HOLY WEEK: The God Who Suffers

“Jesus is the only God who suffers.”

A medical doctor in south India serving in palliative (end-of-life) care observed that his Hindu patients often will call out to Jesus in their waning moments of life.  When he was asked why people who have a plethora of gods and goddesses to call upon would cry out for Jesus, his response was basic and to the point:

“Jesus is the only God who suffers.”

These patients, suffering from some affliction that will terminate their lives, find comfort in the thought that there is a God who suffers, who understands what they are experiencing, and who can meet them in their pain.  My guess is that these suffering patients have seen crucifixes or pictures of Jesus dying on the cross, and even if they don’t understand Christian theology, they include Jesus in their collection of deities – but Jesus alone suffers.

An Indian colleague who knew the doctor personally relayed this story to me as we were discussing my forthcoming book (co-authored with Dave Ripper) Fellowship of the Suffering: How Hardship Shapes Us for Ministry and Mission.[i]  He was reflecting on the fact that the week we celebrate between Palm Sunday and Easter – Passion Week, also known as the week of Christ’s suffering – sets Jesus apart from all other spiritual leaders.

Some founders of other religions advised people on how to avoid sin and suffering, but failed to address the real issues of human pain.  Others pointed to “the Way” and observed that all of life is suffering.  Another listed all the lifestyle and spiritual practices necessary to please God, leading to the conclusion that suffering was a result either of our failures or of the capricious character of God.  Still others taught that suffering in this life is the consequence of sins and spiritual failure in a previous life.

But Jesus, the one we Christians believe is God-made-flesh (incarnate) entered not only into our human frailties but willingly went to the Cross and into some of the worst suffering imaginable: physical (torture and the Cross), emotional (desertion from his friends) and spiritual (feelings of abandonment by God).

Imagine it!  A God who suffers willingly (see Philippians 2:5-9) and for people who don’t deserve it (see Romans 5:8).  But even more incomprehensible, Jesus came into the world knowing that crucifixion was his future; according to Revelation 13:8, Jesus is “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”  God’s love for us is so great that he would come in the person of Jesus Christ to die a torturous death for the very people he had created (see John 3:16).

How can we revive the awesomeness of this truth this Passion Week?     

Three suggestions.  As we reflect on the week of Christ’s passion in preparation for the glorious celebration of his resurrection victory over death:

1) Take time to find a church where the “stations of the cross” are posted, and walk through them slowly, reflecting on the connected Scripture.  Get into the story.  Observe the sufferings of Jesus.  Think through the words of Bernard of Clairvaux in his hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded:

What Thou my Lord hast suffered, was all for sinners (my) gain;

Mine, mine was the transgression

But thine the deadly pain.

2) Watch the movie produced by Mel Gibson: The Passion of the Christ.  The violence is awful, but so was the final week of Christ’s life – dying for us.  I watch this movie at least once before Easter because growing up in an ‘evangelical’ tradition, we gave little thought to the week before Easter; we focused on the empty tomb!  I need to remember that Jesus was slowly killed so that I might live forever.

3) Finally, we can let our reflections on Christ’s suffering to help us through our own.  Elizabeth Elliot defined suffering as “having something you don’t want or wanting something you can’t have.”  Many of us have pains that have not yet been relieved – an unhealed illness, a lost relationship with a loved one, a constant shortfall of money, or something else.  Jesus doesn’t lecture us in our suffering; he joins us.  The hands of Jesus that hold us through the trials and hardships of life… are pierced hands.

A “Collect” prayer from the Anglican/Episcopal tradition states it clearly:

Almighty and everliving God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; though Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen


[i] Fellowship of the Suffering: How Hardship Shapes Us for Ministry and Mission (InterVarsity Press) is due out in Spring 2018.  Dave Ripper and I didn’t write it to answer the great “Why does evil and suffering exist in the world?” but rather to wrestle with the personal issues of “How do we respond – individually and as a Christian community – to suffering?”  If you live in the Boston area, we will be “launching” this book on May 24th 2018 at Grace Chapel, Lexington, MA.