God has a way of keeping his people close to his side; I would like to suggest one of his primary means for doing this is through suffering. For the remainder of this post I want to attempt to offer a theology of scars and remembrance.
We all walk through various forms of suffering in this life, this is what it means to live in a fallen world; there is fall-out in this fallen world—both internal and external to ourselves—that we will in one way or the other be exposed to and experience in various measures of intensity and duration. The wisdom of God was to enter this world precisely at the point of our weakness, and redeem and reverse the human travail from there (I Cor. 1.17-25); as we walk through whatever suffering we are going to be faced with that will leave these scars, whether those be physical, spiritual-emotional, or all of the above. This has been my experience after walking through many years of various trials.
In my early twenties (starting in 1995) I began to experience severe anxiety attacks, deep depression, associated with a doubt of God’s existence (even though I still believed in Him), and a host of other emotional-psychological woes that wouldn’t abate for a period of at least six years. I won’t wear you out with indexing the details of all the woes I struggled with during that season, but suffice it to say there are deep and abiding scars left over from that season. Indeed, God in Jesus Christ brought me healing and comfort through it all; but He let me go through it, in all of its excruciating torment and pain. Yet, He never left or forsook me; He cared for me through apocalyptic in-breakings bringing total relief to tortuous moments where I thought all sanity would finally be lost; and He did this over and over again. He brought relief this way so much, He met me in the depths so frequently that I began to have confidence and expectation that He would deliver me through each episode of despondency and horror. In the midst of the torment He was building His life into mine in such ways that I would learn to recognize His voice, to understand His presence, and to expect Him to show up just when all seemed lost. When this series of events happens over and again for a season of years you begin to have an abiding trust in God that no one can rattle or shake. You begin to realize that the very ground of your identity and essence as a person is fully contingent upon the Living God and His Word of sustenance. If nothing else, this is what this season of time taught me about God. Yet it came with scars. The scars are reminders that I am not my own, that I’ve been bought with a hefty price, and my life can never go beyond the life that God chooses to give me in and from Himself in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Fast forward to 2009, another epic trial hit me; this time it wasn’t just me, but it would impact my young family—my wife and two kids, most immediately (but all of my family). I was diagnosed with what is normally a terminal and incurable cancer called Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (DSRCT). I thought I had experience anxiety before—and I had—but this brought things to a new level. This season that lasted just about a year held me in a state that went beyond anxiety, it took me to depths of anguish that I didn’t know were possible. Attendant with this season of life there was, of course, the physical component to the suffering that I had never experience previously in any measure in my life. The chemo literally ravished my body, and the lack of having a sense of ‘future’—with my family on this earth—was more than overwhelming. Yet again, the Lord met us in so many ways it would be hard to detail them. He provided for us financially, with the best of medical care, He provided me with what I could only describe as “visions” of Him, He made sure we knew He was tangibly present by angelic visitors, and so many other means of provision. And for some reason, only known to Him, He walked us through that to the point that I was allowed to live. This season of suffering likewise brought scars, not just emotional-psychological, but this time I have physical scars I can look down at on my belly and upper chest. What was made clear in this season is that at the deepest depths God is faithful to meet us where we need Him most; He meets us in our moments of deepest suffering and anguish and reveals Himself in the times where by all outward appearances He seems to be Hidden.
I sketch these two seasons of suffering from my own life to help segue into some biblical passages that I think tie into my own moments of suffering, and into the moments of human suffering in general which we all are partakers of to one degree or another. Let me quote some of these passages, and then I will offer some reflection on them as they relate to this topic of consideration.
13 The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. 14 “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Exodus 12:13-14
When all the nation had finished passing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, 2 “Take twelve men from the people, from each tribe a man, 3 and command them, saying, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the midst of the Jordan, from the very place where the priests’ feet stood firmly, and bring them over with you and lay them down in the place where you lodge tonight.’… 6 that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’ 7 then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial forever.” Joshua 4:1-3, 6-7
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes. Psalm 119:67, 71
42 saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. 44 And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. 45 And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, 46 and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Luke 22:42-46
28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. John 19:28-30
27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” John 20:27
14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. 16 And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. 17 From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. Galatians 6:14-17
8 For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. 9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. II Corinthians 1:8-10
10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. 11 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:10-11
17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18
These only represent a small sampling of the various passages we could refer to when thinking about a theology of scars, remembrance, and suffering; but they are the ones that most immediately came to mind. Very early on God provides new life for His people through the shedding of innocent blood; He creates a framework wherein sacrifice and substitution for the other becomes the means by which we are to understand our relationship to God. There was much travail and anguish that attended this time of Passover; there was death and judgment, and yet out of this sprung new life, and the hope for all of humanity that would ultimately come through the offspring of Israel in the man from Nazareth, Jesus Christ. As Leviticus notes ‘the life is in the blood,’ and it is this that comes through most clairvoyantly as we contemplate what happened in Exodus; life was lost, through suffering and the death of the other, in order that life might be reborn in the creation of a new people that would ultimately lead to life for the nations. But I want to highlight the tie in between suffering and new life.
