Friday, August 21, 2009

God's Extreme

This past semester, a student mentioned that Buddhism and other religions provide solutions to the problem of suffering. He wondered if any religion simply accepted suffering as a fact of life, rather than seeking a remedy. I said that I thought Christianity was the closest one. Later on, in my mind, I made a round-about series of connections based on the student's question.

My family and I have several angel figurines around our house. Angels is a collectible for us, but also reassuring figures representing God’s care.

That said, a few years ago I was hired to write studies of selected passages from the Epistle to the Hebrews.(1) While angels are a popular expression of people’s faith, the Hebrews author argues for the superiority of Christ over angels. Many people who love angels (and the Bible) don't realize that a biblical author has taken a lot of time to put angels into a proper perspective.

Verses 1:4-14 is a complex set of arguments providing that, attractive as angels are, they are secondary to God’s son because God’s power and eternity have now been made known in the enthroned Son of God. The author quotes a series of scriptures (Deut. 32:43, Ps. 104:4, Ps. 45:6-7, Ps. 102:25-27, and Ps. 110) in his proof.

In Heb. 2:5-9, the author continues this theme. He quotes Psalm 8:4-6 to show that humans have a special place in creation. The phrase “son of man” in Heb. 2:6 provides a double meaning for human beings in general, and for Christ the messianic son of man.

The author’s congregation seems to have elevated angels to the similar status as Jesus, since angels do not die. But although angels are deathless, they cannot “taste death for everyone.” They cannot identify with our human condition in the same way as Jesus. The angels cannot share the bitterness of death, and thus they cannot be “crowned with glory” (verse 9). Thus the status of Jesus as a suffering human being (and lower-than-the-angels, in the words of Ps. 8) was actually the reason for his superiority and ultimate coronation.

In the next section, 2:10-18, the Hebrews author writes “it was fitting” that God, who is the creator and ruler of the universe, “should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings” (verse 10). Is it strange that the God through whom all things exist should be involved in suffering? After all, human beings are their welfare are of God‘s intimate concern. But human beings do experience suffering, temptation, and death.

For salvation to be “made perfect” (verse 10), it must be accomplished through full participation in humankind. In the Hebrew author’s argument, Jesus is depicted as the pioneer of salvation. Jesus “blazes a trail,” as it were, to establish a new salvation--because of his suffering!

Jesus shared our humanity and experiences, including death, so that he could defeat the power of death (verse 14-15). He breaks the devil’s power. Alluding to his earlier argument, the Hebrews author interjects that Jesus came not to save the angels but the descendants of Abraham (verse 16). Jesus’ humanity means that he fully empathizes and sympathizes with our weaknesses (verses 17-18). We can call on him knowing that he will understand.

Jesus is also our high priest, a key theme developed further in subsequent passages of Hebrews. Jesus’ sufferings qualify him to intercede for us as well as to help us. But his intercession as high priest was different: he himself was the sacrifice.

Back to my student’s question: in Christianity, God in Christ fully embraces suffering and experiences the extremes of suffering in violent death. You can say that Christianity offers a remedy for suffering, not a conquest of suffering through our own special efforts but through the salvation accomplished in Jesus.

Other scriptures approach suffering in a related way. For instance, the well-known Romans 5:3-5 upholds suffering as a means of personal and spiritual growth. Romans 8:18-25 indicates that suffering is inevitable and yet cannot compare with our future glory. 1 Peter contains several passages---1:6-9, 3:14-17, 4:12-13--which describes suffering as a potentially positive thing. Indeed, by suffering, we share in Christ's divine life!

The problem is, of course, that when we're in the midst of suffering, it's hard to feel spiritually and emotionally positive about the experience! It's hard for us to focus on the reality of Christ's power and salvation--unless that power can actually eliminate our suffering. Little wonder that, honestly, we prefer angels as ways to protect us from adverse circumstances.

1. "Hold Fast to the Faith," Daily Bible Study series, June, July, August 2004. Abingdon Press.

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