When I was a little girl, my parents gave me a hardcover King James Bible with large font and illustrations for children. I cherished the crinkle of the thin, half-translucent pages, and I loved the richly-colored prints. And I read it. Over the years I read all of it, moving on through other translations, again and again. I was particularly fascinated by the Old Testament–the gravity, the cadences, the thrilling words, the stern and inevitable consequences. I felt very aware of the literal awe-fulness of God. I could have recited in my sleep the little litany that we call the gospel–Jesus died for our sins–but I tried very hard to be good.
When I was a young woman, my world shifted with the enfleshing of a previously foggy concept: grace. All that trying to be good, I learned, could not make me any closer to the God who thundered with wrath from Sinai. I deserved that wrath–not technically, but truly. Jesus dying for my sins was gloriously freeing and hope-giving, and it supported his promise that he would always turn everything to good.
In the last several years, my world has tilted again. Jesus died for my sins, but I struggle to comprehend how that can be an ultimate good to answer every evil. I go back to the words of the Old Testament, looking for something I have missed or forgotten. One day I thought: the churches I have attended Sunday after Sunday, all my life, have echoed with sermons stressing that Jesus bore our sins. But I cannot remember any describing how he bears our sorrows. I know the Bible says so, but what does it mean?
He was…a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…as one from whom men hide their faces…
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…
Isaiah 53: 3, 4, 5
On one very hard day a week or so ago, a little package came in the mail: a slim book by Nicholas Wolterstorff, called Lament for a Son. My husband had ordered it, and that night I sat on the living room floor in a circle of lamplight and read it almost straight through, because it felt like a small living gift in my hands. I don’t compare my pain to Wolterstorff’s: he lost a treasured 25-year-old son; I lost two babies whose faces I had never seen. But then again, suffering is not a comparison game. I think perhaps people hurt for different reasons, and to different degrees, but in similar ways. In my different circumstances, I am staggering like Wolterstorff under the weight of questions I cannot answer: why did the God who could have simply snatched his son to safety, or kept my babies’ hearts beating, choose not to?
To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I do not know why God would watch him fall. I do not know why God would watch me wounded. I cannot even guess…My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.
-Wolterstorff, p. 68
The man of sorrows said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). And what does that mean? I recently heard a preacher breezily gloss that as describing the blessedness of those who mourn over their sin. That cannot be all it means. I am groping in darkness, but I think it must be connected to this broken man who bore both our sins and our sorrows. I don’t know what his comfort is, and I don’t sense it. But Wolterstorff gives me glimpses of what the man of sorrows, the sorrow-bearer, might be like:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us?…If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.
…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.
-Wolterstorff, p. 80-81
Honestly, I don’t really want my sufferings shared. I want them erased; canceled; exchanged for better things. It’s all very well that matters will one day be set right, but this hurts now. And I don’t believe that the glory to come will simply wash out all that went before. Jesus is walking around heaven with holes in his wrists and ankles. We are flesh and blood, forever. The wounds are real. Perhaps, somehow, in ways I cannot fathom, they are taken up and wrapped into a whole that is good as a tree growing gorgeously past an old hurt can be good, though the scars are still visible.
The wounds of Christ are his identity. They tell us who he is…Rising did not remove them. He who broke the bonds of death kept his wounds.
…If sympathy for the world’s wounds is not enlarged by our anguish, if love for those around us is not expanded, if gratitude for what is good does not flame up…if from the experience of death comes nothing good, then death has won. Then death, be proud.
…In my living…dying will not be the last word. But as I rise up, I bear the wounds…My rising does not remove them. They mark me. If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.
-Wolterstorff, p. 92-93
So perhaps that is what it means for us that Christ bore our sorrows: in his wounds, we know him. He is marked by his sorrows as we are by ours. He made ours his.
I can’t see it clearly, and it doesn’t make everything better. But it might turn into the glimmer of a hand in the dark.
*these pictures were taken on a windy day as we left Door County after a week of vacation; more on that to come!