For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him.1 Peter 3:18-22
Humans have an understandable aversion to suffering. Who in their right mind wants to endure any suffering for any reason, not me. I work as a chaplain for a hospice agency. The hospice philosophy is to help the patient have a good death, and one of the ways this is accomplished is by ensuring that there is little or no suffering as best we can. In hospice, we holistically achieve this by treating the patient physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Here we are at the start of Lent, a season that has, as its focus, the suffering of Jesus, and in this pericope from 1st Peter we face it head-on. Suffering has been a hallmark for Christianity for most of history. There was, and still is, this idea that we must suffer as Christ suffered to be good Christians. Well, I don’t think that is necessary. There is also this mistaken idea that God wants us to suffer and that God causes us to suffer. Again, I don’t see it this way.
This notion that suffering is a spiritual disciple has led to all sorts of abuse by the church and by others for centuries. This type of theology has allowed pastors to counsel women to remain in abusive relationships and others to abuse themselves to become closer to Christ. This type of theology is offensive. Christ suffered not to bring more suffering upon us but to save us from eternal suffering.
As I mentioned, there is also this idea that God causes human suffering. If this were true and God did cause human suffering, which is often unpredictable and undeserved, God becomes an arbitrary God who does not appear to love us. Can we trust such a god? If God does cause some to suffer, then, by some perverse sense of logic, humans would have little motivation to intervene to stop that suffering. Is this why we feel we do not have to address the suffering of others?
What is needed is a better understanding of suffering. The text from 1st Peter reminds us that Jesus suffered terribly before he died on the cross. God did not cause his suffering; instead, it resulted from Christ’s faithfulness to his reconciling mission. By suffering and dying, Jesus defeated death and suffering.
Through his life, suffering, death, and resurrection, Jesus has become the one who walks with us. There is no experience, be it a tragedy, triumph, joy, or sorrow that is unknown to Christ. Even in our suffering, be it by accident or by design, Jesus is with us. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, says that “nothing is able to separate us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:39).
In hospice, my aim is to relieve the spiritual suffering that many of my patients experience. For some, there is a feeling that God has abandoned them and, because of something they have done in the past, God is causing their illness. Some will find comfort in confession and forgiveness, and some find comfort in the knowledge that God is with them, and through his own life, Jesus walks along with them and understands. My role is to bear witness to the love of God through the suffering of Jesus Christ in their lives.
As we enter this season of Lent, we should not forget Christ’s passion. Most of us want to skip over the suffering parts of the story and jump right to the joy of Easter, and that is understandable. But what about the garden, betrayal, arrest, trial, and the cross? These events are essential to the story and should be embraced and not skipped over. Understanding how and why Jesus suffered is as necessary to the story as the resurrection. Understanding that Jesus suffered helps me in those times of suffering to know that I am not alone.