Our Story in God’s Story

The Meaning of Jesus’ Life, Death and Resurrection

Every year I try once again to read a book or discuss with a clergy person or friend the theology of the atonement, which means the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

My need for this is to make peace in my heart with the whole story of Jesus. My desire comes down to this: I live in a small and simple world in which I want God to be accessible, understandable (yet ultimately unfathomable), real and touchable. I also want to be challenged to do something significant and heart-felt in response to God’s presence in my life. So I prefer a theology or way of explaining Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that makes sense to my heart and soul, not just to my mind. And I want to live out my beliefs about Jesus in a life giving way.

This year I stumbled on a view of the atonement that has been right under my nose for about twenty years. My clergy friend, Gary Klingsporn, cited it, cogently, in a chapter he wrote for a book we co-authored. I include it as the core of what I’m writing here, along with added features that I have personally experienced in my journey with God. Essentially this view illustrates how we find our story in God’s story. I embrace this view as the one that resonates most at this point in my life and my faith. I will describe it for you in the way I understand it and then name it for you at the end of this essay.

God came into the world for love’s sake

First, God chose to come into the world out of love for us. He loved us so much, he wanted to show us that he could identify with our lives and our work. God wanted a closer relationship with us and one way to be close to us was to be one of us and live amongst us. Jesus was born to be God’s unconditional gift of love to the world. God’s utmost desire for us is to live in intimacy with him and in him.

 

Jesus lived out God’s love in the world

Jesus lived fully in God’s love and through God’s Spirit. Jesus healed people, called them to make significant changes, embraced all the outsiders and marginalized folks, taught the crowds with stories and simple questions (“do you want to be healed?”), took on the religious establishment and hypocrites, and mentored his close followers (both men and women). He did all of this by going off regularly into the hills or mountains to pray and to be refilled by God. Perhaps he needed to remember the divine long song that he heard at his baptism, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” He was anchored in his beloved. He knew that he was God’s human face of unvarnished love.

God entered into our suffering

God, through Jesus, entered fully into our humanity by living and suffering and dying on the Cross. So we know that God can enter all of our suffering and darkness and be present to us intimately in any of our pain. Why is suffering God’s entry point? I’d like to think that we just naturally want to be closer to God, but my experience as a spiritual director has shown me that we are drawn closer to God primarily by pain, which most of us try to avoid. That pain may result from illness, death, lack of meaning or purpose, abuse, addiction, divorce or any number of other things.

No matter the source of our pain or suffering, all of it is forever held in the heart of God. In fact, God tells us that he comes and makes his home in us. He is within us, waiting for us to come and lay our burdens down. Scripture says God stores all of our tears in a bottle and keeps a poignant ledger of all of our pain. God’s story is really our story, since there is nothing we have suffered that he hasn’t already experienced. In this way, God is a God of love and a presence in our pain.

God rose and transformed suffering and death

But the Cross, and our suffering, are not the end of the story nor the last word. Jesus rose from the dead and once again became present to his followers, promising them that he would leave his Spirit with them so they would never be alone. Meaning arose directly from his suffering. His story lived on in a new way. So, we, too, are called to rise from our suffering to see the light of a new day. Jesus always goes before us, as the angels told the women at the empty tomb.

Jesus does not leave us alone either. He offers us his Spirit, which is as close as our breath. In fact we could say that we live and breathe Jesus’ Spirit, he is that close to us. His Spirit gives us clarity, courage and compassion to live out our lives in life-changing ways.

What does this mean for us? There is a gift in our suffering

So if we see our story in God’s story, how does it interpret our suffering? If we attend to the deeper meaning of our suffering and embrace it with the help of a loving God and a healing process, we experience a transformation. We can see the deeper purpose, the larger call, the healing presence within the suffering, even if we are never fully cured or the memories still linger. Even Jesus used his scars to show whom he was and that he had healed. And those of us who cause suffering, by inflicting pain on ourselves and/or others are urgently called to admit our actions and take responsibility for them so we can be healed and restored as well. We can’t undo what we have done but we can make amends.

We can all move beyond our pain to a new way of life, a healed and restored life. We know, even in our pain, the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding. God attends to the details of our lives in loving, healing and often humorous ways and our intimacy with God grows—perhaps more in times of suffering than any other time.

