It has not gone unnoticed that one of the greatest global disruptions in history is coinciding with Lent, a season of fasting, sacrifice and penance for many Christians preceding the Easter celebration. Twitter user Andy Crouch perhaps put it best, if glibly: “Honestly hadn’t planned on giving up quite this much for Lent.”
I try to make Lent, when I observe it, a time of spiritual growth, rather than just avoiding my favorite foods for forty days (though I do that as well). But what strikes me about the present Lenten pandemic is the degree of spiritual sacrifice and deprivation being forced on so many people. Apart from the acute spiritual harm arising from church closures and lack of access to religious services, the social, emotional, and psychological harms of prolonged social isolation inflict spiritual injuries as well. What are we to do amid such spiritual desolation during what should be a holy season?
The answer may lie in the Easter story itself. The tradition of personal sacrifice during Lent arises from the Gospel account of Jesus spending forty days in the desert before his crucifixion. In the simplest sense, Christians who observe Lent share in, or at least honor, Jesus’s sacrifice leading up his ultimate sacrifice on the cross. But a closer reading of the Gospels reveals that there’s more to it than that.
The Easter story contains two of the most challenging, indeed puzzling, episodes in the Gospels. In the first, popularly known as “the Agony in the Garden,” Jesus, knowing he is about to be put to death, prays to God to allow him to escape his fate, to “take this cup of suffering away,” so that Jesus can avoid his coming torture and death on the cross. God implicitly says “No,” and Jesus accepts his fate, saying “Let thy will, not mine, be done.” Shortly thereafter he’s arrested, tried, and crucified.
The second occurs during the crucifixion itself. As reported (only) in the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus dies on the cross he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Again, there is no answer, and Jesus dies in agony.
The difficulty in these episodes arises from what Christians are supposed to believe about Jesus. According to Christian theology, Jesus is not merely the son of God — he is God. Christians believe that God himself descended from Heaven and became a human being — Jesus — in Mary’s womb.
The problems should be obvious. Did Jesus pray to himself in the Garden and then tell himself No? How could Jesus’s will and God’s will be different if Jesus and God are the same person? Why would Jesus ask himself why he forsook himself? How could he forsake himself in the first place?
The answer to these questions, such as it is, lies in the theology of the Trinity, a subject too complex to get too deep into here. In short, Trinitarian theology teaches that the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit are each, individually, the one God, but they are three separate persons — they are not each other. So when Jesus prayed in the garden, it was the Son praying to the Father, though both were God. On the cross, again, the Son cried out to the Father, though they were both God.
If that sounds contradictory, well, it is. As Richard Rohr says in his excellent book The Divine Dance, the Trinity can be known, but it cannot be understood. Trinitarian belief leads to some beautiful and truly spiritually invigorating concepts and experiences, but it all rests on an inescapable suspension of logic.
In any case, if we accept that Jesus experienced unanswered prayers (to God) and abandonment (by God), this opens up an important perspective on spiritual suffering during Lent, and suffering more broadly. The problem of suffering — sometimes called “the problem of evil” — is one of the most intractable problems in theology. The question, simply put, is this: If God is good, and God is all powerful, why does God allow suffering on Earth? For some fundamentalist or conservative Christians, the answer is that mankind is sinful and deserves what it gets. For many atheists, the answer is that God must simply not exist. These answers have the advantage of tidiness but aren’t very satisfying, and both require ignoring a great deal of information — suspending belief, I might say.
There are many, many other answers to the question of suffering and I won’t recite all of them here. In my reading on the subject the best, or at least most useful, answer to the problem of suffering I’ve encountered is the cross itself. The answer goes something like this: For some reason, Earthly suffering is necessary, or at least unavoidable. Rather than abolish human suffering, God incarnated himself as Jesus to experience human suffering, perhaps so he could better understand the trials of his creation, or, more importantly, so that humans could share their suffering with a God who completely understands their misery because he experienced it directly himself as a human being. I won’t say that this is logically airtight, but it’s a useful framework for believers to deal with suffering, which is the best that can be said of any theological viewpoint.
Many Christians are deeply familiar with the physical suffering of Jesus on Earth. His torturous death on the cross is central to Christian belief, but the Gospels also report that Jesus got hungry and ate, got thirsty and drank, and got tired and took naps. In other words, he experienced all the difficulties of inhabiting a fragile human body. He also suffered emotionally — he wept with Lazarus’s sisters, and must have felt at least a bit stung when Judas Iscariot, the only disciple he called his “friend,” betrayed him.
But what’s easy to miss, and what ties in to the troubling Gospel passages I started out with, is that Jesus experienced spiritual suffering as well. The pain of an unanswered prayer is starkly familiar to anyone who prays regularly. Jesus experienced that pain in the garden, begging God to spare his life and being rebuffed. The feeling of total abandonment by God in a moment of true hopelessness, the feeling that God may not exist at all, is another all too common and devastating experience for believers. Jesus had that very experience on the cross, in a moment when, as G.K. Chesterton said, “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
So in a time of spiritual deprivation, we can believe that God’s understanding of our suffering extends to our spiritual injuries as well. God will not take away the suffering, or its source, but he will understand it and provide comfort with authentic empathy. And we can remember what came at the end of Jesus’s suffering — resurrection and restoration. We can hope for the same end to our suffering, and even, dare I say, have faith that it will come.
This doesn’t mean cockeyed optimism that everything will be fine. It won’t. We will bear the scars of our torment forever, just as Jesus does. But it’s a reminder, as we watch the world come back to life after the long death of winter, confident that it will do so again and again, that each stretch of darkness will be driven away by a season of light, that all suffering is temporary, and that for believers there is an understanding God to guide us through it.