In light of the cross, does all suffering take on significance and meaning? In separate works, David Bentley Hart and John Howard Yoder have a bit of a go at popular pastoral theology that seeks to understand the trials of life as our cross to bear, or as all part of the grand narrative that God is weaving behind the scenes, and if we could only see the big picture we would rejoice in our sufferings as we are exhorted to do.
But what does it mean to suffer with Jesus? For Yoder, this is nothing other than a political suffering; the suffering of one who belongs to the kingdom of God and is therefore violently opposed by the kingdom of this world.
The cross of Christ was not an inexplicable or chance event, which happened to strike him, like illness or accident. To accept the cross as his destiny, to move toward it and even to provoke it, when he could well have done otherwise, was Jesus’ constantly reiterated free choice; and he warns his disciples lest their embarking on the same path be less conscious of its costs (Luke 14:25-33). The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfilment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society. Already the early Christians had to be warned against claiming merit for any and all suffering; only if their suffering be innocent, and a result of the evil will of their adversaries, may it be understood as meaningful before God.
The cross, therefore, is not the symbol of suffering in general, nor does it give meaning and redemptive quality to all suffering. The cross is a concrete form of suffering that is vindicated by resurrection. What is that concrete form? Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes:
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What then of other types of suffering? What of the death of a child? What of the natural disasters that have wreaked havoc on the world? What comfort does the cross hold out to those who know such suffering?
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy…We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes—and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”