Every Christian and many a skeptic has asked this question: why did Jesus, as God, have to pay for humanity’s sins against God? Why the elaborate setup? Why the suffering? Couldn’t God just call it even? If He’s so merciful, powerful, and forgiving, isn’t He big enough to overlook our measly misdeeds?
The theological answer, “because God is a just and holy God,” can feel dry, unsatisfying, circular.
For such a deep question, each soul must find their own way to an answer. Mine? Theology aside, I’ll show you one view of the invisible world. I’ll take you back to high school with me, then if you’re up for it, into the fabric of what makes us who we are. Ready?
Our scene: suburbia, night, the early 2000’s. A teenage girl is arguing with her father in their open garage, probably wearing suede taupe Boston Birkenstocks under flared American Eagle jeans.
I don’t remember why my father was yelling at me. I remember I thought he was wrong, and I didn’t feel ashamed of whatever he was mad about. And I knew he loved me. But I started crying as he yelled.
I wasn’t crying because of feelings. It wasn’t shame or rejection or pity-seeking. It was an involuntary physical reaction to a physical attack, like a blow, though he never laid a hand on me. Radiating vocal emotion wordlessly bypassed my thoughts and judgments to cause tears.
I could have forgiven my father instantly–in fact, I didn’t necessarily need to hold anything against him, to begin with, as we’d simply interpreted the same events two different ways and perhaps he had a lapse in judgment or self-control. But the crying wasn’t consciously related to how I felt about him.
If someone bumps into your bookshelf and breaks it, no matter their intent, someone has to repair it, or you do, or it remains broken.
If someone yells at you, your heart rate may speed up, your system flooding with stress hormones. It will take time, blood and cells bustling about, to return to baseline.
When there’s damage, someone must pay for restoration, with time or money, energy or emotion, or it won’t happen. This has nothing to do with whether you forgave them. It’s a common and unquestioned principle of the physical world that makes people uneasy or angry in the spiritual realm: “Why does someone have to pay at all?” Well, where else in the natural or relational realm do we see the principle that damage has no consequences?
That night I learned that feelings and forgiveness may not preclude damage done. But this is, of course, a tiny example between humans. If God has anything to forgive us, it’s surely greater than a single instance of yelling.
I don’t like the word sin. It seems to imply I’m not living my best life. Three letters finding objective fault with my existence. But does my dislike mean it’s not real?
Sin is typically defined as, “Transgression against divine law.” Many people accept that if anything at all can be rightly called divine, it’s love. “Be good to other people,” is a five-word phrase that often functions as a minimalist religion.
Divine law is the law of love, a seemingly universal code written on our hearts, expressing itself in creative and helpful uniting impulses. It finds itself indignant at injustice and is moved to mail money to Haiti after a hurricane. It’s part of the fabric of human nature (I think we are made of love and light). We were meant to live in unbroken communion with others–this is the deepest longing of our hearts.
The Christian Scriptures explicitly declare “God is love.” For the Christian, that natural humanly-innate law of love is labeled divine law. Jesus said that loving God is the highest commandmen, and that the second-highest commandment is like it: loving your neighbor as yourself. Does that mean our first priority should be to love love? To cherish it, to celebrate it, to champion it, to protect it, to delight in it?
So far, I’ve defined sin as “not always loving other people.” Using this definition, Jesus was the only human ever to live without sin, fully upholding the law of love.
Love doesn’t approve of every behavior, but it embraces the dignity and personhood of each human regardless. Anything less isn’t love. People say very unkind things out of understandable outrage when they sense intolerance (our current President is a common target). But in proclaiming the intolerant to be subhuman monsters, they fall into the same mistake.
If love is inanimate, we could say we regularly forget it, ignore it and act against it. If Love is a person, we’d use phrasing like, we betray him, reject him, hurt him. “God is love.” Love is indeed a person, according to Christians… God Himself. “We betray God, we reject God…” such language is Christianly commonplace, especially around Easter.
But hurt God? Is that possible if He’s omnipotent?
Can we damage love?
Love is indestructible, thank goodness, but we can wound it. Christian Scripture reveals that God lets us affect Him deeply. Isn’t this how love must act? If we easily shrug off someone’s rejection, it can only be that we didn’t really care about them.
It is the nature of love to allow itself to be hurt. Whether or not we mean to do so is only part of the picture.
When someone accidentally drops a bowling ball on your foot, you hope they’ll have compassion for the pain you are now in, even if the offense was entirely unintentional. If instead they angrily insist that they didn’t do it purposely so you shouldn’t feel hurt, and certainly you shouldn’t expect anything of them, the relationship is now also damaged. No matter what they say, and whether or not you’re mad, your foot may bruise, break, or bleed, and it will need time to heal. When we tear apart love through our carelessness or pain, it stays ripped until repaired.
In Scripture, God describes Himself as a husband to his people and likens His own love for humanity to the prophet Hosea marrying a prostitute and, brokenhearted, running after her to get her back again each time she leaves for another man. Jesus weeps in public over Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
We tend to hold the image of a broken and sobbing God at arm’s length. For some, it’s too familiar and has lost all meaning. For others, it’s merely uncomfortable and confusing and unimpressive. It clashes with our idea of someone all-powerful. But can’t a powerful person care deeply about things?
In the context of describing our widespread societal disconnection and prejudice, researcher Brene Brown writes (echoing countless thinkers and observers who have come before her), “If we can find a way to feel hurt rather than spread hurt, we can change,” in her book Braving the Wilderness.
The God of the Bible models how to feel hurt, which is to say, how to change the world.
So if forgiving feelings don’t undo damage, if sin is “not being loving” and we are all at least guilty of that, if “not being loving” wounds love itself, where does that leave us?
When love itself breaks, what can fix it?
What glue or thread or tape could bind it back together?
Money? Our next strongest “fix-it” is completely powerless.
The only way to get rid of evil is for a willing victim to choose to absorb it. As Brene Brown put it, someone has to choose to “feel hurt instead of spread hurt” for anything to change.
When I need to chop vegetables quietly, I layer a slice of sweet potato on top of my cutting board. A disgusting analogy, but only by cutting into soft flesh can the sound waves be absorbed into silence. The bamboo is loud because it won’t let the knife in, and the sound waves bounce outward. Anyone who will not allow themselves to be changed by pain leaves evil intact, spreads it. Deep pain must be resolved inwardly. Ignoring it or even rejecting it does not make it go away.
Why Jesus? We broke love. If you are love on Earth, you will be broken. It’s that kind of place. We’re that kind of people. He came as love and we broke Him. He let us. He lived as divine love, absorbing evil by forsaking retaliation and revenge, even to the point of death. That kind of life, and that kind of death, can knit love back together.
Visit Karin at SailingByTheStars.com.