God knows life hurts sometimes. This is reality in a world that’s fallen.
Jesus’ forewarning that “in this life you will have trouble” (John 16:33) was certainly about more than traffic jams and tax increases.
It hurts when your marriage isn’t holding together, when you’re single but long to be married, when homosexual desires persist though you’ve prayed they’d change, when you look at porn again though you promised you’d quit, when that thing from your past haunts you.
And it hurts when God doesn’t seem to answer, when He seems content to let you suffer.
There were two thieves with Jesus at His death. Both suffering. Both seeing Jesus suffer. They represent ways all of us approach God in our own pain and sorrow.
Thief #1: “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39).
I know this prayer well. So do we all.
It is a desperate prayer expressed in different ways, but amounting to something like, “God, if You love me and if You’re able to relieve my suffering, then of course you’ll do it! Right?”
The first thief crucified next to Jesus represents our demand that Christ be a savior of our making, ready to do our bidding, willing to remove all our suffering now.
This thief’s perspective has subtly become commonplace in mainline Christianity. The unspoken belief is that Christ’s mission, and so our mission, is first and foremost to relieve pain. Jesus, the suffering servant, felt our pain to the full, so He will “save Himself and us,” and will not ask us to suffer, at least not for long. He’ll get us off this cross (and perhaps even stick it to all those religious rule-makers, while He’s at it).
Instead of, “If anyone be my disciple, he must take up his cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23), this thief preaches, “A Jesus who won’t relieve my condition is an unloving or impotent God not worth following!”
Doesn’t a God who has suffered as we have want to remove our pain?
Yes, of course He does. But if we are to believe the Scriptures, apparently He chooses how and when based on a different set of criteria than our own.
Christ crucified wanted relief. But He wanted something else more.
This thief would choose “life” over death. Christ chose death unto resurrection. Relief would have left sin and death reigning. Death unto resurrection dethroned them.
Likewise, relief will leave us and others pain-free but addicted, free of responsibility but irresponsible, unforgiving and unforgiven, sexually liberated but in bondage to sin, enjoying lust but crippled in love, romantically entwined but relationally enmeshed, having saved our lives but losing our lives.
If this is so, what about the pain you’re experiencing? What about the pain others experience? Would we demand or dole out relief where the Suffering Servant instead is asking us or someone else to take up a cross and follow?
In the realm of relationships and sexuality, this can be painfully difficult.
- Those viewing porn can learn to live without it.
- A betrayed wife can come to forgive her husband.
- A homosexually-oriented person can abstain from same-sex sexual contact.
- Teens can abstain from sexual activity until marriage.
- Singles who long to be married can be content and even thrive.
- And all of us in this day and age can live chaste and loving lives.
His invitation to follow is not inhumane. It is an invitation to His fellowship, an invitation to come to know the power of His resurrection (Phil. 3:10). It is the invitation of a Bridegroom Lover who is preparing eternal joy for you.
Jesus ignored the first thief’s request not because He didn’t care about his suffering, but because the thief was asking for something Jesus could not, in love, give.
And He wanted to give Him something greater. The second thief found this out. I’ll look at his response next week.
I’d love to hear from you! What’s one area of pain in your life you would have chosen to have relieved sooner, but God has brought about something greater than relief? Leave a comment here.
Funny about that. I was just thinking about Thief #2 this very morning. I’m not trying to steal your thunder, but I hope adding to it.
Some of my non-Christian friends say something like, “I’ll follow Jesus when I’m old. Didn’t Jesus accept the thief on the cross at the last minute?” Setting aside the question that we never know when our last minute will be, this question betrays an underlying premise: “We don’t have to know or do much to be a Christian.” But in Luke 23: 41-42 the criminal (I’m not sure the crime was theft) says, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong. …. Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Here’s what that other criminal believed: He was sinful, deserving of punishment. Jesus is sinless. Jesus is the king of a kingdom into which he would by his death more fully come. Jesus could do something about the criminal’s plight, which is to say Jesus would survive death. The criminal’s belief in Jesus as King was as robust as what we ask of those at a baptism.
My take-away from the Two Thieves was to again give Jesus his rightful place as King in my life.
Thanks, Gene! Always good to hear from you!
oops … forgot to ask to be notified. fixing that.