Suffering is at the heart of the Christian gospel. The Gospels themselves are stories, with long introductions, about the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus calls us to choose suffering for the sake of His kingdom as He himself chose to suffer for the Kingdom of God. We say that His suffering redeems us–but how?
The reason heard most often is that Jesus suffers because the judgment of God demands that sin be punished; God must exact the death penalty from either us or from a substitute. God’s justice demands that someone must die, so God allows or forces Jesus to take our punishment. Jesus pays the price for our sin, and the strange justice of God is satisfied.
But how does the suffering of Jesus change us? Two things worry me about this explanation: Who will have to pay for the sin of killing the Son of God and how does this event truly change us? It seems to be special knowledge that saves us: we know that Jesus died for us so we make it into heaven, and those who don’t have this special knowledge don’t get in.
To understand suffering we need to begin by seeing how suffering changes us. Saint Telemachus, a monk in the early fifth century, felt the call of God to go to Rome. Soon after he arrived there he found his way to the amphitheater where gladiators fought to the death for the entertainment of the crowd. He ran from his seat to the center of the amphitheater where he cried out, “In the Name of Jesus stop!” He was knocked down by a gladiator and heckled by the crowd. He got back up and cried out again, “In the Name of Jesus stop!” This time, at the insistence of the crowd, he was run through with a sword and dying, fell to the ground. With great effort he rose to his feet once again to feebly say, “In the name of Jesus stop!” Then he died.
What seemed a senseless death became much more. That was the last day gladiators ever fought in Rome. The suffering of Telemachus enabled the Romans to see the evil of their “entertainment.”
Mary was an African-American woman who helped my mother with the household chores and looked after my five brothers and me. After helping to cook lunch, she refused to sit at the table with us. She would eat on the porch, so we would often go and sit with her.
One day while Mary was working she became very ill. She said to my mother, “I am so sick I have to lay down.” My mother tried to get Mary to lie down on a bed, but Mary said, “I could never lay down on your beds,” and she laid down on the floor. This broke my heart. It made me determined to do all I could in my life to do away with a system that could make a wonderful person feel that she was not good enough to lie in a bed that she herself had made. Her suffering changed me; I could never again accept the system of segregation as anything but evil, though many around me called it good.
On Sunday morning, Sept. 15, 1963, the clock at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. stopped at 10:22. Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley died as a result of a Ku Klux Klan bomb as they were getting ready to participate in Youth Sunday activities. This was a tragic day in the life of our nation, but it was also a day of redemption. White strangers, some with Confederate license plates, visited the families of the girls to express their sorrow. The deaths of these children caused many people to examine their stances and gave courage to many who had been mute. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 owes its passage to the suffering of these four little girls.
Jesus’ suffering helps us to see ourselves in the same way. Jesus, in His earthly ministry, identified with the powerless and outcast of the world. Jesus is found with tax collectors (racketeers in our day), Samaritans (people hated by Jesus’ own people), prostitutes, marginalized folk (lepers, lame, blind diseased and even the insane). He tells us in the judgment passage in Matthew 25:31-46 that He can be found with the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked and those in prisons. In His death He is again identified with the marginalized. His politics of grace and love put Him at odds with both religious leaders and the empirical powers.
In seeing Jesus on the cross we see the results of our actions–our misuse of power, our failure to love our neighbors and enemies, our failure to help the marginalized has led to the crucifixion of Jesus.
However, in Jesus we see more. Matthew 27:50 – 51 states: “Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”
This passage refers to the curtain in the Temple that separated the Holy of Holies, where God abides, from both priest and people. God, throughout the Old Testament, is always hidden from His people. If one were to see God, he would die. At the death of Jesus the curtain is torn in two. We see God in Jesus suffering on the cross.
Jesus does not die to appease an angry God. He dies to reveal a God who loves us enough to suffer for us.
Larry Wilson is pastor of First Baptist Church in Biscoe, N.C.