Over at Jesus Creed, a regular comment box writer who goes by RJS has been doing a series of posts on a book called The Reason for God. It has been a great series, but for whatever reason, today’s installment particularly struck me. It discusses Chapter 13 of the book, which is The (True) Story of the Cross. IMO, there is a tendency on the part of evangelical Christians to view the cross as simply a matter of forgiven sins and little else. OTOH, there is a tendency in some progressive circles to see the cross as foolishness – almost an embarrassingly outdated myth. While of course, I agree much more with the evangelical view of the cross, it seems to me that it actually reduces the cross to frame it as simply a quid pro quo for our sins. In the discussion at Jesus Creed, RJS presents part of what the book has to say in regards to the issue of sacrificial/substitutional nature of Jesus’ death on the cross:
The Gospel of Christ – the good news – is wrapped up in the story of the cross. This story however causes a great deal of consternation in our western world. Why was sacrifice required? Why did Jesus die? Isn’t the appeasement of the wrath of God best classed as divine child abuse — a remnant of an older more primitive society? . . . Forgiveness always requires sacrifice. When we forgive we bear the consequence, the suffering, ourselves rather than demanding retribution. No one “just forgives” any grievous wrong. How much more then for God? God did not, then, inflict pain on someone else, but rather on the Cross absorbed the pain, violence, and evil of the world into himself.”
That last part is probably the best explanation of the sacrificial nature of the cross which I have read. RJS, goes on to talk about how death on the cross also helped us to understand that God can identify with our pain, injustice and oppression. In conclusion he asks:
what is the Story of the Cross? How would you describe the importance of the cross? Is the importance in example? in story? or is it more?”
Normally, I would just post in the comment box at Jesus Creed, but it’s been so long since I posted here that I figured I would put my response here and call it a blog post!
While I totally agree with the idea that Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross and that His sacrifice allowed us to be reconciled to God, there is something else which I appreciate as much or even more about Jesus’ death on the cross. It has to do with the issue of suffering. When God choose to allow His own suffering and death on the cross, God reshaped the role of suffering in all of our lives. As humans we tend to avoid suffering, sometimes to our own detriment. Scott Peck claimed that the avoidance of suffering was at the root of mental illness (an exaggeration to be sure, but an observation not completely without merit). It also seems to me that a great deal of evil has been committed by those trying to avoid pain and suffering for themselves or their group. Yet Jesus modeled not only how to suffer, but a willingness to endure suffering “for the joy set before Him”. Through his willingness to embrace suffering, Jesus offers us an alternative to our often unhealthy compulsion to avoid suffering through whatever means necessary. While Jesus does not seek to suffer, going so far as to ask God to “take this cup” from Him, He is willing to submit to suffering in a way which is foreign to many of us.
We also see in Jesus’ suffering the road to redemption. Suffering is not simply meaningless pain, but something which greater good can come. We tend to view suffering as the result of our own sin, bad luck, punishment, etc. However, the truth of the matter is that no matter how good we are, how lucky or careful we are to avoid it, suffering is a part of every life. But Jesus shows us a better way. Suffering and redemption are connected in ways which we often do not like to acknowledge.
Suffering is part of life. Sometimes it breaks us, sometimes it hardens us, but if we let it, our suffering, like Jesus’ can also lead us to better things and deeper places. When Jesus suffered and died, He completed the injunction to “take up your cross and follow me”. Jesus’ call isn’t simply to follow Him in our suffering. Rather, He is calling us to follow Him through the suffering and into the redemption which awaits on the other side.
To me, this new perspective on suffering is a precious gift. Through the cross, Jesus gives us a whole new relationship with suffering. Since we are all destined to suffer in some way, I think it is both healthier and more productive to understand our suffering in light of the example of the cross rather than as something to simply be endured or always fought against. It gives meaning to those places which seem the most senseless and staves off despair when life seems most hopeless.