Easter is just around the corner and my heart is overflowing with appreciation for the death and resurrection of my Lord and Savior. Who Jesus is and what He did seems more precious to me now than ever. Once again, as I focus on the story of the cross, I am captivated by the wonder of it all.
For the first time in a few years, I decided this week to dust off my copy of “The Passion of the Christ” and watch it once again—only to discover that the DVD was missing. I had let it sit on the shelf too many years in a row. So I went out and bought another copy so I could once again see how Jesus bought me.
I knew it would be hard to sit through. It is not an easy movie to watch. The temptation is always there to give it a miss because of the graphic nature of some of the scenes. (Isn’t that the point?) But I felt like this year, more than ever before, I needed to break up the unplowed ground of my heart and pray that God would give me a fresh revelation of my salvation. This is one powerful movie. Even though you know what is coming, it still packs a punch, laying bare all kinds of emotions.
It really is the greatest story of all time. None of us could have thought this up—and if we tried it would have been way too sanitized and predictable. This is one of the things I like about the Biblical narrative throughout: it tells the story warts and all, and does it in such a way that often goes counter with human reasoning.
The doctrine of the atonement continues to draw controversy. The most recent (and most outrageous) objection I have read is brought forward by Brian McLaren and his circle of friends in the Emergent movement. They have labeled the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as “cosmic child abuse.” After all, what kind of father would expose his son to such shame and torture just to have a way to vent His own anger? It almost sounds reasonable when put that way, but I fear this objection betrays a very weak understanding of both sin and the character of God as well as the situation at hand.
At this point I will hand the ball of to CS Lewis to offer what I consider to be one of the best-ever explanations of all three:
“Now what was the sort of “hole” man had gotten himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor – that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender – this movement full speed astern – is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here’s the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person – and he would not need it.”
Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off of if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. Very well, then, we must go through with it. But the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another. When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it. Now if we had not fallen, that would all be plain sailing. But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all – to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die. Nothing in God’s nature corresponds to this process at all. So that the one road for which we now need God’s leadership most of all is a road God, in His own nature, has never walked. God can share only what He has: this thing, in His own nature, He has not.
But supposing God became a man – suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was amalgamated with God’s nature in one person – then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God. You and I can go through this process only if God does it in us; but God can do it only if He becomes man. Our attempts at this dying will succeed only if we men share in God’s dying, just as our thinking can succeed only because it is a drop out of the ocean of His intelligence: but we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and he cannot die except by being a man. That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.”
But suffer He did! As a friend of mine wrote on Facebook recently:
“It is an amazing thing for us as Christians that such a terrible, heart breaking event 2000 years ago became the most pivotal moment of all time – and so we celebrate. Thank you Jesus!”
It is a bitter-sweet celebration, to be sure. One must wonder what crushed Jesus the most: the betrayal of friends, the physical wounds on the whipping post and the cross, or the tears in his despairing mothers’ eyes?
One scene in The Passion that moved me to tears was the flashback scene of Jesus in the carpenter shop with Mary. When she insisted that he wash his hands before coming to dinner, he playfully splashed some water in her face then leaned over and gave her a quick but very loving kiss on her cheek. All the love that could possible be expressed between a son and his mother was expressed exquisitely in the space of just a few seconds. In this rendition, Jesus had this memory of that encounter with his mother etched in His conscience— and He pulled it up when He really needed it for comfort. How often has that happened in my life and the life of countless others? When experiencing the bitter, the sweet is there to draw from.
Victor Frankl, author of the powerful book “Man’s Search for Meaning” that chronicles his experiences as a WWII concentration camp inmate at Auschwitz, touches upon this theme. He offers the thought that for everyone in a dire condition there is someone looking down, a friend, family member, or even God, who would expect not to be disappointed.
An example of Frankl’s idea of finding meaning in the midst of extreme suffering is found in his account of an experience he had while working in the harsh conditions of Auschwitz :
“… We stumbled on in the darkness, over big stones and through large puddles, along the one road leading from the camp. The accompanying guards kept shouting at us and driving us with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with very sore feet supported himself on his neighbor’s arm. Hardly a word was spoken; the icy wind did not encourage talk. Hiding his mouth behind his upturned collar, the man marching next to me whispered suddenly: “If our wives could see us now! I do hope they are better off in their camps and don’t know what is happening to us.”
That brought thoughts of my own wife to mind. And as we stumbled on for miles, slipping on icy spots, supporting each other time and again, dragging one another up and onward, nothing was said, but we both knew: each of us was thinking of his wife. Occasionally I looked at the sky, where the stars were fading and the pink light of the morning was beginning to spread behind a dark bank of clouds. But my mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way – in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory….”
In our Lord Jesus I see the perfect example of suffering-par-excellence. No one ever suffered like Jesus did. Everything about His suffering was redemptive. His example is etched forever in the corporate consciousness of the church, and no doubt served as a “flashback” of inspiration to the countless souls like Polycarp and Joan of Arc who have faced martyrdom through the centuries. One of my all time favorite verses is Hebrews 12:1-3, which fits perfectly here:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.