The God Who Suffers

Credit: Holly Hayes
Credit: Holly Hayes

In other posts, I’ve talked about the years I spent outside of religion. My 18th year wasn’t exactly a good year for me, and it shook me so hard it took over ten years for my soul to stop sloshing around long enough to pick up any little fragments of faith left behind.

I wouldn’t say I was ever an atheist. Not really. I always believed—or at least, hoped—there was something greater than humanity out there. The question for me was, is that something the God of the Bible? And, if it is, does that God deserve my faith in him?

Maybe that’s a funny way of thinking about a deity that could squash me like a roach, but I was pretty ticked off about how my life had veered off course.

When I was 15, my youth group went to a Youth With a Mission retreat. At the end of the event, we all gathered together in an auditorium to sing. They projected different video clips up on a large screen up front as we sang, mostly of teenage missionaries, laughing and playing with local children.

I looked away from the screen for a minute and when I looked back up, Jesus was being beaten. I think it was a clip from a play. The focus was on Jesus’ face as he was whipped.

In the middle of all the singing teenagers, hands raised up, singing as loudly as they could, I sat down with my head in my hands. I couldn’t look at the video. Obviously, I knew the difference between reality and acting. But, still, I couldn’t stand to watch it.

Drilled into my head was one sentence I’d heard over and over: “Jesus died for you.”

Jesus had been whipped, just like the man in the video. He’d been tortured and killed. I’d read the gospels. I knew the stories. But, it’d seemed distant. Like when your parents tell you about something you did as a child. You don’t remember actually doing it, but you remember the story they told you about it.

Seeing the video made it feel real to me. I suppose that was the whole point.

So, I sat there, getting bumped now and then by the kids on either side of me (who were now swaying) and felt this weight of guilt settle on me. “It’s my fault he was beaten and killed.”

That’s how I understood Jesus’ death for the next few years. That I, and all of humanity, was the cause of this senseless suffering. And we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Then, I turned 18 and everything in my life fell apart. People I loved turned their backs on me. God didn’t answer my prayers. I was sacrificed on the altar of false piety.

At first, I tried to reach out to other people and share what had happened. But you try finding another teenager who was run out of their church because someone wanted to kill them. It’s pretty hard to find someone who can relate to that. My story made people uncomfortable. When you make people uncomfortable, they don’t want to be around you.

I stopped telling my story.

I stopped going to church.

I stopped believing that God (if God was God) cared about me. He obviously wasn’t bothered by what had happened. And how could an omnipotent being have any compassion for one human, anyway? The God I knew commanded armies to conquer the Promised Land. He wiped out firstborns. He created the universe. He’d even sacrificed his own son. What was I to any God that might be out there? I was nothing.

A few years ago, I bought a Bible. I didn’t buy it because I’d had some religious epiphany and was ready to re-commit myself to Christianity. I bought it because I was irritated at some fundamentalist Christians I’d run across online. I needed a reference so I could more easily lob Bible verses at them to show them how wrong, wrong, wrong they were (even according to the very book they idolized.)

I’d read the gospels before, as a teenager. But, I decided a refresher was a good idea, so I’d have an easier time flipping to the parable I needed to counter the ridiculous stuff these people were saying. I was most familiar with Matthew (as I’d read it several times when I was younger), so I decided to start with John first.

Honestly, in the past, I’d only skimmed through the book of John. I’d read the other three gospels, and really, they all had the same information, right? (Something, something, youths…) This time, when I read John 1, I actually paid attention.

Now, I’d always heard about this thing called the Trinity. There was God, then Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. I never was clear on what exactly the Holy Spirit was (except that it supposedly made my friends at the Assembly of God church speak in tongues), so I pretty much just ignored that since I wasn’t charismatic. And Jesus was the Son of God, so you know, I totally thought I understood that part. I thought it was a sort of hierarchy thing, with God at the top and Jesus and the Holy Spirit right under him.

But John 1 says it’s not a hierarchy at all. Jesus is God. No, I still didn’t have some sort of earth-shaking religious conversion at that point. I sort of went, “Ohhhh, so that’s what everyone’s talking about,” and then went off and checked Facebook.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-5;14

After that, I decided to temporarily abandon John and read Mark and Matthew again.

Reading the gospels with the knowledge that this Jesus fellow was God himself was an entirely different experience from reading them when I was a child and thought I was just reading about the Amazing Adventures of God’s Son.

And when I got to the crucifixion, I didn’t have that overwhelming sense of guilt I’d felt at 15. I guess I was a little in awe, actually. Because how had I missed all of this before?

I thought of God as some distant thing that couldn’t possibly understand humans.

But this was a story about God becoming a human.

I thought that God couldn’t understand human pain, so how could he have compassion for us?

But this was a story about God suffering human pain.

The crucifixion story isn’t a story about how we’re all terrible people and should feel guilty about what Jesus endured. The crucifixion story is about God loving us all so much that he became one of us and experienced suffering and torture as one of us.

I’d thought God was the last person who’d understand my pain.

But God might be the only person who can really understand my pain.

When I was a kid, I’d thought Jesus’ suffering was senseless. God could have saved us any way he wanted to, so why allow his son to be tortured and killed?

But it wasn’t senseless at all.

God knows what it’s like to be abandoned by the people you love. God knows what it’s like to be falsely accused. God knows what it’s like to be humiliated and shamed. God knows what it’s like to suffer.

I know some people think I wandered back to Christianity because it brings me comfort.

It doesn’t.

I’m not here because I believe that if I have enough faith God will wave his giant hand and make life easy for me. That’s never going to happen. I know it’s never going to be easy for me.

I’m not here because I believe that if I just hold on for a while I’ll be rewarded in the afterlife and, I don’t know, chill on a cloud or something. (That’s not what the afterlife is, by the way. I mean, come on. How boring would that be?)

When people ask me why I’m a Christian, I don’t have a quick answer for them. There’s no one single reason. There are too many reasons to touch on all of them in this post, and I think apologetic arguments are usually a waste of time. (Though,  anyone who thinks I blindly believe in all of this just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t know me very well.)

What I will say is where my belief started.

I don’t start with a belief in God and wind my way down to following Jesus.

I start at Jesus and everything I believe flows out of that.

I start with Jesus, the God who suffered. The God who understands us. Who understands me. Who understands you.

I grew up hearing comments about Catholic crucifixes. Things like, “Jesus is alive. He’s not on the cross anymore.” The people around me saw crucifixes as gory and unnecessary.

But I need the crucifix. Yes, Jesus is alive, but it’s Jesus on the cross who understands me most. It’s Jesus on the cross who suffers alongside us, as one of us.

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1 Comment

  1. Tanya Marlow March 23, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    Love love love this.
    Your story of being stalked still makes my blood run cold, and I am still grieved that you were run out of church because your story of suffering made others uncomfortable.
    But I am so grateful for this reminder that God -Jesus – is not rolling his eyes awkwardly at our suffering, wishing we’d stop moaning. He’s right there in it with us. Thank you


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