“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Jesus understands suffering. The course of his trial and crucifixion shows that he knows by personal experience the depths of physical and verbal abuse by other human beings. Though he is the almighty Son of God, the reality of his human nature means that it was not any less painful for him. His pain and suffering not only paid the price for the sin of the world, though; his suffering also provides perfect insight into the nature, endurance and purpose of suffering.
Death by crucifixion was especially feared and disdained because death came only at the end of an extended process that was not only physically painful but also the ultimate violation of a person’s humanity and identity. This is why the crucifixion could be called the ultimate abuse. Because he endured all that without a single sinful thought or word, Jesus demonstrates to the believer the godly way to understand, accept and transcend his own suffering, since he is the ultimate example of a totally innocent person who suffered.
Those who have undergone abuse in some way — physical, verbal and emotional, even sexual — often have a hard time facing, understanding and transcending their experience of abuse. The believer in Christ, though, has someone who understands and has experienced the ultimate abuse himself, and can stand beside and help the believer to understand his or her experience, through his own experience on the cross. Moreover, the Lord Jesus can give more than the understanding of that experience; he can give perfect sympathy, comfort, a new life and meaning to that suffering which will mean good for others out of what may have seemed pointless pain.
Considering one’s suffering may be extremely difficult. Sometimes the memories can be very deeply buried, and even when the memories can more easily come to mind, they may provoke reactions such as denial which hinder the process of proper understanding and conquest. Sometimes well meaning fellow believers influenced by teachings on “healing of memories” or “healing of emotions” will take one through semi mystical or magical sessions of visualization or prayer aimed at emotional relief, and indeed there is some temporary relief, but the deep underlying patterns are not altered. Consideration of one’s suffering in the light of the suffering of Jesus, though, may enable one to face honestly and openly what one has suffered from others. It also would provide something more than mere emottional relief, but definite answers on the proper reactions to suffering as well as the sympathy of someone who has also suffered.
Scripture definitely enjoins consideration of one’s suffering alongside that of Jesus: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:3). Indeed, this may be one more reason why the gospels go into the account of Jesus’s suffering in more detail than any other period of his earthly life, so that suffering believers can find his sympathy and understanding of their suffering. This consideration of the suffering of Jesus with one’s own suffering, though, is not unwarranted psychologizing of scripture; it is an application of the scriptural pattern of the comparison of the sufferings of Jesus with those of his people.
The Lord Jesus has given the believer the promise of his spiritual companionship: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (John 14:21). Before you begin the process of understanding your suffering by understanding his suffering first, reaffirm to the Lord your love for him and your commitment to demonstrate this through obedience to him. Ask him, as your best and closest friend, to be with you in this time, to speak to you through his Word, to guide, strengthen and comfort you as you share together in this time of special trust and spiritual intimacy. Jesus knows your experience, not just because he knows all things (John 20:17), but through his personal human experience in the time of his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion.
- The suffering of Jesus came through the betrayal of a trusted friend:
The betrayal of the trust Jesus had placed in a friend led to his suffering. See Matthew 26:47-50, Mark 14:43-46, Luke 22:47-48, John 18:2-9. Judas Iscariot had lived with Jesus for three years as one of the trusted Twelve. Even during the Last Supper, when Jesus offered him a special morsel, it was an offer of lasting friendship and a silent appeal for him not to betray him. But when the betrayal came it was even through an act of false friendship — a kiss. Jesus thus knows what it is like to have been betrayed.
One of the characteristics of much abuse is that it comes often through those whom we had felt some reason to trust — a family member, a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, or some other friend or neighbor. Write down the names of those whom you trusted who brought suffering upon you.Ask the Lord to give you his strength to forgive each one completely, for the breach of trust first of all, and then each aspect of your suffering.
Note also that Judas acted under direct Satanic instigation (Luke 22:3, John 13:2, 27). What Judas’s real motive was in the betrayal of Jesus was is not revealed, but the fact that he accepted a bribe for the betrayal suggests that it was at least partially greed. As the treasurer of the group, Judas pilfered from their funds, and this secret sin of stealing seems to have been how Satan gained access to his heart. Often the abusive and instigators of abuse share this same characteristic, that their actions come through demonic instigation, especially if their attacks are directed against believers in Christ. Jesus knows what it means for us to face the fiercest attacks of the enemy through human agents.
Satan does not seem to gain access to the hearts of abusers through greed, though. He finds his foothold in the desires and emotions of the fallen human nature which scripture calls the flesh. There are two specific ways that this seems to come about:
1. Through anger: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). The abusive many times are holding in a great store of resentment. This seething anger may erupt in violence against the innocent or in response to mere annoyance and irritation.
2. Through a desire for power over another person: ” . . . if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts . . . Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, carnal, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:14-16). Abusers often have such a desire to control their circumstances that they will resort to extremes of deceit and violence even in their own families. Moreover, this explains why an abusive person can seem almost supernaturally cunning: his human nature furnishes the footholds for demonic influence. Like Judas, an abusive person can suffer severe pangs of conscience after the suffering of their victims becomes clear (Matthew 27:3-4). In the case of Judas, the remorse was so great as to drive him to suicide (Matthew 27:5). Abusers can go through suicidal depressions as well, but they may also seek to escape their consciences through drugs, alcohol, or sexual immorality. This is why an abuser can go through tremendous psychological and physical degeneration, and can become a confirmed addict, if he or she is not one already.
