What a curious line, what a curious logic! One person gets lashed, another gets healed; one suffers, another is set free; one dies, another comes to life.
An odd logic, but a gospel logic; gospel not just because it appears in the bible (1 Peter) but because it contains the kind of paradox that lies at the heart of the good news of Jesus. Life comes from death and, sometimes, the death that produces life within us is not our own but the death of someone else.
How does this work? How can we be healed by someone else’s suffering? Or, perhaps even more importantly, the reverse: How can we suffer so as to heal someone else?
This concept, vicarious suffering, has an important place within all the great religions of the world. That should tell us something. No spirituality worth the name does not, at some point, make a place for it. In Christianity, it lies at the heart of everything: Christ died so that we might live. By his stripes we are healed.
Now we have not always had the best explanation of how that works. Too often, both in theology and in spirituality, we took a metaphor too literally. For example, in theology, there was the idea that because of sin, original sin and our own sin, some great debt is owed to God and the sufferings of Christ and of good people fill in that debt to the benefit of the rest of us. Scripture, on occasion, though not often, expresses this in metaphor. However if this idea is taken literally it does not do much justice to God. It makes God seem arbitrary, petty, and legalistic, and it gives the idea that there is, somewhere, a divine credit union within which sin and merits must be balanced like a bank book. Sin makes a grace withdrawal. Sacrifice makes a grace deposit.
We had this idea in a popularized form within spirituality, although, admittedly, not in as crass as sense as just expressed. The idea was that good people could make sacrifices for others. Thus, for example, a good mother with a wayward son would make sacrifices for her son. She would do virtuous acts and offer them up for her son and he, on his part, would somehow be helped by that. By her stripes he was healed.
We want to be careful not to be too cynical about this. The logic behind this needs refinement, but both the sincerity of intention of the mother and the net result of her sacrifice should not be underrated within the economy of grace. Her sacrifice does help her son, if he is at all open to grace. However, it helps him not because there is a divine credit union where her deposits of grace let him overdraw his account, so to speak, but because in the economy (perhaps not a good word here) of grace we are, indeed, helped by the sacrifice of others. How?
Let me illustrate with one simple example: Growing up as a young boy, I had a brother who was two years older than myself. He was not only older chronologically, he was also considerably more mature. One Sunday afternoon, during a spring when I was eleven and he was thirteen, we were playing outside the house when we came upon a copper boiler that my mother had put there to catch water from the snow as it melted on a roof. There was a crust of ice over the water and, being a young boy, I wanted to break it. I picked up a small steel crowbar and was about to poke into the ice with it when my brother warned me: “Careful,” he said, “if it slips you will ruin the boiler, it’s sides are soft.” Then, seeing that I was going to do it anyway, he tried to wrench the steel bar away from me, but, before he was able to, I slammed it into the ice … and, just as he had predicted, it glanced off the ice and punctured the side of the copper boiler, effectively ruining it.
The next morning at breakfast, my father, having seen the ruined boiler and having deduced the cause, confronted my brother and myself at the table: “Who ruined that boiler?” Frightened and ashamed, but deeply aware of my guilt, I sat in silence, too immature to admit what I had done. After a brief pause, my brother spoke: “I did,” he said, “I was trying to break the ice with a crowbar and it slipped and went through the side of the boiler.” My father admonished him briefly, telling him that, at his age, he should have known better. He, for his part, he did not protest that he did know better, nor did he look at me in anger, or gloat in glee. Mostly he just looked at me as a younger brother who was a bit immature and needed an older brother to bail him out.
He took the rap for me and, because of that, I grew up a bit. He suffered, I matured. By his stripes I was healed.