As this new people is formed through much tribulation God has the priests place remembrance stones in the Jordan as a sign of God’s faithfulness; we might see them as ‘scars’ that the people in solidarity could look back upon and remember that they are a people not of their own making, but of the creative hand of Yahweh. These ‘scars’ were intended to be a resource for the people to look at particularly in times where they might be tempted to forget God’s faithfulness; more positively, they were intended to be a sort of sacramental means by which the people were to understand God’s presence in their lives, and for their lives in a very concrete rock hard way.
King David understood how important affliction was; he knew of his heritage and the God who created and formed his lineage. He was so aware of God’s faithfulness that he could look upon his deep and tortuous suffering as the means by which he understood God to be showing Himself faithful to him rather than as an onerous overlord arbitrarily beating him for sadistic purposes. He could look at suffering and affliction and know that there God’s faithfulness was present in it, and that God was using it to teach deep and abiding things about Himself to David.
We meet the son of David, Jesus Christ, in the travail of the Garden; the substantive Passover (I Cor. 5:7). He along with David knew that in order for the plight of new life to come to pass He, as the Lamb of God, must endure suffering for the ‘joy set before Him.’ The depth of His anguish only caused Him to press that much more deeply into His Father’s sustenance and love in reliance upon the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence. Even while in the intensity of the suffering, He knew the Father’s faithfulness would carry Him through in and through the bond of eternal love that He shared with the Father through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Christ’s great travail, most notably observed in the Garden, ironically where the Fall of Humanity occurred (in ‘the Garden’ Gen. 3), eventuated in the deepest travail to ever be experienced in all of history. The suffering and tribulation that Jesus experienced at the point of the cross was of depths that no greater suffering will ever or ever has been known throughout all the long corridors of human suffering and travail. The suffering Jesus endured required that the very ground of His humanity be Divine in nature; outwith this fortification His frail dusty humanity would have been vaporized into the oblivion that the Devil himself and humanity’s incurved souls would have hoped for.
But He is risen! Even in His resurrected body, as Thomas realized, the scars of the cross remained. They will serve as reminders and signs of remembrance for all eternity that God’s faithfulness is greater than humanity’s unfaithfulness; that what it means to be truly human before God is to be reconciled to Him in New Creation and Reconciliation. These scars, at a macro-level, serve to remind us that God in the Son is not untouched by human suffering and anguish, but that His heart is immediately in the midst of all that we walk through in this life, and in the life to come in eschatological vision.
We see the Apostle Paul, as a partaker of the Divine nature, experiencing suffering tribulation and anguish in the same sorts of ways we’ve seen starting in Exodus, in the King David, and ultimately in Jesus Christ himself. The Apostle Paul, like King David understood the value of the trials (even though he’d rather not walk through them cf. II Cor. 12), and could later look at all of his scars and gain great strength and purpose from realizing that God would never leave or forsake him. The Apostle Paul, as he cared for the various churches, wanted people to realize that this pattern was going to be normative for all those who would become spiritual participants in the life of God through Jesus Christ. His writings are filled with notations of how the Christian life will be one that is lived out of brokenness, and in this brokenness God’s resurrected life in Jesus Christ will be made strong and complete; will be the place where He is borne witness to most, and His glory displayed for the world to see and experience.
We understand as we look at Christ that the hope we have laid before us in the heavenlies is one where His indestructible life is the reality. Not an ethereal abstract reality to the human experience, but one where the human experience has been assumed, renewed, and resurrected in the triumph of the living God. The scars of Jesus show the world that there is real hope.
I’ve written this post more as an exercise in reminding myself that God is faithful at all costs; that His love will never cease; and that His ability to take care of His people (including me) is unmatched by any challenge we might face in this life. My scars sometimes become more apparent to me than at other times; I’ve been pressed into a situation, once again, where my weaknesses and inabilities in myself are on full display for me to see. And I can recognize these moments as God’s mercy in my life, keeping me from drifting from His more sure Word for my life. Hopefully my reflecting can serve as some sort of reminder to you of His faithfulness to you in your own life; that you will be able to value the scars in your life, and appreciate the development of new ones—even though these are not welcomed when we are walking through whatever we are walking through. At the very least our scars can cause us to remember God’s faithfulness in the past, and this might provide the kind of Manna we need to walk through whatever dark night of the soul we might be experiencing this time. Maybe, ever so faintly, we will see our scars as grounded in the scars of the Son for us; and in that vision recognize that our lives are securely grounded in the One who has ‘died’ and yet ‘alive forevermore.’