It seems eminently clear that the more perfect one’s love is, the more pain lies in wait. The longer couples date, the more the break-up hurts. The closer the relative, the more gut-wrenching the death. The more we would sacrifice for someone, the greater the hole left within us when they are gone. The more perfect the love, the greater the potential pain.
Perfect love. Who can imagine a perfect love? I certainly can’t. Even for my wife and children, my love is far from perfect. St. Paul writes the following to Christians living in the city of Corinth around the year 50:
“Love is patient. Love is kind. Love…”
Though my love is far from perfect, I do have great love for my children. I hurt when they hurt. I suffer when they suffer. I long for their lives to be filled with goodness – especially knowing the riches of God given to us in Christ Jesus. Until, last week, I had no conception of how I would feel if one of them died.
In my dream, my 6 year old David had an incurable disease that I have never heard of. It was contagious, but not everyone was susceptible to it. David had gotten it.
We quickly knew that he had this disease as patterned marks showed on his skin and swirled around his body. They were subtle, eerie marks – marks that spelled certain death.
David lay in Grace’s arms, weak – his exuberant life sucked out of his face, replaced with the gray lifeless grip of death. His life was being sucked away from him by the disease even as his mother tenderly held him.
As I watched death grip my little David, my internal organs twisted into knots, my throat closed, all light squeezed out of my mind. Every space in my being previously occupied by love for him constricted within me, tightening with the force of the vacuum death was leaving behind in my spirit. No joy, no hope, no faith – these life-filling forces crushed within me.
My mind desperately scanned the horizon for another way. My memory searched for what I could have done differently. My will silently screamed curses at the black hole relentlessly pulling my son. Sadness like I’ve never known blanketed over me without a thought or word. I realized, in my dream, what profound sadness was and knew that I had never experienced its true horror. When I awoke, I realized the experience of this sadness was key to understanding the mystery of my faith.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.”
The power of this verse depends on the reality of pain and ultimate sacrifice in the heart of Father God. Why would a painless offering of the Son by the Father demonstrate his great love for the world? No, this verse implies that redeeming the world cost the Father. Dare we even say that God, the ultimate cause and ground of all being, suffered when he gave his son to death?
How could it not be so! If I, though filled with such imperfect love, suffered at the grip of death on my son, how much more must Perfect Love have suffered. If my heart withered at the sight of my dying son, if my skin revolted at the marks on my son’s skin, if I, filled with so many imperfections, was pierced through at my son’s impending death, how much more was the heart of perfect love pierced as His Delight poured blood and water at the foot of the cross.
Some might object to the possible depth of the Father’s pain, replying that Father God knew there would be no ultimate separation from His Son. It is true, surely, that so much of our pain is caused by the doom of separation. This is undoubtedly true – grief must look different when standing inside perfect hope. However, is the full experience of grief explained by the doom of separation? Surely not. St. Paul urges the Thessalonians not to grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). There is a grief that even perfect hope cannot squelch.
The Father’s perfect love surely winced at every whisker that was plucked from His son’s beard, every cry of mockery, every scourge, every thorn, every nail. The complete injustice of it! Throughout the Scriptures, we see the Father’s heart revolt against the unjust treatment of the poor, the widow, even the prisoner. How He must have grieved at the thrashing of His only begotten Son whose only purpose in taking flesh was to heal, encourage, and immerse the Chosen People in His Kingdom of Love.
Christians have, at times, thoughtlessly attributed Jesus’ death merely to the justice of the Father. It has been said that God’s justice had to be satisfied – his wrath quenched by one who was of such eternal stature as to pay the eternal debt, owed to the Father, because of our sin. This was humanity’s only way out from the burden of wrath brought by sin.
No mystery can be fully explained by a simple formula. One of the problems with restricting our explanation of the cross with this simple formulation is that the death of Jesus could ultimately be seen as a relief to the Father. A debt finally paid. How far this theological premise is from John 3:16! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son…
No, we must rigorously hold on to the fact that the Father’s wrath didn’t kill Jesus – the brokenness and cruelty and fear and duplicity and greed and sin of humanity killed Jesus. He came unto his own and his own received him not (John 1:11). The Father’s heart, united with the Son’s heart through their shared divine nature, broke at this ultimate rejection.
St. Thomas Aquinas and many other great Christian minds have pointed out that the Father didn’t need to save us from our sin by giving his son up to death. He could have saved us in an infinite number of ways. However, that he chose this way – to become one with us by taking flesh, to share our hunger, weariness, and even our temptation, that the Father would demonstrate his own love for us in this: while we’re were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
This demonstrated love of the Father, even allowing his own perfect beloved Son to know the pain-filled flip-side of love in our broken world, inspires St. Paul to proclaim the following to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will He not also, with Him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
Isn’t this obviously true? If our freedom and victory over sin — and our eventual reception into heaven — were so important to the Father that he would willingly expose his divine heart to the gut-twisting pain of watching his only son be crushed by sin (a heart which he could have eternally shielded from pain), what obvious love, passion, and affection he clearly has for each of us!
Now I realize that the Father’s love goes even farther than my original analogy. My extreme grief in my dream as I watched my David die not only gives me a glimpse of the Father’s grief in watching His son die on the cross – even more poignantly, it shows me the great love the Father has for me. That he would do virtually anything to not be separated from me. That he would do virtually anything to free me from the clutches of sin and the wounds of this world’s brokenness. He would even allow his son to be subject to the cruelest death the Roman culture offered – the most ugliness and brokenness of that part of the world, so that he could definitively defeat all of it. The author of the book of Hebrews proclaims that Jesus, “for the joy set before him (the joy of pleasing the Father and of rescuing us – these two joys were one for Jesus), endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.”
I love the phrase “scorning its shame” in this verse. Jesus scorned the shame of the cross, the shame of sin, the shame of death. He looked with contempt upon shame and all that causes it in our world. The Creator of the universe condemned this world’s shame and defeated it. Now, because of the love and power of God, shame has no hold on us. It has been ultimately and finally scorned by the infinitely victorious heart and will of God. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God (1 John 3:1)!”
The Father passionately loves us. The Father’s heart is not angry at us because of our sin. The Father’s wrath is not brewing because of our failure. We are not reigniting the wrath of God with each new sin. The Father’s heart continues to relentlessly do everything he can, within the confines of our free will, to bring us to freedom. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son!
He continues to suffer with us. He knows our pain. His heart breaks with compassion when we again make ourselves subject to sin. His heart breaks with ours when our love is broken because of the world’s brokenness. For He is love.
I woke up from my dream filled with relief that my beloved David wasn’t actually being ripped from my life. I woke up knowing something of the extreme grief a father’s heart feels at the death of his son. I woke up understanding more about how much God must truly love Jesus, and therefore me.
Thank you for your love, most blessed Father. Thank you for your sacrifice, my savior Jesus. Thank you for this revelation, my helper, Holy Spirit.