Excerpt from the most recent book written by Brian C. Stiller: When Life Hurts: A Three-Fold Path to Healing, HarperCollins, 1999. Brian C. Stiller is the president of Tyndale College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and plenary speaker at the 1999 Annual Meeting.
The front door burst open one Saturday morning and a five-year-old ran in, crying as if her little heart would break. Her father, working around the house, heard the cry. He knew it was more than a skinned-knee cry. It came from deep inside. He picked her up, holding her and stroking her in an effort to calm her.
"What's wrong? What happened?"
When the sobs sufficiently subsided, the girl asked, "Daddy. What's a bastard?"
Her father instantly understood. While playing with neighbourhood children that morning, his daughter learned that she was adopted and perhaps that her birth parents weren't married when she was born. His heart sank. Although his adopted daughter didn't know what the word meant, she knew it was unkind.
He was stunned. In his arms was the little one he and his wife had come to love every bit as much as the older child born to them. He had never really thought about the difference of their births. Both were both their children. The very word bastard angered him. But now was not the time to resolve his feelings. She needed an answer, and an answer of truth and love, not from a dictionary.
He sat on a kitchen chair, rocking her in his arms. What could he say? he wondered. Then it came to him. Turning the tear-stained face toward him, he said, "Sweetie, you remember the story of Jesus? Well, his mommy's name was Mary, and he was born before she was married. The reason was that it was God who made Mary pregnant with Jesus. But when Jesus was your age, his friends didn't understand that. They only knew what their parents had gossiped about Jesus.
"Bastard is a harsh word. But it simply means that your mother got pregnant before she was married. So you and Jesus have a lot in common. He too knew what it felt like to be made fun of. He also felt the hurt when his friends were unkind. Jesus understands."
As the father recounted this special moment, he remembered his daughter turning to him and asking, "Daddy, is it true that Jesus knows how much it hurts when friends are so mean?"
In that life-changing moment, the child learned what it takes many of us a life time to learn: Jesus, the wounded one, heals our hurts from his wounds.
Let me introduce you to Jesus the healer of pain. No person can reach into your inner caves of hurt, dark with foreboding and fear and light a lantern of truth. Only the Creator, who knows us beyond our knowing, can right the wrong and restore the broken heart.
Out of the Hebrew Old Testament came a promise written around 587 BC. The prophet Micah looked down the highway of time and saw Bethlehem, an inconspicuous village with a population of some 200, as the site of the birth of the Messiah. In our sentimentalized approach to Christmas, we romanticize his birthplace even though his birth was anything but romantic. Having traveled from the north, Mary laid her new child in a cow's feeding box. From this small village and obscure parentage and a pregnancy outside of the ordinary, Jesus began his life on earth. He lived as vulnerable infant in need of the constant care of his mother. This was God, Jesus the Son of God. The Creator of all life has to be human, with all of that human implied. From the moment of his birth until he left the earth, Jesus engaged in the human dilemma.
In the unremarkable village of Nazareth, he is raised in a carpenter's home. His life in family is disciplined. "He learned obedience from what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). Under the unrelenting power of Rome, he lived with his family and worked with his father, all the time learning the tough lessons of life from what he experienced.
From here his public work began, lasting until he was relatively old at the age of thirty. His brief three years of teaching and healing ended on a Roman cross reserved for political agitators, thieves and murderers. But precisely because he walked the road of truth and hurt, he offers to us a faith rooted in his own pilgrimage and life. The Old Testament prophet looked forward to this day of Messiah and said, "by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus knew why he had come. Without wavering from his appointed task, he took the road from Galilee, the place of his childhood, south to Jerusalem, the city of Roman power and religious authority. His life and message, though popular to common folk of the middle east, threatened the power brokers. They would have none of it. Yes, he could have stayed in the security of the north but his calling was to expunge evil and give humanity the means to be healed.
The wounds of death
At the heart of Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus. No moment in the Christian calendar is as central as the celebration of the Lord's Supper. The form will vary depending on the Christian community but it is a time we are called on to remember the last meal he ate and drank before being taken and crucified by the Roman soldiers. At this last supper he took wine, symbolizing his shed blood, and a loaf of bread, speaking of his broken body, and asked his disciples to continue to celebrate his death until his return.
Nothing so profoundly describes Jesus as the powerful symbols of wine, bread and the Roman cross. While we now craft crosses as works of art or jewelry, during Jesus' time the cross was the most painful and repulsive symbol. It had nothing to do with beauty but rather fear, repression and cruelty. It was a public display of the way the ruling army dominated and suppressed the people of the country of occupation. A few years before Jesus' birth, Jews who had tried to overthrow the Roman army were hanged by the hundreds on crosses along roads leading to and from Jerusalem. But even death didn't bring dignity. Their bodies were left rotting on the crosses while scavengers ate their flesh. It was Rome's way of wielding a harsh and humiliating club against those they feared.
