In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Marble Faun, Miriam, who struggles much with guilt, is hoping for empathy from her friend Hilda, whom Miriam views as a model of purity. When Hilda backs away from their friendship, Miriam offers this theological assessment of her friend’s incapacity for empathy: “I have always said, Hilda, that you were merciless; for I had a perception of it, even when you loved me best. You have no sin, nor any conception of what it is; and therefore you are so terribly severe. As an angel, you are not amiss; but as a human creature, and a woman among earthly men and women, you need a sin to soften you.”
The Incarnation is God’s softening toward us in our frailty and sinfulness. But God did not “need a sin to soften” himself. He did something much better. He took our humanity upon himself.
Already in ancient Israel, of course, God was seen as having empathy for us in our humanness.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;
for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust. (Ps. 103:13-14)
That compassionate grasp of “how we are formed” is the compassion of a Maker. I may love something that I have made—and I may understand it through and through. But I do not yet know what it is like to be that thing. And it is precisely that more intimate knowledge that God gained when the eternal Son entered into our creaturely condition. He came to pay a debt that we could not pay for ourselves. But he did more than that. He came to be the likes of us. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
I have often heard it said on Good Friday that Jesus suffered the deepest agonies on the Cross so that we do not have to suffer those agonies. That is a wonderful piece of good news. But in his suffering he was not only suffering in our place—again, a powerful reality—but he was also suffering with us, in the ways that we suffer. And that suffering began in the Manger: the outstretched arms of the Baby in Bethlehem are the beginning of what would happen when the Savior stretched out his arms on Calvary.
Unlike Miriam’s depiction of Hilda, Jesus did have a conception of sin. And he did not need to sin himself in order to be softened to sinners like us. There is much mystery in that. But it is a wonderful mystery!