I mentioned in a post the other day that I’m currently reading Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief, an exploration of the meaning of the Apostles’ Creed. I just finished reading the chapter titled “Suffered…”
I’ve always been uncomfortable with explanations of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering that make God sound like a vengeful feudal lord who demands a sacrifice to be appeased. That view has not rung true to my experience or vision of God. As Chittister observes, that model of God is “[n]ot the God of Sarah and Hagar, of Joseph and Daniel…[not] the God who welcomes back prodigal sons with fatted lambs and banquets, the God who counts the hairs on our heads and feeds the sparrows in the sky. The loving God who, when asked for bread does not give a stone, is surely not the God who sends a son to be killed in some kind of blood sacrifice designed to appease a divine ego.”
In contrast, Chittister’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering is one that resonates with me. She writes
Jesus does not come to appease God. Jesus comes to teach us how to live a life that makes us worthy of the God who made us. Jesus comes to show us what we ourselves can be, must be. Jesus comes so that we can come to be everything we were created to be, whenever our lives, wherever our efforts, whatever our circumstances: shining glory or abject degradation.
What is the role of Jesus’ suffering in all that? “It is the suffering of Christ that instructs, that gives us insight into our own lives, that lends us strength for our own journeys.” While none of us is likely to face an actual crucifixion, we do face sufferings in our lives – and some of us face enormous suffering…levels of suffering others of us can’t even imagine. But, Chittister suggests, our memory of Jesus’ suffering gives us a choice:
We can walk through the Golgothas of our own lives as he did, with the same understanding, the same steady faith, the same awareness of God’s providence for us as we go, or we can stumble our way through, bitter and alienated from the very moments that, like his, can bring us to our glory.
It is our choice. And it is a choice we exercise when we express our belief in Jesus Christ. To say I believe in a Jesus who suffered says, in Chittister’s words, “I believe that suffering can be transcended.” It says, I live my life with hope.