Jesus is with the God-Forsaken: Encouragement and ChallengeIs there a discontinuity between our Christian experience and our perception of Scripture’s teaching?
In early spring of 2009, I received an invitation to speak at a church on the topic: “Facing Adversities–Blessed are those who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness.” When I received this topic I was less than enthusiastic. In fact, as I reflected on my lack of enthusiasm, I became a bit disturbed. After all, Scripture says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5:10) and thus seems to expect suffering and persecution for the followers of Christ.
I was disturbed because I realized that my life does not reflect the Bible’s anticipation of suffering, at least in the way I often visualize suffering. In other words, I recognized a discontinuity between my Christian experience and my perception about Scripture’s teaching on the anticipation of suffering. I thought of suffering in terms of early church martyrs valiantly throwing themselves before lions in Roman coliseums, contemporary martyrdom, such as experienced by Christian missionaries like Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Ed McCully, Pete Flemming and Roger Youderian who gave their lives in work among the Acua Indians, and persecuted Christians in China and other areas of the world where Christianity is illegal.
However, as I thought about it more, I wondered that perhaps I needed a broader, indeed perhaps even a more biblical, understanding of suffering. I thought about the people who were the focus of Jesus’ ministry. None of them in the Gospels were martyrs, although Jesus and many of His disciples became martyrs and Revelation certainly showcases martyrs for the faith. I realized that Jesus ministered to more than the martyr.
In Matthew 11:28–29, Jesus said: “‘come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’” The restless souls envisioned in this passage cannot be limited to the traditional notion of martyrdom and persecution (although it certainly includes them), but encompasses a broader range of human affliction, anxiety, depression, and malaise. So then, we need to ask, “To what kind of suffers did Jesus minister?” In the Gospels Jesus reached out to and befriended “sinners and tax collectors,” prostitutes, the indigent, the marginalized, and the faceless and anonymous crowds.
John 11 was particularly helpful in my effort to understand Jesus’ identification with, and ministry to the suffering of this world.
The setting of the story in John 11 is the tomb of Lazarus and the mourning of his family and friends. John 11:32–35, records an exchange between Lazarus’ brother Mary and Jesus. It says, “When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet and said, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would hot have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” The phrase translated as “deeply moved . . .” in the New International Version of the Bible means anger, fury, or outrage.
Now, He was not outraged at the mourning of Mary, Martha, and the others, after all, He mourned and wept with them. But with what then was He angry?
He is angry over the despair and the futility of the human condition. He is angry about hopelessness in the face of death and the loss of loved ones; He is angry that death is the inevitable end of every human being. In the face of death, hopelessness, and suffering, Jesus promises life; He declares, “I am the resurrection and the life . . .” (John 11:25).
Moreover, Jesus’ anger at the death of Lazarus and anguish is caused his family and friends is not the type of anger we typically associate with God. We may often think that God is angry with us because of our sin (and God is certainly not pleased with our sin). But, in John 11, Jesus is not angry with sin, or the people, rather He is angry with their pitiful situation, the circumstances—the death of Lazarus—that caused their mourning. John 11 shows us that Jesus suffered with Mary and Martha and the other mourners before the tomb of Lazarus.
But what does that mean for us today? With what kind of sufferers is He with today? He is certainly with contemporary martyrs for the faith and those who live under various forms of oppression because of their faith in Christ. Yet, He is also with people who may not immediately come to mind when we think about Christ’s presence with the suffering. For example, He is with parents who anguish over their children; parents, who want to instill a life nurturing faith in their children, but seem powerless to protect them from their perilous paths. He is with people facing cancer and the family and friends who suffer with them against an implacable disease.
As a youth pastor, I accompanied my senior pastor on a hospital visit to a young man in our church dying from diabetes. In a hospital bed, his yellowed body writhed in pain as the best of modern medicine was powerless to subdue his pain and to forestall the disease’s inevitable destruction of his life—he and his mom and dad were sufferers.
In such circumstances, we naturally ask, “Where is God?” Was the happy-clappy Jesus we so cheerfully sing about on Sunday mornings in that hospital room? Was He with that man and his parents? Where is God, when we cry with the Psalmist: “My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long?” (Psalm 6:3).
The answer is that, He is now where was when He walked this earth. He is with the suffering people of this world.
We see His identification with the suffering most radically on the cross. On the cross, Jesus becomes the utterly rejected, vilified, and pathetic; He becomes the God-forsaken (see Mark 15:34). Throughout His life and on the cross, Jesus identifies with the God-forsaken of the world and becomes God-forsaken along with them. Yet, He also brings God to the God-forsaken. He not only becomes the God-forsaken, but in a sense absorbs the desperation of the God-forsaken and brings the redemptive presence, the hope inspiring, and the gentle but strong presence of the living God to them.
Jesus’ presence with the God-forsaken presents us with, on the one hand, an encouragement and, on the other hand, a challenge. It encourages us because we know that when we endure the vagaries of the human condition, Christ is with us as one who knows and has overcome the depths of human travail.
Yet, Jesus’ presence with the God-forsaken, those who suffer, also confronts us with a challenge. Let me share a personal experience with this challenge that begins with my slumbering in Zion.
In November of 2005, I was in my office preparing a lecture on John chapter 12 for a class on the Gospel of John I was teaching. I took a break from the lecture preparation and read the Newsweek article on the earthquake that hit Pakistan October 8, 2005. I came across a picture of a young Pakistani girl lying in a bed; she was probably between ten and 12 years of age and had been injured in the earthquake. The caption next to the picture said, “After the earthquake, local Army doctors apparently treated this young girl with the wrong medicine. Now she lies in pain at an Islamic clinic. Doctors on the scene say she’s dying and can’t be saved.” I surmised that since several weeks had passed since the time of the photo and my seeing it in the Newsweek article that the girl had already died.
Immediately afterwards, I returned to my lecture and within minutes read John 12:26: “‘whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.’” That passage was “sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrated even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judged the thoughts and attitudes of [my] heart. [For] nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom [I] must give account” (Hebrews 4:12). I was struck to the quick and had to repent because I had no account to give to the One before whom I must give one. I grasped in an instant that the suffering of that Pakistani girl was the exegesis of John 12:26. Where is Jesus? He was with that young girl. I also realized that I am often not where He is. I was neither with the girl in the picture nor very often with those who suffer in my community.
Recognizing that Jesus is with the suffering, that He is with the God-forsaken, is a source of great comfort to the afflicted in this world. Yet, it also presents a challenge to us because He calls all who are called by His name to join Him in his ministry with and to the God-forsaken.
Steven M. Studebaker, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, McMaster Divinity College. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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