From Tragedy to Triumph: Facing Life when We Lift Our Voice in Pain and Suffering
By Will Honeycutt
In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God that was immune to it?
I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross.
These powerful words come from the late John R. W. Stott who is now RIP (Rejoicing In the Presence!). Dr. Stott, though I never met him, had a tremendous impact on me and my life and thinking. His book, The Cross of Christ, and more particularly the chapter “Suffering and Glory,” from which the above quotes come, did more to give me perspective on suffering, and I believe a healthy one, than any other book I think I have read. Why? Because our God, mystery thought it is, is the God who did not remain in heaven in the comforts of his glory, but took upon himself human form and flesh and with a body of flesh and blood came to the “vale of tears” to experience death. We all know the “passion” of Christ in terms of his Passion Week; those last days before He died. We also know of the brutal scourging and crucifixion He went through at the end of that week.
We appreciate the sacrifice He made for our redemption, and truly, the cross of Christ, as Stott indicated, makes God a lot more accessible to us in our suffering. He is not the aloof Being who remains in the heavens and looks down upon us in our suffering and pain. I remember talking to a young man in the hospital when I worked in mental health who said that God is like the kid with the magnifying glass hovering over an anthill, burning us and enjoying it. How did He come to this conclusion? Why would he say such a thing about God? Because he did not really understand the biblical God and the cross of Christ. Even if the metaphor had truth in it, and that God delighted in our suffering, like the kid with the magnifying glass, the God of the Bible would still be the one that became an ant and suffered with us.
But what I want to reflect on is how Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” as we learn in Isaiah and this is referring, I think, to his entire life, not just that last few days, or particularly the crucifixion. Let’s not limit our understanding of our suffering Savior to Passion Week. Let’s walk with him through a few of the times in his life that he, like us, most likely suffered emotionally due to life’s stresses, hardships and tragedies. I think if we do this, we will appreciate that our God, in human form and flesh, identified with our pain and suffering throughout his life. This realization over the last few years has given me a deeper love and appreciation for my Savior and a confidence that when I talk to Him about my suffering, he really does understand, and not just because of the cross. I have come to the conclusion that the more deeply I understand the suffering of Christ, the less often I will question the love of God.
Our Lord’s suffering began when He chose not to embrace His divine prerogatives and position, and, as John says, “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). What a shock this must have been for God, in all of his holiness and splendor, Who is of much purer eyes than to behold iniquity (Habakkuk 1:13), to plunge headlong into this dark and depraved world filled with sinful, prideful, greedy, self-absorbed, lecherous, drunken, rebellious people. To experience suffering that comes from an evil that was not even His own making! This world causes us loss, pain and suffering as well, even when we are making the best of choices and living rightly, as did Jesus. For 30 short years Jesus endured this sick depravity in a way that we never could understand. That is love; to intentionally intersect with corruption to bring redemption to the fallen. Jesus’ suffering was not because of his own sin, but He still shows how to graciously endure pain as One who was the very definition and source of the Right and the Good. He took on him what he never deserved. If Jesus, who could not be accused of any sin suffered in life as He did (and this means much more than what He endured on the cross as we will soon consider) how can we, sinners by choice, expect any better? As good a life as we might live, we still sin, but Jesus suffered deeply, though morally perfect and free from sin.
Another thing is that Jesus was born of a virgin. You may not think this is necessarily suffering, but consider this. Our Savior took to Himself a situation that was of great scandal and ill repute. It would be an utter shame in those days for a young, unmarried girl, such as Mary was, to be pregnant! It was a shame and honor culture, so we can imagine that Jesus was not necessarily welcomed into the family. Consider why Mary, a young pregnant woman due to deliver anytime, was on a 100 mile trek on a donkey’s back to give birth to her first-born child in an animal’s feeding trough, amidst the dirt and feces. Where were her parents? Where were Joseph’s? Why do we not hear of Jesus’ grandparents having anything to do with him and the family? Could it be that the couple and Jesus were rejected? These scandalous, embarrassing and terrible conditions were embraced by our Savior, who would, in a sense, never live it down. We see indication that the scandalous events surrounding his conception and birth were never forgotten when the Jews called him one “born of fornication” (John 8:41). This tells us that people in His time were as skeptical about Mary being pregnant while a virgin as many are today. It wasn’t any easier to believe then than now; that’s why Jesus got the reputation of being a bastard child. Jesus loved us enough to embrace ridicule and shame; He identified with us. Who hasn’t been hurt by name calling?
