On the Cross but Never Abandoned

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #4, 4/3/2011
Text: Psalm 22

When I was young and stupid, I used to argue with my wife about whether or not it was okay to leave my son in the car and run into a gas station to use the restroom. My wife would say this constitutes abandoning your child, even if the kid is taking a nap, even if you need to go to the bathroom really bad, even though there are five different buckles on the car-seat and there’s no sanitary place to put your sleeping child down in the bathroom. I never left my kids in the car, mostly because I worried some cop would bust me. So for better or worse, I’ve never abandoned my sons. Now our difficult sermon topic for today is: Did God abandon His Son?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? What do we do with these words that Jesus says on the cross? What kind of father would let his son die on a cross? What kind of father would demand that his son die on a cross? Perhaps these are irreverent questions to ask, but we need to have something to say to non-believers who feel that the cross makes God look like a bloodthirsty mob boss who cares more about getting paid back for the world’s sin than the life of His own son. I wrote my pastor four years ago to ask him if it was okay for me to go to seminary if I was struggling with the cross. He wrote back and told me that he was still struggling with it too. So let’s struggle together with this question: did God abandon His Son on the cross?

One of the main sources of our struggle with this question is a basic misconception of God that has developed in modern times. We picture God as a human being just like we are with arms and legs and a long white beard on a cloud somewhere. Since Genesis says that we are created in God’s image, we assume that God looks like us. When we hear Jesus call God “Father,” we picture a human body – maybe an enormous body that’s invisible and moves at the speed of light, but nevertheless a body that is either standing with us here or far away out there somewhere.

To some degree, the Italian painter Michelangelo did us a real disservice by painting God on the Sistine Chapel as a man with a beard in a cloud. That image has stuck. God tried to protect us against this confusion through the second commandment He gave the Israelites not to represent Him with any graven image. There are all kinds of metaphors used for God in the Bible – He’s referred to as a lion, an eagle, a whirlwind, and a still, small voice – but every time the Hebrew writers compared God to an aspect of His creation, they knew that they weren’t capturing God’s essence. They recognized that our Creator’s invisible qualities can only be described indirectly through analogies in His creation. God’s nature is indeed reflected through the humans made in His image, and Jesus was man and God at the same time, but that doesn’t make God a human.

So how does this change the question of whether God abandoned Jesus? If we imagine God with a human body, then we can picture Him walking away from Jesus, turning His back, or doing things that bodies do. But if God has no physical body and He’s instead the Creator from whom, through whom, and for whom all things exist, as we read in Romans 11:36, then God could not abandon anything in creation without it ceasing to exist.

God is infinitely intimately involved in every microscopic aspect of the universe. Every time two hydrogen atoms combine with one oxygen to form water, God is part of that process. Or at least that’s what it means to believe in a God through whom all things exist. Many atheists don’t believe in God because they object to the Disney cartoon God who sits on a cloud with a lightning bolt. Well, I don’t believe in that kind of God either. The point is that if God really is who the Bible claims Him to be, then He can never abandon anything in Creation. And here’s why that matters: when it feels like God is absent, it’s not because He’s abandoned us, but because we’ve lost our connection to Him.

We don’t have to believe that God is at work in every molecule. We can believe that what we see around us is the product of chaos or a loving Creator; either way, it’s a profession of faith – faith in chaos or faith in God. You can call a sunset nothing more than light photons refracted through atmospherical impurities, or you can see a beautiful work of art made by a loving Father who gets giddy about making moments that take our breath away. We can choose whether or not to see God in His Creation. Of course, if life were all sunsets and Sistine chapel ceilings, then it would be a lot easier to see God’s love all around us.

But our lives aren’t that way, at least not in Fairfax County. We feel poured out like water with our bones out of joint. Our hearts are like melted wax, and our tongues stick to our jaws. About 8 years ago, I couldn’t feel God at all in my life so I tried something called centering prayer. I sat in front of a candle, saying to God over and over again, “Lord, please clear a space for yourself in my heart.” I said it maybe 200 times in a row. I did this for several evenings without feeling much of anything. It took years for me to realize that the prayer had worked.