 

The price of intimacy and healing

The closer we get to God, the more of his holy intimacy we experience. And with that intimacy we pay a price, a price that confirms our covenant with and surrender to our loving God, just as Jesus and his followers did in the risks they took and the way they lived out their lives. Jesus’ intimacy with and surrender to God brought him to a Roman Cross. How? His life of love was too radical for some. His unwillingness to be an earthly king provoked others. His life-giving stance flew in the face of authorities on all sides. His miracles prompted a larger and larger following, culminating with Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, propelling the Sanhedrin, the leading Jewish authority, to position him to be the scapegoat so the rest of the Jewish nation would be saved from the wrath of the Romans.

When we experience intimacy with God and his love, we begin to look at ourselves in the new light of this unconditional love and we are called to release all that is not of God. Our price of this intimacy will be unique to us and may require releasing, letting go, making peace, and facing places of pain or estrangement from God in our lives, but it will also be life giving. We may not see how life giving it is while it is happening because we live in the little picture and God operates in both the little and big pictures!

God may call us to release things that will surprise us as he reveals what it means to go deeper. We may be called to change our work. We may release friends who are toxic; even family members. We may be asked to leave the comforts of home. We may be asked to tell the whole truth of our lives and make amends. We may be called to address our sin, which is, in my experience, anything that gets in the way of deeper intimacy with God. This would include, of course, the seven deadly sins plus two; lust, pride (which some say is the root of all the others), sloth, anger, self-deception, envy, greed, fear and gluttony…or anything over which we harbor resentment, revenge, shame or guilt. In short, we may need to “die” to ourselves in order to live more fully in God!

The deepest truth in our “death” and surrender is this: In this process we find our place of restoration. God restores us to who we were always called to be when we were first created and brought into the world, to live out our “sealed orders,” as the great healer, Agnes Sanford so aptly describes. We were created in God’s own image. Now we are able to reclaim that image and bring our restored selves fully to the world. But God invites us even one step further…

God calls us to be healers in the world

As we heal from our pain, and weigh the call of intimacy with God, we will be invited to reach out into the world in miraculous ways, to pay forward what we’ve experienced as a result of our healing and intimacy with God. Many times our call is to work in the very areas of our own healing, to share our newfound strength with the world. Jesus lived out his intimacy with God through showing radical love to the people he encountered, no matter what the consequences. He taught his followers by the way he lived. And his followers lived out their lives differently as a result. So we can live our lives differently. What it really means to live a Christ-like life is to let God be as instrumental in our lives as Christ invited God to be in his life. It may be different for all of us but it is equally transforming. We are truly restored, and indescribable joy flows through our lives.

And what happens when we are living out our lives in total surrender to God’s amazing grace is that we experience God’s eternal presence right here on earth, God’s kingdom among us. And then death, for us, is a deeper and richer reunion with God, who adores us, and with those who have gone before us (the clouds of witnesses) who are beckoning us “home” to join the heavenly hosts. And so the final word is never death. The final word is LOVE.

If we could only know how wide and deep and broad God’s love is…and that nothing can separate us from this unconditional love. Here is a poem I wrote about how I experience that love, my intimacy with God. This poetic form is called a French Pantoum.

 

I am God’s Now

I am God’s now

My desire, to know my Beloved

Intimacy comes with a price

My life has been restored

My desire, to know my Beloved

No other love compares

My life has been restored

Eternity comes into view

No other love compares

Intimacy comes with a price

Eternity comes into view

I am God’s now

This theology is called Narrative Theology, finding our stories in God’s story and seeing that God is lovingly involved in all the details of our lives. Thanks to Gary for writing about this view in our book, Who Are You, God?, in the chapter called “What can we expect from God?” I am also grateful to Bob Guelich, my co-author of the Critical Journey, for naming what it really means to be Christ-like.

ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2015. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay:

How do you resonate with this way of thinking of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection?

When have you experienced God suffering with you or being present to your pain or suffering?
When have you experienced a new meaning, purpose or a call from an experience of pain, disappointment, betrayal or suffering, whether of your own doing or at someone else’s hands?

What does it mean to you to let God be as involved in your life as Jesus invited God to be? How does that feel to you?

What would keep you from moving closer to God or letting God move closer to you?

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