At times, life consists of one painful episode after another. Troubles multiply, sometimes emotional, sometimes financial, sometimes with our health, and as they do, friends seem vanish like frost off the road on a sunny morning. At first we try to keep our chin up, to meet problems one by one, and ask for assistance in prayer. But things just get worse, and the most difficult thing of all seems to be that we often suffer not because we have been selfish or greedy, but because we are trying to do the right thing.
We have been told that God hears the prayers of those who ask in faith, and when those prayers seem to go unanswered, we quite naturally feel abandoned by God. Sometimes we get very angry at God. Afflicted by one painful illness after another, St. Teresa of Ávila shouted at God, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”
The Christian faith teaches that God was truly human, and endured every difficulty that confronts us in life. We sometimes forget this truth because we think that is somehow more pious to take a ‘plastic Jesus’ approach to Christ. We are conditioned by the sanitised respectability that masquerades as faith to find disrespectful the reality of a God who chose to become human, with all the messiness that implies.
The God who blows his nose and goes to the toilet is often particularly offensive to Muslims, understandably given our radically different perceptions of the nature of God’s revelation to humanity. It is less explicable that Christians are inclined to substitute a cartoon superhero Jesus for the glorious reality of a God who found his creation in humanity so wonderful that he became one of us, and died for us, suffering in life just as we do, because he loves us.
In Scripture, God is absolutely clear that following Christ will be the cause of many problems rather than a magic bullet for all our troubles. Jesus told the crowd in Caserea Philippi, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is easy to read on a page, but excruciatingly difficult to live out.
Sometimes Christians, especially those in a position of comfort or privilege, use this phrase as an excuse for the burdens they lay upon others so they can feel better about themselves. That can be the moment when our faith is no longer tenable. It is bad enough when we have tried our level best to be good Christians, and yet money is short, health is poor and the people who love us far away or unable to help.
When other Christians sneer that we would embrace our suffering if we were ‘real’ Christians, or not only refuse to help when we’re lying in the ditch, but pause to give us a good thump over the head with the Bible, it is only human for our faith to break. If you exist, God, how can you claim to be good when you’re singling me out for abuse? Why make all those promises to me when times were good, then disappear when the going got tough?
God has felt that way about God. “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” We are dying because of our faithfulness to God, probably for no purpose, and were sent to a painful execution by people who quoted the Scriptures endlessly while they arranged for us to be killed. Simon of Cyrene has long since gone home, and while it’s nice that the women of Jerusalem are there for us, there isn’t really a lot they can do to help.
The Christian life is too often reduced to an exercise in refusal to doubt. By that standard, even Christ fails. Doubt, disbelief, outright anger at God – these are inevitable stages of the Christian journey. For many, they may be the predominant stages. A Church that finds no room for those who follow these paths is a Church that is in danger of finding no room for Christ on the Cross.
It is often the doubter who pursues the establishment of God’s justice most energetically. It is often those whose capacity to believe in a doctrinally orthodox faith has been shattered by capricious cruelty and hardship who are left with the core of what it means to be in Christ – boundless, self-giving, love.
And for those of us who cling on to our faith by our fingernails despite the unfairness of the world and Pharisaism of the Church, Good Friday must be, despite its solemnity, a day of glory. Not just because this was the day when Christ destroyed death and paid the price for our sins, but because this was they day when Christ loved us enough to walk the path of pain and despair with us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” God knows, quite literally, what it is like.