How Jesus Responded to Suffering

 


This week, we’re taking a break from our ongoing Ask Mission Central series. Mission Central Team Leader Chris Easley served as the guest speaker at a college ministry retreat this past weekend; this post is adapted from one of his talks. Subscribe to get our next post in your inbox.

 

 

Our Suffering

About a month before our first anniversary, my wife Katie and I found ourselves in the emergency room of Rush University Medical Center in downtown Chicago. We had originally come to the hospital to see a friend, but Katie felt an unexpected pain while we were there, which kept getting worse and worse as the evening wore on, so we repurposed our visit. It was a long night—and it turned out to be the first night of three years of one medical crisis after another for Katie.

 

The details of those crises don’t need to be shared here (although you can read more of the story in a book I wrote afterward if you’re curious). Suffice it to say that multiple diagnoses surfaced, with attendant difficulties for every one of them. We joked that Katie should get a t-shirt that says COMORBIDITY. While Katie felt the direct effects of her various conditions, I entered into a fog of confusion in my caregiver role. I was not ready to shoulder the burden of so much pain so early in our marriage. The uncertainty and sense of powerlessness left me feeling weak and discouraged. I would sometimes just sit on the couch at home, staring out the window, sad and anxious, unable to pray.


Even now, finding the right words to use when sharing about our experience can flummox me. Suffering is part of our story, but sharing that story isn’t easy. I think that much is universal, not just for Katie and me, but for all of us. When we find people we can trust to hear our story of suffering, we invite them to see what makes us us. For each of us, the story of what happened to us, and of how we responded, is a story of our true selves. Suffering cuts through our protective facades and presents an unvarnished truth about our souls. People who see our suffering for what it is get to find out, in some small measure, who we really are.


Jesus’ Suffering

The same is true of Jesus. It’s in his story of suffering that we see who he is—the kind of person he is, and the kind of Messiah he is. In particular, we can learn about Jesus from his attitude toward his own suffering while it happens. Looking at the passages in Luke about Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and passion, there are four aspects of his attitude toward suffering that emerge:

  • I’m ready for this.
  • I don’t have to fight this.
  • I can love others in the middle of this.
  • There’s something better on the other side of this.

I’m Ready For This

As Jesus and his disciples take their places at the table for what Jesus knows to be his last supper with them, he says, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15 NIV). Those final three words—before I suffer—show us the readiness of Jesus. He knows what is coming, and he prepares for it. He does not run away or avoid the suffering. He is ready for it.


I Don’t Have to Fight This

The difference between Jesus’ attitude and his disciples’ is striking. They are not ready for Jesus to suffer. After resisting the idea of suffering at earlier points in Jesus’ ministry, they also resist the reality of suffering at the moment of Jesus’ arrest.

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.
Luke 22:49-51 NIV

If not for the gravitas of the scene, the disciples’ behavior here would be comical. The pattern of “obedience” they model here is ready-fire-aim. They think to ask Jesus whether they should use force to defend him, but don’t bother to wait for an answer. Only after acting according to their immediate fears do they hear the rebuke of Jesus and see his dramatically different posture toward their assailants.

 

That posture matches his readiness. Instead of feeling he must do whatever is necessary to avoid suffering, even if it means hurting others, he embraces the moment of suffering. He willingly goes into his hour of darkness.

 

I Can Love Others in the Middle of This

To love someone else is to desire and act for their good, to seek their interest and well-being. Suffering always tempts us to self-focus, drawing our attention to our own difficulties. That means that suffering poses a threat to love. But suffering also showcases the most persistent love, the determined orientation toward serving others that overcomes even the self-bias of pain. The passion narrative is a study in this kind of love. Three cases of Jesus loving someone else stand out in particular:

The High Priest’s Servant

We’ve already seen above that Jesus chose to heal one of the crowd that came to arrest him. This healing is the final miracle of Jesus’ ministry prior to his death and resurrection. Unlike many other miracle stories, there is no description of the high priest’s servant putting his faith in Jesus. Since he is taking part in his arrest, one might presume he in fact did not have faith in Jesus prior to this miracle. (I have often  wondered what he thought of Jesus after this encounter.) Seeing as the servant is an agent of an unjust arrest, with no faith to invite such a miracle, Jesus would have been within his rights not to heal him, perhaps letting the wound stand as some small measure of judgment. But instead, Jesus offers an act of unmerited love.

 
The Soldiers and Mockers

A mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles take an active role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Luke goes out of his way to show that both groups take responsibility for Jesus’ death and revel in his humiliation: “​​The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. . . . The soldiers also came up and mocked him” (Luke 23:35-36 NIV). Typical responses to such abuse would be to wilt in despair or retaliate in angry defiance. But Jesus’ response is to take an interest in his enemies’ souls. He is concerned not about the damage they are doing to him, but to themselves. He intercedes for them: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NIV). In his own pain, Jesus takes time to make excuses for the people who are mocking and murdering him.

 

The Thief on the Cross

While he is dying, another crucified prisoner seeks Jesus’ reassurance about what comes next. He expresses humble faith in his request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42 NIV). Jesus responds by encouraging him with a confident promise, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NIV). Again, Jesus is able to muster the energy and attention needed to love, even at his lowest point.

 

There’s Something Better on the Other Side of This

Jesus’ confident assurance to the thief on the cross also reveals his convictions about what comes after his suffering. Throughout his passion, he understands himself to be safe in the care of God, who will vindicate him after he has finished his work. This confidence is what shields him from despair. He knows that the story is not over.

 

Suffering Like Jesus

These four aspects of Jesus’ attitude toward his own suffering show us his character. We see his courage and love on display. We see his confidence. But we also see something else: The kind of Messiah he is.

 

Jesus’ opponents looked upon his cross and believed it was proof that he wasn’t who he said he was. If he really was the Messiah, it wouldn’t look like this. They jeered, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One” (Luke 23:35 NIV).

 

But, writing on the other side of the resurrection, Luke invites us to see it the other way round. Jesus’ suffering doesn’t prove that he’s not the Messiah; it proves that he is. It shows, in his character, that he’s exactly who he said he was, that we can trust him. And it shows the kind of Messiah he is: The one who accomplishes the work of rescuing God’s people not by taking up arms, but by laying down his life. He is saving others; he will not save himself, because he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.

 

If that’s true, then Jesus’ attitude about suffering can become our attitude about suffering. In him and with him, we can face the suffering in our lives and say:

  • I’m ready for this.
  • I don’t have to fight this.
  • I can love others in the middle of this.
  • There’s something better on the other side of this.

Because of Jesus.



Image by photosforyou from Pixabay

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