I have always been attracted to the idea of Jesus Christ being God’s compassion since compassion means “to suffer with.” Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, and God suffering with us in sharing the human condition. But the downside of that, at least if it is left at that, is that the “Compassion” is a past action, and God cannot feel my pain, but merely empathizes (or sympathizes) with it, drawing on past recollections of the one time God took on the human condition and suffered with us. It is God doing what we are trained not to do in pastoral care; it is God saying “I know how you feel.”
But lately I’m wondering if the cross of Christ is more than Christ dying for our sins in the traditional sense that we were bad and could not pay the price for our own guilt, so Jesus took it upon himself to pay the price for us. Well, that part is not the “lately” part. I have always found a certain level of discomfort with the “substitutionary atonement” concept, or the “God as Divine Masochist” demanding that someone must be punished or killed to pay for an act of disobedience. Yet, I am still orthodox and I do find something that rings true about the concept of Christ dying on the cross for our sins.
So the “lately” part is what “dying for our sins” may mean. This question is complicated by the fact that some people take the Bible literally and some people do not. Some people believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures who lived in a paradise and “blew it” and some people do not. Some people see sin as being a moral rebellion against God and some people do not. Nevertheless, regardless of our understanding of sin and The Fall, whether we take these things literally or metaphorically, we all seem to retain an idea that suffering and sickness and death and other unpleasant and bad things are somehow a consequence of the reality of sin – whether that sin is something that entered into the world via Adam and Eve eating a piece of fruit, or whether it is just a valid description of the human animal not living up to its potential. The implication of this is that when we say that Christ died for our sins, we may be saying (whether we know it or not) that Christ died for our suffering.
Since Christ is God’s compassion – God suffering with us – then the cross is not simply an atoning sacrifice to cover or blot out human sin, but it is God taking on our suffering and our dying and our deaths. Maybe it is not just that God lived as a human being for thirty years or so and then went back to being God, but has sympathy with us because since God lived it, God knows how tough it is to be human. Maybe it is that by becoming human, and by experiencing suffering, and enduring pain and death, and sacrificing Godself, Jesus Christ – the Second Person in the Trinity – makes suffering and death a part of God’s own existence. The cross becomes more than just a sacrifice for sin, but because it is for sin, God takes on the result of sin, which is pain, sickness, death, and suffering.
As someone who spent a lot of time studying Jesuit materials and learning the spiritual ideas of Saint Ignatius, I often assert, as Saint Ignatius has taught me, that God is in the midst of all things. I have always accepted that God is with us in our suffering, as in God is present and may be there comforting us or holding us in God’s own presence in our suffering. But it never really dawned on me that God is “WITH US” in our suffering, as in God is suffering with us, not as a matter of sympathy, or in a “I know how you feel” kind of way, but that my suffering is directly experienced by God as God’s suffering. God experiences my pain, my suffering, my dying, my death – that is what God agreed to while formulating the Plan of Salvation. Jesus Christ agreed to be the sacrifice and God the Father agreed to take on our suffering, so that God’s suffering is not a past action, but an ongoing present reality, multiplied a million times over every day by all the suffering in the world.
This explains to me why sin is bad and why God just cannot overlook sin. It is because sin causes suffering and God experiences and lives with that suffering. So every sin I commit is something that actively hurts God, and even if God forgives the action and the sin, God still has to endure the pain and the suffering caused by the sin.
This also means that the promises that God makes to us about the end of suffering and death and about wiping away every tear is a promise that God is not just making to us, but also a promise that God is making to Godself. By uniting with us through Jesus Christ, God makes it impossible to end God’s own suffering without ending our suffering.