In the ancient view, the gods were capricious and lust-filled tyrants wholly responsible for the suffering of humans. The “Homeric Hymn to Pythian Apollo” sums it up nicely:
. . . All the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice,
hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men,
all that they endure at the hands of the deathless gods,
and how they live witless and helpless and cannot find
healing for death or defense against old age. (lines 189–192)
Taking this idea a step further, Gloucester’s lament in King Lear frames human suffering as the “sport” of the gods:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport. (IV: 1: 36–37)
Because of this perceived reality, one of the central themes of humanist mythology involves our vainglorious attempts to achieve victory over the gods—through craft, strength, or beauty. In this way, Greek mythology mixes the truths of human experience with fantasy wish fulfillment. Hercules, the strongest man, rescues “man’s friend” Prometheus from the vengeance of Zeus. Sisyphus, the craftiest man, receives his tragically interminable punishment for successfully deceiving and manipulating the gods.
But perhaps the greatest and most “satisfying” mythological story of human victory over the gods is Odysseus, who defies the sea god Poseidon after blinding, deceiving, and humiliating Poseidon’s son Polyphemus. And unlike most of the other humans whose hubris got the better of them, Odysseus comes to a happy end.
According to the Greeks, the gods couldn’t understand the human condition because they were “deathless” in paradise enjoying “unending gifts.” In order to understand all the harm that they had done to human beings, the gods needed to be knocked down a peg or two—into suffering, even into death.
This is an ancient idea, but it did not die with the ancients.
The Christian hope is that suffering has a purpose and meaning beyond what we can see in the short-term. But I must admit there are times I feel like God doesn’t understand what I’m going through. There are times I feel like God can’t understand, transcendent and everlastingly blissful as he is.
And I know, like the Greeks before me, that I cannot ultimately force God to understand my pain. Sometimes, as a surrogate for divine empathy, I attempt to force other humans (unfortunate souls) to understand and share in my suffering. In some ways, this explains the nearly cliché “victimization cycle”—the idea that “hurt people hurt people.” Victimization becomes an attempt at forced empathy: “I will hurt you as I have been hurt, and then perhaps you will understand me. Then perhaps you will love me. I cannot force God to understand my pain, but I can force you to understand.”
We all fall into this. We are hesitant to complain to God. We don’t think he will listen, or we think he will punish us for our impertinence. We don’t generally “vent” honestly and bitterly to God. Instead, in our hopelessness, we pour our anger, hurt, frustration, bitterness, and disappointment onto the heads of others. And instead of making things any better, we just add to the cycle of “man handing on misery to man.”
But to this hopelessness, God brings good news if we will receive it.
Consider for a moment the satisfaction of those who hated Jesus, seeing him hanging on the cross. Consider for a moment the satisfaction of the Roman soldiers as they mocked Jesus, as they whipped him, as they pushed the thorns down into his sweating brow. With every pound of the mallet on the nails that pierced his body, every witness felt the same satisfaction in their hearts. They felt the wild screaming satisfaction of Odysseus, safely out of distance of Polyphemus’ stones.
At the Cross, humans finally had God literally in their hands and at their mercy. This pageant of divine suffering was no mere fantasy wish fulfillment. Finally, the shoe was on the other foot. Finally, we could do to God all the things we thought he had been doing to us all this time. God would finally know how it feels.
And Jesus, stretching out his arms, received it all. He swallowed up all our suffering in himself, refusing even the smallest succor of human or divine empathy. His misery had no company. He was wholly forsaken.
At the Cross, we told God: “It would bring me joy to see you suffer as I have suffered.” And to our great astonishment, God responded: “I will gladly bear your suffering to bring you joy.”