Suffering. Who wants to talk about it? Yet who doesn’t want an answer to their own suffering? The surprise of the New Testament is that no final, explicit answer is given for our own individual pains and tragedies. The answer presented instead is something unexpected: the suffering Jesus.
Crucifixion is probably the cruelest way to die ever invented by man. Even the word cross was seldom uttered in public at that time because of the horror and shame associated with it. Death came by slow exhaustion and eventually suffocation as there was no longer any strength to pull up one’s body on the nails to breathe. Added to the unimaginable physical suffering of Jesus was the emotional suffering of mockery and ridicule from the watching crowd.
But the worst part of His suffering was spiritual. This is given a cosmic context as darkness came over the land from noon to 3 PM (Mark 15:33). Darkness is spoken of by the prophets as accompanying the all-important Day of the Lord. But perhaps more significant is that the plague of darkness came right before the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians. It signified God’s cursing of the land and consigning it to judgment. This is what Jesus felt now, the curse of the Father on Him as the unique Son of God, for the sins of humanity. For the first time in creation, the bond between the Father and Son was torn asunder. The love Jesus had always known to sustain and comfort Him, even that was now gone. He drank the cup of God’s wrath for us down to the bitter dregs.
But the question still remains: how does any of this help us understand the suffering in our own lives?
My mother died from suffering a rare form stomach cancer. Her last two months were especially brutal as we watched her slowly waste away from starvation. So many friends came to her visitation to tell us how much they loved our mother and how sorry they were. But I will never forget one person, who proceeded to stop and give me a five-minute theological dissertation on why God had allowed this suffering in my mother’s life. It came off as not only inappropriate but insensitive. I remember feeling bothered and then angered by such a monologue.
My reaction triggers an insight. Perhaps we really don’t want an answer to our sufferings as much as we think. Perhaps what we need and ache for is presence, the presence of others, their comfort and love, and that’s just the kind of answer we get with Jesus. He doesn’t usually give us individual answers to our suffering in this life. If anything, He said that following Him would increase our suffering here. Remember that Job also never got a final answer to his suffering, but he got something else, something better: he got to be in God’s presence and hear His voice. With Jesus, we get this and more. He came to take on all of the suffering we will ever know and then more that we will never have to experience. The God of the universe took on human flesh to come and share in our suffering, to be with us, to comfort us, and to tell us of His love. Then He sent His Spirit so that we could know and feel His presence in our hearts. This is what we most long for.
When Jesus asks us to follow Him, it’s an invitation to be with Him in all of our sufferings, both from this fallen world and from our association with Him. This is not a ticket to despair, but an opening doorway into joy. All the saints throughout the ages can testify to this truth.
Let us make every effort to enter that door with our own suffering so that we can know that joy.