Where Logic Meets Love

How I Began to Understand Jesus' Sacrifice

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

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How I Began to Understand Jesus' Sacrifice | Faith Permeating Life

I have a hard time conceptualizing extreme suffering.

Without having experienced it -- or anything close to it -- myself, I can't claim to understand what it's like to experience severe physical pain. I can't wrap my mind around the millions of children suffering from hunger and malnourishment. I can't feel the pain of all of the 9/11 victims.

This is why I struggle to have appropriate awe for Jesus' death.

For example, I went to see The Passion in theaters with a friend who cried during the movie, as did many other people. I just couldn't make myself feel whatever I was supposed to. I have no past experiences, no personal scale that I can attempt to magnify in order to feel in my body what it's like to be beaten raw. It's beyond my comprehension in the way that really understanding "a billion" in any real terms is beyond my comprehension.

This is something I felt guilty about for a long time, as if I really needed to feel Jesus' death in order to be a good Christian. I needed to comprehend how horrible it was in order to "appreciate" what He did.

But then there's the fact that, as Madeleine L'Engle points out in her book Two-Part Invention, Jesus suffered physically for maybe half a day, while her husband was in excruciating pain for months on end. We see God allowing Jesus to suffer as somehow justified because it had to happen -- to fulfill Scripture, to forgive our sins, to conquer death -- however you frame it, but we have no easy explanation for why people we know and love have to endure as much or more suffering.

A few years ago, when revisiting the Passion story during Holy Week, I suddenly had a realization that made it all click for me. Something that put Jesus' sacrifice in terms that made real, visceral sense to me.

Jesus' death was unjust. He was free from sin, yet He was treated like a criminal and killed for it.

And He didn't try to stop them. He didn't try to clear His name.

This realization was huge for me as a person who has generally lived my life in fear of getting in trouble. I've mentioned I'm a compulsive rule-follower. And that my worst fear is being wrongly accused of a crime, arrested, and tortured. Truly, as uncomfortable as it is to get caught doing something I shouldn't be doing, few things shake me to the core like getting yelled at for doing something that I didn't know I shouldn't do, or that I didn't even do.

You can bet that if someone tried to throw me in jail for a crime I didn't commit, I would fight tooth and nail. I would get a lawyer. I would do research. I would do anything I possibly could to clear my name and get that stain off my reputation.

What did Jesus do? He let people arrest Him, mock Him, torture Him, and kill Him, even though He did nothing wrong. All He'd ever done was told the truth, and they hated Him for it and found a way to get Him killed. And He just took it. Because he knew it was God's will.

I don't know if I can understand the depth of love it takes to do that. I honestly don't know if I would be able to put myself through that -- not just the physical torture, but the wrongful, completely unjust accusations and consequences -- for my husband. My husband! And Jesus did it for everyone, even the people who couldn't give a damn about Him. Even the people who did it to Him. He suffered for them, and asked His Father to forgive them.

Holy. Freaking. Crap.

That is a love beyond my comprehension. But I do begin to have a sense now of just how great His love must be to do what He did.

This, at the root, is why I am a Christian. You can talk morality and theology all you want, but when it comes down to it, I see a man who came to tell us that loving God and loving each other were the most important things we could do, and then showed us what true selfless love looks like, and that it is greater than death.



  1. I think so often Christianity focuses on the wrong parts of the Atonement and Christ's actions. You're so right: it isn't the physical pain that made His crucifixion extraordinary (though, I am sure the pain was extreme, as well). It's the circumstances. The fact that it was unjust and completely unwarranted is what makes it so emotional for me.

    Likewise, culturally we tend to focus on the fact that "Christ died for our sins." And while that is true, it is such a minute portion of what He actually did. He did not just "die" for our sins- He lived a perfect life knowing that He would eventually die and suffer for our sins. In a very real sense, every second of every day of His life was for us. Not just the last few hours (or the last few years, even), but the whole thing. And THAT is a monumental sacrifice.

    1. I love what you said about His whole life and ministry being for us, not just His death. It give me chills just thinking about it.

      Speaking of mistaken focuses (foci?), one of the things that has really struck me reading through the Gospels in the Message is how Jesus kept saying that the most important thing was His teaching, and He would heal people out of compassion from them but tried to keep it quiet because He wanted people to listen to His message and not just come to Him for miracles. And yet that's exactly what happened, more and more people kept bringing their sick to be healed, completely missing that this life is temporary and that He was talking about something much greater. And then, infuriatingly, about half the Gospels are dedicated to recounted these miracles while at other times we just hear that "Jesus taught the people for hours." What more might we know of His teachings if people hadn't gotten so fixated on Jesus as a healer?

  2. Thank you so much for this Jessica. I relate perfectly to this and it's wonderful to hear it come from someone else - I have always struggled to, in your words, have appropriate awe for Jesus' death, and it's definitely something I still feel very guilty about.. like maybe I don't really believe because I've never cried; like maybe I'm not 'doing Christianity right' because I still don't even begin to grasp the magnitude of what happened. I know it's true but it's like I can't make it true for me in a way that really strikes me. And then I feel awful for not feeling anything because surely I should.

    I really appreciate your honesty in sharing this and it gives me a lot of hope to know I'm not alone. And hope that at some point I can get the kind of realisation I need, like you did.

    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your honesty and letting me know I'm not alone in feeling this way. I wasn't really sure how people would react to this post, so I'm so glad to hear that it resonated with you and that you understand this difficulty.

      There are so many different ways to feel like we're not "doing Christianity right," aren't there? That's why I have to always bring myself back to love as the focus to help guide me.

  3. "I see a man who came to tell us that loving God and loving each other were the most important things we could do, and then showed us what true selfless love looks like, and that it is greater than death."

    I love this description of Jesus. :)

    That's all!

    1. It all boils down to something simple yet amazing, doesn't it? :)

  4. Great article! I agree, there is too much emphasis on Jesus' physical suffering and death, too little on his teachings and his point that this life is not the important thing and his example of self-sacrifice in the sense of letting himself be reviled.

    I realized this Easter that the Carly Simon song "Be With Me", which I've loved for 30 years, is really expressing what I feel God through Jesus says to us. Here are the lyrics, which don't look like much; it's a simple little song, but it just croons love and warmth and acceptance of us in our right relation to everything else--"feel as big and as small as you are."

    In church yesterday I was struck again by the Gospel in which Mary Magdalene meets the resurrected Jesus but doesn't recognize him until he says her name. I think many of us, often, are looking for a different Jesus than the one who is right there with us.

    1. "I think many of us, often, are looking for a different Jesus than the one who is right there with us."
      Yes. How true is this!

      And you bring up a good point, about how much Jesus emphasized that this life should not be our sole focus. Yes, He understands our pain because He went through extreme pain and suffering... but if we focus simply on His ability to empathize with how hard this life is, then we're probably missing the point.

  5. I was just having the exact same worry...thank you soooo much for this article!!!!

    May God Bless you and your family! <3


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