Last week we closed with the observation that Job prophesies and foreshadows the innocent suffering of Jesus. But why is innocent suffering a value in the kingdom in the first place? Why did Jesus need to suffer for us?
Rather than be lofty in my attempt to answer this question, I prefer to suggest a simple story.
What does love do when wrong exists?
Another way to get at the question why did Jesus need to suffer for us is to ask the question: What does love do when wrong exists?
Keeping it simple, I think of a father’s love. I think of a story.
One day my youngest son was driving my car. It is a used 2016 Volvo. But it’s nice and I take care of it. Speaking honestly, I am never thrilled when my sons drive the car because, in general, they don’t take great care of their things. On this day, while pulling into the garage, my son misjudged the angle of the turn and badly scraped up the right bumper. He called me to tell me about it. He was contrite. I was calm. My son matters more to me than my car and this was not going to be an issue that drove a wedge between us. My first response was “I understand. But it will be your responsibility to fix it.” I wanted him to take responsibility, but I was uncertain just what he could fix on his own.
There was a lot of paint from the garage door on the bumper but also some deep scratches on the plastic bumper from its abrasion with the unfinished brick of the house. Alexander went to an auto store and got a chemical to remove the paint. The paint he removed, but the scratches in the plastic remained. Alexander is 16. I am working on building my relationship with him. The problem with nice cars is that when you damage them cosmetically they are expensive to repair. To ask him to shoulder this expense seemed too heavy a burden to lay on his shoulders. So I said I would carry it.
“I’ll deal with a scratched bumper, Alexander,” I said. “Good job on the paint.”
It really wasn’t hard. I didn’t even need to think about it. It just bubbled up in the moment, the wellspring of a father’s heart.
Since then, I have not repaired the damaged bumper. Every time I look at it, I think of Alexander. I think: I love him more than my car. I think: a father pays when a son cannot.
In a way, I think our question here – what does love do when wrong exists? – is that simple.
When we stand before God, we are like one who has badly scratched our father’s car. We don’t have the means to repair it. So God says, “I’ll take care of it. You are beautiful in my eyes and I love you.” God bridges the difference.
It’s not that failures in love don’t matter. It’s not that wounds or sins have no consequence. But somehow in the order of love and human behavior God works out a dual understanding. He says something like: “I want you to return to the garage a shiny car, just as shiny and clean and cared for as when you took it out. However, if you don’t and if you don’t have the means to repair the damage, I will cover it. Because it is you I love.”
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the innocent lamb offered up, it seems to me, is the expression of this kind of love writ large, across centuries and across the wide range of human behavior. For we all know, human beings do far worse than scratch the bumper of a 2016 Volvo.
We will all one day stand before the throne of God, His presence burning like a great flame of love, incandescent and reaching out, drawing us into that burning. Our souls will hesitate there, flawed and trembling before him, all our acts and omissions will be laid bare, in all their hidden significance, now no longer hidden. There will be a gulf on that day a gulf between who we are and who God is. There is a gulf today between who we are and who God is.
How shall that gulf be bridged?
It will be bridged – it is even now bridged – by God saying to us, in love: “I will carry that for you.”
The personification of that carrying, the tangible expression of it, is Jesus carrying the cumulative weight of humanity’s “No’s” on the Cross. Jesus is the lamb whose love is freely given, whose life is freely given; a gift of love that bridges the distance between us and God.
We need to do our part, yes. We need to take our responsibility for our actions. But as for the bridge that will still remain to cross, God will say, “I will carry you over it.”
Or so it seems to me.
Job and Isaac: Prophets of Innocent Suffering
The lamb of God, the innocent lamb offered, the blameless one who took our suffering on his shoulders so that we be spared a burden we could not carry: this lamb illustrates a divine principle of love. The lamb llustrates that, at the heart of all existence, what saves us, what animates us, what restores us in our relationship with the Father, what gives us access into eternal life is the pure, freely offered, innocent love of God. This love carries for us what we cannot carry ourselves.
In other words: Pardoning, restoring, self-sacrificing love is at the very heart of existence. It is the very nature of the Father’s love. And the great accumulation of all the bridges that had to be crossed to reach His heart adds up to a weight of suffering that an innocent heart had to carry. A suffering that God’s heart carries for us. That Jesus, as the human expression of that love, carried on earth. Carried so we could see and know and understand that through his suffering we are reconciled to the Father.
Job was a prophet of that innocent suffering; his experience was echoed in the Psalms. Isaiah took that prophecy a step further, explaining it. And then Jesus fulfilled it.
These ideas reveal why, at the very foundation of the covenant relationship between God and His people, God calls Abraham to carry out another prophetic sign: the sacrifice of his only son (Gen 22). His innocent son. It seemed cruel, it seemed Job-like to ask for such a sacrifice. But God was revealing, in a prophetic way, what He and His Son would later do. It was an act that, like Job’s suffering, would only make sense when Jesus took it up freely and revealed its inner meaning. Fulfilled it in all the awesome weight of its meaning.
Invited to walk along the path of love
There is one final point to make. Jesus and the Father do not just meet us with this redeeming, forgiving love. This is crucial. They call us to join them in this love, to be transformed into this love, to be ambassadors on earth of this love. To gather up our own innocent sufferings, our own nights, our own dark valleys, our own crosses and there say, with Jesus in Gethsemane, “Father, if it is possible let this cup pass far from me. Nevertheless not as I will but as you will” (Mt. 26:39).
If we do, in each dark valley we will move from sense to spirit, as we said in Part I. We will become, not just human persons, but spiritual persons.
For as night in the natural life has a purpose, so does night in the spiritual life. The nights of the soul – the small and the great ones – move us from sense to spirit. The loss of natural goods, when it comes – the loss of wealth, health, relationships, life, the goods we seek – these losses can produce spiritual fruit. They are part of how God causes to grow in us the spiritual life. It’s part of how God draws us, forms us, fathers us to become those who love with sacrificial love, with pure, self-giving love.
This is why Jesus often says: “If anyone wishes to follow me, let him take up his cross each day and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). Let him follow me through the nights of this world, in other words, with faith and love.
What he is saying is that if you want to love as I love, allow the Father to form your heart through the experience of carrying your cross – enduring your nights – in faith and love.
I like the way Edith Stein puts it. In the night, she says, “God transfers his goods and strength from sense to spirit.” All the deaths we experience at the level of sensory being keep “in step with the rise of the spiritual human being” (from The Science of the Cross).
Or as an Eastern monk once said: if you die before you die, you will not die when you die.
So let it be for us.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, in all my nights, I place my trust in you. For darkness is not dark for you and with you night is the path from sense to spirit. With you, Jesus, my nights can be as clear as the day. They are the path through which you form my heart in your image. Have mercy on me a sinner.