This too was the death of Jesus. A contemporary comparison would be the infamous death necklace of South Africa's days of apartheid turmoil. A car tire would be dropped around the victim, trapping his arms, rendering him helpless. Gasoline would then be poured into the tire and ignited, leaving the victim to burn to death. We wouldn't create costume jewelry symbolizing a burning tire today any more than they would use a cross for decoration in Jesus' time. It spoke of agonizing death.
Jesus' wounds were real. This is no Greek legend. In the struggle for good, the God-Human Jesus of Nazareth felt each penetrating thorn driven down in the cruel crown devised by his tormentors. As the cat o'nine tails lacerated his back, his pain was no less than that felt by the toughest criminal. The physical exhaustion of dragging his own cross outside the walls of the city so exhausted him that the soldiers had to call an onlooker into service. As the cross dropped into the hole on the hill of Golgotha, the nails ripped at his hands and feet. Wounds. Blood. Pain. Unimaginable pain.
My first observation with overwhelming grief was as a boy. A woman and her daughter had driven from Star City to Saskatoon to meet the woman's husband and son. When they arrived they learned that the two men had just been killed in a car accident. The two women sat at our kitchen table in shock and grief, living through the early hours of trauma. I had never heard such weeping and despair. I recall sitting on our bedroom stairs listening to their wailing while Mom and Dad, with gentle tones and loving words, sought to bring some measure of solace. The experience was awful. A dark and hopeless gloom descended over our home. Their sorrow was so deep because the loss was permanent. The father and brother would never return. Nothing could be done except to find a way to go on living. I felt selfish, but knowing there was nothing I could do, I wished they would go away and leave us from having to live in their sorrow.
We avoid the cross because it is ugly. At a recent art showing at the school where I serve as president, a young artist, brilliant and talented painted a picture called the Holocaust of Abortion. This very large canvas hung on a wall leading to our chapel. Within hours there was strong objection from some students repulsed by the ugliness of fetuses lying in a heap. Yes, it was ugly and repulsive, but should we avoid the truth because it is objectionable?
One reason I find the cross objectionable is that it speaks to me of injustice. Jesus got no justice whatsoever. As I look up at his hurt and dying, I am driven to notice injustice elsewhere. The picture of Jesus dying on a Roman cross is a relentless reminder of acts of injustice repeated day after day. As I write, I hear the news of further "ethnic cleansing" in Serbian-held territory. Then a young man known to be gay is pistol-whipped and left to die on the Wyoming range. We'd rather hear good news. We feel as if we can't take such extreme injustice any longer because it calls me to do something. And that is a bother. We're already overrun with duties and personal needs.
As I look at the cross, I turn away because of my sense of powerlessness. What in the world can I do? I wonder as I see the Roman guards surrounding the three crosses. In the face of the power brokers of life, we don't have the solution and even if we did, we'd have no means by which to initiate it. So we think.
Too easily we paint cute and false pictures of this Jesus. Out of our various cultures, Jesus emerges as whatever we need him to be. Some paint Jesus as Santa Claus, jolly and happy, wanting to bring all the good boys and girls what they deserve. Others turn to Scrooge as a paradigm of Jesus as a tight-fisted old man who rains on our parades. I've noticed that some see Jesus as a celestial bell boy, running for our luggage or serving our every whim. In some Marxist rhetoric, Jesus is portrayed as a revolutionary guerrilla, forever upsetting the status quo. On the opposite side is the image of Jesus as the ultimate CEO, successful and always the winner. The pictures are many and most often false.
Drawing healing from his wounds
So we redraw the cross to avoid the reality of Jesus' hurt. Yet it is only as we see it for what it is that we can enter into his death and draw our healing. The cross of Jesus speaks to me in many ways. First it tells me that I am worthy. We may be criminals or outcasts or feel a huge guilt due to our personal failures, but as we envision Jesus' death he looks at me as he looked at those standing on the hill near his cross, and reminds us that we are the reason for his coming.