When you don’t feel God’s presence, that’s the perfect time to worship Him. Worship is the flashlight God gives us to find Him in the darkness. God has never abandoned us, but our spiritual eyes must be trained to see Him. He’s like a radio signal always broadcasting His love through the air around us. If our radios are turned off, that doesn’t mean He’s gone. If we can’t hear Him through the static, that means we’re not tuned into His frequency. Worship is how we tune in. We praise God not just because of our blessings; we praise Him so that we can see His blessings in what we had previously considered the ugliness and boringness of our lives. People who worship God are more grateful than people who don’t not because they’re healthier, richer, or more successful, but because their worship has helped them to see a God who never abandons them in every aspect of a world whose riches mean nothing when they don’t reflect the love of their Creator.

Now here’s how all this connects to Jesus’ words on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? First of all, these aren’t just Jesus’ words. They’re the first line of a psalm that Jesus probably learned as a kid. The Jewish people recited this psalm as a way of worshiping God. It might seem strange to us to call such a confrontational question “worship,” but the way that Christians today equate worship with pretending to be peppy and upbeat and pleasant all the time would be bizarre to ancient Israel. True worship means being real with God, bringing our fears and our demons up to the altar to demand and receive God’s deliverance by faith. Though Jesus was the divine Son of God, the cross made Him feel enough out of tune with His Father that He had to cry out for God to tune Him back in.

So how does naming this about Jesus’ words on the cross make God’s perceived absence more bearable? Let me just say this. If Jesus had never showed His humanity on the cross, then the African slaves who wrote the spirituals that are the foundation for blues, gospel, rock, jazz, and every other genre of spiritual or secular music indigenous to America would have had no reason to sing to God as they worked the fields. Their churchgoing masters beat them, but they knew that Jesus was their brother and he’d suffered just like they did. And though their lives were often brutal, short, and tragic, it did not occur to them to question God’s existence because they needed to be His children. They needed to be reminded that they were humans when they were treated like animals. Worshiping God was the only thing they had in life to give them dignity and hope.

So let’s follow the example of those slaves who wrote the best praise music that’s ever been written. If your life has been ugly enough that you can’t see God anywhere, then worship Him anyway and defy the forces of darkness that are trying to keep you down whether it’s your job, an illness, family drama, or the state of our fallen world. If you ask God the very real and legitimate question that Jesus cried out, “Why have you forsaken me?” and you keep on asking that question until you get an answer, demanding an audience with the One who seems like He’s not even there, then one day God is going to show you how He’s been there all along and that moment will feel like a resurrection.

Betrayal and Self-Righteousness

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #3, 3/26/2011
Text: Mark 14:1-11

During my sophomore year at UVA, I betrayed my school. Some of you may remember Steve Wojciechowski, the most hated point guard in Duke basketball history. In Wojo’s senior year, the Blue Devils came to play at UVA and I went to the game wearing a Duke sweatshirt. UVA was up by 1 with less than two seconds remaining. Wojo got the ball and dribbled it quickly down the court, but mysteriously the game clock didn’t start. When a UVA player saw that Wojo was about to score, he fouled him, and Wojo hit both free throws to win the game for Duke. I’ve never walked through an angrier mob of college frat-boys in my life. And I was wearing a Duke sweatshirt. Somehow I made it out alive.

I figured I needed some comic relief because betrayal is a very serious sin. It’s serious enough that in Dante’s epic poem about hell, the Inferno, traitors find themselves in the deepest circle of hell with Judas having the honor of spending eternity in the mouth of Satan. What makes betrayal sting so bad is that the one who hurts you is someone you trusted. Since we know how Judas turned out, we can only see him as a traitor, but up until he turned on Jesus, he was one of Jesus’ best friends. In fact, the gospel of John tells us that Jesus trusted him enough to let him hold onto the money. So why did he do what he did? Nobody can say for sure, but let’s take a look at how the gospel of Mark tells the story.

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’ While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.

But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

Luke tells the story a little differently, but in Matthew, Mark, and John, Judas’ betrayal comes immediately after this scandalous incident that we might call “perfume-gate.” A woman does something that is plainly irresponsible not to mention socially inappropriate. It wasn’t just a waste of money. It was completely unfitting for a respectable rabbi to let an unrelated woman into his personal space. And Jesus had a habit of letting loose women into his personal space to rub oil on him and literally kiss his feet, just like the way Jesus let those country people bring their filthy children to him to be loved on. It was embarrassing and unbecoming of the brilliant rabbi Judas had decided to follow.

