Preaching the Cross to wounded people

You wait until the service is starting, then shuffle onto the end of the very last aisle. You keep your eyes on the notice sheet, praying no one will talk to you. Your make-up covers up the bruises but as the music starts, you have to dig your nails into your hand to prevent the tears escaping.

You don't know why you came today, only that back at home he was properly passed out from the drink. He'd never know you'd gone. Looking at the toilets next to the exit, you think, 'I could just walk out if I needed to.' People would think you were going to the toilet – only you wouldn't return.

To preach the comfort of the cross to hurting people requires looking again at Jesus' death.Pixabay

He's always saying how disgusting and stupid you are, a bad, bad person – but there is a small part of you that resists believing that. You are hoping to find someone here who sees you're good inside, worthy of love and respect. You fidget in your seat as people sing around you.

The preacher stands up to introduce communion. 'We are all unworthy sinners. We're like filthy rags before God. Yet Jesus suffered instead of us. Through his death our sins are forgiven.'

There is an empty, gold cross at the front. Everyone nods and smiles, but a weight drops on your chest. The preacher is urging you to search your heart and confess your sins before God, but this week you have had enough of begging for forgiveness for things that weren't your fault. You wait for the next song and walk out.

The danger of preaching one aspect of the cross

What's the good news of the cross? I'd put money on your answer being something like 'all our sins are forgiven and we're reunited with God'.

As a child and teen, I was grateful for Jesus the Forgiver. Like most young people I was acutely aware of my faults (compared to the apparent sinlessness of adults, who never made mistakes).

As an adult, however, I've discovered many good people hurt by others' sin. As Shakespeare's King Lear expressed it, they are 'more sinned against than sinning'. Broken by rape, trauma, abuse, mental illness, exhaustion, bullying, bereavement, divorce, disability or disease, they sit in church services hearing once again that they are bad people whom Jesus rescued.

In your congregation, many people carry hidden suffering. To preach the comfort of the cross to hurting people requires looking afresh at Jesus' death. Here are three ways in:

Jesus' pain is a gift to those in pain

'Again and again they struck [Jesus] on the head with a staff and spat on him.' (Mark 15:19).

We don't often talk about illness and disability in church (apart from the traditional prayer requests for the sick), and yet recent studies reveal up to 43 per cent of the population suffer from chronic pain, with 14 per cent moderately or severely disabled by it.

Jesus experienced severe, physical pain. It's easy to gloss over this, but no other religion has a god who suffers physically. Indeed, that would be a picture of weakness, not power – why would anyone want to worship a suffering God?

Well, I would. I want to worship a God who knows what it's like to feel physical pain. For the last eight years, I have been disabled by severe ME, a neurological and autoimmune illness. Each day, my energy is so limited I need to lie in bed for 21 hours.

One time, I'd been sitting up for too long. The pain came as burning acid in my body. I took pain killers, lay down, slowed my breathing and waited for it to pass. This time, however, the pain wouldn't stop. It went on for hours. By the time my husband found me on the floor, I was sobbing uncontrollably. The pain was too much. It breaks you.

Once, a friend told me about an asthma attack she'd had without her inhaler. In the middle of the panic, she remembered Jesus. In crucifixion, the cause of death is asphyxiation. Jesus had to lift his whole bodyweight up on the cross, in pain and weakness, to snatch each shuddering breath. In that moment, she knew that Christ understood what it felt like to gasp for breath, hungry for oxygen.

Our God is not removed from the frustration, limitation and even excruciation of our physicality. God not only took on flesh, encasing spirit in meat, but felt each of the 39 strokes of that whip as it clawed ever deeper through his tissue. Jesus knows our physical pain – not just theoretically but within his body. Jesus knows what it is to be broken by pain.

Jesus' anguish is a gift to those in isolation

'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.' (Matthew 26:38, Mark 13:34).

Helen* fell ill with severe ME in her third year of university. Devastated to lose her friends, education and independence, she returned home. Her parents said, 'This is a psychosomatic illness – stop being ill just because you want to stay at home. This isn't fair on us.'

Silvia's* husband walked out one night after announcing he'd been having an affair for several years. One of Silvia's closest friends said it was her own fault for putting on weight. Others avoided her gaze and stopped visiting, as though adultery were contagious.

There's a reason solitary confinement is a horrific punishment. When friends abandon you, it's a betrayal that cuts to the heart. Additionally, sometimes your sorrow, anxiety or depression suffocate you with a thick fog, and though you have friends available, you cannot reach out from your internal prison.

