put it so comprehensively, Jesus on the cross “made there by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” But Jesus himself expects us to participate in his life in such a way that the very life of God’s overcoming and victorious power will be made manifest in us:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” shows us that he expects our suffering and eventual victory. “I am with you always to the end of the ages,[ii]” shows that he is with us working his victory out in our lives.
Are you victorious over sin? Do you care so much for the new life of God in you that you will honor it at all costs—even at the expense of your body? Why are exposed as weaklings and cowards in comparison to servant girls in Roman times? The Christian life should be one of training for, reckoning on, and arming ourselves for battle and fighting the fight. Could it be that the world is not evangelized because we have not armed ourselves? Because we have not accepted the suffering to which all disciples are called?
Father God, giver of all virtue and strength, give us grace like Felicitas to hold on to the victory of Christ even while suffering. Let no fear dissuade us, no pain prevent us, and no memory of past sin hinder us in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Christ became like me and suffered the death I deserve, let me become like him a son who knows obedience through pain that you might be glorified in me; all this we ask through him who lives in us, even Jesus.