He threw off glory (brilliant, whole), took on a body (vulnerable, decaying); lived on a dirt floor instead of the universe; walked the planet, but only in one minute spot when he had known Inside and Beyond. He felt the separateness of being human (one individual in the uncaring crowd), lived in the pressure pot of grasping people, came up against the hard oppositional wall put up by power brokers. He knew the fatigue of teaching the limited to understand, making blind eyes see, extending real fingers to touch infection. He suffered here: hungry (for forty days), naked (stripped, to shame him), tortured (beaten, thorns pressed down, iron spikes forced through flesh of hands and feet), rejected (their spit slimed his eyes and cheeks, their laughter mocked him, lies shredded his reputation), misunderstood (the Truth, taken for a sham, the Light, seen as conniving, feared as dangerous when he was Love), He spent his very self to show us God. The dark side of living in a shadowed world that builds defenses against sun and snuffs out flickering candles -- he chose that, too. So when we scream it comes as no surprise. His empathy is not imagined, not contrived. He knows our pain.
When Jesus came to earth in human form, he had a purpose. God himself would live here just like we do, in a suffering world, and then take on all our brokenness by dying for us as the ultimate sacrifice. But he is not gone! He rose again, and is still Immanuel, “God with us.” Now he lives inside each of us who have devoted ourselves to him. So what does that mean?
Being saved does not end in that moment of decision; we are to “work out our salvation” –put it into practice – with deep reverence for the one who has made us his own and has a real purpose for us (cf. Phil 2:12,13 NIV). He is remaking us as we live out what it means to be his and to become more and more like him. When we contemplate what his life demonstrated about his character, that goal can be daunting. All we have to do is try to live up to his expectations to realize that on our own, we are weak. We don’t have it in us to naturally love those who are not like us, or who even oppose us. Forgiving those who do us wrong is a huge leap; our natural impulse is to hold that against them and avoid them. His standards are way above our pay grade!
What comforts me in all of this is my Master’s understanding. He knows what it is to live in this broken world with all of its personal pain and relational challenges. He was here. He experienced way more opposition than any of us, being executed for being too good, too truthful about who he was (and is) and about our human dilemmas. He must have been tempted to use his power to get even. Instead, he did just what he had taught, “turning the other cheek” to those abusing him (Matt. 5:39). He did not yield to what he would have liked to have happen, as a human, but said to God the Father, “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42 NIV).
His humility and his long path of hardship has given him deep empathy that reaches out to comfort us in our tough situations. “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18 NIV). He waits with loving arms for us to run to him for help when we realize that we are weak while he is strong. He will not push us away with disgust when we do that. He knows what it is to need the strength of the Almighty and is delighted when we turn to him instead of just flailing about and failing. He has experienced life on the dark side himself.
When we have gone through a certain kind of trauma, we too can empathize more easily with others in a similar situation. I lost my first pregnancy in the seventh month, when for unknown reasons the baby died while still in my womb. Even decades later, when a woman’s pregnancy ends this way, or her newborn dies, I feel her grief and can reach out to her with a different kind of understanding because I’ve been there too. As a child and then as an adult I lived in some situations of deep civil unrest, even war. The news of similar circumstances around the world (especially in Africa) strike me hard as a result.
Jesus knows that our lives are tough going, whether we are personally suffering or there is chaos all around. We can run to him and be welcomed when we need him (which is truly way more often that we usually realize). This union with him means more and more to me as I contemplate all the words and metaphors that underline it in the Scriptures. They tell us to remain in (or abide in) the Vine, Jesus, and let him remain in us or we cannot be fruitful at all (John 15:4,5). This attachment will encourage and comfort us, and instill God’s kind of tenderness in us that will enable us to also be in healthy relationships with others who belong to him, whether we are naturally compatible or not:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind (Phil. 2:1 NIV)
We do so need to put our confidence in Jesus, who gave up his position of complete power to live like we do, in much more humble circumstances than most of us who might be reading this blog! May we each trust his compassion and let him work in us to be increasingly like him! He is love, full of empathy and understanding. When we are “one” with him, united with him, he can change us when we cannot change ourselves!