My daughter is four. Today, she laid down on her belly on top of a surfboard, then fearlessly catapulted herself off the top landing of the staircase and went surfing down them. Thankfully, since she was lying down on her belly, she was unharmed. Me, not so much, for I was more worried about trivial things like, you know, broken bones and such. My heart didn’t like the attack that it suffered upon this adventure. Reflection, though, makes me smile.
Me, again, not so much.
I never would have ever imagined doing such a thing. Horrific visions of twisted bones lying on top of one another or of bleeding faces would have prevented me from acting on such an impulse, if one ever were created. The pre-existing knowledge of pain would have kept me from acting in such a dangerous way. But it’s more than just experience, and age. Even at four, a child is perfectly capable of remembering what pain feels like: my own daughter can tell you that it hurt when she fell off the Easy-Z Rider onto the road. Later on in the day, once the tears had dried, my daughter and I were discussing this adventure of hers. She smiled and said, “But it sure was fun!” It isn’t that they don’t remember that pain hurts—rather, they simply possess a more fundamental willingness to experience “life abundantly.” They care more about trying than about hiding—the end result is just the result; the point is the journey.
Pain is supposed to act like a shield; it’s a defense mechanism that tells you to get out of harm’s way. We’ve been told this by multiple doctors, psychologists and counselors. We’ve read it in self-help books and news journals across the globe. We know about the flight or fight response. Pain is a warning signal that the body—or the heart—is distressed and requires action. It isn’t pleasant because it has to get our attention in a quick and efficient way. Stumping our toe is much more likely to remind us to look where we’re going if it hurts than if it doesn’t. None of us enjoy the sensation of pain—of neither the physical nor emotional varieties. Indeed, we spend much of our lives trying to maintain the absence of pain. I would not fly down a flight of stairs on my belly atop a surfboard because I don’t want to break my neck. As tempting as it might be sometimes, I don’t jump out of planes or climb Everest or do any other thrill seeking adventures that are designed to scare the pants off the participant because I don’t want to die, or end up seriously maimed. I know that risky behavior will eventually end up with me being hurt and I want to avoid that. That’s what I’m supposed to do. Avoid pain.
Now, before I risk causing heart attacks across the nation, let me tread carefully here and hasten to say that God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be safe, and peaceful. He put a lot of work into making sure that we had beautiful things surrounding us, things like sunsets and sunrises and the sound of brooks running through the quiet forests; the red bird and the nightingale’s song; the playful lick of a puppy happy to see us; a hug that is so warm and comforting it’s almost unbearable; physical hands to hold; prayer; ancient hymns that are still sung in worship today. By no stretch of the imagination am I even attempting to suggest that God ever wanted us to live in perpetual pain; we are intended to be happy creatures. And yet… does that mean we were supposed to live without even the memory of pain? Are we supposed to try to sever or to somehow destroy the memory of what it felt like to stump our toe? If we did, what would prevent us from stumping our toe again?
I’ve had a particular tenderness for Christ recently. Not that I haven’t always but, well, to be honest with you, most of the time, it was God to whom I felt the closest. He was supposed to be father and while I admittedly didn’t really have a solid understanding of what that was supposed to be—I had a vivid imagination and I pictured Him as this warm and just and … tender … father. He got angry, but His anger was always justified and delivered with the possibility of grace. He was a father, the father that I’d always wanted. And it was to Him that I drew nearer. Jesus, on the other hand, was a man. And, even though I knew that He was also fully God, because it was beyond the realm of my imagination to picture a man who didn’t need, expect or demand sexual things from me, it was harder for me to relate to Jesus. I loved Him, and I was humbled by Him—but it was God I tried to drawer nearer to.
Recently, Jesus has been crowding my thoughts, and especially the Jesus during the final days of His life. He was in constant agony — He’d been severely tempted, He’d been mocked, He knew they wanted to kill Him, He was scared. Everything about those final days should have made Him run. He was fully man, which means that He must have wanted to avoid the pain that He was both in at the moment and that He knew was to come. He even prayed that there be another way. He knew the real reason He was going to hang on that cross wasn’t because He was committing blasphemy; the real reason He was going to hang on that cross was because the weight of the world’s sin wasn’t some analogy—it was a weight that He was going to feel. We sing a song at church in which there’s a line that says, “I’ll never know how much it cost to see my sin upon that cross.” Okay, now, in my mind’s eye, all day today, I’ve tried to come up with a picture that would be as ugly or as difficult to look at as my sin probably appeared to God and was felt by Jesus. Twisted metal doesn’t come close. Images of heaps of children whom I have actually known, taught and loved’s burnt bodies stacked up on top of one another, bursting the doors of Auschwitz’s ovens, comes closer. By all that’s holy, I would have wanted to run from that cross. And He could have. He could have escaped into the mountains. He could have called upon a legion of angels to come and hoist Him up into the clouds. He could have vanished into thin air all by Himself for that matter. He didn’t have to feel that whip stinging His flesh. He didn’t have to hear that crowd chanting Barabus’ name rather than His. He didn’t have to be spit upon. He didn’t have to. What’s more humbling to me, though, is that the thought of enduring all of the above was painful to Him. It scared Him, and I don’t see how the man in Him wouldn’t have at least contemplated running.
Avoiding pain, after all, is part of being human.
In the end, we all know that He didn’t run. No, instead, He allowed himself to be tortured and then He carried the cross to Calvary before allowing them to nail Him onto it. And then, after all that, He hung there and felt my sin—what I picture is that image of people He loved and who had gifted Him in emotional, impactful ways lying in heaps, all dead flashing before His mind over and over and over again; dead, that is, after they lied or stole or refused to help one of His littler children; dead, after they allowed pride to dictate their decisions; dead, after they consciously and deliberately sinned against Him. My sinful, then lifeless body is in that pile, with my blonde hair and closed blue eyes that flashed repeatedly before His eyes that day.
I can’t even imagine it.
All I know is that He allowed Himself to feel it, to experience all that pain, multiplied by the billions.
Other than lifting my hands in the air and happily singing, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God” every day of my life, what more can I can learn about how to live – not just from His teaching and the other 32 years of his life but from that one year, from that one day, the day that He died? I remember that He loved children and even declared, “…for such is the kingdom is God.” That makes me remember my fearless four year old who catapulted herself from the top landing of my staircase. She’s only four but she’s closer to Him than I am, in that she’s unafraid, she’ll do things she knows she shouldn’t do, because the journey is worth the end result. I’m happy to state that she has no desire to belly surf down the stairs anymore—undoubtedly, it’s the memory of the pain she endured when she hit her lip that keeps her from doing it again. Yet she smiles as she proudly declares, “But it sure was fun!”
Though the image of my body is still yet sinful, it’s no longer lifeless. My blue eyes are open, my cheeks flushed with color again. My heart beats. And it does so because He allowed himself to hurt, and to be hurt. The memory of that is unspeakably, indescribably precious, tender and painful and yet the vision of Him standing before me, wrapping me in that hug that’s warmer than I can imagine at the moment, is so joyful and miraculous that it, somehow, rights the horrible wrongs He endured. It is the memory of the cross that made me originally fall in love with Him; it is the love He returns to me that makes me continue to fall deeper in love and closer to Him—you can’t have one without the other. Joy in the absence of pain isn’t real joy because, if there never was pain, then what is there to celebrate?
I’m really good at hiding, and I know how to build all the walls that can shield me from all sorts of pain. Before I start building, though, maybe the question I need to ask is: do I really want to?