In my Bible study this morning my commentary was expounding on part of Hebrews that talks about Jesus as our High Priest, and how Christ suffered to be able to perfectly sympathise with our suffering, and in so doing more completely comfort us. He was completely human, experienced the same challenges, the same temptations, the same sort of sufferings, and because of that we can draw nearer to God.
I’m not so sure I agree. At least, not in full.
The basic idea of this argument, which I’ve heard elsewhere too, is that because Jesus suffered and experienced life as a real person, he understands our struggles. We can come before God confident that He does know what we’re going through. Indeed, it’s one of the hardest things to try to cope with something thinking you’re alone, that no one else has been through it and therefore cannot fully understand our situation. Surely knowing that Jesus has been through those things will allow us to come closer to Him for comfort?
I have a feeling this is not only an incomplete view of the person of Christ, but a misunderstanding of the purpose of His incarnation as a human being. Yes, Jesus came to earth as a fragile and defenceless baby, and was born into poverty and desperation, but was that for our benefit or God’s? Did God need to find out what it was like to suffer? Was God unaware of suffering before that point? That would imply a lack of understanding in God, which is clearly wrong since the Psalmist writes about how God knows us better than we know ourselves – God created us and knows every part of us, physically and emotionally. He knows what we go through, He knows the desires of our hearts, He sees us more perfectly than we see ourselves. If God has always had a perfect knowledge and understanding of us, His creation, then how can living life as a real human being have improved his understanding?
The key here is the concept of empathy. For instance, if a friend of mine had tragically lost both parents in a car accident, I wouldn’t be able to sympathise, because that hasn’t happened to me, but I can empathise. It’s one of those amazing qualities we have as humans, one of the more God-like qualities, to be able to appreciate and understand someone else’s suffering even if we haven’t experienced anything like it ourselves. Sure, we haven’t necessarily experienced the same depth of anguish and loss, but we can easily imagine what it must feel like, and that is enough. God, surely, understands our feelings completely. The God who created the universe is surely not without an imagination. We can see from reading the Old Testament so many instances where God does understand us – there is never any indication that God doesn’t comprehend or that His understanding of our situation is insufficient.
The other problem with this point of view of course is that actually Jesus didn’t experience every possible pain and challenge. Sure, there was a wide variety and range of occasions where Jesus went through tough times, but it was far from exhaustive. Jesus didn’t lose his entire family in a house fire. Jesus didn’t experience the pain of divorce. Jesus didn’t have to cope with the daily challenge of bringing up a child with a mental illness. Jesus didn’t suffer from clinical depression. In addition (and this is something I’ve struggled with a lot over the years), Jesus didn’t experience the crushing pain of his own guilt. If we see Jesus’ life on earth as being a way for Jesus to experience our suffering, He got only a small foretaste of it.
Jesus did not suffer so that God could understand suffering. He already knew.
So what was the purpose of Christ’s coming as a human being? Could He just as easily have come as an angelic vision? Could He have come as a goat? Could He have paid the price without actually coming to earth at all?
God being all-powerful, I’m sure any of those would have been possibilities for Him – the Creator cannot be constrained or restricted, and I’m sure that if it had been His will He could certainly have brought salvation without needing to come to earth as a human. The point is, He came to earth for our benefit, not His. By being born as a baby, as a human, He was born as one of us, the same as us, part of our global human family. By living His life as a child, a teenager, an adult, He showed Himself to be a visible declaration of God’s power and intent. God could have done it all behind the scenes, but for our sakes He did it in full view, that we might see and hear and understand. Salvation is without purpose if we never hear of it.
What then shall we say to the elderly man who loses his wife to cancer and is forced to live alone for the rest of his days? What shall we say to the young couple who remain childless after three miscarriages? What shall we say to the teenager thrown out of his family home for taking drugs? Does God understand? Can they draw near to Christ for comfort? Of course they can. We have always been able to do that, even in Old Testament times. The difference is that now we don’t have to go through so many elaborate systems to reach God. When Jesus was crucified the curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, symbolic that the way was open for all of us, no matter who we are, to come into God’s presence. In an instance we can be on our knees in prayer, and in that instant God is there, waiting, listening, comforting. What used to involve sacrifices, specific prayers and rituals, and the involvement of a priest as intermediary between us and God, has been reduced to its most simplest form. We pray, God hears.
God has always been able to understand our heartache. The triumph of Christ was that now we can more easily bring those most personal troubles before Him. God’s love for His people has not changed – it is just as strong now as it was in the beginning. The wonder of Christ as High Priest is that we can sit alone in our room and feel safe in His presence, able to openly express our deepest cries of anguish, unashamed of our nakedness and insufficiency, held in the warm embrace of our loving Father. When we cry, He cries with us. When we sing for joy, He sings in harmony with us.
God knows each of us personally. And because of that, we can know God personally too.