“With,” not “For”

Christians love the phrase, “Jesus died for me.”  I can’t help but feel like the overuse of that phrase has led to a lot of problems.  The idea that Jesus died for my sins is certainly Biblical, and it has been the cry of Christians, Protestants especially, for many generations.  I don’t feel like I have to explain the idea of sacrificial theology too much because it is so prevelant, but here goes:  We are sinful and a just God needs redemption.  Instead of retribution, God sent Jesus, who was sinless, to be the sacrifice for the world.  There is more to it than this, and most Christians have heard this story a thousand times.  Jesus died for me because I am sinner and I need to be saved.

I have come to realize how problematic this type of thinking can be.  For one, it is incredibly selfish.  Yes, it is important to realize that God seeks out individuals.  God loves every part of God’s creation and yearns for a relationship with all of us, even you and especially me.  But if the language is all “my sins, my savior, my God,” you end up with a very small god, and a very limited idea of salvation.  The “we” is sacrificed on the altar of “me.”  As a result such important ideas like the communion of saints, systematic sin, and communal confession are lost.  Sin is reduced individal moral failing, and Jesus is reduced to a self-help guru.  (Many Christians charge other with making Jesus into a glorified teacher, but these people often make Jesus into a glorified Dr. Phil with magic tricks).

Secondly, the constant chorus that “Jesus died for me” is the first step toward a serious faith conflict.  Let me explain: If I believe that Jesus died for me, then I expect Jesus to hang on the cross for all of my sins.  Jesus is the one suffering, and I respond with tremendous gratitude because I know it could have been me on that cross.  After all, I’m kind of a jerk.  So I sing songs like “Take me to the Cross,” which thanks Jesus for stepping in and taking my punishment for me.  I adore Jesus, but am not so sure about that Father, who felt an uncontrollable desire to punish someone.  So I live my life, thankful that Jesus took away my suffering.  But then something funny happens: I suffer.

I lose a loved one, or I am diagnosed with cancer, or my child is sent to war, or I take seriously the fact that the suffering of one is the suffering of all and I see that children in Africa are dying of AIDS and boys are being kidnapped, given cocaine and machine guns to kill their parents.  So now I am faced with suffering, but all along I believed that Jesus died for me.  Now what am I supposed to do?  Jesus must not have suffered for me, because here I am doing plenty of it myself.  Yeah, Jesus might have had it worse, but this is pretty bad.  So I can either clench my jaw and think, “Well, Jesus died for me to save me from eternal punishment, but he doesn’t do much for me now;” or worse, I think, “Jesus abandoned me.”  I am left with nothing but despair.

Does this seem over-simplified?  Maybe, but I am convinced that only believing “Jesus died for me,” results in despair when faced with real-life suffering.  So what do we have?  There is another Biblical idea, one that Jesus himself believed when he told his disciples to “Take up your cross and follow me.”  The idea is that Jesus died with me.

If Jesus died with me, then Jesus is there on the cross with me.  I am still suffering.  Jesus did not take that away, and God did not put me there to satisfy some divine blood-lust.  I recognize that this world is broken.  There are biological, political, economic, and environmental forces that are outside of God’s direct control and make us suffer.  There are sins that are greater than individual moral failures.  Because of these things, we will suffer.  So when I am faced with tragedy, I know that Jesus is with me.  Instead of despair I have hope.

What makes the Christian unique is not that Jesus suffers for us, but the comfort that comes with the knowledge that Jesus suffers with us.  We know we are not alone.  We know that Jesus is there for us through the darkest days, and that God the Father is not seeking ways to punish us, but sought, and found, the perfect way to comfort us.

If we hold only to the fact that “Jesus died for us,” then the story ends on the cross.  If the story of Jesus is that he had to die for us to take our punishment away, then the resurrection is nothing more than an interesting postscript.  If Jesus’ only mission was to die for us, then the mission was accomplished on the cross.  But Paul tells us that we die Jesus’ death and share Jesus’ resurrection.  When we suffer, we know that is not the end of the story.  We know we have hope in the one that died, and was resurrected, and lives eternally with God.

So in this, my first post that is explicitly about God, I offer you this: Jesus did not simply die for you; Jesus died with you, and you will rise with Jesus.  Suffering will surely come, but know that the suffering comes with the hope of the Resurrected One.  May God’s peace and the hope of Jesus Christ be with you.

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1 Comment

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One response to ““With,” not “For”

  1. Steve

    Yes, there is a selfish and self-serving strain that colors the attitude of many towards God & Jesus. There are those who believe that the rich are reaping his blessings while the poor must have done something wrong to deserve punishment (And, the worst of this school of thought? The Fred Phelps “church.”)

    Rob, you say: “There are biological, political, economic, and environmental forces that are outside of God’s direct control and make us suffer. ” This passage probably rankles the feathers of of some, who hold an all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipotent Father who watches out for the welfare of everyone and everything. They would say that God is all-powerful, his plans are mysterious, anything bad is really something good in disguise, etc. etc. He can’t–by definition of who he is–have things beyond his control. But, I think they’d be missing the point of why we’re here in the first place.

    Buddha said, “Existence is suffering.” While, I don’t know that I’d go quite that far, life certainly isn’t a cakewalk. This isn’t a perfect world. We are faced with difficult choices and temptations. The good suffer along with the bad. Why are we even here at all?

    The most obvious reason to me is that so we can learn how to make moral choices and deal with adversity. If God just wanted more people around, and have them lead easy, carefree “good” lives, why create the material world at all? Why not simply add to the ranks in heaven? Why put them in a chaotic world of good AND bad? Because this imperfect, painful, and short (in the lifespan of the universe) existence teaches us something we couldn’t understand otherwise.

    So, yes, Jesus is there *with* us, not *for* us, as we go through this trying thing called life. (But, someone who’s a teacher *would* think of God as a “tester,” right?)

    ; )

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