Good Friday is a day of bewilderment, of wondering, of straining to make sense of the death of our Lord. How could a day so dark and so seemingly hopeless, a day of such defeat, be a day anyone would call “good”? This struggle to understand the “good” of Good Friday was, in part, made more difficult because of my very narrow understanding of atonement and what the death of Jesus meant as far as salvation was concerned. I grew up—as many Protestants have—only hearing about the substitutionary aspect of Jesus’ death on the cross. He died so that I wouldn’t have to.
Because of that narrow focus, the only thing I could manage to feel when I thought about the cross was guilt.
Now, to be fair, I also learned about victory over death, of learning to follow Jesus’s example of obedience and sacrifice, and of the promise of resurrection that was only possible in the wake of death. Yet, even when I heard about victory, about Christ’s example, about the promise of new life, it was almost always within the conversation about Jesus’ death as a substitute for my own death.
In response, I didn’t feel free. I didn’t feel loved. I felt guilty that my sin put Jesus there. It wasn’t until many years later that I learned about other ways of talking about the cross, and those new kinds of conversations opened up the beauty of Good Friday in ways I never had seen before. I began to understand, as C.S. Lewis once wisely noted, that “a good many different theories have been held as to how works; what all Christians are agreed on is that it does work.”1
As I read Isaiah 53:4, a passage that has often caused readers to think about the cross of Christ, I began to think about the cross in a new way: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.”
The ministry of Jesus—from his humble birth to his death on the cross—was defined by compassion. The word compassion means “to suffer with” or “to suffer together.” Jesus suffered for us, and He suffered with us. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” And nowhere do we see Jesus’ ministry of compassion more clearly than on the cross, where he was willing to suffer with us even to the point of death. He was willing to enter into all of our sufferings—from the pain of birth, to the longings of hunger, to the throes of grief, and to the final gasps which lead to death. Jesus did these things, not to make us feel guilty, but to show us the lengths he was willing to go out of love for us.
On this Good Friday, the challenge is before us to see the goodness of our Lord who was willing to enter into our suffering and transform it. We see Jesus who did not hold back anything—even his own life—as he suffered with and for us. If we—the body of Christ—are to emulate Jesus, who was compassionate even to the point of death, ought we not to find compassion at the very center of our lives as well? Perhaps, the cross is not the place for us to feel guilty, but is the place for us to recognize the depth of God’s love and mercy for us. In so doing, we may find ourselves propelled outward to share God’s love and mercy for others by the compassionate way we live our lives.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity ↩
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Thank you for giving voice to the idea of divine empathy. I’ve had this in mind as the truer meaning of all the things we commonly say about blood — Jesus’ — and what it means for a long time. I have a pastor who is so fearful of us being mistaken for blood-atonement people that he has practically ordered every reference to blood in our liturgy and song changed to “love”, but I’ve known that was a cheap solution, watering down a faith that needs to be strong enough for suffering, too, not just filled with flowers and kindness to all just because it’s a good idea. We have needed to reclaim blood somehow because it’s what we’re made of, and there has to be some phenomenally Good News inside a faith that holds up a cross as its symbol. Empathy, God’s eye-popping empathy, really is the key. Thank you!