Jesus understands our pain because of his suffering
By Larry Nikkel
Because Jesus is fully human as well as divine, we know that the things that cause pain for us also caused pain for him. When we think of the pain and suffering of Jesus our minds go immediately to the events of the crucifixion and the physical hurt he endured. But all through his public ministry Jesus endured painful experiences, even in the midst of the miracles he performed that brought hope and healing to so many.
Most of these pains were emotional. While Jesus felt hunger pains as he was tempted in the wilderness, he also experienced the psychological pain of saying “no” to Satan’s temptations when he could much more easily have said “yes.” It was the pain of rejecting personal gain for the broader good.
Daily dose of pain
Jesus lived daily with the pain of having his work and words distorted and misinterpreted. He constantly had to be on guard against those who sought to entrap him. He lived with the pain of being criticized for doing good things, such as healing on the Sabbath, and of being asked to leave an area because healing a man possessed by demons caused a pig’s owner to experience financial hardship when the pigs drown in the sea.
I once met a woman in the former Soviet Union who has lived her entire life as an epileptic but was labeled by the women of her church as demon-possessed. Jesus is also labeled as demon-possessed. The pain of being labeled is as painful today as it was then.
Jesus also experienced the pain of being rejected by his home community. Worse yet was the pain of having his own siblings reject him. He experienced the pain of having followers abandon him and at one point even turned to his disciples asking whether they would abandon him as well.
He lived constantly with the pain of knowing that the day would come when one of his disciples would betray him. But all of this pain was nothing compared to the emotional, psychological and physical pain that awaited him as he prepared for the Passover meal on the weekend that would cost him his life. His last meal with his disciples must have generated in Jesus a great deal of anxiety that his disciples could not understand, even though in hindsight Jesus spoke quite clearly about what was to transpire.
The depth of Jesus’ distress in the Garden of Gethsemane seems to revolve around two issues. One is his growing sense of “aloneness” and the other is facing pain and humiliation, something he no longer anticipated in the future but that awaited him that very night. This sense of aloneness had Jesus returning to the disciples, asking that they watch and pray with him.
One of the things we know with certainty is that sin is repulsive to God. Jesus knew that the plan he was being asked to execute required him to take on the sins of all who had come before, all who were then living and of all who would follow. He was being asked to become the very thing that was most repulsive to him. It wasn’t only the murder, adultery, stealing, lying and hypocrisy that have been a part of the human experience from time eternal. It was also the plotting, conniving, distortions and ill will of the religious leaders that caused him so much personal grief. He had to be willing to love even them and could love them only if he could forgive them.
We miss the depth of Jesus’ despair unless we understand one thing about the experience in Gethsemane. The fact is that he wanted out. The awfulness of what lay ahead was more than he thought he could bear. He plead with God to find another way. We don’t know how much time expired between Jesus’ request and his recommitment to yield to God’s will. We just know that this was a brutal time for Jesus.
Once Jesus resolved his ambivalence about following through on his commitment, things began to happen quickly. The soldiers came. Judas betrayed Jesus; surely the disciples were stunned. Jesus watched as the disciples flee, and he was left alone with those who would do with him as they wished.
Then came the hostility of the crowds, the false accusations, the cowardice of those who should have protected, the total disrespect, the injustice of a mock trial. The crown of thorns penetrated his skull, the force of the lash laid his flesh bare, causing rivulets of blood to make their way down his legs and collect in a pool on the floor. The thirst, the spit in his face, the unspeakable agony; and then came the final blow.
After a horrific night of suffering, the dawn was about to break. Jesus heard the crowing of a rooster, and he looked up. He saw Peter. And Peter saw him, and Peter remembered. Peter fled into the night, filled with agony and the knowledge of having failed his word and the test of his faithfulness. He wept bitterly. Jesus now was truly alone.
The walk to the killing field was more than Jesus could bear. He received help. He was laid out on the cross, nails were driven through his hands and feet, and the cross was lifted up and dropped into the hole. His whole body was aflame with pain. He could hardly breathe; he was thirsty. He saw his mother whose own heart was filled with anguish.
But then came the most devastating pain of anything Jesus had ever encountered and had not anticipated. Until this time Jesus could escape to the mountains to pray, to be ministered to by the Father. He could find renewed energy and clarity of the vision that propelled him forward. This time it was not to be.
Judas’ betrayal was one thing. Peter’s denial was another. But now on the cross Jesus felt totally alone, totally abandoned. All he could do was to cry out in desperation: “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?” I suspect that God himself wept at the depth of pain and despair experienced by his Son. It didn’t take long then before Jesus was dead.
So ends the story of the pain and suffering of Jesus. It is a story we often pass over too quickly so that we can get to the story that follows, for that is a story with a happy ending.
I thank God for the story of Jesus’ pain, for in it we come to a full understanding that Jesus has experienced our pain, and that he walks with us in all circumstances of life. We understand the lengths to which Jesus went to reconcile us to himself. And thank God for the story that follows. For in these stories we find the God of justice, the God of love and the God who desires that we, all of us, find our way home to him.
Larry Nikkel chairs the USMB Board of Faith and Life. He and his wife, Elaine, live in Wichita, Kan., where they attend First MB Church. Nikkel was president of Tabor College for nine years, 1998-2007, and prior to that worked in the mental health field for more than 30 years.