Suffering means being cut off from God. Therefore those who live in communion with him cannot really suffer. –Bonhoeffer
As a rule I do not argue with experts. When I go to the neurologist, I can think what I want but at the end of the day, I will gladly have my head examined and take a pill if he thinks it is best for me. I figure if the guy has spent the last fifty years or so looking at brains he probably knows better than I do, even though I did score an “A” in high school anatomy. I figure listening to the guys with the experience to back up their advice is generally a good idea.
As another rule, I do not like arguing with friends. Sure, it is fun every now and again to challenge each other’s positions, and sometimes it will get heated, but I really would rather agree with my friends and mentors on every point.
So you can see my dilemma, right? Here is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who I consider my greatest dead friend, telling me that Christians do not suffer. How can that be? If he were alive and had time to engage in my silly questions, I might pick at him on this one. Are you really telling me that Christians do not suffer? How can that be?
And go ahead and add to the friendship side the fact that Bonhoeffer suffered. A lot. He spent the last several years inside German prisons and was hanged to death because of his belief in and witness to the person of Jesus. He was in communion with God and yet he suffered a whole lot more than I ever have. My sufferings to date are not fitting of a Cure song and here is a guy who was executed by the Nazis telling me that real suffering is not for us Christians. I hate to argue with a friend who actually knows what he is talking about in the arena of suffering but I almost feel compelled to disagree.
Well, I have been known to be wrong in the past, so I want to give Dietrich the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he really did know what he was talking about.
Jesus’ Suffering As Our Own
It was Thursday night in the garden when we see Jesus overwhelmed by fear. You know this place, right? His voice must have been cracking and halting as he spoke to his Father.
If…there…is another way…
Jesus knew what was coming. He was about to be arrested and tried by the very people he came to liberate. It seemed his message of love and peace had struck a foul chord with his audience. The life that the Good Shepherd offered fell on deaf ears. The way of healing that the Great Physician offered was too controversial. Jesus saw the physical pain coming. He saw the insults from his people. He saw the pathetic fear of his friends in the face of trouble. He knew the wounds were coming. He knew the crown that awaited him the next day would be made of thorns and his throne a wooden post.
For all the physical, psychological and emotional pain Jesus was going to experience, though, nothing was worse than the real suffering that awaited him. Do you remember when Jesus quoted Psalm 22 on the cross?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Have you ever felt like that? Like God has turned his back on you? We have all been there. Maybe it was a wife who decided it was time to leave. The sting of rejection and loneliness convinces us that God cannot possibly be with us. He has forsaken us.
Maybe it was the loss of a job. Maybe it was the loss of a relationship. Some have even had the unthinkable happen- they have out-lived their sons and daughters. In these times we feel like shouting out just what Jesus did on the cross. Oh God, have you left me?
We have all felt cast-out. Rejected. Alone. Abandoned by God.
The cup of suffering we remember Jesus drinking in this Holy Week means so much more than a ticket-transfer from the hot place to the place with pearly gates. It means that even in our deepest sufferings God is with us. There no longer remains a separation between us and our Father solely because Jesus has endured that separation on our accounts. Dietrich said it like this:
He bears the whole burden of man’s separation from God, and in the very act of drinking the cup he causes it to pass over him.
Did you catch that? In being cut off from his Father, Jesus did away, once and for all, the possibility of his people enduring that hopeless place. The Apostle Paul said it like this:
What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or danger or sword?
The message of Jesus is not that these things will not come. No, they will definitely come. His people will all bear our cross and share in his sufferings. In the very next verse, Paul compares us like sheep to be slaughtered. Pain in all ways it meets us, is sure to come. Loved ones will die suddenly. Friends will leave us. Health will leave us. Financial security may not come back once lost. Hard times have come and they will keep on coming at us. The message of Jesus is not that hard times are over but that there is one who stands with us in those times.
Don’t Take if From Me…
As you reflect on the sufferings of Jesus this week, try not to get caught up into how bloody or physically trying the cross must have been for Jesus- though it certainly was that. Instead, let Paul point you to a Christ who stands with us and holds us so firmly in his grasp that nothing in all creation has the power to tear us away from our Father.
I might be the last person you should listen to on this subject. I am young. I have a job. I have a roof over my head, a ballgame on the radio and a healthy dog at my feet. I am no model of suffering.
Listen instead to the ones that have gone before. Paul was beheaded for his gospel witness. Bonhoeffer was hanged. Their voices ring loud and clear today. God was with them even to the end. There is no separation for those who trust only in Christ.
To the thirsty he says: Come and Drink