I do not believe that any other issue presents a greater challenge to the Christian faith, indeed to all faiths, than suffering. We begin Holy Week by walking with the crowd that shouted "Hosannah to the Son of David", and threw their outer garments and palm branches be- fore the feet of Jesus' donkey as he entered Jerusalem. However, that procession takes us to the foot of the cross and leaves us there. It's a difficult place to be, but in a sense, it's where we are all our lives. The cross is woven into the very fabric of life, because the suffering Jesus endured upon the cross, although different from ours in degree and intensity, was much the same as our own suffering. We encounter Jesus at that place where our suffering meets his suffering, where the shadow of his cross falls across our own suffering, our own rejection, our own death.
St. Therese of Lisieux once wrote, "When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is " acquainted with Grief," we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own." Precisely. It is his acquaintance with suffering that binds us closely to Jesus and never more so than on Good Friday.
Yet, what exactly is it that is unique about Jesus' suffering upon the Cross? Years ago one of my students, a Jew, asked me what I thought the difference was between Jesus' suffering and the Holocaust – a difficult question for a Christian to discuss with a Jew for the Cross has too often been used as an excuse for persecuting the Jews. But after thinking for a minute, I realized that there was a profound difference: the Holocaust was the attempt to destroy an entire people. If Hitler had succeeded, there would have been no Jews left, no one left to remember and tell the story. On the other hand, Jesus' death (looked at humanly) was just the death of an individual. However, after thinking about it over the years, it seems to me that the death of an individual can be just as terrible as the death of a people. There may be a kind of solidarity, of community, if a people dies. One is not alone. But there was a terrible aloneness in Jesus' death.
Theologian Miroslav Volf remarks, "Suffering can be endured, even embraced, if it brings desired fruit, as the experience of giving birth illustrates. What turned the pain of suffering into agony was the abandonment; Jesus was abandoned by the people who trusted in him and by the God in whom he trusted. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15.34). My God, my God, why did my radical obedience to your way lead to the pain and disgrace of the cross?" (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, p. 26)
Perhaps the main reason that the anguish and suffering of the innocent and undeserving is such a challenge to the Christian faith is that it questions our basic sense of fairness. Why~ we wonder. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? We may also wonder why good things happen to bad people, but being the generous souls that we are, that doesn't bother us quite as much.
What if we turned the question around? What if we wondered why is there goodness in the world at all? What if we were as struck, as curious, about the presence of goodness as we are by the presence of evil and suffering? The reason may be that we think that somehow we deserve goodness, but not suffering. And perhaps we do. Yet the existence of goodness, happiness, and joy are as mysterious as suffering. .
Some years ago author Gerald Sittser's wife, daughter, and mother were killed in an automobile accident that was the fault of another driver. Not only did the other driver survive the accident, he was brought to trial and the jury found him not guilty of having caused the accident. Sittser writes,
I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. ...Perhaps I did not deserve their deaths; but I did not deserve their presence in my life either. On the face of it, living in a perfectly fair world appeals to me. But deeper reflection makes me wonder. In such a world I might never experience tragedy; but neither would I experience grace, esp. the grace God gave me in the form of the three wonderful people whom I lost. ...God spare us a life of fairness! To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world might make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering. ("The life and death we don't deserve", Christian Century, Ian. 17,1996, pp. 44-47)
In the very midst of suffering, it may not help to look at life from Sittser's point of view; it may not even help to look at the cross. But if we can sit with the suffering long enough, then we may become aware that we have a Companion, one who suffers with us.
Nicholas Wolterstoff, who taught theology at Yale Divinity School, lost his son in a climbing accident in Switzerland. In reflecting on his son's untimely death, Wolterstorff wrote,
Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it. But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world's wounds.
What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I'm only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth's closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him. (Lament for a Son, Eerdmans (1987), pp. 81-82)
I don 't think anyone has more articulately portrayed the crucifixion of Jesus than the poet George Herbert.
Philosophers have measur'd mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk'd with a staff to heav'n and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.
Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet: there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be,
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev'ry vein.
Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set abroach; then let him say If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I as wine.
I am tempted to end with the last sentence of the last sermon of 17th century English poet and preacher John Donne's: "There [I] leave you in that blessed dependency, to hang upon him that hangs upon the cross." It is a rich, lovely phrase, worthy of Donne's great poetic gift. But while we must linger long at the Cross and let it sink deeply into our hearts, we must not stay at Calvary for Christ did not stay there. Although there is more than enough suffering in our lives, the last word is not suffering, it is resurrection. Having gone with him from Bethlehem to Calvary, we must continue the journey with him through the tomb and beyond.