Last week I wrote a blog about how we have a God that came into the world as it actually exists–a world where there is universal pain, hurt, and suffering. But what do we when the conversation shifts from the universal issue of suffering to our own places of pain and hurt?
I’ve sat with this subject for a while because I’ve often found the church to be absent (if not antagonistic) towards my places of hurt. The Church is usually well meaning, but has lost a lot of depth on the topic of suffering, and usually just doesn’t know how to respond to experiences of pain. The reality that the world is broken does not seem adequate an answer to those who are mourning and experiencing their own personal suffering. Many churches are “embarrassed, almost panicky, that there are situation to which they have no answer. We want to present Jesus as the answer man, and we don’t want Jesus to look bad. And if that’s your theology, Jesus can look very bad at funerals.”
Rather than really wrestle with brokenness and suffering, we’ve settled for a lot of cliché’s. Most people are well meaning, but cliche really offer no comfort in a place of pain. We talk about finding God in suffering, or apply verses out of context to cast your burden on He who cares for you, or that God works together the good of those who follow Him. When we misapply scripture and don’t allow authentic experiences of pain to be voiced, the cliches only hurt others more.
Regardless, I think the way most people have come to understand the coexistence of God’s goodness and our own personal suffering as a sort of Venn Diagram model. The two ideas are largely incongruent and don’t really match what we understand or believe, but they share some awkward-but-sacred middle ground where they can interact. When this is how we understand God’s goodness and our own suffering, we tend to talk about God as some sort of silver lining when we are in pain. He becomes someone or something we can “find” or “run to” as though He was in the distance.
The reality is that there is no place that your pain has gone that Christ has not been. On the cross Christ experienced the fullness of pain, isolation, suffering, and brokenness so that those experiences could never separate us from Him again.
I revisited one of my favorite books to help me understand this again. The book is “Taking the Cross to Youth Ministry” by Andrew Root and is an all around phenomenal read about suffering. I’ve tried and I can’t really communicate his points and clearer or succinctly than he has, so I’ve included two key quotes below.
“For Paul, the cross is not just one moment, not simply a quick detour on the road to strength and power. The cross is not the equivalent of excessing or eating your vegetables–something that was hard for Jesus to do, sure, but once that hard thing is done, Jesus is stronger than ever. Rather, for Paul the cross becomes the continued state of God’s very being. The mystery of Christian faith is that in losing to death, in being overcome by it, God acts to overcome death. The cross is not simply adversity met, as we too often tell young people; the cross is the reality of death in God. The all-new reality that Paul sees breaking forth does not come through might and strength, but through God’s suffering and weakness on the cross, through death finding it’s way into God’s own being…The cross is not just an act through which God forgives and justifies us. In this act of justification, God reveals where God can be found, where God can be encountered. In suffering, death, and brokenness, God is present–and not just abstractly, like atoms. The cross as revelation means that God can be encountered next to the essential, concrete realities of our being: we yearn, we suffer, we hurt. God is found in those places.” (Root 66-67, 73, emphasis mine).
This idea–the reality of death in God–does away with the Venn Diagram. It’s no longer that we just happen to bump into God in our suffering. We do not “find” Christ in our suffering as though he were waiting to be found. No, suffering and God’s goodness completely overlap. Sin and death are what separated us from God, but on the cross Jesus took death into his being. The only thing that could ever separate us from God can no longer separate us because Jesus went to death. Jesus is found there–in our deaths, in our moments of impossibility, in our weakness, and in our suffering. Suffering and God’s goodness completely envelop each other. It’s not a Venn Diagram, it’s a circle.
Now while that changes how we experience pain, here’s what I don’t want you to hear: that the pain hurts any less, or goes away any quicker. My goodness, no. Pain is just simply going to hurt, tears will often feel overwhelming, and feelings of loneliness and shame can swallow you alive. Speaking from experience: it sucks. A lot. And If anything it might hurt more because you are allowing yourself to feel pain alongside compassion, rather than numbing or ignoring the experience.
Rather, my point is this: all along we’ve had a God who is broken alongside us, who has experienced our pain, who bears our hurt as a co-sufferer, and who has gone to great lengths to make sure that our pain, suffering, loneliness, isolation, fear, shame, doubt, and hurt will never separate us from Him again.