A NEW CREATION

Without Jesus, God does not understand suffering, sorrow, or death. That is one side of the coin. The other is that God, without Jesus, does not understand joy or relief or friendship.

We tend to think of the work of Jesus only in terms of the accomplishment of something – Redemption? Atonement? Reconciliation? Salvation? But these are just words. – on earth. But his accomplishment was rather to incorporate earth into heaven, to enlarge and deepen heaven, to meld the eternal and the non-eternal into something new.

The God-man didn’t endure suffering and thereby remove it from us. He incorporated suffering into divinity, and thereby gave it eternal substance, gave it eternal importance. And so also of death and disappointment and all that side of the human coin; but we must also add the other side, the side of laughter and delight and birth.

If we are careful to remember that these are also just words, we may say that Christ sanctified life, and mean that he made it saintly, made it heavenly. He gave and gives life meaning.

But we must not forget that, in so doing, he made heaven earthly and accessible. That’s why we can pray. That’s why we can endure God’s presence.

God’s accomplishment, in Christ, was self-sacrificial, the way a marriage is sacrificial of independence. And in the same sense, it was and remains exploratory and daring and unpredictable.

GOD’S PROBLEM

We speak glibly of God’s omnipotence. We say with some Scriptural authority that God can do anything, although in a pedantic mood we might concede that what we mean is that God can do anything that can be done, thereby constraining God under the laws of logic while still allowing free rein under the laws of physics.

But there are many things Jesus could not do. He could not heal those who lacked faith in him (Matthew 6: 5); he could not save Jerusalem from the consequences of its folly, although he longed to do so (Mathew 23: 7); he could not instill faith in his followers (Matthew 8: 26); he could not persuade the scribes and Pharisees of the errors of their ways (Matthew 23: 13 et passim). The Gospels are as rich with things Jesus could not do as with the things he could.

Was this because Jesus was a man as well as God? No. It was the man-God revealing God. Was it because he could have done them, if he had chosen? No, he never has the choice.

God can only do what love can do, and love – we learn from Jesus – can only offer: it cannot compel. It can indicate, but not bind. It can sacrifice the self, but not the other.

To put this another way, God cannot act contrary to God’s own nature. God cannot think, imagine, hope or desire contrary to God’s own nature. And therefore, God cannot choose contrary to that nature. In this regard, any human child is more powerful than God.

That is God’s problem.

TRANSPARENT JOY

There are small things – small but universal – that spring from a deeper level than words, and therefore from a deeper level than understanding. Spontaneous smiling is an example. We all smile at the antics of babies, at hummingbirds, at memories shared with old friends. These things reach down, down inside us and engage something there, some transparent joy at the foundation of our nature, where wordy self-consciousness hasn’t yet usurped the place of God.

The Fall is not the death of that joy, but rather its desertion.

MY WORDS ARE LIFE

 

The meaning of waves is the ocean. That sounds like a poetic way of speaking, but it really isn’t. The concept of meaning is itself undefined, and there is no literal use of it to contrast with any other sort of use. We can inquire of the meaning of birds, or of a symphony, or of creation, or of an historical event with just as much legitimacy as we inquire after the meaning of a word.

The ocean births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs its waves. Everything in the ocean is part of every one of its waves. Everything of all oceans past and future is part of every present wave. The meaning of waves is the ocean.

The meaning of what you say is your life. Your words are the waves of your life. This is not a poetic way of speaking, unless all language is poetry. Your life in all its complexity and contrariety births, supports, shapes, exhausts and reabsorbs your words.

We do not ‘understand’ the meaning of Christ’s words by acquiring their definition, nor even by fitting them into some community of other words, some body of doctrine. The meaning of Christ’s words is the life of Christ, which is life itself.

BLESSED ARE THEY WHO MOURN

We’re allowed to experience sorrow because it removes our shallowness, it deepens us to where we can begin to feel spiritual sympathy.

Sorrowing and suffering are not the same. They’re not even words from the same reality. Suffering is of the flesh, sorrow of the spirit.

Sorrow is a spiritual adjustment to the loss of a source of love and joy. Those who have never been loved cannot experience sorrow.

Blessed are they who mourn.

