In the last two posts I’ve been looking at the historical and spiritual reasons why Jesus died on a cross. I wondered whether he not only chose to die, but also chose the manner of his death, in order to fully fulfil his Messianic purpose of overcoming evil and death, ending exile and bringing God’s kingdom on earth.
In this last post I’d like to look at a question that has divided Christians, particularly charismatic and evangelical Christians. Did Jesus suffer on the cross so that we don’t have to… or so that we do?
In other words, is the meaning and purpose of Jesus’ suffering and death that it entirely takes away ours, as a substitute sacrifice offered on our behalf and in our place, meaning that we are now exempt? Or is the cross actually Jesus’ highest example for us to follow as we seek to become Christ-like; an indication of the kind of trials his true followers will face as they walk his path of love, of self-sacrifice and non-violent resistance?
I was once leading worship at a gathering of Christian lawyers (don’t ask) when a kind of prayer battle broke out between the charismatic and non-charismatic factions, about a member who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The non-charismatics were accepting that their friend was dying, and were praying for God’s presence and solace in his remaining time, to prepare him and them for his death. The charismatics meanwhile were having none of it; they were loudly claiming God’s healing, and praying directly against the other faction’s lack of faith. It was both deeply comic and tragic to witness.
Back when I mixed more in Charismatic circles, there was a major emphasis on the theology of ‘divine exchange’ – the idea that on the cross, Jesus took on all our ‘curses’ and in exchange gives us the fullness of his blessing. He took all our bad so we can get all his good – ‘beauty for ashes’ (Isaiah 61:3). On the cross he bore all our sins, suffering, weaknesses, brokenness, diseases, failures, burdens and curses (including poverty), so that we in turn can take on his perfection, strength, health and blessing (often primarily focused on physical health and financial wealth).
One of the key biblical texts trotted out to support this was ‘By his stripes we are healed’ (1 Peter 2:24), and the understanding was that Christ suffered so that we no longer have to. Another was ‘I have come that you may have life to the full’ (or ‘abundant life’), John 10:10. Also ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us’ (Galatians 3:13), taken by extension to mean that Jesus redeemed us from all curses and problems, making a life of blessing available now.
There is certainly a truth in all this, but I don’t think it’s that God guarantees his children health, wealth and happiness, a trouble-free ride through life and instant solutions to all problems. Rather I think it’s a promise that God will redeem all our sufferings, weaknesses, hurts and failures; that he will work transformatively through them for our good and the good of others.
‘In this world you will have trouble’, promised Jesus, ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). Jesus’ path of salvation is not one of being removed from all troubles into instant bliss, as those who subscribe to Rapture theology wish for. Rather Jesus’ redemption takes the harder path of facing troubles, bearing them and overcoming them. One day, in the kingdom to come, every tear will be wiped away, and death and suffering will be abolished; but until then these things will be part of our experience – and even part of our redemption.
Take up your cross
Christ certainly did say that his yoke was easy and his burden was light (Matt 11:30), but of course he also said that any who would be his disciple must pick up their cross and follow him (Matt 16:24). He said that if the world persecuted and abused him, it would also persecute his followers (John 15:20). He proclaimed that ‘blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me’. (Matt 5:11). He even saw this as a cause for rejoicing, not because suffering is inherently good but because those who suffered for him would be greatly rewarded in the coming Kingdom.
The early apostles clearly took this to heart; ‘they left the Sanhedrin rejoicing to have been deemed worthy of suffering disgrace for Christ’s sake’ (Acts 5:41). Paul wrote that he wanted to share Christ’s sufferings that he might also share in his resurrection and glory (Phil 3:10; Romans 8:17). If we look at all Paul’s sufferings listed in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, it’s clear he put this wholeheartedly into practice – shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment, hunger, death threats, you name it.
Indeed, if we look at those throughout history who have followed Christ most closely and truly, we soon see that their lives are generally not free from pain, suffering and poverty but (in many cases) quite the opposite. Take the list of people of faith mistreated and even martyred by the world in Hebrews 11:35-38. Look at all the saints and martyrs throughout the ages, from Stephen the apostle through to today’s persecuted church.
