An excerpt from the essay "The Suffering God and the Culture of Death," published in volume 2, issue 2 of The Christendom Review in 2010, an essay now included in Andy Nowicki's 2015 book Notes Before Death: Three Essays.
by Andy Nowicki
How to begin to describe the ramifications of this strange and moving idea (the Incarnation), which is the essence of the Christian faith? One is at a loss, because the profundity of the concept is beyond all words, and this is ironic, since it is all about a “Word” (in Greek, “Logos”) allegedly “made flesh.”
What does it say about the human race that God would consent to take human form? What does it say about human suffering that God became man in order to suffer the humiliation and grief, the mental and physical pain, the ignoble punishment of a common criminal, being flogged, stripped, and nailed to a cross to die?
Let us consider the full implications of the Incarnation in Christian theology.
Yes, it is striking that God would become man, that he would moreover take the form of a lowly Galilean carpenter, that he would not be born to a life of earthly glory but instead one of poverty and hardship—from his difficult birth, exiled to a stable because there was “no room at the inn,” to his horrifying and ignominious death. That God would take such form and choose to endure such things is a wonder. But it goes deeper than that. The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation does not merely insist that Christ is God in human “garb,” as it were. He isn’t pure, transcendent spirit in the mere guise of a man. In fact, Christ is a man. He isn’t just fully divine; he is completely human as well.
What does it mean to “become” human? To become totally human? To be sure, this question must be qualified; Jesus wasn’t fully human in the sense we humans, in our current fallen state, commonly understand ourselves, because he was without sin. Yet even without sin, a man cannot be fully happy in this life. As God, Christ must have known much more than the average person, he must have had those moments of unspeakable sadness and dread familiar to every human being. He must have feared pain and death, as we all do. What is more, he must have known, first-hand, the human propensity to doubt. Just as even the most devout of believers occasionally wonders if he truly believes, so God himself in the flesh—even he—must have doubted himself at times. He must have felt abandoned by his Father in Heaven, as we all feel, in our lower moments, that God has forgotten us.
To be fully human is to know these things, to suffer in this manner. To be human is not merely to suffer, but to wonder if one’s suffering has any point or purpose; to be human is to be tortured by the suspicion that even in the midst of one’s suffering, one suffers for nothing, and one’s suffering signifies nothing. And to suspect that one’s suffering is ultimately meaningless is to suffer in the very worst way. No ordeal, however arduous, is unmanageable if one knows that things will be better once it is over, i.e., that the suffering serves a redemptive purpose. But to suspect that nothing will be gained from one’s pain, that in fact all will be lost, is to know the worst possible pain.
To suffer as man suffers, Christ (who was human in every way, except sin) had to take on every conceivable sort of human pain. This must have included the suffering one endures when one wonders if his suffering is truly in vain. Yet how could Christ have suffered in this way if, being God, he knew that that his own suffering was for the good, in fact the highest good: the redemption of mankind? Christ—as God—must have known this fact, and at the same time—as man—must have suspected that it was all a lie. Thus his cry on the cross, echoing the words of the despairing psalmist: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ, being God and being without sin, was not like any of us, yet he was exactly like us in that he suffered, and in that his suffering must have hurt him to an unbearable extent, to the point where he may have wondered if he really were the Son of God after all, whose death brought the gift of eternal life to mankind, or just a wretched man forced to endure torture and execution by the powers-that-be at the behest of his own people, one whose short life would be forgotten and whose bloody death would be meaningless.
At this point, the almost incomprehensible notion of God taking human form, becoming flesh and blood, turning into a true “Emmanuel” (“God with us”) in every sense of the term, takes yet another strange twist. The idea of God being willing to suffer in such a way that he even feels doubt about his own providence poses a baffling theological conundrum. It’s hard enough to understand how this is possible; to us it seems “schizophrenic” that one could have a divine and a human identity simultaneously, let alone be possessed of divine certainty and human near-despair all at once. Yet we can suspend our logic-bound objections, to a degree, when we recognize that God is able to do many things that we presume to be impossible. But when we think that God would abase himself, to such an extent that he would even know how it feels to doubt his own providence—to doubt, as it were, himself, not just as a matter of “low self-esteem,” but in a much more total and profound sense, to doubt himself as God, to be tempted to despair in the truth of his own divine identity—this cannot easily be fathomed. Yet if it were not so, how could his choice of words—“My God, why have you forsaken me?”—be explained? And how could his choice of words be seen as extraordinary unless the utterer of these words were not simply a man, but God himself in the flesh?
|Christ Carrying the Cross by Hieronymus Bosch|
When the passion of Christ is seen in this light, and Christ is held to be divine as well as human, then we begin to see those troubling Old Testament passages in a different respect. If God can be, and in some manner always has been this suffering man (since God is eternal and his essence doesn’t change over time), then God doesn’t only have sympathy for us, but empathy as well. He knows, from experience, what it is to be the least among us. Thus, we can presume that he is truly “God with us,” the “us’ being humanity, and most present in the most suffering, most rejected, reviled, marginalized, ostracized, and oppressed of people. We can presume this includes the men, women, and children so callously wiped out by God’s own people in those numerous Old Testament passages. God willed the deaths of these people; yet (through Christ) we become aware that God also stood “with” them; he knew what it was to suffer as they suffered—not just in an abstract sense, but by experience, because he had suffered in just such a manner himself.
Similarly, we can be sure that God today stands “with” those most vulnerable in our culture of death. Even as he allows the strong to murder the weak, most egregiously through the plague of legalized abortion, God nevertheless stands in a profound solidarity with these suffering souls, because he suffered, and in some way eternally suffers, just as they have.
It is due to this understanding of Christ, the suffering God, that we obtain perspective on the divine sanction of the culture of life. Empathy requires understanding, and understanding requires experience. Through the pain of Christ, God understands, and has always understood, our pain. Thus, in the midst of a raging culture of death, he is able to redeem humanity and bring new life, to resurrect our fallen spirits and restore us to our intended design as living images of our divine Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”
Andy Nowicki, co-editor of Alternative Right, is the author of eight books, including Under the Nihil, The Columbine Pilgrim, Considering Suicide, and Beauty and the Least. He occasionally updates his blog when the spirit moves him to do so. Visit his Soundcloud page.