Christ Primate Was Not Free To Avoid Suffering

Anthony Zimmerman
May 17, 1987
Reproduced with Permission

One of the reasons why theologians of the past constructed the Cinderella paradise, and why we are so eager to believe in that construct, is our difficulty in understanding the problem of suffering and evil in this world. If we picture a dream paradise, where there is no pain, no death, but a loving God who beckons innocent Adam to heaven after a beautiful life on earth, then we have God who knows no evil but is all good. And if we then blame all suffering and evil on sin and the devil, we neatly separate the world of suffering from the world of God. But is that the way things are? Did Adam have an escalator to sweep him to heaven without any efforts of his own? (Then why the show of living in Eden at all? Why not create Adam and Eve in heaven?) Or did original sin stall the escalator, making it necessary that both Adam and we labor up the steep and narrow way on our own power?

Christ is fully aware of our difficulty in trying to reconcile God's goodness with the existence of evil. We look at His example to see what He thought about suffering. If our Primate bore the trials of life on earth as a means of personal fulfillment and perfection, then evil must have its good side also.


The renowned German theologian Matthias Scheeben, who died in 1865, deemed in his deep piety that Christ didn't really have to suffer; that is, Christ was not made to suffer by an order which required obedience; Christ, wrote Scheeben, could have chosen not to suffer; but He did it anyway, to show us how much He loves us:

For the greater glory of His Father He (Christ) renounced the glory of His body and took upon Himself the greatest sufferings along with the bitterest death although He could have been immune to all suffering and had the fullest right to be thus immune. In view of this right of His Son's, God could not absolutely exact suffering and death from Him by a strict command; at any rate the dignity of the Son of God which Christ possesses even in His humanity required that He could either secure release from such an obligation or by petition obtain a dispensation from it (Scheeben 450).

The thrust of this article is that, contrary to Scheeben's thought, suffering is inseparable from Christ's mission as Primate and High Priest of creation. What troubles us in the above passage of Scheeben is first of all the contrary evidence of Holy Scripture: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine" (Lk 22:42). Christ accepted death because God imposed it, if the sentence means what it says. Christ suffered to the full extent of His capacity, and in obedience. when it was completed He was glad, saying: "'It is accomplished'; and bowing his head he gave up his spirit" (Jn 19:30).

Loving God to the full is a task imposed upon mortals. It is not yet a reward. In that celebrated drama of the Old Testament, the Book of Job, Satan scoffs at the faithfulness of a Job who had an easy life. Just test Job's loyalty a bit, he laughed, and you'll find out what's underneath. "A man will give away all he has to save his life. But stretch out your hand and lay a finger on his bone and flesh; I warrant you, he will curse you to your face" (Job 2:5). God allowed it, and Job became a figure of Christ, protesting his innocence, and saying that suffering is not necessarily a punishment for sin.

And we see Satan testing Christ at the appointed hour: "If you are God's son, come down from the cross!" (Mt 27:40). Had Christ come down from the cross - He could have worked that miracle had He chosen - Satan might have laughed at the Father: "Your Son - He didn't obey when it was hard!" Calvary was his testimony to the sincerity of His message: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind" (Lk 10:27, words of the rich young man which Jesus approved).

On Calvary Christ not only gave testimony, He actually exercised, performed, carried out His love for God and for man. "A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends" (Jn 15:13). Here our Primate achieved His ultimate fulness and goal, loving in total completeness. Scheeben indicates how one can exercise love and esteem for both God and man better by suffering than by any other manner. But a person suffers for others not only to relieve a need or to acquire a good for them, but also for the sole reason that he shows his love and esteem better by suffering than by all the deeds he performs for their benefit or by all the goods he gives them. Suffering thus undertaken is obviously an act of the purest self-sacrifice and the most sublime virtue, and hence is more honorable and lovable than impassibility (425).

If suffering and dying is the most effective manner of exercising love for God and man, then our Primate must be the leader among His brethren in this exercise. Theoderet of Cyr writes:

When a shepherd sees that his sheep have scattered, he keeps one of them under his control and leads it to the pastures he chooses, and thus he draws the other sheep back to him by means of this one. And so it was when God the Word saw that the human race had gone astray: he took the form of a slave and united it to himself, and by means of it won over the whole race of men to him, enticing the sheep that were grazing in bad pastures and exposed to wolves, and leading them to the pastures of God.

That was the purpose for which our Savior assumed our nature, that was why Christ the Lord accepted the sufferings that brought us salvation, was sent to his death and was committed to the tomb (PG 75, 1467-1470).


