Moving Toward Suffering

Over spring break, I got to go on vacation with Joel’s family. We stayed in a whimsical cottage outside of Wimberley, and for the most part had a lovely time. The second night, however, we heard a scream from the loft upstairs. Grace had been practicing a dance on the slick wood floors and had slipped, hyperextending an elbow she’d broken as a child. We helped her to the couch downstairs and tried to assess the situation. She was in excruciating pain, that much was clear. She couldn’t straighten her arm. But since she was wearing long sleeves, we couldn’t actually see what was going on. Was there blood? Was a bone sticking out?

Now, an important piece of context is that I do not do well in situations involving blood and extruding bones. I have a strict “if-it-belongs-on-the-inside-I-don’t-want-to-see-it-on-the-outside” policy. If I break this policy, my body punishes me by throwing up. This being the case, I try to avoid those situations as much as possible.

But…Grace was really hurting. And my heart went out to her. You know that feeling? When you can almost feel your heart moving toward someone? “Compassion” and “love” are two words we have to describe that feeling. On one level, it’s an automatic emotional response. It’s not something anyone can take credit for, because it just happens. But on another level, it’s a response that can be chosen and cultivated. Because, as I mentioned above, there was another automatic response in my body competing against the “compassion” response. I’m referring to the “run-away-from-blood” response. In that moment, I chose to move toward Grace, in spite of my fears. Joel invited me to help him examine the elbow, looking for differences between the right and the left. There was no blood, no visible bones, thank God.

I’ve been trying to pay attention to these competing forces in myself – this moving toward and drawing away. Where do these internal impulses reflect God’s character? Where do they reflect something else? Or, to put it another way, where do these impulses lead to life? And where do they cut me off from life?

I’ve been trying to pay attention to these competing forces in myself – this moving toward and drawing away. Where do these impulses lead to life? And where do they cut me off from life?

I remember as a little kid singing the hymn “Holy, holy, holy.” If I had to choose one attribute that sums up my childhood experience of God, it would probably be “holiness.” God is on the throne in the temple. I am outside of the temple. If I want to approach, I must purify myself. I must make a sacrifice. “God” and “sin” are antithetical. They cannot coexist. God is set apart, removed, from whatever is unclean.

But is this really what God is like? In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he says that “Jesus is the image of the invisible God.”  Throughout the existence of humankind, people have been making guesses at what God is like, and here, Paul says, is “Exhibit A.” You want to know what God is actually like? Look at Jesus. See what he does, who he cares about.

And who does he care about? The poor, the meek, the hungry and thirsty. The child, the widow, the outcast.

And what does he do? He touches the sick, the dead, the demon-possessed. He eats with women who sell their bodies, and men who cheat and steal. He washes dirty feet.

If there is one pattern, it’s that he makes no attempt to embody “holiness” as it was understood in the Old Testament – i.e. by maintaining separation from what is unholy. This is why the religious Jews are so stirred up – a man claiming to be God who doesn’t keep what is unclean at arm’s length? But the pattern is stronger than this. He doesn’t just not run away from the unclean, he moves toward it. Almost every category of person that Jesus was known to spend time with – the prostitute, the tax collector, the leper, the demon-possessed – was considered unfit to enter the temple, unfit to be in the presence of God. And more than that, their dirtiness was believed to be contagious. To touch one of these people made you unclean, unfit to be in the presence of God.

Almost every category of person that Jesus was known to spend time with was considered unfit to be in the presence of God.

And here was this man saying, You’ve got it all wrong! God’s heartbeat isn’t “holiness” as you understand it. It’s not separation and distance, it’s connection and love. God’s heart is toward you. Not your cleaned up, purified, covered-in-sacrificial-blood self, but your leprous, STD-infected, covered-in-pig-sh*t self.

This message offended the fearers-of-pig-sh*t, so they killed the man, who happened also to be God.

But what if the man-who-claimed-to-be-God-and-loved-what-was-unclean was right? What if God’s holiness isn’t something that separates God from us, but something that draws God toward us? What if the picture of God in the temple, separate and unapproachable, isn’t the truest image and metaphor of holiness? What if, instead, the truest image and metaphor of holiness is what we see Jesus embodying? He touched lepers. He sat down with sinners. He drew near to the unclean. He approached the blind and adulterous. He came into the suffering world. Everywhere we look he is walking toward things and people that are anything but holy. Is this the nature of God? This moving toward? This not looking away?

What if God’s holiness isn’t something that separates God from us, but something that draws God toward us?

Which leads us to the cross, when Jesus didn’t just move toward suffering, he took it into his body. He let it crush him, and pull him into the ground. He fully identified with pain, suffering, and death. But God was still looking on (because love doesn’t look away), and in the gaze of God was a love so large that it, too, flowed into Jesus’ body, alongside the pain and suffering – a love so strong that all the human hate in the world could only quiet it for a few days.

In the gaze of God was a love so strong that all the human hate in the world could only quiet it for a few days.

I know the mystery of the cross can’t be summed up in one tidy phrase, but when I think about what most resonates with my experience of God and what I most want to emulate and embody, it’s a love that moves toward what is reviled and rejected by others. How can I be an agent of healing and restoration if I keep those who are suffering at arms’ length? Those are the people God’s heart moves toward, and if God is in me, then I’m drawn there too.

How can I be an agent of healing and restoration if I keep those who are suffering at arms’ length?

How do I live this out in the everyday? How do I let God’s love flow in and through me, so that it draws me toward those who suffer? Where, due to fear of blood or extruding bones (or discomfort, inconvenience, messiness, loss of privilege), do I resist leaning in? These are questions I want to wrestle with.

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Reflection Questions:

  1. What is your natural or default response to pain and suffering (whether in yourself, or in others)?
  2. Have you ever had the experience of someone “moving toward” you when you were in pain? Have you had the experience of someone retreating or drawing away from your pain? What was the impact of these experiences?
  3. What gets stirred up in you when you think about “moving toward” suffering?
  4. Is there a particular type of suffering or group of people that you have a hard time “moving toward”?
  5. Is there a particular type of suffering or group of people that you feel naturally drawn toward?