Recently I watched the movie, Son Of God. Toward the end of the movie I was deeply moved by the long portrayal of Jesus’ suffering, from his beating, to carrying his cross, and finally the crucifixion. I’ve seen a good number of movies and plays about Jesus but I was never moved so emotionally by a portrayal of the crucifixion like I was watching Son Of God. Why is that?
As Americans, we live in a sanitized and antiseptic culture. Everything is clean, orderly, and has its place. Even our suffering. Most Americans don’t experience extreme brutality like Jesus experienced for us. And that got me thinking again about suffering.
What is suffering? More specifically, what does it mean to suffer for the sake of Christ? Immediately, we can put aside notions of suffering from sickness, accidents, or bad relationships. Everyone experiences some measure of physical and emotional suffering for various reasons. What I am referring to, specifically, is the biblical call to suffer for the Gospel, for the sake of Christ. But let me narrow it down further. I don’t mean suffering such as your teacher telling you that you can’t read the Bible during recess or forbidding you from writing about Jesus as the subject of an essay. Nor do I mean restrictions on speech that Americans regularly complain about regarding public expressions of religion. What I mean is the kind of suffering that Jesus, Paul, and the Apostles went through. The kind of suffering the early Christians endured. The kind of suffering Christians in the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa experience. To illustrate it graphically, I mean flesh tearing, hot iron branding, knife slashing, bone breaking, skin burning, bullet riddled suffering for the sake of sharing God’s love and forgiveness with the very people causing your suffering. In a word, I’m talking about nothing less than being brutalized for the sake of the Gospel. That is what Jesus suffered.
When we think of suffering, what do we think of? In our sanitized and antiseptic culture we don’t think about horrible gut wrenching extreme pain. I think we don’t even think of this about Jesus. We intellectually know that he suffered for us. We may even know it in the seat of our emotions. But the brutality of Jesus’ suffering is frankly, beyond most of us from understanding because that kind of suffering is not within our normal frame of reference.
When I first began reading the Bible as a young Christian I went through the Gospels and my first thought was, “Is that it?” I’ve read novels that had more captivating portrayals of suffering than I read in the Bible. So why didn’t the Gospel writers give us a more descriptive account of Jesus’ suffering? Because in the day in which they lived and wrote nobody needed a description of that kind of suffering. They lived with it, everyday, as their Roman masters brutalized their people. Now, 2,000 years later, sitting on my comfortable couch reading my Bible on my iPad while sipping a soft drink, I’m completely divorced from what true suffering—the kind that Jesus experienced—really means.
Until I see it in movies like The Passion or Son Of God. Even then, I’m only moved emotionally. I can empathize, but only part way because I, myself, have never experienced suffering in that way.
There is a terrible truth in scripture that we gloss over because at some level we pray dear God please don’t let that be me. It is the revelation that God has called us to suffer. On purpose. This does not mean that he allows suffering on some passive level. It means that for some of us he calls us to endure true brutality for the sake of the Gospel. This means extreme suffering and victimization at the hands of the very people that God has called us to love and forgive—just like Jesus did. Yes. It’s true. God calls the Christian to suffer in this way. Remember Jesus’ words in Acts 9:16 about the Apostle Paul, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” Paul suffered greatly, many times, over many years, for the sake of the Gospel. He was victimized and brutalized over a message of love given to a people that would have rather stoned him to death. Jesus himself said that we would suffer with our victimizers thinking they would be doing God a favor (Matthew 10:16-23; 24:9; Mark 13:9-13; John 16:2).
The reality in all of this is that God, from eternity past, pro-actively and intentionally, foreordained the suffering that some Christians will endure. So what does that tell us about God. Is God cruel? Why does he foreordain the suffering of some? Does he have the right?
To answer the last question first, yes, God has the right to foreordain our suffering. Jesus’ suffering, as horrible as it was, was foreordained by God. With him as our example Jesus says, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24).
Is God cruel? At first we might think so. But we are told that our sufferings, even brutalization, is but a “light momentary affliction preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (II Corinthians 4:17). This was how Jesus viewed his suffering. “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). We are also told that in the kingdom to come that our life on earth and all that we suffered will never, for trillions times trillions of never-ending years ever come to our minds ever again (Isaiah 65:17).
When we begin to get a true grasp of how extreme Jesus’ suffering was we cannot help but wonder, why did he have to die that way? We watch a movie about Jesus’ suffering. We are emotionally moved beyond words for what might be a 10-15 minute depiction on screen. But Jesus’ suffering lasted for hours. Why did he have to suffer so much for so long? Because, I think, of the scope of the redemption he was winning for us. He was paying for the sins of billions of people throughout all history for all time. A mere stabbing, or stoning, or beheading, as horrible as they might be, wouldn’t illustrate enough what had to be suffered to pay for the sins of so many.
Are we willing to suffer in the same way Jesus did? Is there some part of you, hidden deep inside that says to God, “I am willing to suffer as you did if it will bring you glory.” Can you say with all your heart, “Lord, I don’t want to suffer that way, but if it will bring you glory then do that in me which will bring you the most glory, no matter what that is.”
A few years ago a missionary came to my office to talk with me about his fear of moving to China. He had been there more than once, teaching English and ministering the Gospel to his students. He left the country for a while but believed that God was telling him that the next time he went to China he would give his life for his faith in prison. In our three-hour conversation he expressed his fears and doubts. I shared a brief passage from Revelation with him and suddenly he slipped off his chair, arms raised, his knees hitting the floor yelling, “God is speaking through you right now!” After a short while we finished our conversation and he left, determined to go to China, take whatever risk was necessary for the Gospel, and give up his life. I never saw him again.
It is true, we are a sanitized and antiseptic people. If we want to truly follow Christ in every way then we must be willing to endure suffering for his name’s sake. We must take the attitude that we are really in the business of saving lives for eternity. Our sacrifices and suffering here will be minor compared to the eternal weight of suffering that will be endured by the lost. And what can we experience now that might compare with that? Nothing, I think.
Yet, there is still that secret part deep inside of me that says, “I hope I never have to go through that.”