“I am your voice – It was tied in you – In me it begins to (speak).
I celebrate myself to celebrate every man and woman alive;
I loosen the tongue that was tied in them,
It begins to (speak) out of my mouth.”
- Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
This poem brought me to tears last week. The more I think about it the more I believe this poem truly captures the essence of what poetry does. It allows us to truly feel what someone else has felt. That is exactly what the band Kings Kaleidoscope has done in my own life. The song “Prayer” , from their album Beyond Control, brings me to tears every time I hear it. Not every time I listen but every time I hear. And recently a question my son asked me added another dimension and a new depth to the beauty of this song; particularly the line “I feel what you feel.” My son asked me if God had to come to earth in order to know what it was like to be human. I had never really thought about it. I think that I’ve just assumed that it wasn’t until the incarnation that God truly understood the perspective of human beings. I have come to believe that was a terrible mistake and M. Night Shyamalan’s most recent film, Split, led me to think more deeply about this topic.
Kevin, the films antagonist played by James McAvoy, kidnaps three young girls from a shopping mall parking lot and holds them captive in the basement where he works. As the plot unfolds we discover that Kevin is seeing a psychiatrist for multiple personality disorder stemming from a tremendous amount of suffering he experienced as a child. Kevin believes the pain he went through led to an evolution in his psyche, and that this evolution is the next step in the development of the human race. He wants to initiate or speed up this change by hurting people he thinks have lived comfortable lives, and hence the motivation for the kidnapping. Okay, I won’t give away any more spoilers but this movie is truly a great thriller and beyond that it wrestles with the deepest concepts of how we process our suffering, individually and communally.
As we process the suffering in our own lives we often struggle with God’s relationship to our pain. The Old Testament talks about God hearing the cries of His people, and growing up I think those passages subconsciously gave me the impression that God was far away and if our cries were loud enough they might reach him. As a minister I work with young people and I see this all the time. If I ask ten kids where God is, all ten of them will usually say heaven. And if I ask them where heaven is, almost every time they will point to the sky. I teach them that God is not far away and I have come to personally believe that God knows our pain. In Genesis Chapter 3 Adam and Eve have been told not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. When I was in Sunday School I thought that eating from this tree would give Adam and Eve the ability to know the difference between right and wrong, but if you stop and think about it they knew the difference between right and wrong when God told them not to eat from the tree. At this point some of you might be asking, “so what did happen when they ate from the tree?” and “why did God put it there in the first place?”
When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they went from a conceptual knowledge of right and wrong, to an experiential knowledge of right and wrong. It would be like the difference between looking forward to an exciting event that you “know” will be fun and then experiencing the event and “knowing” that it really was fun. You had a conceptual knowledge of the joy you would experience during the activity, and then you had an experiential knowledge of that same joy. It is similar to a teenager who is told that they should not do certain things. If they could experience the pain and suffering they would cause their parents and themselves because of their disobedience, they probably would not make the same mistakes. This is why Saint Gregory of Nazianzus suggests that God did not put this tree in the garden simply out of caprice but the Knowledge “would have been good if partaken of at the proper time.” This is also how and why God can state later in the chapter that “they have become like us knowing good and evil.” God possesses all knowledge, conceptual and experiential, not because he has gained it at some point in time but because he has possessed it from the beginning.
Every time a child is hurt God knows/experiences the pain of the child. Ivan rebels against God in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov because he does not know that God has felt the pain of all the children in the stories he remembers. But that doesn’t come close to scratching the surface of the depth of God’s knowledge. Not only does he know the pain of the child but he knows the pain of the parents, and the siblings, and the friends, even if the parents, siblings, and friends were unaware of the child’s suffering in this life. This is why Melito of Sardis could say, in the second century, that it was God who, “was murdered in Abel, and bound as a sacrifice in Isaac, and exiled in Jacob, and sold in Joseph, and exposed in Moses, and sacrificed in the lamb, and hunted down in David, and dishonored in the prophets.”
I’m sure many theologians out there are already shaking their heads thinking that this contradicts the doctrine of impassibility (that God cannot experience pain or pleasure), but let me offer a defense. The incarnation didn’t allow God to know or feel something He had never known or felt before. We know this in part because scripture teaches us that he was “slain from before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8, Hebrew 9:26, 1 Peter 1:20). The incarnation visibly united the divine nature/experience with the human nature/experience. If God had not taken on a human body, there would have always been those who would believe that God is so far away that he could not possibly know what it is like to suffer like one of his creations. But the truth is that God is not far away, his spirit fills all things! And we can be assured that Love truly, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things!” When we unite ourselves with God we find healing for the suffering in our own lives, we commit to understanding the pain that others have experienced, we do everything in our power to prevent ongoing suffering in the world, and we gratefully accept the sufferings we must endure to love others in the way that God has called us to love them. And through it all we know that God understands our suffering.