The Christian and Pain
Posted by: Bishop David Walker
THE CHRISTIAN AND PAIN – Jesus on Calvary
Pain is a reality in the life of every human being. It has a positive role to play, and can alert us to issues that need to be attended to. However, it can have a debilitating effect as well, and there can be times when pain is such that it prevents us from facing situations in the way that we would normally do so. Often, the issue is not pain itself, but how we respond to it and handle it Our attitude to pain and suffering can be determined by many things. In the Christian tradition, one’s attitude has often been determined by one’s attitude to the painful, suffering death of Jesus on the cross. Such an important event, central to the Christian faith, must inevitably affect the way we approach suffering and pain. To appreciate the Christian attitude to pain and suffering we need to begin with the event of Calvary.
The cross of Jesus stands at the heart of the Christian religion and is the symbol of its deepest meaning. The central figure on Calvary is Jesus, and it is he who gives meaning to the event. The important thing to remember about Calvary is not what they did to Jesus, but what Jesus did. What they did to Jesus, they did to two other people that day. What Jesus did was unique; it was the giving of himself to his Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” The real event of calvary is not understood by looking at the external circumstances. Only in the heart of Jesus can its true meaning be found. It is not the external suffering and cross that is the key, but what is taking place in the heart of Jesus. It is this that gives meaning to the event of Calvary.
The personal struggle in the garden of Gethsamene the night before his death reveals what was in the heart of Jesus. “If it be possible let this chalice pass from me, but let not my will but thine be done. “Jesus wrestles with the consequences of surrendering himself to the Father, and decides that he must go on, despite the cost. Sometimes the decision to do something is more difficult to make than the following through with it in practice. The scene in the Garden must always be seen as giving a deep insight into the meaning of the cross for Jesus. It shows that the real event is what was taking place in the heart of Jesus. It reveals the cross as central to the interplay between Jesus and his Father, and shows it to be an act of love for the Father. The cross is not just an isolated event in the life of Jesus, but rather a climactic one, in which the attitude of heart which characterized his life is clearly exposed.
I am distinguishing here between the external circumstances of the event in which Jesus surrenders himself to the Father, and the actual giving of himself, which is something that takes place in his heart. The latter must always be seen as the more important and the thing which gives meaning to the event. The latter is the substance, the former accidental.
The cross, then, as a symbol, is the sign of the more important element of the event what took place in the heart of Jesus, the loving self-surrender to the Father. The cross is the symbol of total self-giving in love. It is true that total self-giving is not easy, and that it can at times involve great personal pain and suffering. However, the cross is not to be seen simply as the symbol of suffering, as has often been done. The suffering is not the key focus, it is the loving self-giving that is the key.
If we examine the early Christian theology and depictions of Jesus, we do not fmd the emphasis on the sufferings of Jesus that emerge later in the medieval period. Early depictions of the cross do not have the suffering figure of Jesus on it, and as late as the fourth century, we had the cross presented encrusted with jewels. The cross is a symbol of triumph, a symbol of what was achieved by Jesus on the cross. The focus on the suffering dimension is the result of a preoccupation of a later age.
Imitation of Jesus has always been an important element of the Christian life. The Gospels themselves present Jesus as the model of the Christian way, as the one who is to be imitated. It is a sound principle. However, it is important that this imitation is based on a proper understanding of Jesus. It has happened at times, and still does, that in imitating Jesus people have seized on accidental elements of his life, rather than on those things which are the core of his religious experience. Because the cross has been so central to our understanding of Jesus, it has been singled out especially for imitation. However, it is the external circumstances, the suffering and pain, which came to be singled out in the period prior to our own age, and which has passed down to us. Really, imitation of these in themselves is irrelevant.
The practice adopted in some countries of being nailed to a cross at Easter really does not capture the mystery of Calvary at all. It focuses on the accidental and misses the point of the whole event. If the focus is on suffering and pain, these become sought-after realities in themselves. Pain becomes the test of love, and is sought after for its own sake: the more pain, the more love. This leads to a distortion of the Christian approach to love.
What then does the imitation of Jesus mean? How do we imitate the central issue of the life of Jesus, which is laid bare for us on Calvary? We do it by imitating what was in the heart of Jesus. It is what was in his heart that matters. Calvary is about the dispositions in the heart of Jesus as he gives himself completely to the Father. These were the dispositions present in his heart during his life, dispositions which dominated his whole life on earth. To imitate them is to have in ones own heart an attitude of self-giving to the Father, which manifests itself always in life, and makes every event a Calvary, an act of total self-love to the Father. There will be difficulties in life and at times the act of total self-love will cost dearly. There will be pain and suffering. However, the presence of these things is not the measure of love. It is what is in the heart as we live through them that reveals the meaning of the event as a loving act.
The final act of Jesus on Calvary sums up the attitude of love present throughout his whole life. He is faithful to the end. Death is a reality which reveals what life is about. The imitation of Jesus extends particularly to that last moment, in which the final, most definitive, act of total self-giving to our heavenly Father is made. At death, pain is not the issue, but death itself. As we approach death, the important issue is to make this moment the great event of self-giving to the Father with Jesus. It is a time to focus, or re-focus, the attitudes of a lifetime. Pain can be an obstacle to this, and should be removed if it can be in order to let this primary focus come through. Sometimes it cannot be, and one must then incorporate it as part of that final self-giving. However, the pain is accidental to the self-giving, and one must not consider the pain to be the measure of the self-giving. At times this has happened, and still happens. It only obscures the real meaning of pain, and the real meaning of death. Death itself is the great moment of self-giving; the type of death, the accidents of the death, should not obscure this basic point.
The relationship between love and pain needs to be seen clearly. The relationship of marriage will at times involve suffering as one works to give oneself totally in love. However, to inflict pain, or bear pain unnecessarily to show one’s love would clearly be wrong. You don’t just suffer to prove your love, even though the expression of that love at times does involve suffering. There is pain involved in the birth of a child, but to focus on the pain alone without the of the joy of the birth is inappropriate, and to insist on enduring the pain when it is not necessary is surely a wrong emphasis.
To-day, there are many means offered by medicine and other sciences to relieve pain. To insist on pain when it is not necessary is more proper to the sadist than to the Christian. To make pain for its own sake an expression of love is an aberration rather than a constructive approach, and to do so on the pretext of imitating Jesus is a travesty of the Christian religion. Doing lovingly what needs to be done can bring its own pain and suffering, without manufacturing them needlessly. To deliberately seek out pain or to refuse to remove it, in order to imitate the crucified Jesus, is to fail to understand what imitation of the crucified Jesus really means.
Christianity means love, a love that can be expressed in many ways. While at times pain can be involved in the expression of this love, it is by no means essential to it, and to define Christian love in terms of it is to do a terrible injustice to what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Love is doing loving things even when it costs us to do them. It is not inflicting, or bearing, pain and suffering unnecessarily
Bishop David L.Walker DD, M.Th.(Lond)