08 April 2014

How the Cross Works #2

Here is the second post I mentioned I would put up on how the cross works.

[[Dear Sister O'Neal, how does Jesus' suffering save us or the world? I mean how does it work?I just can't understand this. Does God need this for some reason?]]

Thanks for your question.  I want to deal only with the question of Jesus' suffering in this post. For more about how the cross works please check out other articles on the theology of the cross.

First, Jesus' sufering per se is NOT salvific; it does not "save". Neither of itself does it reveal God to us nor make God exhaustively present in our world. (Jesus' suffering does reveal something of what it means to be truly human and it also points to the self-emptying compassion of God, but by itself it does not make the Triune God present in power.) However, this is absolutely not to say his suffering is unimportant or dispensable. It is not. What is true and what I will focus on here is that suffering calls for something in Jesus and allows for that which IS salvific. Jesus' suffering is a critical part of the incarnational weakness in which God's power will be made perfect and exhaustively revealed. To understand this it helps to think about how suffering works usually and what it calls for from us; then we can look at how it actually functions in Jesus' life but especially at his passion and death.

All of us know suffering, some very great suffering, and we know as well therefore that it pulls us in two directions. The first is fairly instinctive. We try to defend against the pain. We attempt to make ourselves less vulnerable in whatever ways we can. For physical pain we may use analgesics --- and, I would add, this is ordinarily entirely legitimate, especially in cases of severe chronic pain or when we need relief to function in important ways the pain would prevent. At the same time we may short circuit the growth in courage, endurance, and openness suffering calls for. Finding a balance here is not always easy. Still, the point is the same, suffering per se is an evil in our world which can threaten our well-being, and, when severe, our very humanity as well.  (Severe pain dehumanizes or at least has the potential to do so.) Our first response is to try to ease it or end it in order to protect ourselves and the life we know and value. Prayer here (meaning in this case our own pleas to God), especially in the beginning, may actually be an expression of this tendency to self-protection and a resistance to being truly vulnerable. This entire response (or reaction) can itself, though in a different way, be dehumanizing,

The second response is NOT instinctive. It is an expression of something transcendent in us; it recognizes that to some extent suffering can be a source of growth and maturity, especially of our larger or true self. Significantly, suffering can help open us to our own weakness, helplessness, and poverty. Further it can open us to allowing ourselves to be more profoundly known by others, by ourselves, and ultimately by God. It calls for courage, endurance, a wider perspective than we usually entertain, and an openness to a meaning which is greater than we can even imagine. This response to suffering, this opening of ourselves to realities which lie beyond us and sustain and empower us beyond our own very real limitations allows the redemption of suffering and sometimes the healing of its causes. Prayer here may begin as a praying OUT OF our suffering, but when it reaches maturity and even fulfillment it becomes a praying OF our suffering --- that is our living out our suffering with and in the power and presence of God.

Jesus' Passion and Death:

Here we begin to understand why Jesus' suffering could be both essential and salvific. It is not, as you say, because God needs our suffering  --- for instance, in reparation for sin and offenses against his honor. It is not that there is some sort of cosmic quota of pain required, nor that some abstract notion of distributive or retributive justice requires it. (God's justice is neither of these.) Jesus is called to be the Incarnation of the Word of God in all of human life's moments and moods. He is called and commissioned to embody that Word exhaustively. He is called to be obedient, that is to hearken --- to listen and respond --- to that Word so completely that call and response cannot be teased apart in him. He is called therefore to be prayer and to implicate God fully in a world dominated by the powers of sin and death. Part of coming to this perfect incarnation is suffering and doing so in ways that allow God into that "space" of  ultimate weakness, emptiness, and helplessness so that he may transform it (and us) with his presence. In a sense, especially to the degree we allow it, suffering hollows us out and intensifies our openness to the reality which can redeem it and everything else.

But what happens if Jesus' cry of aban-donment and his own admission that it is finished are the last words of the event we call "the cross"? What happens if godlessness and the powers of godlessness are the real victors? What happens if Jesus's descent into hell in abject openness and vulnerability to the emptiness, meaninglessness, and inhumanity of his suffering are the last word, the thing allowed by God to stand? What happens if the universally dehumanizing effects of Jesus' suffering were the final word? (After all,  he was dehumanized and those that tortured him were also dehumanized by their actions; the same is true of those who called for such shameful torture, betrayed Jesus' friendship or as Religious leaders administering the "Law of God" were otherwise complicit in this)?

It should be clear that without the resurrection there is nothing redemptive or salvific in Jesus' suffering. It is necessary, essential in fact as a condition of possibility, but it must be done in obedience (meaning without closing oneself to it in any way nor attempting to save oneself even while one remains open) to the One who CAN save and redeem this suffering. Further, God must respond to this obedience, enter into the abyss created by sin, death, and by Jesus' personal vulnerability and continuing openness. God must,  as a result, bring life out of death, meaning out of absurdity, ordered, fruitful reality out of chaos and nothingness, and communion (reconciliation) out of ultimate isolation and alienation or Jesus' suffering witnesses not to victory over these things but instead to foolishness, failure, arrogance and man's inhumanity to his fellows.

We can speak of God "needing" this suffering because he needs to be able to enter the most godless depths of human life and death but we cannot speak of God needing this suffering to satisfy some sort of offense done against him. The godless depths I have referred to are depths and dimensions within us and our world created by our own choices to exclude God. God cannot simply enter into these spaces by fiat because they are personal spaces which God will not violate lest he violate us at the same time. God, who respects our choices, must be invited or allowed in here. However,  in speaking of Jesus' taking on our sin we say that Jesus died for ALL. His obedient suffering makes it possible for God to enter into the realm of sin and death (realms of godlessness) created by human acts of rejection without violating the freedom of human beings who (universally) choose these. That is, Jesus' passion and resurrection is God's answer to ALL human sin.  More and more you and I need to allow God into our own sinful lives, but the powers of sin and godless or eternal death themselves have been defeated through the cross of an obedient Jesus. It was suffering that assisted in the deepening of Jesus' obedience, but it was his obedience in conjunction with the will of God that actually brought redemption.

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...we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)