The cross also tells us we are forgiven. As much as our own rebellion and self-centeredness contributed to his death, we know he lifts our guilt and declares us forgiven. Guilt is debilitating. It not only reminds me of what we've done but it continues to affirm how despicable we are. We are good actors, pretending our failures never happened, and if someone points an accusing finger, we raise our eyebrows in mock surprise, "Not me!" Yet in our hearts we know it is true. And Jesus knows. There is nothing about who we are or what we've done that escapes his notice. With all of that information at hand, he tells us we're forgiven. The reason for the suffering and the resulting wounds is now lifted. We are free to walk into eternity knowing our failures will no longer be held against us.
In being forgiven we are also being healed. My wounds, be they old or recent, come by way of someone violating God's laws. They may come because of my own misadventure or without my complicity whatsoever. Regardless, they are wounds that need healing. The bleeding wounds of Jesus are the source of our healing. Not only does he now feel our wounds but we can see in his wounds the giving of life by the Creator. So reach back over the span of time and by faith invite Jesus, the suffering Creator and Healer to clean your wounds, to apply his medicine and protect them so they can heal.
The cross also is a reminder that I am chosen, called upon to be part of his beloved. Yes he died for the whole world. But this does not imply that we have nothing to say about it, that it just is or that we are not part of his kingdom. The fact is that as wide his mercy is, he calls on me to say yes or no. To be invited to share in the world of this Creator-Healer is beyond my wildest expectations. But that is the invitation. We must choose to accept it.
The paradox of the wounded Healer is that the cross, rather than speaking of bondage, sends out a message of freedom. As much as this notion grates against the ego of so-called Western enlightenment, the payment of our debts took place that day on the cross. By this death, Jesus took our place, leaving us free to go, unhindered by the weight of our past. As much as darkness works to overload us up with the weight of failure and unsettled accounts, Jesus snaps the chains that ties us to the failures of our past.
As horrible and repulsive as the cross is it speaks to me that Jesus has spanned the distance from God-Creator to human life. The shape of the cross not only reaches horizontally to bring all of creation into its vortex, it also bridges the vertical space from above down to earth. Stretching across the gulf of separation, it connects human life with the divine. Jesus did that by his death. When he cried, "It's finished!" he implied that the work he had come to do was now complete. No longer was there separation between the created and the Creator.
In the Temple in Jerusalem, there was a thick curtain separating the worshipping Jews from the area known as the Holy of Holies. Once a year the high priest would go into this most sacred of Jewish places and sacrifice for the sins of the people. No one else was allowed to enter. However when Jesus cried "It is finished," we are told that the curtain was ripped from top to bottom, telling all that no longer was it required that a person go through a temple priest to have his sins forgiven. That life now flows freely from God to person.
As we see the cross in its brutality, its rugged features inform me that the victory of Jesus empowers us in life. No longer victims, we rise from that hill of crucifixion empowered by Christ. The Roman soldier in charge of the overseeing the crucifixions, bowed and admitted, "Yes, this must be the Son of God." He saw were the real power lay even when Jesus was ridiculed by a thief on an adjoining cross and appeared powerless. With all that Rome could do with its armies and laws, it was nothing in comparison to the divine power of whom some called the Son of Man.
We stand then as worthy, forgiven, healed, chosen, set free, now able to love, renewed with divine power and empowered to live Christ's life all because we are loved. What he brings flows from an unfathomable love to us as his creation. He has a double interest in us. Not only are we his by creation but also because of what he has done to give us life. We are his in this second sense: we have been redeemed, meaning our debt has been paid.
To receive Jesus' healing touch, we uncover our inner eyes so we can see his wounds, realizing that he knows our hurts through his own and so feels our searing sorrow. It is toward Jesus we walk on the road of healing. We understand that the overwhelming sorrow of our lives in no way eclipses his.
That path of healing opens onto faith as we come to see that Jesus is not a phantom or ruse of historical illusions. He is real. He lived, died and rose again in a world that is ours too. Not on Mars or on an interplanetary vehicle, but in this world. My faith rests on a reality proven again and again by history. Out of the Scriptures we come to see Jesus' nature, message and power. So we can take the risk. We can walk past the point of no return. Are we apprehensive? Yes. But knowing that the risk is not a leap into the dark but rather a placing of my life in the hands of the great physician. As writer Francis Schaeffer put it, Jesus is there and he is not silent. His healing reaches inside, transforming us from brokenness to wholeness.
Yes it's important that we seek out healing from friends and counselors. It's vital that we work at our feelings, right wrongs and restore those human elements we so need. Turning to the healer is not to deny or ignore what we ourselves can do ourselves or what others can do to help us. Not one of us is an island. We need each other and we stand in strength when we recognize the great importance of community. But there is available the physician who not only as Creator understands the most complex of emotions, but as one among us he knows the agony of hurt and "is touched with the feelings of our infirmities."