Christ, our Primate, is our leader in the face of every difficulty; He goes before us in circumstances which can test us to the extreme. To be a credible Primate in our eyes, He cannot sit on the sidelines and coach us from there through life's difficulties. He cannot remain impassible with a glorified \body from the beginning, if He is to fulfill His role as our First-Born. He must blaze the paths, cut through the mountains and wilderness, fill the valleys, and make the road we travel safe and smooth for us.

To be human, to be alive, means that we have to put up with all kinds of needs and sufferings; this is a part of the package with the gift of life. To be or not to be, is question number One; but if we be, then we must also suffer and endure. Christ knew this, and showed us the way to deal with this fact of life.

Pope John Paul II pointed out three kinds of evil which man (male and female) is asked to endure (Catechesis 4 June 1986) The first is physical evil "which does not necessarily and directly include man's will even though it does not mean that it cannot be caused by man or result from his fault." Human ignorance, lack of prudence, even harmful actions bring sufferings upon ourselves and others. Natural disasters, physical disabilities, diseases of body or mind must be borne, and these are not caused by ill will on the part of others. Sufferings arising from such evils can be an excruciating test of one's willingness to accept a situation. Such suffering may indeed test a person to the utter core of his being. And the innocent suffer as do the guilty. The Pope explains:

It is a terrible experience, before which, especially when without guilt, man brings forward these difficult, tormenting, and at times dramatic questions and problems which constitute sometimes a complaint, sometimes a cry of rejection of God and his providence ... In the presence of all the evil in the world, especially when confronted with the suffering of the innocent, can we say that God does not will evil? And if he wills it, how can we believe that "God is love"? All the more so since this love cannot be but omnipotent (Catechesis 4 June 1986).

Bearing this fact in mind, we must say that if Christ our Primate had not shared these evils with us, we would probably have only little respect for Him. We might also lose courage more easily when faced with extreme difficulties. Christ helps us through His sufferings not only by His example, but also by the graces He merited for us when He bore His great pains. Had Christ, instead, freely chosen to avoid suffering as Scheeben believes Christ could have done - then He would not be fulfilling His true role as Primate in the proper manner, I believe. He would occasion a credibility gap if He expects us to suffer patiently, whereas He avoids it. Our Primate should go before us, to give us an example and help us to do as He has done. He should bear in Himself the sufferings and pains of life, things which are man's lot but not his fault. Christ, too, should feel hunger and thirst; He should experience weariness (Jn 4:6), and shed tears when a friend dies (Lazarus). From what He did we know that He is one of us: "But we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, so that through God's grace he should die for everyone. We see him now crowned with glory and honor because of the death he suffered" (Heb 2:9). By His example and through the graces which He merited for us, Christ helps us to say AMEN to the hard things of life which are our lot.

The second category of evils mentioned by the pope in the above address is moral evil: sin and guilt, evils done by man. "This evil decisively and absolutely is not willed by God," he said, because moral evil is radically contrary to God's will. It is only permitted by Divine Providence because God wills that there should be freedom in the created world:

The existence of created indispensable for that fullness of creation which corresponds to God's eternal plan ... the existence of free beings is for him a more important and fundamental value than the fact that those beings may abuse their freedom against the Creator and that freedom can therefore lead to moral evil.

If, therefore, God willed to create man free, and thus permit the possibility of moral evil, our Primate must blaze the trail for us through the jungles of moral evil as well. He should learn what it is to be "despised and rejected by men" (Is 54:3) and to be kissed by a betrayer for money. It is an essential part of His role as Primate to help us become holy in the midst of a sinful world.

The third category of evils is connected with the evil spirits. The pope writes about this in a section of the Encyclical on the Holy Spirit (May 18, 1986):

The analysis of sin in its original dimension indicates that, through the influence of the "Father of lies", throughout the history of humanity there will be a constant pressure on man to reject God, even to the point of hating him: "Love of self to the point of contempt for God", as St. Augustine puts it. Man will be inclined to see in God primarily a limitation of himself, and not the source of his own freedom and the fullness of good (No. 37).

We expect to see in our Primate, then, a Leader who will conquer the temptations of the devil completely, and pave the way for us to do the same. If a general does not ride into the fray at the head of his troops, will the troops not lose heart and retreat under fierce attack? We see that Christ looked forward to the battle, preparing Himself for it at the beginning of His public life by some pretty rough practice skirmishes with the devil in the desert, then securing a complete victory during the real battle, the terrible "hour" which ended only when He said. "Now it is finished" (Jn 19:30).

Christ's strategy in His battle with the devil, writes Saint Maximus the Confessor, was to bait him with His body, then destroy him from inside:

His flesh was set before that voracious, gaping dragon as bait to provoke him: flesh that would be deadly for the dragon, for it would utterly destroy him by the power of the Godhead hidden within it. For human nature, however, his flesh was to be a remedy since the power of the Godhead in it would restore human nature to its original grace.

Just as the devil had poisoned the tree of knowledge and spoiled our nature by its taste, so too, in presuming to devour the Lord's flesh he himself is corrupted and is completely destroyed by the power of the Godhead hidden in it (PG 90, 1182-1186).

All three categories of evil (natural events, sins against us by our neighbor, and temptations of the devil) provoke an inner conflict in us, as described by St. Paul. "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh" (Gal 5:17; cf. Encyclical on the Holy Spirit, 55). Our Primate must demonstrate what is to be done, and help us to do it. In this way He authenticates His role as Primate:

In his life on earth Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him. But even though he was God's Son, he learned through his sufferings to be obedient. When he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him, and God declared him to be high priest, in the priestly order of Melchizedek (Heb 5:7-10).

For these reasons it appears that suffering and death belong to the very essence of Christ's role as our Primate. He had no legitimate freedom to refuse to suffer and die if He wished truly to be Primate. Once the decree went out from God that He would be Incarnate and Primate, the rest followed as part of the package decree. Contrary to Scheeben, Christ could not freely exempt Himself from suffering and death once He accepted the role of the Primacy.

This indicates that it would have been incompatible for Christ to be Primate and then to have a glorified body which could not suffer during His life on earth. How then, you ask, can we explain that Christ undertook to suffer and die for us freely, and nor from coercion?


Freedom is at the very heart of God and at the heart of man, and Christ claimed this great privilege without question:

The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life, in order that I may receive it back again. No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it back. This is what my Father has commanded me to do (Jn 10: 17-18).

Christ speaks here about a command to do this freely. The command is not incompatible with His freedom. To understand this freedom we must go all the way back, I think, to the decree made by God about the Incarnation, before Adam was decreed, before we were created in Christ. God loves Himself necessarily, and He is not free not to love Himself. But whatever He does outside of Himself (ad extra) is by free choice; He can select, determine, decree, and then it is done. He was free to decree or not to decree the Incarnation. Freely, God loved the world so much that He sent His only Son into the world (cf. in 3:16) to live with us. Once the Incarnation was decreed, Christ must be a worthy Primate in every way. He cannot be half-primate, unworthy of God.

Christ, with His human will, embraced the divine will. He exercised human freedom in His divine personhood. He is as free with His human will, then, as God is free when decreeing the Incarnation. He partakes with His human will in the freedom of the divine will. And so He could say, "I lay it down of my own free will" (in 10:18). Obedience to God is not a limitation on freedom, but its fulfillment, its highest exercise. Such is the nature, I believe, of Christ's freedom. He acted as freely as God, and chose to be our Primate in the highest tradition of divine goodness and love.

To understand original sin, it is necessary to perceive in some measure how God views it. And we can know this best by learning more about Christ and His life among us. It was Christ's duty, by reason of His vocation as Primate, to accept the sufferings which humans would impose upon Him. He could not refuse these sufferings once He accepted the vocation of being our Primate.

But there is a precious passage in the Scriptures which Christ loved us even beyond the call of duty.

They took Jesus to a place called Golgotha, which means "The place of Skull." There they tried to give him wine mixed with a drug called myrrh, but Jesus would not drink it. They then crucified him and divided his clothes among themselves, throwing dice to see who would get which piece of clothing (Mk 15:22-24).

Some aristocratic women made it their work of charity to give condemned criminals on the way to execution a narcotic of wine mixed with incense in order to dull the pain. Wine mixed with myrrh should have had the same effect, refreshing, inebriating, and so modifying awareness of the pain (see Wansbrough No. 762, h). Since this was an established practice at the time, and offered freely to Jesus, He was not under a bond of obedience to refuse this comfort. He chose freely, however, to experience the full blast of the pain, and to remain fully aware and conscious. This action was a work of supererogation. The gesture was a nod to the Father that He endorsed all that was imposed, and that He wanted to love Him even more. It was also a nod to us that He does all this and more, out of love for us. And perhaps it was a nod to Mary to reassure her that He was still in charge of things, and that He was performing His priestly duty with full deliberation. This would encourage her to persevere in her co-priestly work under the cross.