THE ATONEMENT

Sin is such an old fashioned word, a ‘churchy’ word, if you will. I’ve tried not to use it very much, and instead spoken of causing harm to others, or more adequately of willful behavior that runs contrary to the various alternative ways that God – who is love – would have prescribed in the situation. But that’s a very long-winded way of speaking, and to unpack its various elements is a task for another occasion. So for the sake of understanding Christ’s atonement, we’ll speak in terms of good, old-fashioned sin.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our sins according to the riches of His grace…

During His earthly ministry, Jesus forgave people their sins, and as we have seen, that means he accepted the harm those sins caused God. And that must mean that through the work of His ministry and His death and resurrection – by means of divine decree that we cannot possibly hope to understand this side of heaven, if even there – He accepted the harm done to God by all people, everywhere, for all time.

This is a sobering thought, isn’t it? We do not like to think of Jesus as still suffering, but I’m afraid that is what we must think. The pain of every cruelty still reaches to heaven and adds to Christ’s unthinkable burden. And yet isn’t that exactly what He said to Paul during his apocalypse on the road to Damascus: Why do you persecute me?

I have spoken of the great privilege and responsibility Christians have to forgive, meaning that when we forgive someone for sinning against us, we not only begin the healing process of softening that person’s spirit, but we also accept the burden of the harm that person causes to God. Our forgiveness is also God’s forgiveness.

But we may also put this in terms of relieving Christ’s burden. When we, as Christians, accept the divine suffering from wrongdoing, we are, to that extent, taking the weight off Christ’s shoulders and placing it on our own. On becoming Christians, we are given a share of Christ’s own spirit for that very purpose, to extend the reach of Christ’s forgiveness into the world. Just as children, maturing within a household, are asked to relieve the burdens of their elders, so we, maturing as Christians, are asked to relieve Christ’s burden.

When Paul wrote on many occasions of sharing in Christ’s suffering, this is surely what he was communicating. Christ’s suffering is ongoing. Our privilege is to share it, and the proof of our fidelity, of our brotherhood and sisterhood with Christ, is our commitment to relieving Christ’s burden. That is the yoke He invites us to share.

This will be a difficult teaching for those who think of following Christ, of being Christians, mainly in terms of receiving benefits. There are benefits involved, to be sure. But the chief ‘benefit’ is not a benefit at all in worldly terms. It is the benefit of suffering.

Becoming a Christian is, at its very heart, not a promotion, but a recruitment, a recruitment into the sufferings of Christ.

THE LIMITATION

When Jesus forgave the paralyzed man, he was forgiving the sins of a stranger; he was forgiving the man for harm he caused to others, not to Jesus himself.

And similarly for the immoral woman in Luke’s account. It could perhaps be supposed that he was familiar with her from another occasion, but not that she had caused him harm on that occasion. Jesus was, again, forgiving her for harm she had done to others, not personally to Jesus.

In these two separate events Jesus was acting as God Incarnate. The harm these two had done had in fact also been done to Jesus, as God incarnate. That’s why Jesus could forgive them, even though he had not humanly participated in whatever their sinful behavior had been.

But it goes without saying that we Christians are not God incarnate. Our privilege does not extend to the forgiveness of strangers. How could it, since we by definition have not been harmed by them?

The magnitude of the human privilege of extending divine forgiveness is staggering, but its scope is limited. It is limited to the forgiveness of those who have done us harm.

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The Christian privilege of forgiving sins is not innate to them because of who they are – as it was innate to Christ – but rather an authority vested in them by virtue of something they have done, namely, committed their lives to the service of Christ.

A Christian’s authority may be thought of as something like the authority of a king’s ambassador. An ambassador’s authority exists within prescribed limits, prescribed applications. An ambassador may arrange treaties by the King’s vested authority, but an ambassador’s eldest child does not automatically become the next in line to the throne, should the king die. That privilege lies with the king’s oldest child, simply by virtue of who the child is.

So also, in the spiritual nature of things, a Christian does not suffer from the behavior of strangers, as Christ did. Christians, like non-Christians, suffer only from the harm done to themselves, and can forgive only that harm. To extend our image, Christians are the ambassadors of God’s forgiveness for the harms done to us, not the harms strangers do to each other.

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None of this is to deny that we can be harmed as, so to say, collateral damage by those who are not targeting us directly. The mother suffering from wrongful harm inflicted on her child is a good example. But even in cases like these, the only harm the mother can forgive is the harm done to her, not the harm done to her child.

Our language obscures this spiritual truth. The mother might readily say to her child’s assailant: “I forgive you for what you did to my child.” But that has no bearing on the child’s own grievance. The primary debt created by that grievance is owed to the child, and that debt only the child can forgive. The mother’s forgiveness cancels only the debt owed to her, not the debt owed to her child.

And similarly for all other cases – many much more subtle that this one – of personal harm suffered from the maltreatment of others.