On Good Friday, Christians remember that an innocent man suffered, that Jesus died miserably on a cross. The fact of innocent suffering is on our minds more this Good Friday than those of recent years as we spend it this year quarantined and fearful of projections of over a hundred thousand Americans dead. How do we make sense of suffering on a senseless scale?
Christianity gives three explanations for suffering. We suffer because our world is fallen. We suffer because of sin. And we suffer so that God can be revealed.
Because we live in a broken world, we shouldn’t be surprised when we suffer. Ecclesiastes tells us all is vanity and vexation of spirit. There is no escaping or avoiding pain and death. No matter how great our society’s efforts to mitigate this disease are, or how much we distance ourselves and wash our hands, we will still be vulnerable, mortal creatures. When God himself took on human form, he had human frailties. When Jesus fasted in the desert, he hungered. When he hung on the cross, he thirsted and groaned in pain.
Suffering though cannot be shrugged off as just part of life. Although it’s not possible to avoid all pain and death, specific instances of them can be avoided. Looking forward, actions we take now will in fact spare people painful deaths from this disease, and looking backward, we can blame much of what has happened on human error. We suffer because we and those around us make mistakes. We act shortsightedly or maliciously or selfishly; mistakes come in as many varieties as we can imagine. On Good Friday, Jesus was wrongly condemned by the Roman rulers of Judea, who were uninterested in the truth of his case, by the priests, who thought that one man should die for the good of the people, and by the people of Jerusalem themselves, who cried out for him to be crucified. Their sin put Jesus on the cross.
But Jesus was not only there because of their sin, but also because of our sin. When we acknowledge that suffering comes from sin, we must not be too quick in deciding what sin led to what suffering. In the ninth chapter of John, the disciples ask Jesus, who sinned that this man was born blind? Jesus answered, neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him. He suffered blindness so that when he was healed, God would be known and glorified.
Although it was the sin of those particular people two thousand years ago that directly caused the crucifixion, Jesus suffered there for the sake of all our sin. He was wounded for our transgressions, Isaiah says, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. Jesus suffered so that our sin would be forgiven and so that we would glorify God. Jesus’s death on the cross reveals to us the extent of God’s love for us; God proves what he said in the Song of Solomon, that love is as strong as death.
As we experience a time of suffering due to this disease, we must look to see what God is revealing through it. For better or worse, we are not the first to suffer, and others have looked already. The poet and priest John Donne was no stranger to disease. Five of his twelve children died before age ten and Donne himself suffered a nearly deadly fever, after which he wrote this reflection on sickness. Affliction, Donne argued, is a treasure which lies in our bodies like gold in a mine; affliction is an ore, a rock which is useless until we refine it and coin it into money, money that pays for our travel, taking us far from our home on earth and nearer to heaven.1 Affliction itself is worthless, but when used to draw us nearer to God, affliction is of infinite worth.
This word, affliction, which Donne uses to describe suffering, comes from an old Latin verb for strike at. Affliction means something that strikes us, similarly to how the word plague comes from the Latin for a punch, a blow, a wound. These older terms and their roots point to an older understanding of suffering, as something which is done to us, not as something that just happens; affliction implies that someone has afflicted us. Donne saw suffering as coming from God, not because God wants us to suffer, but because God can use suffering to reveal himself and draw us near to him.
Today when our bodies fail we don’t describe it as an affliction or a plague, instead we speak of disease, a word which comes naturally enough from “dis” and “ease” and means at its root a lack of comfort, an inconvenience. As medical science has improved, we’ve begun to see our fragility as an inconvenience, as something which we might someday overcome. But on earth suffering is not a problem that can be fixed; it is a fact of life that is only resolved by death.
On Good Friday, two thieves were crucified on the left and right of Jesus. One of them mocked him. And one of them asked Jesus to remember him when he came into his kingdom. Jesus answered him, today shalt thou be with me in paradise. Both of the thieves suffered. They both were crucified because they lived in a violent, broken world and they both were crucified because they themselves did wrong. Only one of the thieves though made good use of his affliction. His suffering brought him face to face with a suffering God, and coming near to God, that thief gained eternal life. Make good use of affliction. Draw near to God in suffering. God has already suffered to draw near to you.
Greg Scalise, Harvard ’18, is a former editor-in-chief of the Ichthus.
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