Another way an abuser may try to deal with his conscience is by attempting a reconciliation with his victims. The apologies and attempts to make it up can sometimes give their victims that they really are going to change, and arouse their compassion in a desire to “help” a person with such remorse. Unfortunately these change rarely last longer than the emotions which spawned the apologies. Genuine change shows itself in a deep repentance.
- His closest friends abandoned Jesus during his time of suffering:
See Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:50. All the disciples fled, although Peter and John later came to trail the mob who had apprehended Jesus. This then led to Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus when he was confronted with the fact. All those who had said they would not abandon him and even that they would die for him failed when put to the test.
Often in situations of abuse there are those with genuine affection but no courage or strength to stand alongside the abused. Many times those who fail us are also believers in Christ as well. Jesus’s friends failed him, too. He forgave them and later restored them to useful places of ministry. Write down the names of those friends who failed you. Tell Jesus that you want to forgive them as he forgave the apostles for their abandonment, and ask him for his strength to do so. Ask him also to work it out that the relationship can be restored to stronger, more affectionate and more mutually helpful than it was before.
- Jesus’s suffering came through injustice from the authorities:
See John 18:13-24, where Jesus, in his preliminary hearing before Annas, the “retired” but probably de facto, high priest, was struck illegally for an allegedly disrespecful answer to a question probably meant to induce him to incriminate himself. Jesus then pointed out the injustice of this treatment.
In his actual trial before the Jewish ruling authorities, Jesus faced:
- beatings and mockings before the trial and afterwards from the Jewish Temple guards
- an trial held at an illegal time (before dawn)
- the acceptance of false testimony by the authorities without any cross examination
- condemnation to death upon a direct question from the high priest, who was to remain neutral as he presided
From his trial before the Jewish ruling council Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for the confirmation of the death sentence. Here he faced:
- further beating and mocking from Roman guards
- further false accusations
- the preference of a murderer to himself
- three separate acquittals by the governor before the death sentence was imposed
Many times an abusive situation includes injustice from the civil and religious authorities, either in failure to enforce civil and spiritual sanctions or actual collusion with the abuser. Those who were to uphold the civil law and the Word of God do not always do so. This means that the victim of abuse often can have great difficulties in trust and cooperation with legitimate spiritual and civil authorities, even those who are genuinely trustworthy and ready to help, because the others have shown themselves untrustworthy, uncooperative or even hostile; in short, unjust.
Write down the times of injustice that you have experienced, and the names of those who were responsible. Tell Jesus that you forgive them, as you trust him for the strength to do so and to make it stick. Ask him also to enable you to have a scriptural view on the civil, spiritual and family authorities that God has established in this world, so that you will not be brought into sinful rebellion against the just and conscientious in reaction to the unjust, uncooperative and hostile. (Family authorities need to be included also, because sometimes abuse comes from them also, and general infiltration of an underlying attitude of rejection of authority can disrupt family life also.)
- Jesus’s suffering meant intense physical pain and physical helplessness:
By the time Jesus had been sentenced to crucifixion, he had already endured beatings from the Jewish Temple guards, the guards of Herod Antipas, and the Roman guards of Pilate. There was normally also a preliminary whipping with a cat o’ nine tails (Matthew 27:26, John 19:1), after which Pilate still tried to have Jesus released. The purpose of the whipping was to weaken the condemned sufficiently that death would come more quickly on the cross.
After the whipping the actual crucifixion began (Matthew 27:33-35, Mark 15:22-24, Luke 23:33 John 19:17-18). Jesus was then fixed to the cross, in a place of utter physical helplessness, by large iron nails, as big and thick as a railroad spike, through his hands and his feet. His reaction was the prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”(Luke 23:34).
Those who have endured physical abuse not only have the painful awareness of the violence upon them but often a sense of shame at their physical powerlessness to retaliate. Jesus also knows what it means to have violent blows assail his body. He knows the sense of physical helplessness before those who are inflicting such pain upon him. His reaction was not retaliation, though, but forgiveness from the heart.
- Jesus’s suffering included sexual shame:
Jesus was forcibly stripped of all his clothes and nailed to the cross entirely naked before the crowds of onlookers (Matthew 27:35, Mark 16:24, Luke 23:34, John 19:23-24). The depictions of the crucifixion have usually left this out by portraying him with a loincloth, and the gospels respectfully do not dwell on this, because it was a well known part of crucifixion. This would have been a tremendous violation of Jesus’s modesty: a Jewish man would have felt an unspeakable shame at this exposure before the crowds.
Many times abuse also includes the violation of sexual modesty and sexual consent. Jesus has a sense of what you have felt in his own human experience, if you have been abused in this manner. Often this violation can lead to unscriptural and dysfunctional attitudes toward sex and marriage itself, as a reaction to the shame and revulsion of this experience. The sexually abused can become either unscripturally immoral or unscripturally inhibited. The solution will then be found in careful understanding and acceptance of the scriptural teaching on romantic love, sex and marriage as the path to sexual sanity.
