Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Suffering Servant

The unbelieving world assumes that Christians know not a thing about suffering. I recently came across this internet meme doing the rounds on social networking sites. It’s a picture of an African boy looking amusingly at a woman.

‘So you’re telling me that Jesus loves me even though I’m homeless and starving to death?’ The words were meant to be sarcastic in nature.

The general assumption of the non-Christian world, and even in the church, is that when trouble besets a father, mother, or a child, Christians do nothing more than just whisper a soft ‘Jesus loves you’. This could be true – I have come across, on many occasions, people who left the church because of strife in their domestic lives. People often find it hard to comprehend how a loving God could seem to be so far away in times of trouble. And much too often, offering sympathy is just not enough.

There is no easy answer to why we suffer in this world or why God allows the suffering to take place. It is one thing to write an apologetics work on the subject, but to convince a mother facing the inevitable death of her cancer-stricken child – that’s a different thing altogether. But it helps to tell a story once in a while to the afflicted. Stories remind people that the agony they face has been faced before, that the suffering they endure has been endured before, and that the loss they feel has been felt before.

Mankind’s sinful nature brings about a hideous consequence that is often borne by the little innocents of this world. We can see examples of this throughout the Old Testament. When God cast His judgment on the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, His judgment fell on the innocent children as well. Similarly in Exodus 11 the firstborn children of the Egyptians received death. This does not mean that God is some kind of a ‘heavenly hit-man’. God does not take pleasure in the death of anyone (Ezekiel 18:32), but He loves us relentlessly. It is His relentless love for us that causes Him to cast His wrath upon us.

When Jesus saw a large crowd before Him, he felt compassion (Mark 6:34). We can guess the evil, the sorrow, the hardship, and many other things evident in the lives of people who formed that crowd. People like you and me were in that crowd, and some of them were the worst of sinners. Nevertheless, Christ did feel compassion for them.

When God told Isaiah about the suffering Servant who was to come, Isaiah must have been startled.

Surely He took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered Him punished by God,
    stricken by Him, and afflicted.
But He was pierced for our transgressions,
    He was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on Him,
    and by His wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on Him
    the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6 NIV)

Here was God, ready to come into the world in the flesh and share our suffering!

The very nature of Christ’s birth indicates that God was more than willing to share in our poverty. Is this God’s relentless love for us, that He chooses to be born among the poor and afflicted and actually live with us? The popular singer Bono says it beautifully.

“Love here describes itself as a child born in straw poverty, the most vulnerable situation of all, without honor.”

The wonderful thing about Christ Jesus is that He made His dwelling with us (John 1:14). Scriptures say that Christ had no luxurious upbringing and no powerful connections. Instead He was often at odds with those who had luxury and power. Scriptures say that Christ became nothing for us (Philippians 2:7).

Would it be too much for me to say that Christ can relate to our suffering? When Christ cried on the cross – "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" – He experienced that painful loneliness of being separated from a loved one. When Christ Jesus prayed in anguish before His trial – “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me…” – He felt the agony many of us face in our lives. When Jesus wept at Lazarus’ grave he felt the loss of Mary and Martha in the same way many of us feel for our brothers and sisters.

In Isaiah 53:3 (KJV), Christ is known as ‘a man of sorrows’. In this Man of sorrows we can relate our own sorrows and we can hope for glory. Paul was no stranger to this. He writes:

For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Corinthians 1:5 NIV)

When we look at the story of Jesus, we can hope for glory in our suffering. Christ died an agonizing death on the cross, it was a level of suffering on par with Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Dresden. But through His death came the glory of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life in mankind.

I know a close friend of mine who suffers from this incurable skin disease. I cannot imagine what it must be like for him to bathe in his daily life. Once I asked him, “How do you go through this every day?”

“Jesus”, he replied, “He suffered for me, didn’t He?”

In Christ Jesus we who believe on Him can relate our pain and sorrow.

Jesus once said, "Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28 NASB)

P.S. I highly recommend Jim McGuiggan’s wonderful book ‘Celebrating the Wrath of God: Reflections on the Agony and the Ecstasy of His Relentless Love’.