This past weekend I learned quite a bit about God. My fiancée and I decided to go to Cracker Barrel for lunch, a favorite of ours. We sat down and we started talking about family and the issue of pain, suffering, and evil sneaked its way into our discussion. Evil, pain, and suffering are very serious issues that I do not take lightly. I lectured on the problem of evil a couple of weeks ago to one of my philosophy classes I assist/teach. I have the hardest time talking about pain and suffering and teaching it was difficult for me as well. I spent the first 40 minutes emphasizing how important the issue is ranging from its permeation into culture such as the movie I Am Legend film (Will Smith’s character denies God’s existence because of the evil), September 11th, and to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I thought about our response to pain and suffering and then it dawned on me… a response of compassion, sympathy, and real spiritual anguish over such pain and suffering is when we are most like God.
I’m not going to say that this is the moment when we are closest to God, but for me, it’s when I am closest to him. We are commanded to do good works and bear spiritual fruit. I find myself trying so hard to do good things and to bear fruit but it’s often for impure reasons. Perhaps it may be because I know if I repent from a sin I will feel better, but my repentance isn’t for God, it’s for myself. It may be the case that I do it for self-exaltation but claim to do it for God’s exaltation. There will be some selfish reasons that I may want to deny and really say that they are for God, but most likely it’s not. However, I find that the least unadulterated reflection of God that is present in me is the pain and compassion I feel for others who are in pain and suffering.
In 2005-2006 my brother was in Iraq. His six-month pregnant wife died while he was in Iraq (for causes that are still unknown to us). Her funeral was the most painful experience I’ve ever been through. Yes, I lost a sister-in-law and a niece, but to be honest, the most painful thing was to see my family experience that. Consider September 11th. Is your heart too hard to break to watch human beings jump from a height of 80 floors to their death? Those who jumped really believed that their jumping was the better option between staying where they were in a burning building, condemned to suffer for only a few more minutes before their assured death at collapse, and yet they chose suicide believing that to be the best choice.
Consider Kevin Carter who won the Pulitzer Prize and not long after winning it, committed suicide in April 1994 because of the very thing he won it for while he was in Africa. He photographed a starving little girl being watched by a looming vulture as she literally starved to death right in front of him. He left a suicide note which said, “I am depressed… without phone… money for rent… money for child support… money for debts… money! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain… of starving wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners… the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… I have got to join Ken (a colleague of his) if I am that lucky.” He then hooked a hose to his car exhaust and fed it into his car where he sat, the act which took his life away from him. Is your heart not broken and shattered by the weight of compassion and pain for both Kevin and the children and carnage he witnessed?
Kevin Carter's "Photo of Sudanese Girl and Vulture"
Compassion and reciprocated spiritual pain for those who are suffering is the least likely aspect of the image of God in us that will be adulterated when it comes to fruition. Many of Jesus’ miracles were because he felt compassion for those around him. God’s compassion and spiritual pain pales in comparison to what we experience. Does God suffer? Absolutely. The divine suffering is the manifest effects of our sin, this divine suffering, which I cannot ascribe the most articulate and specific words to express an equivalent apprehension of the meaning, bears witness at the cross of Jesus Christ. I didn’t expect to find that when I am most Christ-like is when I am in the midst of pain and suffering or when I experience the spiritual pains of others and feel compassion. I pray that my sin doesn’t adulterate my compassion and pain for those who are in pain any more than it already has.