- Jesus’ suffering included intense verbal abuse:
Verbal abuse was a constant part of the suffering of Jesus. All that he knew to be true of himself was constantly held up to derision (See Matthew 27:38-43, Mark 15:27-32, Luke 23:35-38, for the verbal abuse that occure while he was on the cross itself). His emotional reaction to all the verbal abuse that he suffered is not recorded, but it is clear that he did not return one hostile or derisive word to all that was offered to him. Jesus knows how it feels to be treated with such disdain, ridicule, and scorn.
In modern America there is a children’s saying that is manifestly untrue:
“Stick and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me!”
Sometimes those who suffer verbal abuse are heaped with an additional shame and derision for the pain that they suffer, as if it means that they are somehow weak people. There is such a thing as oversensitivity, but it often is more on the part of the verbally abusive than the victim. The verbally abusive often blame their victims in this way for the pain that they inflict, as part of the whole pattern of disdain for another human being that underlies their form of abuse.
The Scriptures recognize the real pain that scorn, mocking, and insults inflict upon a person. In the Psalms the effects are often described:
1. Emotionally: shame, heartbreak, loneliness and discouragement:
“You know how I am scorned, disgraced and shamed;
all my enemies are before you.
Scorn has broken my heart
and has left me helpless;
I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
for comforters, but I found none.”
(Psalm 69:19-20, a Messianic Psalm)
2. Physically: loss of energy, loss of appetite, loss of weight, insomnia: Psalm 31:10, 102:4-9
“I said, ‘ . . . I will put a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence'”
But when I was silent and still,
not even saying anything good,
my anguish increased.
Shyness has been called a reactive sin; it is a pattern of learned silence and lack of assertion in response to the stifling verbal abuse of others. It can be termed a sin inasmuch as it masks resentment and hinders Christlike love and assertive righteousness.
Chronically shy people are often those who have been in an atmosphere of constant ridicule and verbal hostility. Shyness is neither a lasting nor uncommon characteristic; almost everyone is shy at some point in their adolescent or adult lives, and most do grow out of it, though it may be suspected that the most severely verbally and emotionally abused remain the most shy througout their adult lives. Unfortunately, some of the shy become verbally abusive themselves because they have never learned to express themselves courteously and respectfully to others
Often the chronically shy have been treated in such a way that they have little experience in receiving and giving positive, upbuilding communication such as in Ephesians 4:15 ( “. . . speaking the truth in love . . . “) and 4:29. There is a real ministry of the body of Christian modelling and encouraging Christlike assertion and loving communication from the shy.
One of the reasons why the verbal abuse could not have affected Jesus deeply was that it was contrary to the truth about himself that he knew from the Word of God. Likewise you can find strength against verbal abuse in what the Word of God says about you. Write down some of the ways in which you have been verbally abused. Contrast what God’s Word says to be true of you in Christ to the denigration you have received from others. Read through the book of Ephesians and write down what God says that you are in Christ.
- Jesus had to make arrangements for the care of his family members because of his suffering:
During his suffering Jesus took care to entrust his family responsibility as the eldest son to someone else when he assigned the care of his mother to the apostle John (John 19: 26-27). He knew that he would no longer be able to carry out his human family responsibilities any longer; first, because of his suffering and imminent death, but later because of his resurrection and ascension. He knows what that physical separation from family feels like.
Sometimes an abusive situation requires separation from family members for one reason or another. Write down those from whom you have been separated. Commit each one to the care of God first of all. Write down what measures you can take to ask others in the body of Christ to care for them.
- Jesus experienced the ultimate loneliness during his suffering:
Jesus faced the abandonment or helplessness of all his friends in the course of his trial and crucifixion, and finally even God the Father seemed far away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). Thus Jesus knows how it feels not to have a sense of the presence of God in the moment of deepest suffering.
Jesus’s sense of separation from God the Father was due to his bearing the wrath of God for the sins of the world, but even so he knew that he was not truly abandoned by the Father. As he anticipated his suffering the next day, he told the apostles, “You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me” (John 16:32). In his last breaths, in his expression of trust in the Father despite this sense of separation, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). This demonstrates that the feelings of separation or abandonment may not reflect a true breach of fellowship with God.
Many believers have testified to an unusual sense of the presence of God during suffering; others have also said that they have felt abandoned by God during that time. Sometimes believers develop a bitterness against God because of this sense of emotional abandonment. The truth is that God is there and that he cares regardless of the emotional sense of his presence during that time of suffering. ” . . . God has said,
‘Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
The reality of God’s presence and care cannot be restricted to a human emotional phenomenon nor to the vicissitudes of human circumstances, but comes from the declaration of his Word of his care and presence regardless of human emotion or circumstances. Realize that God was there during the time of your deepest suffering, and that he cared when you experienced your most difficult pain. Thank him for that, and for the truth that he will always be there for you in the present and the future, because he has promised just that.
All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.