In the face of innocent suffering Jesus Christ did not deliver a neat philosophical discourse on suffering. He did not expound a spiritual method that would provide an escape route from suffering. Instead in a most awesome, tragic and dramatic action Christ embraced suffering and went through it. This is what we mean when we say that his death was redemptive. It is not so much that he redeemed us, but that he introduced the possibility that suffering itself could be a redemptive transaction. He did this not with words, but action. He accepted his sentence and went to an absurd, agonizing and humiliating death. Then at the darkest moment he proclaimed the most eloquent and moving sermon on suffering ever preached by crying, “It is finished!”
When examining any religion one must examine how they deal with this problem of suffering. By his example on the cross Christ shows us the authentic Christian way. Buddhism seeks to forget suffering and rise above it. Primitive religions offer sacrifices to gods who promise to deliver the devotee from suffering. Indeed, certain forms of Christianity also make this false promise. But they are wrong. Jesus Christ showed a new way. To be authentically human, to be really alive, to know we exist most fully, we have to scream. We have to go through suffering—not around it or over it. That’s what he meant when he said, “If any man would be my disciple he must take up his cross and follow me.”
Jesus realized that to be authentically human we cannot avoid suffering. Doesn’t the fact that we came into the world howling and will leave it whimpering suggest the same grim truth? Suffering is at the core of our existence. We cannot put it on to someone else as a scapegoat. Instead we have to face it. We have to go through the surgery of suffering in order to be healed. Jesus suffers and dies not to deliver us out of suffering, but to deliver us through suffering. He shows us that the only way to cope with suffering is to wrestle with it and pull a reversal. Christianity calls us to win a victory, not run from the fight.
The Christian life is not about picking spiritual posies and feeling happy in Jesus. It is about establishing a mysterious bond with this most mysterious of men. It means linking ourselves to Jesus Christ—who wrestled alone with the demon of suffering. In a strange and symbiotic relationship the Christian claims to plunge into the stark reality of Christ’s crucifixion. He does this through the mysterious rituals of religion, and through the mundane rituals of his own human suffering. In that crushing process the ordinary Christian begins to find redemption and release. This “salvation” Christians talk about is therefore not a season ticket on the bus to heaven. It is a summons to battle and the invitation to risk all to share in the chance of victory over evil.
Salvation as the final holiday in heaven has made Christianity into a sentimental and irrelevant nonsense. Many sensible people rightly see Christianity being sold as greeting card religion. They perceive it as a sentimental escape route from reality, when in fact it is an expressway into reality. It is true that many Christians use Christianity as a cozy cop out, but for every hundred who do, there are ten like Mother Teresa or the old priest in the next door parish who realize that at the heart of Christianity is the stark fact of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That absurd torture at the core of the Christian faith forces them to confront the reality of human existence. As these authentic Christians take on the burden of suffering they enter a new dimension of human reality—a dimension where everything is as hard and beautiful as diamonds; a dimension where they find divine power hidden in frailty and a tender humility that is radiant with glory.