Making Sense of the Senseless: The Suffering of Jesus

John 18:1-19:42

Some of you will know that I began going to a chiropractor last fall.

We think it was the result of a fall last June, but for some reason I didn’t feel it until later. By the end of October I was unable to turn to the right without significant pain. I had to do something.

Now it had been a while since I had been under chiropractic care. I went for a long time when my work put me on the road more and I had developed chronic lower back pain. When I stopped driving so much though the pain went away and so I never bothered to find a chiropractor in my new location. No doubt this is why it seemed like it was all ‘new’ to me.  For it was.

My old chiropractor would adjust me every couple of weeks and I would leave with a great sense of relief.  My new chiropractor’s treatment is much more involved.  It includes an adjustment — although usually not like I remember it. It now involves this hammering tool which can somehow measure where things are out of whack and what part of my back needs special attention. After that I was spending up to forty minutes in traction.  And then we always ended with ‘ice and stim.’ For a while there I was going three times a week for this.

Now while most of my appointment involved things which were not exactly painful, it also wasn’t all that pleasant. I have to say, though, that I really came to dread the ‘ice and stim’ at the end.

I would lie there on my stomach and in the heart of winter they would pile ice packs on my back. Next they would attach these little round electrodes to my shoulders and my lower back. And then they would slowly turn up the electricity, waiting for me to tell them when to stop.

Well, evidently, early on I had come away with a complete misunderstanding of what the ‘ice and stim’ was for.  Somehow I thought that the more it hurt, the more good it was doing. And so since I could endure it all the way up to ‘fifty,’ which was the maximum, I did not tell them to stop. No, it did not seem quite right that I found myself practically walking out to my car sideways, but I thought that was just how it was. Then one day I found myself lying next to an old acquaintance. As young Andrew, the chiropractic assistant, announced once more that I was at ‘the max,’ the person lying next to me marveled and said, “Wow. I can only take a nine or a ten.”

It hit me then that perhaps I was enduring this suffering for no good purpose. The next time I came in I quietly asked Chris, the other assistant, if it was doing any good for me to take the ‘stim’ to the max. And she laughed out loud. “No!” she exclaimed. “This is supposed to be pleasant — a kind of reward after all your hard work!” Apparently, the two assistants had been huddling together for weeks, shaking their heads at my seemingly wanting to have such electric shock coursing through me!

I found myself reflecting on my recent experience of purely senseless pain as I did some reading this week on what it was that actually killed Jesus. (It’s not hard to find, but you can click here for the original 1986 article.) It goes without saying, of course, that his was not a painless death. No, indeed, those who know more about how the human body functions than I do will tell you that the pain must have been tremendous even before he hung on that cross. Indeed, Jesus’ suffering began long before the spikes were driven in and his cross hoisted high. And of course we know that this was not only physical suffering… imagine again the scourging coupled with the pain of being betrayed, abandoned, denied, interrogated, and intentionally humiliated. And imagine all of this with no sleep. Again, those who know more about this insist that probably by the time Jesus was actually hung on the cross, his condition was critical. It is likely that he was already in a state of shock. Then once on the cross, his body would have been hanging in such a way that there was no possible way for him to breathe deeply without shifting his body weight. To be sure, with those spikes driven through his wrists, the pain had to have been simply excruciating.

You and I who have memorized the details of Jesus’ dying in our behalf — we have come to believe that this is pain with purpose. And it is. At the same time, however, it was also utterly senseless suffering. It was gratuitous torture of the worst kind. It was done at the request of a mob, ordered by a ruler who literally washed his hands of it, and with mostly strangers to witness it. It was humiliating in the extreme — literally stripping the one executed of all his dignity. It was the kind of pain which had Jesus crying out his anguish at having been abandoned by the One whom he called Father. It did not have to be and it simply should not have been. I’m sorry, but nothing will convince me otherwise.

Even so, the fact is that it was. It did happen as it surely does still happen so many times in so many parts of the world every day. And while it was ‘senseless,’ it was not finally without purpose for in it and through it Jesus died with all those who suffer senselessly still. And somehow by the power of God even its utter senselessness is somehow brought meaning. For even while we stand within the depravity of the happenings of that Friday? We know that these do not get to have the last word. Something more stands on the other side of all of this. God does bring life through it and out of it and if God can do that? The promise holds that even still, even now God can and God does bring newness and life and joy out of places where we might be tempted to believe that God is utterly absent.

As for the rest, I’m still working it out. There is more mystery here than I can comprehend or begin to explain. It may well take the rest of my Holy Weeks and difficult days and nights and then some to plumb its meaning. For now, I suppose, I am left with this. There is nowhere Jesus would not, did not go in our behalf. And his going there and all that came after makes real the possibility that God can do things with what first seems utterly senseless in ways I can only begin to imagine. Not that they ever should happen.  And it’s not that you and I should not do all we can to prevent it from happening. Even so, it does still happen.  And so surely it is it is also so that whenever I suffer, whenever we suffer, too, especially in behalf of others? We can be certain Jesus is there as well.

  • How do you begin to make sense of the senselessness of Jesus’ Suffering on the Cross?  
  • On Good Friday we turn to John’s rendering of this familiar story. Matthew, Mark and Luke offer their versions as well. Is there one in particular where you have found a ‘home?’  Why is that?
  • I find myself not a little surprised this week that after all these years I am struggling with the meaning of the atonement. For some reason the old ‘pat lines’ just don’t seem to ring as true as they once did. And so I’m trying to go deeper. Into the story itself, yes, but I have also picked up a book which is helping me think it through: Transforming Atonement: A Political Theology of the Cross, by Theodore W. Jennings, Jr.  If you have already ‘worked this out,’ what helped you to do so?  Where would you send someone to try to understand the meaning of the cross?

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