The Day That Truly Changed the World (TDTCTW 16)

The cross is also the New Testament’s final answer to the problem of suffering we began to address in the previous chapter. The cross is the most powerful response to the question, “How can I believe in God after September 11? How can I believe in a God who allows thousands of innocent people to suffer when He could have done something to stop it? If God exists and He is good, why doesn’t He do something at times like that?”

These questions are directly related to what happened to Jesus on the cross. As Jesus was dying on the cross, His greatest suffering had little to do with physical pain from the spikes through His hands and feet, the thorns piercing his forehead, or the torturous effort to breathe enforced by crucifixion. His greatest suffering arose from the apparent absence of God in the midst of His suffering.

Jesus knows from experience what it is like to suffer undeserved suffering and pain. He did not deserve to be whipped, beaten, slapped and spit upon. He did nothing to deserve a sentence of death, a hateful mob, or the torture of crucifixion. To the victims of September 11 the cross says: “God knows, He understands, He has tasted what it is like to suffer without having caused it in some way.”

Like the book of Job, the cross offers up no definitive answer to the problem of unjust suffering. What it does, however, is offer companionship in suffering. The times when we experience undeserved suffering and pain are like our own Friday in Jerusalem. We feel as if our experience were unique, as if no one has ever been more alone. But Jesus Himself went there in depth on the original Good Friday. He understands what it is like to be totally alone, totally rejected and abused. He’s been there and done that. And in a sense He tasted just a bit of everyone’s experience (1 Pet 2:20-24).

But for Jesus the story didn’t end on that Friday. It seemed to and He Himself seemed to see no hope for the future when He cried out to God, “Why have you forsaken me?” But His suffering and abandonment turned out to be a prelude to the incredible affirmation of Easter Sunday. When He was raised from the dead His acceptance with God was re-affirmed. In some sense the whole human race stands in a new place with God. The cross has turned human suffering into a prelude.

What difference does it make to believe in the cross today? For me it changes everything about suffering. Some have used undeserved suffering as an excuse to disbelieve in the existence of God. But atheism has not lessened human suffering one iota. If anything it makes it worse, because one is all alone in the suffering, the suffering has no meaning, and it offers no future.

But the cross demonstrates several things that make a difference. It tells us that we are not alone, even though it may feel that way. It tells us that suffering doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care, He cares ever so much, but he doesn’t always intervene to avert pain. God’s absence in suffering is not a hostile one or a helpless one, it has a higher purpose. In the light of the cross we have a reason to endure, even though we may not know the particular reason why. When we suffer without deserving it, we share in the experience of Jesus. When we feel the absence of God in our pain, we share in the experience of Jesus. He went there before us and understands how we feel.

Why September 11 and similar tragedies in the course of history? There is no satisfactory answer at this time. Yet it is possible to discern a merciful hand in the events, in spite of their horrific nature. The toll at the World Trade Center could easily have been tens of thousands dead– if the planes had struck a few hours later in the day, if they had struck the towers at a lower level, if the towers had collapsed more quickly, if evacuations hadn’t started so quickly and efficiently in the south tower. As horrible as events were, it could have been, in a sense should have been, much worse.

For those of us who experienced it, September 11 was an unimaginable expression of evil at its worst. It fundamentally altered our perception of the world and our own role in the world. But September 11 was not the most evil act of all time. The Holocaust, as chillingly brutal and unfair as it was, was not the most evil act of all time. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocides of Armenians, Russians, Rwandans, and Cambodians in the 20th Century, the slave trade across the Atlantic, all of these qualify as acts of systematic pre-meditated evil. But none of them qualify as the most evil act of all time.

The cross was the most evil act of all time. When human beings, for temporary and limited political advantage, crucified the God who came down and lived among us, they acted in the most incomprehensible, unfair and evil manner possible. In rejecting Him, they were doing more than just condemning an innocent man to death, they were destroying the source of their own life and rejecting their own place in the universe. The cross of Jesus Christ is an evil act of infinite proportions. If the human race is capable of such an act, no evil action is unimaginable.

But there is a silver lining to the dark cloud of human evil. God has turned the cross into a powerful act of reversal. The greatest evil ever done has been transformed by God into the most powerful act of goodness ever performed. By death God brings life. Through defeat comes victory. Through shame, humiliation and rejection come glory, grace and acceptance. Through the cross God has turned the tables on evil and death. The greatest evil has become the basis for the greatest good.

The cross shows us how to live in conflicted times. In the light of the cross there is plenty we can do in the face of terrorism. We can learn to love our neighbors the way God does. We can help to build bridges between groups in our communities. We can make a daily effort to project love and care into the world, and not return evil for evil. We can visit the sick, feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering. We can even learn to love our enemies the way Jesus did! The cross demonstrates that, in the grace and power that come only from God, evil can be transformed into good.

The cross was a day of great terror, and many who saw it ran away dismayed about what was happening. The person who had healed others, who banished disease and hunger wherever he walked, who gave love and hope to downtrodden multitudes, was cruelly and unjustly executed while still a young man. What if those who watched this senseless act of violence had said, “How can we ever trust God again?” What if they had gone home, renounced their belief in God and said, “Either God does not exist, or he is a monster that has a complete disregard for love and justice.” If they had, they would have missed the greatest act of God’s love and justice in human history.

That’s why I believe that God can be trusted after September 11. Evil seems to rule only if we don’t look carefully or wait long enough. God is still going to use people like you and me to change the world in the aftermath of evil. Wars, violence and terrorism are born in the heart. But the cross has exposed the fundamental weakness of evil: it can be overcome with good. So I have become willing to fight evil wherever it is found– among “them” (whoever they are), among “us” (whoever we are), but most of all “in here,” inside of me. I think it’s time to start a new conspiracy in this world, a conspiracy with a world-changing message, evil will be overcome with good. This is our mission.

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