How many of y’all have ever had an eccentric boss who you had to cover for? I did once, and I ended up betraying him. Before I worked for him, I saw him giving speeches and got a larger-than-life impression of him in my head. When he became my boss, I learned that he was just a human being with habits and opinions that drove me crazy especially since I was responsible for managing how the public perceived our organization. After a few too many press conferences in which he went “off-message,” I quit my job and wrote a long email airing my grievances which got back to him and hurt him pretty badly.

I’m not sure what was going through Judas’ head, but I imagine that the perfume incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back after a long list of ways that Jesus had not lived up to Judas’ expectations. Not only had Jesus failed to be what Judas wanted him to be, but he had publicly shamed Judas and the other disciples for trying to keep scandalous people and their embarrassing behavior away from the rabbi. Now Judas could have made a different choice. He could have trusted that Jesus had a lesson to teach him in the way that he let these women pour perfume and oil all over him.

He could have wrestled through the discomfort and awkwardness he felt and allowed Jesus’ witness to transform him into a person who responded with gentleness when other people did socially inappropriate things out of the goodness of their hearts. But Judas didn’t trust Jesus as a teacher; he trusted his own assumptions about the cause that Jesus was supposed to represent. Jesus had betrayed Judas’ assumptions, so Judas felt justified betraying Jesus.

I realize that there are many different types of betrayal, but I suspect that some form of self-righteousness lies at the heart of every betrayal. To betray other people means deciding that they do not deserve my respect, whether it’s because they have wronged me in some way or because I feel entitled to do whatever feels good regardless of the consequences for other people. But the opposite of betrayal is not just following the rules of social relationships. If I’m just a rule-follower, then it’s far too easy for me to call fouls on other people that justify breaking the rules myself. Jesus broke the rules when he not only allowed this woman to pour perfume on him but when he rebuked his disciples for trying to protect him from scandal. And this was just too much for Judas.

Of course, Jesus didn’t break the rules just to break them; every time he violated the Sabbath; every time he committed a social faux pas; every time he let a sketchy woman into his personal space, he did so out of mercy. Mercy is the true opposite of betrayal, because when you’re merciful, you aren’t looking for excuses to stop respecting other people. Looking at others with the eyes of mercy means seeking to preserve their dignity, even if they do things that you could judge them for doing. Mercy is what Jesus was trying to model for Judas and the other disciples by how he reacted to the woman’s waste of perfume. It wasn’t that this woman had some clairvoyant sense that Jesus was about to be buried. As Jesus says it, “She did what she could.” That was all that mattered, so he honored the sincerity of her heart by describing her act as the best thing she could have done.

How many of y’all know somebody who sincerely tries to do the right thing but can’t seem to pull it off in a way that doesn’t create drama and alienate other people? Isn’t it tempting to gossip about people like that behind their backs? I know that I do. Well what if every time we did that, Jesus came into the room and took up for the person we were badmouthing, arguing why the very actions that disgusted us were the epitome of righteousness? How many times do you think Jesus could do that before we stormed off to the chief priests to hand him over?

The fact is that all of us are like Judas. Even though we weren’t there to betray Jesus 2000 years ago, we have all betrayed Jesus by how we’ve treated other people. Whenever we fail to show mercy to others, we disrespect the mercy that Jesus died to show us. But the good news is that Jesus is not keeping score. He knows that we too have been betrayed. Every one of us has been a victim of betrayal in some form or another, whether it was a misunderstanding, a slight, or an act of vicious cruelty. Some of us have very deep wounds that make it very difficult not to spend the rest of our lives lashing out at other people in bitterness.

Jesus can’t undo the wounds we have received from other people; all he can do is offer us his own wounded hands in solidarity and teach us how to transcend the endless cycle of betrayal by letting mercy have the last word. Mercy is the only antidote to betrayal, because when we accept Christ’s mercy, we can resist being defined and shaped by the betrayals we have suffered. Jesus did not let Judas’ betrayal define his relationship with Judas. He knew what was going to happen, but when he broke the bread and passed the cup in his last supper, he offered his body and blood to Judas no differently than the other eleven disciples just as he offered his body and blood on the cross for Judas’ sins along with the rest of humanity. Jesus died to liberate us from the ways that we have betrayed others and from the ways that we have been betrayed. We can share in his victory over betrayal if we live our lives in mercy as a grateful response to his mercy.

