During Holy Week, particularly on Good Friday, we recall the last moments in Jesus’ life leading up to and including his crucifixion. Through his suffering and death (i.e., his Passion), Jesus atoned for our sins and merited our salvation.
Reflecting on Jesus’ Passion, I found myself asking a question for which I didn’t have an immediate answer: “Why did Jesus have to suffer the way he did?” As the Son of God and the perfect sacrifice, would not his death alone have merited our salvation? Why did he have to go through such betrayal, humiliation, torture, and a horrible way of dying?
The following answers are unsatisfying.
- He had to add enough suffering on to his death to increase the value of his sacrifice.
RESPONSE: NO. The sacrifice of his life was sufficient to meet the just demands of the Law.
- He was fulfilling the prophecies about his suffering.
RESPONSE: NO. The reason the prophecies spoke of his suffering is because that was what was to happen, not the other way around.
- God knew how men would respond to Jesus, and he let Satan do his worst.
RESPONSE: YES, but it still doesn’t answer why. God didn’t have to have Jesus suffer the way he did.
Jesus suffered in such a violent way because it was God’s plan.
I don’t claim to understand the mystery of why God does what he does, but he has revealed enough about himself and his plan that we can draw some conclusions.
- Becoming a Christian does not give us a free pass when it comes to suffering. Only God knows why he has allowed the effects of sin and suffering to continue to this day, but he demonstrated his compassion and solidarity with us by taking on himself the worst of the worst of pain and suffering.
Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal which comes upon you to prove you, as though something strange were happening to you. I Peter 4:12
- Salvation is not only positional; it’s also restorative. Christians regularly speak of how, through the act of faith, one moves from a state of condemnation deserving death to a state of forgiveness and redemption. His debt of sin has been paid by Christ. This represents a change of position or state. But Jesus, though sinless, took upon himself and experienced every bit of the temporal effects of sin. He demonstrated not only that suffering can lead to redemption, but also showed us how to face the suffering we experience. God cares about how sin affects us in our lives, and he desires to heal and purify us. He uses suffering to help us grow in virtue, to let go of attachments that keep us from God, to learn to trust him, and to grow in love, compassion, and humility. God uses suffering to help us become like Jesus.
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son… Romans 8:28-29
- Suffering can have meaning and value. God does not cause us to suffer, just as he did not cause Jesus to suffer. But the Son of God, assuming our human nature, opened himself up to the same effects of sin, and his obedience and righteousness even attracted an evil response. Living in this sin-damaged world ensures that we will encounter pain in its various forms. To live and suffer as Jesus did, however, presents us with an opportunity to form a heroic response that God uses for our good and the good of others.
For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
I Peter 2:19-21
By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion.
Catechism of the Catholic Church 1505
- Whatever suffering we encounter in this life, we can never say that God does not care. The Father did not hold anything back. He let the full force of evil come against his own Son. He meant for his Son to experience the worst of the worst, and Jesus willingly accepted the Father’s will. We may not understand why God does not intervene in particular situations, but we can never say it’s because he doesn’t care. He made our miseries his own.
He took our infirmities and bore our diseases. Matt. 8:17; Is. 53:4.
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Romans 8:32
- Our story does not end in suffering and death. The atheist would have us believe this, and with it, cast aside all hope in despair. But Christ showed us the triumph of a life given to God with the hope of the Resurrection and Eternal Life.
But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. I Peter 4:13
Therefore, in Christ’s story of immense suffering, I find a profound message of hope.
Note: Scripture quotations are from the Revised Standard Version Second Catholic Edition.