All human suffering is (directly or indirectly) the result of human sin. It stems originally from Adam’s original disobedience in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:16-19). This makes it Man’s fault, not God’s; and so it is surely our responsibility to sort out the mess that we have made of God’s good creation. And yet God does not stand apart from His suffering world, yelling out instructions and criticisms from a safe distance. He actually got involved in our problems; He came and got His feet muddy… and His hands bloody.
Jesus was “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” (Isaiah 53:3) He was born into poverty, not wealth. He belonged to a despised and oppressed nation. He knew bereavement (His father Joseph appears to have died while He was relatively young). He chose to walk the road of suffering and death (Philippians 2:5-8). During His ministry, He was relentlessly criticised (Luke 15:2) and slandered (Matthew 10:24,25). Eventually He was betrayed by a close friend (Luke 22:48), mocked and humiliated by His enemies, and finally tortured to death. No-one deserved suffering less than Jesus; yet everything that His enemies did to Him – the false accusations, the beatings, and the cruel taunts – He endured patiently, without complaint or retaliation (I Peter 2:23).
Through experiencing grief and pain, Jesus learned the full meaning of obedience (which is not real obedience unless and until it costs). And so He became able to sympathise with us weak and fallible human beings (Hebrews 2:18). He wept over the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11:33-35), and over the fate of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). He fought against the enemy of the human race, healing sicknesses and rebuking prejudice and injustice (Acts 10:38).
The culmination of this life of obedience was His death by crucifixion (probably the most painful and humiliating means of execution ever devised by man). As He contemplated what was about to happen, in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-48), Jesus passed through all the phases of a normal human’s response to suffering: despair (v38), bargaining (“if possible…” – v39), resignation (“as you will” – v39), and eventual acceptance (“may your will be done” – v42). He knows exactly what it is like to suffer. He has been there.
As so often with our own sufferings, those of Christ served more than one purpose. They achieved our redemption from sin; but they are also held up to us as an example to follow (I Peter 2:21). From His life we can see that the suffering of others, in all its many forms, is to be fought against at all levels. But this very struggle will inevitably mean personal suffering for ourselves, and we must be prepared to embrace and absorb it. A daunting prospect – but He does not ask anything of us that He has not done Himself! Because Jesus was ready and willing to suffer for us, we who have reaped the benefits of that suffering must be ready and willing to suffer for Him.
The life of Jesus teaches us one other very important fact about suffering: that evil does not have the last word. His sufferings were the path to glory (Hebrews 12:2); His crucifixion was followed by His coronation (Acts 5:30,31). For Him, death was not the end, but the prelude to a glorious new life (John 12:24,25). And it will be the same for us (Romans 8:17; II Corinthians 4:17).