Mongolia has a beautiful sky. It’s big, it’s clear and in the 1990s, it was the place I loved to look. In the evenings the air would be crisp and it would sting my cheeks and nose as I lifted my chin to look at the stars. When it got too cold, I’d run swiftly to the outhouse and race back into the warmth of the cabin, just a quick sprint before my hair had a chance to freeze. In those warmer evenings, I’d take the opportunity to breathe deeply and find every constellation I knew to look for.
It was awesome. There were no streetlights to pollute the sky, no buildings to block the view and lit-up homes were rare. It was as if I could see straight through to heaven; it was both expansively big and yet felt so close I could touch the stars. I always talked to God as I looked and there was a sense of peace that would cover me. It was almost as though God was giving me a hug, from one end of the sky to the other. I was under his care.
As I look at the sky today it doesn’t hold that same wonder. Too much life has passed for me to innocently look up at the stars and find the presence of God. The world around me doesn’t seem so bright and hopeful or so pure. There are homeless on the streets, broken glass on the freeways, and burn scars on trees. The sky is a polluted mess, so hazy it’s hard to see the mountains or wonder at the world’s beauty.
So it took me by surprise when I was wonderstruck. I wasn’t looking for it, in fact, I was being quite the critic while listening to a sermon but I walked away with a niggling truth that brought me peace and awe at the same time.
I’m sure I have mentioned it before, but God and I have a relationship that is real, true and fraught with tension. He makes me mad. He makes me mad because suffering exists and I am both personally inflicted by the pain as well as a witness to it in others. He seems to me to be the grand puppet master of the sky. He can invite Satan to inflict Job with horrific pain while he sits and watches, without acting on Job’s behalf. In my imagination, I envision him dishing out our individual suffering. A little illness for you, a loss for you, a disaster for that family, all in order to accomplish his ultimate goals as the end justifies the means.
But this particular Sunday sermon was on compassion and the definition for compassion was given as co-suffering. Co-suffering, entering into the suffering of others as an act of free will.
I know what that is. I know what it is to enter into another’s suffering, I’ve done it. I have felt the pain, I have seen the pain, and I have joined in the anger. I’ve held a baby as she shook uncontrollably from heroin withdrawals, offering my body and my voice as comfort. I’ve played tag with street kids, politely declining the cigarettes they offered me. I’ve seen hopelessness, I’ve seen hunger, I’ve seen terror and grief.
If you have ever truly entered into the suffering of others you know that there is a cost to oneself in it. You don’t walk away from it unscathed. Co-suffering is costly. I may not know the physical pain of walking through a heroin withdrawal, but I still carry with me the heaviness that comes from knowing the look, the feeling, the pain that addiction brings.
What I know of co-suffering got me thinking and that niggling in the back of my head wouldn’t go away until I could grasp and hold onto what it was trying to say to me.
If I have the capacity to empathize with the suffering of others in a way that impacts my soul, how much more would our Creator empathize and experience our personal sufferings within himself?
All of a sudden, my envisioned puppet master no longer makes sense. If God empathizes and co-suffers with us, then any suffering that is experienced in our lives is at God’s own personal cost. He feels it all.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I have seen my fair share of poverty and while I have chosen, at times, to join in that suffering, there have been many more times where I chose not to engage because the cost to myself was too great. I could not bear it. I don’t say that lightly. I literally mean that I physically and emotionally and spiritually could not bear to face the reality of pain; enter depression, emotional numbness, anger, blame, nihilistic jokes, and PTSD.
No wonder I think God walls himself off to my pain. I wall myself off to the pain of others on a daily basis.
But God is not me and that is where the wonder struck.
Isaiah 40:28 tells us that “the LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.”
Can you imagine carrying the weight of all the suffering in the world? What little I carry has already broken me and yet he joins in our suffering again and again and again. He sees the worst of us, he knows what has crushed us and he does not ask us to walk what he himself is not willing to walk.
That idea still confounds me because while I grieved the death of a child alongside his mother, God felt my pain but he also felt the pain of the mother, the child and each individual that gathered around that crib. He did not turn away. He did not numb. He did not deny. He joined.
I don’t get to sit under the expanse of a Mongolia sky to be embraced by the stars anymore, but this truth is one that I can carry with me anywhere. It is a truth that wraps me in peace. This is a God that I can trust. This is a God who leads. This is a God who loves.
What has struck you about God recently? How have you been able to see him in a new and better light?