Jesus was born into poverty. His family was not one of means as indicated by the offering of turtle doves, rather than sheep or goats, given by his parents. Paul says, explicitly, that he “became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9). I have never experienced the pain and deprivation of abject poverty, but I have seen it, and the suffering it can cause. Jesus chose to embrace poverty rather than wealth and renown when he came to earth.
Jesus’ “step” father, Joseph, died. We don’t know how, we don’t know when, but it seems that Joseph is not on the scene very long after Jesus’ 12th birthday, when the family made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. We do not know how long Joseph lived, but he does not appear in the Gospel narratives beyond this story, and he is not present at the cross since Jesus has to commit Mary to John to care for her. At one point Jesus’ beloved “father” Joseph was taken from him, and this loss of a parent, a caring parent, is something many have experienced. Jesus is no stranger to this kind of suffering.
This tragedy in life led to Jesus having to help his single mother raise his siblings. It appears in the Gospels that Jesus was never really respected or accepted by his younger half siblings. They called him crazy and such, and this no doubt emotionally affected Jesus and added to his “sorrows.” Having to take on adult responsibilities and help a single mother raise younger siblings. I am sure that someone reading can identify. Jesus knows this kind of hardship.
Having to stay home with a single mother and help raise ingrates is probably why Jesus did not begin his public ministry until he was thirty. This is kind of late to start a Rabbinical ministry, which is usually preceded by an apprenticeship with another Rabbi. This, as far as we can see, Jesus never had. He was thrust into a ministry, which would not get a whole lot of recognition, later in life, only to live three more years, or so, and die at a relatively young age in a most miserable way, falsely accused of crimes he did not commit.
Jesus took on homelessness as well. He told would be disciples that “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head” He was dependent on others to feed and care for Him, and probably needed handouts to make it through the day at times. Yes, he could create food, as with the fish and loaves, but remember, he chose not to exercise His divine powers most of the time so he could experience life was we know it more. He loved us and identified with us in our need. He suffered thirst, and hunger, and was often sleep deprived.
Jesus had a relative, named John (who baptized Jesus). He may have been a second cousin, because Mary and Elizabeth, whose pregnancies overlapped, were cousins themselves. After Jesus and John met at Jesus’ baptism, there seemed to be a real bond between them. Jesus hailed John with words like “there has never been a greater man born from woman.” He obviously thought a lot of John, and respected his ministry. It must have been very hard for Jesus, emotionally, when he got news of John’s tragic and seemingly senseless death.
As you may recall, John was beheaded by a reluctant yet cowardly king because the king just wanted to save face and please a woman. He even respected John, but was a weak man, and went through with the brutal execution; the violent removal of his head. This tragedy apparently hit home with Jesus because Matthew tells us that when news of this horrible situation came to Him, He departed to be by himself. Now, yes, Jesus could have prevented John from being beheaded, and it is easy to think that God could have intervened to prevent this. But remember, Jesus did not come to make our lives easier; he came to experience the evil that our sin had created in this world in its full force to identify with us in our suffering. Jesus experienced personal tragedy when he lost a respected and beloved family member.
One might conclude that Jesus did not love John or his disciples, to have allowed such a tragic event to occur when he could have prevented it altogether. We deal with tragedies that do not make sense to us, when people are torn from us in their youthfulness and prime. God had used John greatly, as we know, but he died, tragically, before we might think was a good time. In His wisdom, God knew of this, in His wisdom, which He does not necessarily reveal to us, He has a plan. We cannot even see what immediate good this horrible death led to, as it is not recorded. John’s disciples, who came and respectfully buried the body and reported the death to Jesus, no doubt suffered from this tragedy in their lives. So we are tempted to ask, did God not love them? How could God allow these disciples, who no doubt loved and depended on John, take John away like this? That is an unanswered question, but we can be sure that God’s, Jesus’, love was not absent in this situation.
One of the things we need to realize is that suffering like this occurs because of human sin and depravity, even the tragic events that did not stem from human choice, necessarily, because the whole creation was, as Paul said, “subjected to futility” into the “bondage of corruption” and thus now “groans and labors with birth pangs” (See Romans 8:18-25) until the final redemption when the curse is reversed, and God “wipes away all tears from our eyes” (Revelation 21:4).
