In the middle of the most important and significant week in the Church Calendar, my initial thought was to post some glowing account of an uplifting story; maybe something witty and inspiring; certainly something prescient and encouragingly insightful. But it only took me a short time of thought to realize that the real message of Holy Week is sad, messy, and tragic. In other words, this week is filled with reminders and remembrances of great suffering, pain, and agony.
Ah, suffering. It is a topic we Westerners like to avoid like the plague. After all, it hurts! Don’t remind us of the stubbornness and ignorance of others which causes discomfort (see, we like to use words that don’t seem so, well, painful). Suffering is one of those things that we think we can circumvent. It goes something like this: if I do everything well, without screwing up, and don’t make anyone upset or angry, and do an excellent job at all I do, then I won’t suffer. The problem, however, is that this kind of thinking not only doesn’t work; it isn’t even biblical.
The bald fact of Holy Week is that Jesus Christ lived a completely holy life; he did everything perfectly well and right; he handled each situation and every person exactly the way it should be done; and, it got him violently tortured and killed. It is the great irony of Christianity that through suffering and death there is life and victory.
It wasn’t just Jesus. God’s people from Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion. Much as we may like, we cannot wriggle out of the very straightforward talk of the relationship between believers and suffering. “Now if we are God’s children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory” (Romans 8:17). The glorious life of bliss cannot and will not come apart from first suffering; there must be suffering before glory. Then, there is that pesky verse tucked away in the book of Philippians that many would like to forget: “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Philippians 1:29). So much for thinking that forgiveness of sins means a pass on trials and tribulations. If that weren’t enough, we get a Dragnet-just-the-facts-ma’am kind of statement from Paul to Timothy: “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).
Maybe our culture is just so stinking hedonistic that we have trouble to no end trying to make sense of why these kinds of verses are in the Bible, let alone embrace them as the norm for Christians. The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and faith. For them, just the opposite was true: they could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas a Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the 15th century these words:
“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world. And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention…. When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment…. It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing…. It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”
Spending time and energy praying, crying out to God, searching the Scriptures, and forsaking the perquisites of this world are much more worthy endeavors than running from every conflict and hardship that looks like it is coming our way in order to avoid the suffering that might result.
Holy Week’s message is certainly one of deliverance. But that salvation has a price, and Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible to pay it. We, as his people, do not get a pass on suffering; it is part and parcel of knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified. Let us not run away from the cross, but run headlong to it, humbling ourselves before a God who is acquainted with grief and sorrow.