Fear & the Fixed Game of Following Jesus

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #2, 3/19/2011
Text: Mark 14:32-42

One of my favorite books is Where the Wild Things Are. How many of you read that book when you were little? I remember my dad telling me after reading it that if I had scary monsters in my dreams, I should ask them to play with me and it really worked. Sometimes fears have simple solutions, but that isn’t always true. So what are you afraid of? How many people are afraid of monsters? How many people are afraid of the dark? How many of you are afraid of someone breaking into your home and hurting you or your family? Who’s afraid of making a fool of yourself? What about going to the doctor? How many of you are afraid of conflict?

One thing that every type of fear has in common is the dread of facing our lack of control. I’m afraid of burglars because I can’t control what they’ll do. If I bought a gun, I wouldn’t be afraid of burglars, but then my fear would shift to the fact that I can’t control what my sons might do with the gun. These past couple of months, I’ve had a pain in my stomach that’s made it hard to sleep. I was afraid to go to the doctor for a long time because I didn’t want to find out that something was growing inside of me. It was easier to pretend that I had the situation under control. Well I finally went this week and got a CT scan which came back clear. So I went to the store and got some heartburn medicine and I think that may have been the problem all along. So how many of y’all have a man in your life who would rather suffer quietly than admit that he’s not in control of a situation? I’m guilty.

Now there’s a way that this dread of our lack of control at the root of every fear is the basic hurdle we have to overcome to be ready to spend eternity with God. The default position that we start out with as humans is to think that the world revolves around us. All toddlers have to go through the traumatizing experience of learning that Mommy is not just a milk-cow and snuggle-mountain created for their convenience. My son Isaiah stopped nursing a year ago but he’s still fighting hard against the notion that his mommy exists for any purpose other than his needs.

To some degree, everyone graduates from the complete self-centeredness of a baby. But not entirely. As we grow, the form of our self-centeredness changes; it becomes the delusion of self-sufficiency. We no longer think that everyone else in the world exists to make us happy, but we find it important to believe that we are the masters of our own destinies. I may not be the center of attention for the whole universe, but there are things that are mine because I earned them and inside my castle, I am God. In this delusion, we try to deny that anything can happen to us beyond our control. We can keep up this front of denial as long as life plays along and does nothing to shatter it. But ultimately, nobody can avoid the absolute loss of control that is death and there is no ruder awakening than to spend a lifetime building a castle of self-sufficiency only to see it crumble to pieces at the very end.

What Jesus Christ has given us through His life, death, and resurrection is a safe way to let go of our delusions of self-sufficiency so that we can adjust to the reality that we’re not in control. Jesus makes it okay to admit that we don’t have our lives under control through renouncing control of His own life and even His own body to a horrible death on the cross. One aspect of Jesus’ journey to the cross is that it gives us a model for the right way to face fear.

So how does Jesus face fear? Is he calm about what he has to do? He says, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” That doesn’t sound calm. The gospel of Luke is very graphic about his physical condition, saying that “his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He knows what His destiny is; He knows why He has to do it; and yet He asks His Father, “If it is possible, may this cup be taken away.” That sounds like fear to me. It sounds like Jesus really didn’t want to do what He had to do.

Of course somebody might try to be smart and say, “What’d he have to worry about? He’s the Son of God. Didn’t He know His Daddy was going to bring Him back?” The way one person put it was to say that Jesus was playing in a “fixed game,” where He knew what the final score was going to be before the game even got played. It’d be like Coach K pretending to be worried that Duke might not win the national championship when Kyrie Irving is back in the lineup. So is Jesus just playing along? Is He just acting? I know that some people can cry on cue, but I’ve never heard of anybody learning how to sweat bullets on cue. And just because Jesus trusted that His Father had Him covered didn’t mean that the cross wasn’t going to hurt.

Jesus could have pulled out of the situation. He had divine powers. He could have called down lightning or an army of angels or whatever He needed. But He didn’t, because despite the fact that He was afraid, He was absolutely committed to following His Father’s plan for saving humanity. And so at the end of His prayer, after He tests the waters to see if His Father will give Him an out, He says, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That little phrase encapsulates what it means to face our fear perfectly. Let’s practice saying that. Not my will, but Thy will be done. Remember how I said fear is about not being in control. Well facing our fear is about trusting the One who is in control and believing that whatever His will is, all will be well in the end.