When we suffer most, it's because we suffer alone. Culturally, we're set up for loneliness in hard times. Most of the world is (loudly) present at a time of bereavement; in Britain, the main way we show love to someone in need is to give them space. We bring flowers and leave.

Emotional pain can be more torturous than physical pain. CH Spurgeon, when commenting on Psalm 86, wrote this:

'The mind can descend far lower than the body, for in it there are bottomless pits. The flesh can bear only a certain number of wounds and no more, but the soul can bleed in ten thousand ways, and die over and over again each hour' (Honey in the Mouth, Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 19).

When Jesus suffered, he did not hide his extreme emotional agony and asked his friends to stay beside him as he wrestled in prayer, terrified and overwhelmed. He needed support but suffered alone. On the cross, he was naked, exposed before a jeering crowd, abandoned by almost everyone.

Scientists today report that hematohidrosis (sweating blood) is an extremely rare condition that occurs when the patient undergoes extraordinarily high stress or anxiety. The Bible describes this happening to Jesus in the Garden of Gethesemane, proof that Jesus endured profound terror and devastation.

We can be honest about our internal torments because Jesus was honest about his. When we are alone, hyperventilating into a bag or groaning like a wounded animal in utter desolation, we come, unashamed, to a God who truly knows what we feel.

Jesus' cry is a gift to those in spiritual darkness

'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mark 15:34).

When my health broke I felt like the worst Christian in the world. Why? Because at the lowest moment of my life I did not experience the sustaining peace or presence of God; I knew only his absence.

I prayed, but the words fell dead and dry. I listened to worship music but it was a cacophony of empty sound. I waited for any sign to show that God was with me but there was nothing.

Friends abandoning you is one thing – but to feel abandoned by God seems a cruelty too far. God's apparent absence at times of crisis can shatter our faith or our hearts. Fortunately, I took comfort in CS Lewis' experience of grief when his wife died: 'But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence' (A Grief Observed).

Mother Theresa also faced a desperately long 'dark night of the soul' where she felt separated from God. In God on Mute, Pete Greig wrestles with God's silence when his wife's debilitating epilepsy isn't healed. Righteous Job had no explanation or comfort from God when Satan threw tribulations his way.

Impossibly, gloriously, Jesus experienced this feeling, too.

On the cross, Jesus utters a remarkable – and troubling – cry of desperation: 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' The sky turned supernaturally dark for the three hours before Jesus died – a sign of the world gone wrong, God's anger at evil, and the Godhead in mourning. This is the moment where all of our sin, all of the world's shame, all evil and powers of darkness were borne by Jesus, which temporarily separated him from God the Father. Though Jesus expresses his separation from God, this is no cry of defeat but a quotation from Psalm 22, which describes a suffering figure who is later vindicated and victorious. Jesus knew that this painful exclusion from God's presence was but momentary and achieving a great glory.

When we feel cut off from God by the evil of this world, we need to know even Jesus experienced this. Christ on the cross suffered physically and emotionally – but perhaps most astonishing is that he suffered spiritually.

We need a wounded God

Edward Shillito, a free church minister who witnessed the atrocities of the First World War, wrote these lines:

We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars...
But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone (Jesus of the Scars and Other Poems).

Jesus is God-with-us in the deepest possible way. Christ became weak to share our suffering and faced our greatest enemies – evil and death. While the world looks to victorious, Teflon-coated leaders, powerful and untouched by the shadows of life, we look to a leader who was lynched, called a criminal and hung up naked to die while people laughed.

In John's gospel, Jesus describes his future suffering as the moment his glory would be revealed. When we also endure suffering, luminous glory mysteriously accompanies it. Though we see but glimpses of it now, the cross has called D-day on suffering, sickness and sorrow and promises new life and joy.

When you travel through this world with tears nobody sees, you need a God who truly understands. Christ so loved us that he chose to feel the desperation of physical pain, the desolation of emotional pain and the devastation of spiritual pain. This is good news of the cross – and we must preach it.

*Names have been changed. 

Formerly a lecturer in Biblical Theology, Tanya Marlow is a writer, speaker and broadcaster on faith in hard places. She also campaigns for chronic illness and disability rights. Her latest book is 'Those Who Wait: Finding God in disappointment, doubt and delay'.

This article first appeared in Preach Magazine and is used with permission.