Why did Jesus die? Part 5: Suffering
It is true to say that, for the most part, people are more aware of their suffering than their pride — their proclivity to put themselves first, before God, others, and the environment. I wonder if this is because the news is constantly filled with the harrowing stories of the suffering of others, or because our medical care is so advanced that we aspire to a level of health never previously experienced. Either way, suffering in all its forms appears to be one of our primary social and personal concerns, and suffering is something we share with all humanity, and from which none of us is spared. Whether high or low on the social or personal agenda, to be human is to suffer.
But what about God? It is a common misconception that all religions are the same, spouting the mantra, “do to others as you would have done to you,” and, “all paths lead to God,” however, Christians claim that their religion is unique, and it is certainly true that their ‘path’ to God is very different indeed. For Christians believe not only in an omnipotent, righteous, and holy God, but also a suffering God; not a distant, heavenly, or separate God, but also a God who enters into our world and experiences the ultimate in human pain, rejection, and death by hideous execution. And, to his contemporaries, his name was ‘God saves’ or as we know him, Jesus the Anointed One — Jesus Christ.
“And (God) being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:8)
If Jesus was just Jesus, without the ‘Christ’, a human just like everyone else, then his suffering can only be yet another example of what happens when tyrants prevail, and at best, a demonstration of forbearance under hellish oppression, however, if Jesus was and is God, then his life, death, and resurrection take on a significance that changes our understanding of the very nature of love, and of God, and has ramifications for every aspect of our physical, emotional, and spiritual lives.
It is worth noting that to many other philosophies and religions, the idea of a suffering God is an anathema and a contradiction in terms. How could an all-powerful God relinquish control or be subject to ‘lesser’ beings? And some religions that accept the historical Jesus claim he only ‘appeared’ to die because, surely, someone holy or god-like could not be killed? Even some Christian theologians, who struggle with the idea of a suffering God, claim that Jesus only suffered in his ‘human’ part but did not suffer in his ‘godly’ part, however, this means treating God as if he has a split personality or nature rather than a single, whole being who was both inseparably human and God. You can see, therefore, how orthodox Christians (like me) take a very narrow, unpopular, and sometimes uncomfortable approach in their claim that Jesus Christ was and is God.
“Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
The idea of a suffering God also has implications for our perception of a loving God for the two are inextricably linked. You see, Christians assert that God is love, and again, if you follow the logic, then if God loves then God runs the risk of that love being rejected, and if love is rejected, then it hurts and God suffers. It is why, in some other religions, it is not only the idea of a suffering God which is unacceptable but also, by implication, the concept of a loving God. A loving God is a suffering God, yet Christians absolutely affirm that God loves us, and it is this self-sacrificial love for us that led God to enter into our world of pain and suffering.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
When we suffer it can be because we ourselves are suffering or because we are witnessing or empathising with the suffering of others, often our loved ones. In terms of God suffering, when Jesus died on the cross, both kinds of suffering were present, for God the Father surely suffered when witnessing God the Son suffer and die on the cross.
For us humans who believe in God, then a pressing question has to be, ‘Why does God allow so much suffering?’ This is not a new question, although it is not a question that the writers of the New Testament directly answer, but we can say with certainty that God shares our suffering and enters into it with us, and that this makes all the difference.
I remember once, after a horrendous tragedy, where a good friend of my then three-year-old daughter, a little boy, died overnight from a brain virus. I knelt on the carpet before a cross hanging on my wall and gave God ‘both barrels’. As I lambasted God and cried out in pain and anguish, I called out through my tears, “Where the hell were you?” In the ensuing silence, the answer came, “My dear Son, I was right there.” God was experiencing the suffering and pain as keenly as the parents and friends.
You may think, “That’s all very well, but what use is that?” The answer is, I do not fully know, yet, it brought me a very real and present comfort, for as I looked at that cross on the wall, I realised it was empty — that the one who entered into our broken world of pain and suffering, who endured excruciating rejection and death, overcame it, and opened a new way, to a future hope of a place and time where there will be no more pain or suffering.
“For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:17)
For Christians this is not an idealistic theoretical concept, but a hope born out of the physical reality and truth of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To meet the thief on the cross, Jesus had to hang there beside him. He not only said with his actions, “Today I meet you in your suffering,” but, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The prophet Isaiah knew this when he wrote about the one who was to come:
“Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering… He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
The cross of Jesus is the gateway to new life, and our hope is in nothing less. Let me close with these words from Jesus:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)