Friday, April 17, 2009

On using the Lord's suffering to belittle the suffering of others, a reflection on Good Friday

This is a whole week late, I know, but I chose to wait to write about this because I am not writing a Good Friday meditation so much as I am writing about how Christians USE Good Friday and aspects of the Cross. Speaking as a self-identified evangelical Protestant I have come to appreciate that the pet atonement explanations are often easily abused because they are not presented alongside less popular explanations among evangelicals. Penal substitionary atonement without christus victor or christus exemplar IS damaging, just as every other explanation of the atonement in isolation can be positively destructive.

Let me approach the subject this way ...

Over the years I have often heard it said that what Jesus suffered on our behalf makes all our suffering as though it were nothing in comparison. The torture of crucifixion and the abandonment Jesus felt on the Cross make all of our suffering nothing in comparison.

This smells more and more like a modern Western American guilt trip approach to preaching by folks who only default to penal substitionary atonement yet abuse it and fail to grasp the fullness of its meaning. Don't misunderstand me, I'm actually a huge fan of penal substitionary atonement ... in conjunction with EVERY OTHER theory of the atonement. All the theories of the atonement are that, attempts to explain a manifold mystery. If we treat the theories as though they in themselves explained things we've got a problem.

In the same way, if we ONLY see Christ's suffering on the Cross as being FOR our sins and not also as a way to identify with His people and suffer WITH His people we fail to grasp the bewildering beauty of the Cross. God chose to suffer with us and not simply subject us to suffering because we sinned. There is a brand of Christian who only grasps the Cross and does not grasp the life of Christ. To this person it is enough that Jesus died for me that I might be free from sin and get to be like Jesus. The idea that Christs' suffering included His life and that He identified with the losers that constitute the human race is not readily understood, perhaps because the people expounding do not realize they are actually losers.

To say that the Father's wrath had to be satisfied and so the Son interposed fails to grasp the unity of the Father and Son. It also fails to grasp something more fundamental, that in the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made through Him and so the God who makes all things chooses voluntarily to die at the hands of those whom He made. Penal substitionary atonement is where God chose to die with His creation rather than leave it in the state of judgment and despair. Having allowed us time and again to take what we believed we deserved and what we wanted He came to walk among us and provide what we needed. Do we deserve such pity? Perhaps a better question is to ask who we are that we should go on and on about how we so little deserved that pity if Christ through the Cross extends it to us. At some point that lady doth protest too much.

In the hands of Christians without pity penal substitionary atonement CAN become a theology of Job's comforters when it is improperly explained or applied and this can happen among Christians who are otherwise convinced of their orthodoxy. In the hands of someone who recognizes that the theology of the Cross is a theology of Christ laying down His life, in the hands of someone who recognizes that the Jesus who was the Word through Whom all things were made chose to become the substitute then we can grasp the outline of something words so often fail to convey and can only attempt--what wondrous love is this, o my soul?

It is so often because we think we know that we reveal our profound ignorance. It is not our knowledge itself that has to be the problem so much as our attitude about our knowledge. The wisest person on earth can still recognize in himself or herself more than a little foolishness. We can so easily think that we have some knowledge of the grace of Christ but if we say to someone that their sufferings are as nothing compared to the suffering of Christ or if we even simply say "Your suffering is nothing compared to what I have suffered." we place ourselves above our brother or sister. It is not for nothing the apostle writes that there is no temptation that is not common to all.

Instead of saying that your suffering counts as nothing compared to the suffering of Christ why not consider that your suffering, however great or small it may be, gives you an insight into the suffering Christ took upon Himself. He took our wounds and diseases upon Himself. Christ had pity on the man and reached out and healed him. If we want people who are in Christ to resist self pity then let us remember Christ chose to take our suffering on Himself voluntarily while we resist our sufferings placed pon us by the consequences of life, others' sins, or our own.

There is a strange, ineffable place at which to say to someone "You're suffering is nothign compared to what Christ endured for your sins" becomes a theology of Job's comforters. There is surely a time and a place for it but it can often be a truth misapplied and wrested from the broader truth of the man of sorrows. It can too often be a propositional truth trotted out, more or less, to say "Quite yer bitchin and shut up already." That may seem like good theology to some people but it doesn't necessarily become good news.

The problem with Job's comforters wasn't that their theology was completely wrong, it was that it was misapplied and therefore became false. The best theology in the world can still become lies and destruction if applied in the wrong way to the wrong person at the wrong time. It is not enough for me to think I'm right in the theology I apply to a given case.

It is better to judge not and so not be subject to judgment. By your standard of measure it will be measured to you. Job's comforters spend a lot of time telling Job he had to have sinned and was wrong and that this was why he was under God's wrath ... and then in the end God says that His servant Job will intercede so that His wrath will be turned from the very people who sought to defend God's honor. Job was humbled yet, strangely, vindicated.

If someone tells you that your suffering is nothing compared to what Christ suffered remember that Christ took your suffering upon Himself. If you feel alone and abandoned Christ took that upon Himself. If you feel wronged and betrayed Christ took that upon Himself. He both took it upon Himself for you and received it from you at His own expense. It is not simply either one or the other. Christ on earth and on the Cross both suffers for you as well as with you. If we tell people that what they suffer is nothing compared to what Christ took upon Himself not only on the Cross but in His life how can we be sure we are not bereft of the very pity from which Christ came to give us mercy?