Why was suffering such an important part of Jesus' life? We seem to naturally want to avoid suffering at all cost, yet in Christianity we talk about the importance of suffering as part of being identified with Jesus. There seems to be a great deal of confusion and even misleading information about this subject.
What actually went into the sufferings of Jesus? It might be easy to see the physical sufferings He endured during His last few hours of life, but what about the rest of His life? We don't see Him being tortured by people, beaten up, whipped or spat upon during most of His ministry. But I suspect that suffering was still a large part of what He experienced throughout all of His life.
In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. (Hebrews 5:7-9 NRSV)
As my picture of God and of what is really transpiring in the war between good and evil has changed much over the past few years, I am forced to come back to revisit most all of my assumptions about these kinds of things to see how they are supposed to fit into the revised “big picture” that is making so much more sense to me now. And as I reevaluate these pieces of the puzzle and discover where or how they were originally intended to fit in with the other pieces, I am continually amazed at how much better they complement everything else when they are properly appreciated and connected to reveal truth.
I spent some time on the road yesterday discussing with God this issue of suffering and listening for His thoughts and insights on it. I am now trying to remember what I learned and get it down in words that I can come back to review and also to see what may further emerge as I meditate on this. I had almost forgotten that I had had this discussion with God until I opened the devotional this morning by Oswald Chambers and read about this topic again.
This is a topic that has long mystified me and troubled me as I am sure it has many others. I can still remember rather clearly an incident that happened when I was quite young. For some reason or another I found myself in a car with a stranger who began to question me about my religion. From my religious training and my confused ideas about what was important I answered some of his questions in ways that I now see betrayed some of my weaknesses in my perceptions of God. He asked me about my beliefs and I think I told him about some of our distinctive doctrines that made us different than other churches. But the thing I remember the most was that I told him that we believe that it is important for people to suffer.
Upon hearing this the man protested by insisting that he didn't think that was necessarily true. He couldn't see why God would be the kind of God to want people to suffer. He felt that God wanted us to be happy, not live in suffering all the time. This answer threw me into confusion internally and caused me to question this idea of suffering for the first time in my life. And I have thought about that conversation many times since that day. And the more I have reconsidered it the more my skewed picture of God's attitudes toward me have been exposed and I see more how much they are terribly faulty and even insulting sometimes.
And yet it seems very clear from Scriptures that there must be an important role for sufferings in the life of a follower of Jesus. If Jesus is our example in all things, then it must be inevitable that sufferings are going to be at least some part of the Christian's life if they were such an integral part of the life of Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:12) And according to the above verse it was through sufferings that Jesus learned obedience. And even more noteworthy is the last phrase where it says that a similar obedience will be seen in the lives of all who receive from Him eternal life.
But I still have not even touched yet the early questions I started with about what suffering really was in the life of Jesus. Apart from the obvious physical torture that He experienced near the end of His life, what can I perceive that would educate me about the real meaning and usefulness of sufferings in both His life and in mine? Is suffering supposed to be a form of punishment? I suspect that my confused or misled ideas about sufferings prevent me from properly perceiving what it really is as well as how it can lead me into a relationship of obedience to God.
As I think about it I realize a little bit how much this idea has been obscured by the subtle notions of legalism and appeasement – all based on very dark views of how God relates to sinners. When one believes in a God full of threats and anger who bases His government on a system of punishments and rewards, then it becomes easy to start thinking that we have to suffer in order to somehow diminish our guilt or pay for our misdeeds. It is very easy to slip into a formula way of thinking, a moral scale of worth where we can counterbalance one side by adding to the other. The whole idea of a God demanding suffering from sinners before He is willing to save them became very prevalent during the dark ages after Jesus returned to heaven and this notion still has a very pervasive grip on most of our thinking. The residual effects of these very dark views of God still plague us so much that it is difficult to think of God outside of many of these assumptions. This is why I am finding it difficult to explore this subject objectively and understand it effectively from a perspective closer to how heaven sees it.
But I find it quite helpful to bring it to the new light of what I have been learning about why Jesus came to this earth in the first place and the real reason why He died on the cross. That whole subject is still under major revision for me and I am eager to not only dispense with all of my false and terrible notions about it I have had all of my life but to fully embrace the life-changing, heart-transforming truth that is beginning to emerge from my own study of the Bible. As my picture of God morphs into a much brighter and clearer understanding, so too are my confused ideas about all these other things beginning to to realign themselves to make sense and fit together properly.
Instead of viewing the sufferings of Jesus as some kind of morbid payment for our sins to an angry, demanding God lusting for the blood of someone to be punished for daring to disobey Him, I am now beginning to see that the cross and all its related events was very much quite the opposite. As someone has put it so succinctly, sinners do not fall into the hands of an angry God; rather God allowed Himself to fall into the hands of angry sinners – and allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do to Him without ever resorting to one thought of retaliation or resentment. (1 Pet. 2:23)
This is such a radical departure from the views of God held by most of the world that I am constantly challenged to check every other belief against this new standard as a light to expose the faulty thinking that has dwarfed my own experience for so many years. This standard of truth – the real character of a God who only works by love and is truly worthy of all praise, trust and confidence, a God who will ultimately be proven to have always acted fairly – this final truth is the measurement that I must use now in determining every other belief and every doctrine and assumption about reality. And as I take this issue of sufferings and bring it to this light of truth about God, I am forced to look much deeper to find out how it really fits in properly with the real truth about Him as the Bible must teach it if read it correctly.
I am not writing things here that are already completely clear to me yet. I am grappling with these concepts through the process of writing and seeking to listen to God's Spirit in this way and to seek discernment by asking questions and taking notes on what comes to my heart and mind along the way.
One thing that came to me this morning was that suffering will likely occur when a person finds themselves seriously at odds with the values and opinions and customs of the people around them. When there is a significant difference between what motivates me and what is considered important to those around me, tension is bound to arise and pressure is going to build for one side or the other to adapt and conform to what is considered the norm. This tension can then become the flash point around which suffering can take place. For if I am listening to the sound of a different drummer that I believe is playing the right beat as opposed to what everyone else is following, then the disunity produced by my disharmony with everyone else may cause them to begin to threaten me, persecute me and even try to coerce me by force to comply and fall into line with what the majority is doing or thinking.
Given this perspective I can now begin to see how this kind of suffering would be inevitable for Jesus. His view of reality was so starkly different than anything we can even yet comprehend that He constantly found Himself at odds with nearly everything traditional and everyone purporting to represent God to the world. Ironically, God Himself showed up on earth and found Himself constantly argued with about how God should act by self-styled experts on what God was supposed to be like. And these religious experts were so insistent about their views of God that they became very irritated and angry at the very one who was revealing the heart of the Father right before their eyes. This growing irritation and resistance to the real truth about what God is like seems to me to be the core issue that caused most of the sufferings of Christ.
As Jesus demonstrated what love looks like and how love responds under every temptation and in every situation, people became polarized in their perceptions of God; they either became very attracted to Jesus and wanted to know Him better and become more like Him, or they felt resentful that His presence and His attitudes were always exposing their faults and was making them look bad. This latter group eventually hardened their hearts against love so completely that they ultimately ended up torturing love's representative to this earth and demonstrated what sin will do when confronted with its nemesis.
But I am still struggling to perceive how suffering can produce obedience. I am going to have to continue this more when I get a chance.