So my own reading of the Bible certainly sees a lot more support for the view that Christ’s sufferings are an example for us to follow than that they are our ticket out of earthly troubles.
Blessing and suffering interwoven
Of course, this is not to deny that God blesses, heals, and gives us good things; nor is it to imply that Christianity is a joyless drudge of suffering service until the kingdom comes. Jesus promises us rest and peace, joy and hope; he invites all who are thirsty to come and drink. It can be both/and, not either/or.
But blessing and suffering, joy and sorrow, light and shadow are interwoven in this life. They go hand in hand, and it is often through the difficulties and pains that God brings blessing and good, just as the darkest hour precedes dawn and the pain of labour precedes birth and new life. There can be no resurrection without there first being death, and this holds true for us as it did for Christ.
Crucially, Christ calls us to the way of love and compassion, and this inevitably leads us to suffering, as we enter into, identify with and share other people’s sufferings. We learn to walk the path of the cross, which is essentially the path of love, the way of surrender and sacrifice, of mercy and costly forgiveness.
There will be times when we have to make difficult and painful personal choices for the sake of others, for the sake of love and goodness, for the sake of what we know to be right. And it’s pretty much a cliché that to open yourself to love also means to open yourself to be hurt, to be heartbroken.
Please note, I’m not suggesting we must spend our whole lives killing ourselves for the sake of others out of some misplaced martyr complex. Nor do I think that we need to specially seek out trouble and suffering for the good of our souls – life will chuck plenty in our paths without having to go looking for it.
Blessed are the unblessed
So perhaps it’s in this kind of way that the paradoxical Beatitudes can start to make sense: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are you when you are persecuted’. Quite clearly, poverty, mourning and persecution are not conditions to be wished for or deliberately sought out. But they are a normal part of the Christian life, and as we go through them (as we probably will at some point) we can hope to experience – in the midst of our trouble – Christ’s presence, Christ’s peace, and Christ’s blessing.
Indeed, you could paraphrase the Beatitudes ‘blessed are the unblessed’, or even ‘blessed are the cursed’. In a sense only people in such a position are in the right place to receive Christ’s fullest and most direct blessing. The rest of us may be too busy clinging on to the partial earthly blessings we do have, or working to earn more, to receive Christ’s in full. But more than this, perhaps only those who open themselves fully to love and mercy and compassion can know both the full pain and the full joy of Christlikeness.
It’s perhaps also in this paradoxical sense that we can start to understand the apparently nonsensical verse ‘Consider it joy when you face trials of many kinds….’ (James 1:2). Those who go through times of great suffering do often report moments of inexplicable joy and peace. The trials themselves are not joyous by any stretch of the imagination; they are bloody awful. But as we endure them we can perhaps know (in part) that we are following the way of Christ; that his presence is with us (even if we don’t feel it!); that his likeness is slowly being formed in us; that through the trials he is somehow redemptively working to bring good; and that ultimately he is leading us through this time to a future state of full blessing and joy.
Reading that again, that all sounds a bit pat and smug. I still think it’s true, but when we’re in the depths we may not want someone preaching like this at us. It’s perhaps something we just have to see for ourselves (nor not), maybe with hindsight…
Stages of faith
Finally, I’d suggest that the whole blessings vs sufferings question could be fruitfully framed within my beloved stages-of-faith model. In the early child-like stages of faith, we’re more directly protected and provided for, showered with love and shielded from harm just as children are in early stages of development.
Later on, as we progress towards spiritual adulthood we become more independent and so more exposed; we’re learning to stand on our own two feet and take responsibility for our own needs and safety. And then as we reach the stage of spiritual parenthood, we have to take our turn in giving what we have received, sacrificing for others as we have been sacrificed for ourselves.
So then, did Christ suffer so we don’t have to, or so that we do? Perhaps both and neither. Perhaps he suffered simply because that is the path love and goodness has to follow. In this life we will experience suffering whether or not we follow Christ’s path. But if we do follow him we can also experience his redemptive presence in and through our suffering, giving that suffering meaning and purpose.