The fact is that we’re playing in a “fixed game” ourselves. A lot is going to happen between now and the end of the game – we’re going to lose some friends and gain other ones, we’ll have career successes and disappointments, our kids will make us proud and embarrass us, people we love are going to leave this life before we’re ready, and one day we will reach the finish line ourselves. But what we can trust is that God is going to win the game, and if we trust in His plan, then whatever crosses stand between us and the finish line of our lives, we will join our resurrected savior in glory.

God doesn’t expect us to pretend like we’re not afraid. We can and should admit it whenever we are afraid just like Jesus Himself did, but we should also trust that God’s plan will achieve the final victory and hold onto the promise of Romans 8:28 “that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Now just to be clear, this promise is not some kind of underhanded hint that if we prove our love for God by putting lots of money in the offering plate or acting really passionate about the Bible, then God will stop bad and scary things from happening to us. But if we put our trust in God and hang onto the stubborn belief that He loves us through thick and thin, then He will help us find the good in the bad and scary things that do happen in the natural processes and human societies that constitute life.

The process of becoming a Christian disciple is learning how to really mean it when we say, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” That’s hard to do! The first step is admitting that we are not in control. At first, it might be an act of discipline, but if we trust God enough to let Him transform our hearts, it will become an act of love. What we discover as we put our trust in God is that doing this makes life bearable as we face what we’re afraid of, whether it’s shame, loneliness, getting hurt, or getting sick. What makes it possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death that every single one of us will face no matter how lucky we’ve been so far is knowing not just in our mind but in our heart and soul that God is with us.

Now I’ve been places in my life where hearing a preacher say that would do nothing for me. Words and ideas are little comfort to people facing fear. But God does better than words. Through Jesus Christ, He has made a vine for us to grow on and those of us who trust in Him are the branches that He uses to touch other peoples’ lives and help them get onto the vine. God has made us into a body so that He can use us to care for all of His children, whether they know Him or not. Trusting God is not just a private relationship that has nothing to do with other people; we trust in God by becoming the body of Christ, through which God provides a safe place for people to bring their fears and receive His love. Jesus faced fear, so that we could face our fears together as one body who say in one voice, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

Pain and Seeing the Face of God

Walking in the Valley Lenten Series #1, 3/12/2011
Text: Psalm 42

Last week, we talked about being on the mountaintop with Jesus. Now, during Lent, we will be walking with Him through the valley to the cross. There are many aspects to the journey that Christ took to the place called Calvary where he was crucified – he dealt with pain, fear, betrayal, saying goodbye to loved ones, feeling like His own Father had abandoned Him. This first week, we will be talking about pain. I wanted to share a psalm that speaks about this journey of pain. Some of you might be familiar with Psalm 42 because it’s been made into a very beautiful hymn. But despite the beauty of the hymn, it is first and foremost a psalm about walking in pain. As a project in my Hebrew poetry class a year ago, I wrote my own translation of this psalm so here it is:

Like a deer longs for gushing water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God – When will I enter, and be seen by the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night while I hear all day long: “Where is your God?” These things let me remember and pour before me, O my soul: how I used to rush through the multitude, marching to the house of God, with their ringing cries and songs of thanksgiving – the pandemonium of a great festival. Why do you melt, O my soul, and stir disquiet within me? Hope in God, for yet again I will praise the one whose face is salvation – My God!

My soul melts within me; therefore I will remember You from the land of the Jordan and the Great Mountain, from this humble hill. Deep calls to deep in the thunder of your waterfall, as it crashes and sweeps over me. By day, the Lord will direct His goodness, so that by night, His song will stay with me, a prayer to my living God. Let me say to God, my Rock: “Why have you forgotten me? Why do I walk in darkness while my enemy oppresses me?” In the splitting of my bones, my enemies taunt me, saying all day long, “Where is your God?” Why do you melt, O my soul and stir disquiet within me? Hope in God, for yet again I will praise the one whose face is salvation – My God!

