God Weeps and Suffers

Writer and Lutheran minister Walt Wangerin told about finding his son reading a big stack of comic books. “Where did those come from?” “I took them from the library.” “You mean you borrowed them?” “No. . .” So Wangerin marched his son to the library and made him apologize to the librarian, who delivered a stern lecture about stealing. That was the end of that. Until the father found another stack of comic books. “Where did you get these?” There was no use lying. “When we were on vacation last summer I stole them from the store.” It was too late to return them, so the father ripped up the comic books and threw them into the fireplace.

When the son stole comic books a third time, his father said he was going to have to spank him—not a common occurrence in the Wangerin household. Five spanks later, his head hanging in shame, the boy was holding back tears. The father excused himself, stepped out of the room and sobbed.

Years later the son and his mother was reminiscing about those days. “After that incident with Dad, I never stole anything again,” he said. “I’m sure that spanking cured you,” said his mother. “Oh, no” the young man replied, “it was because when Dad stepped out of the room I could hear him crying” (Story told in Heidi Husted, “Decisions” in Christian Century, August 2-9, 2000, p. 791).

Some people think of the cross of Jesus in this way: Jesus took our sin and guilt, our wrongness and shame, onto himself. A just God, who couldn’t imagine anything more creative or transforming to do, punished Jesus for the sin he had become. It was a kind of cosmic spanking.

I know: if we forget the incarnation (God was present in the world, flesh and blood present, in Jesus) and if we make light of the claim that “God was in Christ”, then we are left with a capricious God who makes Jesus a suffering victim who takes what others have coming to them. But, because God was uniquely present in Jesus—because Jesus was the instrument through whom life in all its contradictions became part of God’s immediate and “personal” experience—we can (and we should) think of the cross of as God’s weeping and agonizing, sobbing and suffering with us and for us.

God did not inflict pain on Jesus for us. Instead, in Jesus and with Jesus, God felt and bore the world’s pain. God absorbed, in God’s own great and merciful heart, the wrong which shatters and stains the glory of God and the goodness of life.

It is the suffering God bore that saves, not the suffering God imposes. God did not do the cross to Jesus; God went to the cross in Jesus. The death of Jesus happened in the life of God. The cross was on raised Calvary outside the city gates of Jerusalem, but, in a deeper sense, it stood, and stands, in the heart of God. God suffered God's own judgment. God underwent condemnation and gave us grace instead. God was wounded with our hurt.

The Congregationalist minister of another generation, P. T. Forsyth, wrote: “That is the word of the Cross. [God says:] ‘I have seen to the judgment. I can provide for my own holiness. Let us not dwell on that now. That has been seen to. Thy sins are forgiven Thee. Abide in My peace.’” [“The Goodness of God” (1911), p. 83.]

Then, just as God raised Jesus from the dead, God gives us and the world the gift of new life, life as full and free as Jesus lived it. We embrace the world and our experience, including their pain; and, when death comes to us, we will know that we lived, truly lived. As Mary Oliver wrote:

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness? . . .

When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
(“When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems, vol. 1, pp. 10-11)