Jesus was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” and this must include these life situations and events, some of which we can all identify, and some of you may be able to identify with all of them. The man of sorrow is one who is no stranger to suffering; One Who embraced this futile world, wrapped tightly in “the bondage of corruption,” full on when He came to it. He did some healings, but not everyone was healed, he raised some from death, but not all were raised. He came to be with us, to learn obedience through the things that He suffered; He came to embrace the human condition and show solidarity with us in our sufferings and thus bring a sense of hope for redemption.
Jesus’ suffering continued. He dealt with unbelievers who rejected Him and He wept over this; it wasn’t easy for him. He dealt with dense disciples who never seemed to learn the things he was trying to teach them, he dealt with the betrayal and denial of close and personal friends, as well as their abandonment in His time of need. He also suffered through unanswered prayer when He asked if there could be an alternative to the “cup” of suffering He would endure. In anticipation of His death, He was overwhelmed with great sorrow. He was brought to trial falsely and accused of things He had not done and His words were deceitfully twisted to criminalize Him. So if you have been betrayed, thrown under the bus, denied and “lied on,” falsely accused and mistreated, you have Someone who has been through it too, and can sympathize with you in your sorrows.
And then, finally, came the suffering we know best, His scourging and crucifixion. But think on this. Jesus became a victim, and even though He allowed it and chose it, it did not diminish the reality of the physical pain he endured when evil men would take his body and do with it as they pleased. Jesus was violently molested and abused, so He knows this horrific experience as well. Those of you who may have had to endure a senseless outburst of violence or molestation, or both, have Jesus to come to, who experienced the same.
But Jesus’ story, although of one tragedy, loss and pain after another, is not only this kind of story. It is one of ultimate triumph because he came to deal with death and put an end to it by embracing it. Like Frodo could only overcome the Ring of Power’s dark and deadly grip by bearing its burden, carrying it up a mountain and, by great sacrifice and risk, destroying it, so it is with Jesus. He endured the burden of the full effect of a sinful and fallen world, with all of its darkness, pain and suffering, to eventually overcome it by carrying it up a mountain to destroy it!
Hebrews puts it best.
14 Inasmuch then as the children (we humans) have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham (we humans). 17 Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation (full satisfaction) for the sins of the people. 18 For in that He Himself has suffered, being put to trial, He is able to aid those who are put to trial. (2:14-18).
Hopefully, you will remember that “put to trial” means not just dying on the cross, but experiencing the full force of a world wracked with pain and suffering throughout His entire life. Jesus did not choose a cushy life, when He could have, but rather one of great sorrow and grief. Hebrews also tells us that because of this choice and His experience He is able to identify with (literally “sympathize” which means “suffer with”) us and we can come boldly to Him and find “aid” and “grace to help in the time of need.” His suffering is what makes it possible, for Him to identify with us in ours, and for us to even talk about ours to Him. When we appreciate His true “sympathy” we are better in position and perspective to “hold fast to our confession” and not lose faith when we are put to trial and face great times of need in our lives, because we know that “He was in all points put to trial as we are yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:14-16).
But as our tragedy became His, His triumph will be ours!! For those of us who know Him, even in the midst of the tragedy of death, we “sorrow not as others who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) because He has “begotten us again unto a living hope, by [His] resurrection from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). We can trust that in the end, all will be put to rights and sorrow and pain will be swept away.
I was encouraged, recently, when re-reading Genesis. In the beginning, when our first parents chose to disobey and partake of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they, as we know, brought evil and death into God’s good world, and where there is evil, there will be pain and suffering and tragedy. Tragedy hit the first family immediately and hard as Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy and anger. But thankfully, by the end of Genesis, the precedent for the rest of the human story is set; God will turn human evil into good for salvation. Joseph, who suffered much, acknowledged evil, but told his brothers that what they “meant for evil, God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20).
No matter what evil we may face, and the suffering that it leads to, God can and will eventually bring good out of it. This is vividly displayed in the life of Christ, who came to live amidst the painful consequences an evil not of His own making, and we will suffer in this world because of the evil of others as well, to deliver us from its enslavement by defeating it at the cross, and then raising from the dead to give us hope and promise that tragedy will give way to triumph to those of us who believe.
I began this blog with the words from Stott; I end it with them as well, agreeing with Stott, that Jesus is
The God for me! He laid aside His immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for [and like] us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of His.
I added the “and like” because, as we have seen throughout this discussion, Jesus knows all of our suffering, because he drank of it fully because He loved us.
Blessings in Christ,