✠ May I speak in the name of our generous God, who so loved us that he would suffer and die for us.
Why does suffering form part of God’s good creation? Why does he allow it? We are all his beloved children, but particularly, why does he allow it for his beloved son – why?
On the simplest level, pain is often educational: we don’t put our finger in a candle flame more than once unless we are in some way being self-destructive: for a dare, to counteract other pain, to punish ourselves. Pain is something we expect to go away once the cause is dealt with. Suffering is something else: it goes beyond pain and affects us more deeply. Simone Weil says that affliction is the absolute worst point – where we are so worn down by pain that we reach a place where we question whether God exists or cares for us. Is that the point we see Jesus reaching on the cross?
Suffering is painful, wasteful, demeaning, messy, uncontrollable therefore frightening, and to cap it all, suffering often feels pointless and unending. We believe that Jesus suffered for us – how and why did he do this?
How did Jesus suffer for us? For me, there’s more to it than the Cross. There’s the pain of constriction. The author of creation becomes a mere part of it, bound in a human foetus, and loses the joy of being in the eternal dance with God: all that light, all that music, all that freedom and certainty of purpose and identity.
Then there’s the fear and pain of birth. We don’t recall it, but what a start that is – and at that stage we can have no expectation that the pain might stop. “We came crying hither,” says King Lear. Jesus did too.
There are the normal pains of growing: for Jesus, circumcision, his first scraped knee, his first fight perhaps, the literal growing pains of teenagehood. His first burnt finger, no doubt. For Jesus, though, there would be the suffering attached to the wonder of being different. He was human but marked out for a very different future than his peers’. We all have differences – thank goodness – and it is one of the marvels and joys of creation; but they are a source of fear too. Jesus did that one with us.
I used to think that Jesus didn’t suffer the longterm problems many of us do. Living only 33 years he didn’t have time to get bored, marry the wrong person, have a decades-long painful condition, get arthritis or Alzheimer’s. I’ve changed my mind about the boredom, at least: there is that reference to his being “obedient” to his parents. We can all remember how much boredom and frustration that might entail, however loving they may have been. Seventeen years of waiting to become who you feel you should be might be a kind of suffering some of you might understand. That’s how long Jesus was obedient.
The gospels tell of three other kinds of suffering before the cross. Jesus was misunderstood by nearly everyone, including those near and dear to him. We all feel this to some extent, and it can be really painful. Once uncovered it can undermine relationships we thought were secure. Jesus had a deep certainty of God’s love, but as a human he went to that place of uncertainty and isolation.
He is described as weeping only once, when he met the mourners outside Lazarus’ tomb. The loss of a dear one, by whatever means, is always painful. It bears all those hallmarks of suffering: hurt, timelessness, pointlessness. Jesus knew Lazarus would walk out of the tomb, but his weeping is in response to the despair of the mourners. He went to that point of desolation too.
In Gethsemane Jesus faces an unknown, unquantifiable suffering. There is as yet no physical pain, but a certainty that it is ahead. Those of you who have had brushes with cancer or faced major surgery will feel something of this suffering by anticipation. It brings him out in a dreadful sweat – literally palpable fear. If you have ever suffered this kind of helpless terror, Jesus has been there with you.
Finally, the gospels take us through the painful way to the cross. In John, we hear almost nothing from Jesus at this point. This seems to me realistic: real pain tends to silence people. However, I want to include Luke’s version just for a moment. I have been struggling with the pointlessness of suffering for some years. In Advent, we heard Luke’s story of the crucifixion and at the time, Marjorie in her sermon described the good thief as Jesus’ companion in suffering. This caught my attention and the clouds lifted a little. If we suffer, we can do this in angry rejection as the bad thief does, which is its own reward. Or we can offer companionship to Jesus, which gives some meaning to what otherwise seems meaningless. It may not sound like much, but a very little water seems like riches when one is parched.
The pain and indignity and fear of Jesus’ last hours have brought us here today. We come to be compassionate with him, just as he was and is compassionate with us. He is our companion as we suffer, and he did it not to appease an angry God for our many, many sins, but because to the last he was a teacher. The lesson of the cross is not that it is a simple transaction to buy us salvation, nor a simple lesson in how to suffer, but in why.
The God who so loved us that he gave his only son wanted to understand what the eternal dance feels like at our level. He loved us so much he wanted to understand us more, but he also wanted us to understand him. To understand the eternal giving of the Trinity, each pouring out itself to the other two persons for ever, and what that giving looks like in creation. Sometimes it is the generous, positive giving of love in the good times; but there will always be mortality and change for created things. And then the way of love is to suffer. We cannot really understand our loving God until we understand that by giving himself to each person of the Trinity in love, by making us in love, he partakes of the vulnerability of love. And that vulnerability stares at us from the cross.
Brené Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, puts it like this: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
It is neither useful, nor good for our health, to fight or rail against suffering. There is no nobility in this, suffering still remains messy and often disgusting. But it is, paradoxically, one of the places where we learn how God loves us. So we can hold on to that which is Christlike in it, and our keeping faith with him, as we accompany him through his terrible time.