The Suffering Humanity of Christ
by Jacob Sparks
It is a common joke among Sunday schoolers that when in doubt about an answer to a question, just say Jesus and you will be right half the time. As a high school Sunday school teacher, I am often on the receiving end of this joke, and it always gets a good laugh. At times, however, I try to push my Sunday schoolers to think more deeply by following up with a more prodding question: who exactly is Jesus?
They are often unsure of how to answer this question, and for good reason; it is a complicated matter to answer. It took the Church until the fifth century to answer the question, when the Council of Chalcedon proclaimed that Jesus Christ was a single person possessing both the human and divine natures. Or, more directly put, Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
Before the Council of Chalcedon, there had been immense confusion about who Jesus was. Some had said Jesus was simply a virtuous man (a belief derived from Arianism) while others had said that he was God who merely created the illusion of being a man (a teaching known as Docetism). But the Church was insistent on both points, teaching that Christ is completely God and completely man. The importance of this doctrine cannot be overemphasized. If Jesus is simply a human being, there is nothing special about who he is, no matter how virtuous he may have been. If Jesus was God who was masquerading as a man, then God has not truly participated in human life and cannot relate to our lowliness and suffering. But, if Jesus is both of these, then God can truly understand us, for then God has chosen to partake in our weakness and affliction.
But how exactly does God participate in our suffering? Ever since Chalcedon, the Church has been very clear that God the Son, incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, freely chose to become human, being sent by the Father “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” (Romans 8:3). Because of this, we know that Jesus experienced everything that is common to humanity: birth, hunger, thirst, joy, sorrow, laughter, pain, isolation, rejection, and yes, even death. A cursory reading of any of the Gospels is enough to demonstrate that Jesus experienced all of these, and particularly that he experienced a great deal of suffering and rejection. John’s gospel states this quite clearly at the beginning: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” (John 1:10-11). Jesus’s rejection by his own people is spelled out more clearly in Mark, where Jesus’ own family goes out to stop him from preaching, saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:23). When many people leave Jesus at his controversial teaching about eating his body and drinking his blood, he asks his disciples, “Do you also wish to go away?”, wondering if they too will forsake him (John 6:67). When his friend Lazarus dies, Jesus has no response but to stand at his tomb and weep. And, in his darkest moments when he is unjustly arrested, all of his friends abandon him, with one of his closest friends denying three times that he knows him at all.
Jesus is unfairly condemned by the leaders of his own religion; he is beaten, spat upon, and mocked. He is forced to carry the instrument of his own torture to the hill where he is crucified. None of his friends or family are present for his death except for his mother and one of his disciples. The thieves who are crucified beside him ridicule him along with the crowd standing by. It happens exactly as King David predicted in the Psalms:
And before he dies, though united perfectly with the Holy Trinity through his divine nature, his human nature, feeling abandoned by God, cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” or, more literally translated from the Greek, “My God, my God, why have you left me behind?” (Matthew 27:46). And finally, he dies, his soul being forcibly torn from his human body, his life having completed its course.
What does the immense degree of Christ’s suffering mean for us? In brief, it means that we no longer suffer alone. Because he took on human flesh, God has completely and permanently identified himself with the condition and suffering of humanity. Christ, having put on the common human nature, has united himself with us. This means every time we suffer, we know that Christ suffers along with us, for he bore in his body the suffering common to all humanity. And when Christ suffered, we also suffered along with him, bearing in our bodies the common human nature that was scourged and crucified. The Apostle Paul realized this in the first century, writing to one of his churches, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) The suffering of Christ is the suffering of humanity, and the suffering of humanity is the suffering of Christ. We no longer suffer alone.
We know God understands our suffering because he too has suffered. May the God who suffers receive all glory, honor, and worship, with his eternal Father, and his all holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages.