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No One Has Suffered More than Jesus

No matter how gruesome any other death in history, it doesn't compare.

Adam Lucas

We’re now at the time of year where Christians everywhere remember Jesus’ death. Christians read the Passion accounts in Scripture, Catholics practice the stations of the cross, and both CatholicsNOW and other Christians meditate on the tremendous suffering Jesus underwent for their sake.

From such mediations, Christians of all stripes will sometimes hear the pious sentiment: “Jesus suffered more than anyone ever did.”

For Catholics who grew up hearing such things, this idea might not get a second thought. But for many others, this assertion is jarring. Yes, crucifixion is an agonizing form of torture—but was Jesus’ crucifixion really the worst suffering ever, considering the millions of others who have died by comparable executions?

Indeed, other people have been crucified in worse ways. Some victims of Roman crucifixion would languish on their crosses for days, even weeks.

But suffering is measured not only by the exterior injuries, and it is even more than just the sum of all physical sensations. For us complex human beings, suffering is deeper than that, bringing into play our minds, emotions, bodies, and spirits.

Take for example my young son. The same physical stimuli certainly affect him and me in different ways. Taking away his toy appears to be the worse pain he’s ever experienced. But he’ll faceplant on the carpet and get up without a care. His dad, by contrast, normally tolerates the loss of a stuffed animal with more grace—but struggles even to get off the couch without grunting and pain.

My son and I experience the same pain differently because we are different. Our bodies are different. Our awarenesses are different. Our emotional possession is different.

Jesus Christ is like us in all things but sin (Heb. 2:17-18, 4:15). But Jesus’ sinlessness had a sizeable impact on his experience of suffering. Sin has a numbing effect on our senses. In our fallen state, we certainly suffer—but manifold bodily and mental imperfections dull our experience of pain. We can become distracted. If things get bad enough, we merely pass out. We’re not always fully present to ourselves.

But Jesus’ perfection extends even to his body. He’s always in complete possession of his body, and so has an awareness of even the slightest physical stimuli we might not appreciate. A perfect body is more sensitive than our imperfect ones. In the Garden of Eden, this is a good thing, giving greater pleasure than fallen man ever tastes. But on a cross, it would be torment; Jesus, in his perfect body, felt the physical pains of crucifixion more severely than any other person would have (see Summa Theologiae III.46.6).

Perhaps even more profound was Jesus’ non-physical suffering.

Our Lord also had a perfect mind. He’s always in complete possession of his thoughts and emotions. But just like how his sinless body gives him a special sensitivity to physical pain, so does his sinless mind give him a special sensitivity to mental anguish.

For us sinners, emotions arise in us mostly without our control, and in proportion to our external circumstances. If I see a spider, I have a modest jolt of fear. If I see a really big spider, I have a slightly bigger jolt of fear. We never really experience these emotions completely; rather, we experience them according to the whims of our internal and external states.

St. John Henry Newman tells us that Jesus was in full control of his emotional states. Being both God and perfect man, he didn’t feel fear unless he chose to feel fear. And when he chose to feel these negative emotions in his Passion, he chose to feel them perfectly.

The mental sufferings of Jesus on the cross are beyond our imagining. He is ridiculed; abandoned by his friends; and forced to sit, helpless, as his mother weeps. He experienced all the typical negative emotions we might in such torture: fear, sadness, anger, and so on. But we would feel them in a limited way, and at different times experience each one more or less. Our Lord experienced all of them to their maximum, and all of them at the same time. In both his body and his mind, then, Jesus suffers with an intensity possible only for the perfect man.

Still, his sorrow does not end there. Like us, Christ suffered in body, mind, and soul. And his spiritual pain would perhaps swallow even his physical and mental anguish.

Imagine if we were to experience a huge stock market crash, like what last occurred in 2008. My son might pick up some emotional cues from his parents, the news anchors, or neighbors on the street. He might experience some modest secondhand anxiety, but at most, he’ll be a little confused and a little worried.

But I would feel tremendous anxiety. I would fear for my financial future, for the investments of my friends and family, and for the stability of my country. I would suffer more than my son, because I would understand the consequences of such a calamity that he, at his age, simply could not.

On the cross, Jesus faces the sins of the entire world. Not only does he suffer physical crucifixion and mental pain, but he also offers himself as a spiritual sacrifice for the whole of man’s sinfulness (CCC 599-603). We would revolt at the sight of all the world’s violence and crime. But compared to Jesus, God and man, we are mere children in our understanding. The horror our Lord felt, mired in so much evil, is greater than any horror conceivable to us mortals.

On all accounts, then, the pious sayings are true. Jesus truly suffered more than anyone ever did, or ever will again. His body, mind, and soul were overwhelmed with pain.

But this is meant to give us hope. The enormity of Jesus’ sufferings isn’t just some theological nicety, nor a guilt trip about how much we owe our Lord.

Jesus Christ suffered all these things out of love. He suffered more than anyone has suffered before—so that he might get close to you. We all carry our own sufferings into Holy Week. They are less than the pains of our Savior, but they can take us to our limit just the same. In each and every one of these infirmities, we know we are not alone. We know that Jesus always understands what we’re going through, because he went through it, too.

The reading for Good Friday, cited above, says it best: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Our remembrances this week are sad and somber, as is appropriate, given the depths of Our Lord’s suffering. But it’s precisely those depths that also give us hope at this solemn time: the shared hope of Christians everywhere.

We call it Good Friday, after all.

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