Recent comments by presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann have stirred up the discussion about gay marriage once again. While speaking to a group of high school…
Just before Christmas in 2008, St. John’s Church in Broadbridge Heath, England took down its 10ft crucifix after numerous parishioners complained that it frightened children. The crucifix, created in the 1960s, shows an emaciated Jesus hanging on the cross with a look of horror and despair on His face. The BBC asked two different clergymen whether or not the church should have removed the crucifix. One of the two men, Rev. John Caperon, said for any church to disregard the cross would mean ignoring the reality of suffering. “For Christians, of course,” he said, “the great comfort in the crucifix is the thought not that it represents simply human pain, but that it represents also the love of God. For what we’re saying, I think, is this: the God who created us is also to God who suffers with us.”
Coming from an evangelical background, I was taught that the only thing the cross represents is Jesus paying the price for our sins. I never thought of the cross as a symbol of God identifying with human suffering. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, then that means God was hanging on that cross in agonizing pain. Think about that for second: Elohim the creator, the great I AM, hanging on a cross, rejected, humiliated, and dying.
As someone who has struggled with depression and anxiety since early childhood, this was a message I needed to hear. Even though it has been called ‘the common cold of mental illness,’ depression has a funny way of making me feel completely alone. No one else can possibly understand what I’m going through. If I try to put it into words, it won’t make any sense. But if God knows human suffering first hand, then maybe I’m not so crazy after all.
Years later after several bouts of severe depression, I started wondering if maybe I was wrong. Maybe God isn’t able to relate to human suffering. If God is able, then why do I feel so alone when I’m in a bad place? Why do I feel like I’m not man enough for God’s approval? The pain and confusion got so bad at one point that I wrote an angry letter to God telling God to fuck off. In my mind, God no longer suffered with me; God was laughing at me.
Within the past couple of months, however, I kept coming across passages, blogs, and conversations that made me wonder if perhaps God isn’t a jerk after all. The most recent example has been Dr. Tony Jones’ eBook A Better Atonement: Beyond the Depraved Doctrine of Original Sin:
[I]n Christianity alone, the God and Creator of the universe deigned to become human, to be tempted, to reach out to those who had be de-humanized and restore their humanity, and ultimately to die in solidarity with every one of us . . . The hope [Jesus] offers is that, by dying on that cross, the eternal Trinity became forever bound to my humanity. The God of the universe identified with me, and I have the opportunity to identify with him.
Really? God identifies with me and my brokenness? All my Calvinist friends said God was way too holy to identify with my brokenness. But maybe it was true; maybe God does suffer with us after all.
So like a good Protestant brought up on sola scriptura, I looked through the scriptures to see if God can relate to suffering or not. And what I found was . . .
. . . a God who hears the cries of a suffering people (Exodus 3:7).
. . . a God who becomes the suffering servant in Isaiah (1 Peter 2:24).
. . . a God who became human, faced temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), wept with those in mourning (John 11:35), became “overwhelmed with sorrow” in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-44), and was ultimately died the humiliating death of a criminal, rejected and abandoned (Mark 15:22-39).
. . . a God who rose again.
When darkness fills my life, I can’t imagine how anyone could possibly understand my pain. But if the God of the universe has experienced ultimate human suffering firsthand, then, to echo the words of the psalmist, “what can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11)