I love Easter – springtime, chocolate bunnies, Easter baskets, fresh breezes, victory! Easter is for celebrating, for massive joy. But Easter is also for those who suffer, because incredible suffering, rejection and pain come before the joy.
A victory with no fighting is hollow. We need to contemplate Jesus’ suffering before we celebrate the victory of resurrection. And that’s what we do during Lent, and especially on Good Friday. Good Friday services normally emphasize the intense physical suffering of Jesus, which is appropriate. But we ought to give equal attention to his emotional and spiritual suffering.
Think about your circle of friends. If someone breaks a bone or has cancer or a heart attack, a lot of sympathy is garnered in the form of prayer and casseroles. But emotional suffering, aside from experiencing the death of someone close to you, is often invisible, and engenders no casseroles. You suffer no less than if you have to alter your life to accommodate a cast and crutches, or go through chemo and radiation, but since most of us have learned to soldier on, hiding inner turmoil, nobody has a clue of the pain within.
I’m not suggesting that you wear a sign that says “I’m suffering, too”, or that you figuratively bleed all over everyone in your path. Some things are meant to be endured alone, or shared with a very few people. But we learn early in life to wear smiling masks. A lot of us – you, me, we – live with various degrees of emotional pain, trauma, and anguish. We are broken and struggling, all of us, not all the time, but enough of the time. We need guidance on how to suffer.
Much has been written on how to suffer well, and I likely won’t add anything new. But as we approach Good Friday, it seems good to think about how Jesus went about his suffering, and how that suffering began at Gethsemane. Jesus has asked his disciples to go with him there, but they are unfocused, sleepy, and no support at all. Jesus is praying. But this isn’t just any prayer; this is anguished, agonized, suffering prayer as Jesus contemplates what lies ahead. He’s about to take on the sin of the world, to actually become sin for us, and thus to experience a depth of rejection, shame, and humiliation that nobody before or since has ever experienced. It’s completely indescribable.
As Martin Luther said, “No one ever feared death so much as this Man.”
Luther’s statement is right on, I believe. In Gethsemane we are given an unvarnished picture of the Lord of the universe struggling to accept what is coming, even looking for an alternative way to save the souls of humanity. In coming to grips with his suffering, Jesus’ first instinct is to pray. And he prays honestly. No platitudes, no fake spirituality, no splashing in the shallows. Jesus is pleading, sweating drops of blood. and asks his father, “Is there any other way? Do I have to do it this way – the shame and tortuous pain of crucifixion, the weight of the world’s sin? Father, find another way, I beg you.” The whole thing was a lot messier than we want to deal with.
There was no other way. And Jesus fights against the fear, the dread, the knowledge that the only way out of this is to slog straight through to the glory on the other side. In the end he says, “Not what I want, but what you want, my father.” Jesus was trained and practiced in obedience, and so there alone in Gethsemane, he sealed his fate.
Jesus was honest on the cross, as well. The final, crushing weight of sin, combined with excruciating pain and suffocation led him to a moment of total rejection by the one who loved him most. God the Father, looking on his son, who became sin, turned away, leaving Jesus completely alone. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Jesus shows us what to do with our own anguish.He prayed honestly. He struggled, and pleaded and begged. And in the end he was obedient. He did what he needed to do in spite of the fear. He suffered well. So that needs to be our way, too. Our natural way is to look for an easy way out, or to pretend we aren’t suffering, or to surrender to bitterness when the pain won’t leave. We like to give easy answers to others who suffer – throw a couple Bible verses at them, pat them on the head, pray for them once or twice. We don’t like to be real with God about our suffering, and we don’t like the messiness of others’ suffering.
So please do contemplate all the aspects of Jesus’ suffering this Easter, suffering that led to unprecedented victory and joy. By all means keep praying for and making casseroles for the physically suffering. And as you walk around bumping into smiling people who may be suffering invisibly, offer them a casserole of kindness and patience. We are all strugglers together.