Let us now return to the point made by Scheeben that bearing pain and suffering was for Christ the way to give to God the highest glory:

Upon looking more closely into the matter, we see that what makes suffering honorable is not the distress or the need of him for whom one suffers; rather it is the freedom and the noble motive of the sufferer. Consequently suffering is the more honorable the greater the freedom of the person concerned, and the less he is limited in his love to the bare need of the beloved. Hence we should be disparaging Christ's honor if we were to hold that He had allowed Himself to be subjected to suffering merely because, in consequence of sin, God had some need of the restitution of His honor, or the sinner had need of redemption. Christ appears most majestic in His suffering, if from boundless love for God and man He suffers more than the need strictly requires, and at the same time suffers not only to relieve the need, but by His suffering to give God the highest possible glory, and to creatures the proof of a love which is worth incalculably more than the aid He accords them in their wretchedness, more even than all the benefits which He can confer on them (Scheeben 425).

Why, we ask, do suffering and death, in the case of Christ, give to God the highest possible glory? Is it not because when suffering and dying, 1) the purest form of love can be exercised, without admixture of earth-bound motives; and 2) because the free will is here engaged at its peak capacity - to the end?

1). Suffering and dying in obedience to God and in love for Him has no admixture of ulterior and earth-bound motives. Christ had said in the Sermon on the Mount: "Happy are you who weep now; you will laugh" (Lk 6:21). On earth there is no possible reward for Christ's act of dying, if there is no God. On the contrary, Christ's going down in death is an earthly defeat, a disgrace in the sight of the enemy Jews, a sign of weakness in the sight of the disciples. Christ, in death, is a fool to this world; also a knave, justly punished by the pious looking Pharisees. The sentence of death for blasphemy decreed by the High Priest and the Sanhedrin now appears justified and vindicated. If there is no God, then Christ is indeed the most wretched of men. As Paul says about us if there is no resurrection, so one can say about Christ if there is no God:

And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is a delusion and you are still lost in your sins. It would also mean that the believers in Christ who have died are lost. If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world (1 Cor 15:17-19).

Christ was exposed to the world as an utter fool by His death, and the Jews did their utmost to drive the lesson home: "If he will come down from off the cross now, we will believe in him!" (Mt 27:42). There was no way on earth any more for Christ to vindicate Himself and His teachings if He now died and would remain silent forever. To die was sheer madness if He sought earthly rewards. To die in obedience, then, is to die in sheer love for God who is not of this earth. To die in this way is giving to God unmixed witness and glory.

2). Suffering unto death engaged the capacity of the human will of Christ to the utmost. How could the Father allow this to happen to His beloved? The pains are so very great. How can God love the God-man and still allow this? Christ must wrestle with His human will to hold back the waves of antagonism, of despair, of anguish. He cannot give up, like Job's wife advised when Job was suffering: "Why don't you curse God and die?" (Job 2:9) she taunted. And perhaps the devil was there with advice: "If you are God's Son, throw yourself down from here" (Lk 4:9). With sheer will power, fortified by the Holy Spirit, Christ conquered the powers against Him by exercising His power of love for and trust in God to the utmost. Here was Christ at His best, at peak love. Without such suffering ending in death, He would not have been engaged in this supreme fashion.

Suffering and death, then, belong to Christ as our Primate, as the first among lovers. He would have performed less perfectly had He not been challenged so. He used His mind and will to the utmost in manifesting God's glory by engaging Himself as a complete holocaust in the sacrifice of love. The entire Christ went up to God as a holocaust, a flaming fire, aromatic smoke, consuming all that is of earth and brightening into a flame ascending upwards. Happy the fault which occasioned this great virtue of our Redeemer. It is because this was the finest hour of Christ that He relishes it as His supreme triumph of life on earth. Therefore He asks us to make the act present again at the Sacrifice of the Mass. Christ comes once more, identifying with the priest, to perform sacramentally again His act of supreme and pure love, giving God the highest glory, and entitling humans to ask from God whatever they need for salvation.

Are we ready for the next step now? It is a difficult one: God expects us to bear up under the evils of life, which He allows, and to believe in His goodness as well. He is not a toothless grandfather out of touch with life as it is. He expects His children to be like Himself: happy with the world as it is except for sin, and satisfied with the fact that the only road there is for us to heaven is a steep and narrow path, which we must negotiate with considerable effort. In heaven we will understand all this better. On earth, we must keep our eyes fixed on Christ, expecting that our Primate will help us, through the power of His Spirit, to follow Himalso on difficult paths and through the portals of death.