In our journey of coming to know God, pain is an enemy that taunts us, especially when it’s pain that doesn’t make any sense. If I go to the gym and feel pain, then I can make sense of it. I can say this hurts and that means progress. But what about pain that just is, that doesn’t have a purpose or even a diagnosis? My mother suffers from something called fibromyalgia. It causes her joints to ache like she has the flu. She never sleeps well at night, which only makes it worse during the daytime. It’s hard to make pain like that fit into how we understand God’s plan for our lives. Pain like that is an enemy that mocks us, saying, “Where is your God?” If your God loves you, then how do you explain me, your pain?

We don’t know the exact nature of the pain that the psalmist describes in this poem, whether the “splitting of the bones” is literal or symbolic. What we do know is that this pain was real enough for the psalmist to feel forgotten by God. She remembers a time when she could rush through the multitudes rejoicing on their way to the house of God. But now her bones are splitting inside of her; now her soul is melting. The Hebrew word for soul is nefesh, which literally means “throat,” or the breath within our throats that means we’re alive. A breath that is melting is a throat that has been dried out by suffering. The reason this psalmist is longing for God like a deer longs for water is because she has no water left in her throat. She is struggling even to breathe. Her tears have become her food.

But despite this desperate condition, the psalmist has decided that all will be well if she can just see the face of God. I think it’s important to name the fact that having a faith like that is an act of rebellion. The psalmist does not give reasons to justify her hope in God; in fact she gives all the reasons why it makes no sense to hope in God and why it seems like God has forgotten her. But she rebels against these reasons as her bones split, as her pain taunts her, and she decides that as long as she has a breath, she will use it to defy her pain and, despite the fact that it makes no sense, declare her hope in God and praise the One whose face is salvation.

What keeps the psalmist alive is her quest to see the face of God, but what does this really mean? The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talks about the difficulty of truly seeing the face of another person. We think it’s pretty straightforward to look at someone else’s face. But in the world, we all wear masks, and it’s hard to see the face beneath the mask. When we look at other people, we see what they think they’re supposed to show us, whatever part the world has taught them to play. Most of us have shown our true faces to very few people if any, because to show your face to another person leaves you vulnerable to teasing, criticism, or even betrayal. So can you imagine standing face to face with God Himself, knowing that you would see in His eyes the knowledge of every shameful thing you have ever thought or done? Most ancient people were so terrified by this thought that they assumed nobody could see the face of God and live. And yet the hope that carries the psalmist through her pain is the thought of seeing God face to face.

As Christians, we believe that God has shown the world His true face through Jesus Christ. As Jesus tells His disciples in John 14, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” But we don’t see God’s face fully in Jesus’ teachings or even His miracles. His powers might impress us and His teaching might be profound, but these alone would not take away the terror of facing the judge of the universe. None of what Jesus did would make God’s face any less threatening without the pain that He suffered on the cross. But the cross proves that God was not willing to sit back on His throne and frown at us from a distance; He was so moved by our pain and the loneliness we feel behind our many masks, that He could not hold Himself back from coming into our world in the form of Jesus and suffering with us. That’s literally what the word compassion means – to suffer with. Jesus made Himself the most completely vulnerable that He could have to the point of being nailed naked to a cross and suffering the most pain He possibly could have, all so that we would stop being afraid to take off our masks and see the face of God.

Jesus’ strategy for saving the world is pretty bizarre – to come to Earth and be helpless. That approach makes no sense to worldly wisdom, which is built upon solutions and explanations and efficiency. But what Jesus models for us on the cross is actually the best way to respond to the pain of people we love. When you’re in pain, you do need helpful people who come along in their lab coats bringing helpful things like ice chips or morphine drips and giving you helpful things to do like pills to take and exercises to perform. But what your soul really needs when it’s melting away and you feel like a desperate deer with splitting bones and a dry throat is someone to be helpless with you. It’s difficult to learn how not to be helpful when you’re with people who are suffering, but sharing in their helplessness is the rawest form of companionship that you can provide.

God doesn’t want anyone to live in pain, but those who have experienced the helplessness of deep pain have something important to teach us if we want to learn true compassion – how to suffer with others. The body of Christ is not a place for successful people who have never suffered; the world has plenty of clubs for people like that. We follow a Messiah who chose the helplessness of pain to create a safe place for people who suffer pain to share their helplessness with each other. Somehow it is by standing in this shared helplessness that we see the face of God and prepare ourselves to spend eternity in His loving arms.