Before we jump further into Thomas Oord’s book, God Can’t, let’s review just a bit from last week. The principle he put forth last week was that God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. This is in part because God is Spirit – God doesn’t have literal hands to intervene. In addition to that, we are not created as robots, and God does not temporarily roboticize us – we are truly beings with free will. This does not mean God is inactive or indifferent, which leads us to the next chapter’s principle.
This week’s thesis: God feels our pain.
Does God empathize with us? Does God show compassion – to suffer with us? God’s love is assumed in a lot of churches – what do you think? Psychologist Carl Rogers defines empathy as entering the “perceptual world of the other and becoming thoroughly at home in it, [which] involves being sensitive, moment by moment, to the changing felt meanings that flow in the other person.” Compassion means to suffer with someone. Have you ever pictured God like that? Why or why not?
As Jesus followers, we look to Jesus for a clue on this. He was connected to God in a way I don’t think has been replicated before or after. So much so that others referred to him as the Son of God. While there is ongoing debate as to what that means exactly, suffice it to say we believe that when we see Jesus walking around, we are seeing the face of God. Jesus was one who was born into poverty and knew what it was like to live on the bottom rung of the social ladder. Yet he became the embodiment of love and grace, being empathic with those who struggled, and offering compassionate help where he could.
One of his greatest parables gives us an example of what compassion looks like. The Good Samaritan had every reason to pass by a beaten up, half-dead Jewish guy on the side of the road heading down to Jericho. But he didn’t. He stopped (unlike the lip-service religious folks who reasoned their way out of helping). The thrust of the story is about generously loving and caring for another – even if that “another” is a loathed enemy. This brilliant parable was a real stretch for Jewish audience, and continues to be for us as we are given a model for generosity expressed, and also a glimpse of how, when we are beaten down by life, are loved by God. The good, loving, generous servant in the story chose to enter the beaten man’s pain and suffering and take it on himself. Empathy led to compassionate service: “An empathetic God not only feels our suffering but also prompts others to love in specific ways.” (Oord, God Can’t, 41)
Oord recommends we consider what he calls the Crimson Rule. We are familiar with the Golden Rule that calls for people to do unto others as they would want for themselves. The Crimson Rule invites us to suffer with our neighbor as an act of empathetic compassion. One the greatest examples from Jesus’ life was his horrific execution:
“In his painful death on a splintered cross, Jesus points to a God who suffers with us. In Jesus, God identifies with those gashed and feeling godforsaken, the homeless and the hurting, the depressed and destroyed. In Jesus’ crucifixion, God shares in the suffering of the world and thereby shows solidarity with victims. Jesus reveals a God who empathizes.” (Oord, God Can’t, 43)
He goes on to note that God, who is the source of such love and empathy, is witnessed by others as being fully capable to be with us, to hear our hearts cry, and will never grow weary or run out of love:
“God’s heart breaks by what breaks us. But this heartbrokenness does not lead God to despair. The God of perfect empathy never gets depressed to the point of immobility. The God of all consolation never suffers empathy fatigue. God’s sensitivity and emotion never lead to evil, because God’s nature is love… God responds to all that is negative, frustrating, and painful with resilient hope. Pain, suffering, and agony never alter God’s everlasting love... God feels our pain… and can handle it.” (Oord, God Can’t, 39)
If God truly feels our pain and joins us in it, is this something we can experience? How can we feel God feeling with us? Before Oord offers half a dozen tips that might make feeling God feeling with us an experiential reality, he calls to our attention a handful of theological perspectives that may get in our way of such a dynamic. Some have adopted a God-is-a-Brick-Wall orientation whereby God is around but completely impersonal. Others have an Eye-in-the-Sky view, which is actually a functional Deism that keeps God in heaven without much involvement on earth. The CEO-of-the-Universe paradigm has God only caring about the biggest picture possible, without concern for how related large-scale decisions might impact those on the ground. The opposite of that would be the Micro-Manager view of God that portrays God as one primarily interested in the minutia of our lives. This can lead into the Clean-Freak view that makes God so holy and pure that God doesn’t want anything to do with our dirty selves. Finally, Oord noted that some can hold a Mob-Boss view, where it’s really good to be faithful family and friends of God, but woe to you if you are not! Which views have you held? How have they helped as well as limited your relationship with God?
God’s loving empathy can be experienced. There are some time-honored practices and perspectives that seem to foster such experiences, as Oord notes.
· Ministry of Human Presence: Counselor. Sometimes it is a professional counselor or pastor whose role it is to listen deeply and reflectively and speak back into your life. I have had paradigms shift radically because I sense a word or phrase from a “pro” that seems to be coming directly from the heart of God.
· Community of Care: Church at its best. In this space we come together as people who want to seek and be sensitive to the Spirit’s guidance in our lives. Odds are better this kind of community will conduit the presence of God than many other types of communities. “We all need community. Unswerving solitude stunts growth; those who persist alone perish alone. We need relational arks that promote health and healing. We need places and people who express God’s empathetic love (Oord, God Can’t, 48).
· Mindfulness/Meditation/Prayer: “Prayer unmasks our false selves, and we encounter God as we really are. We are people loved by God, in need of transforming grace. We can engage others who face the same internal challenges” (Oord, God Can’t, 49).
· Experiences in Nature. John Muir in Yosemite: “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God. So after dark, when camp was at rest, I groped my way back to that altar boulder and passed the night on it – above the water, beneath the leaves and stars – everything still more impressive than by day, the falls seem dimly white, singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the stars peering through the leaf roof seemed to join in the whit water’s song… Thanks be to God for this immortal gift.” – My First Summer in the Sierra in The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edwin Way Teale, ed. (Mariner Books, 2001 ). Many people experience the presence of our Ground of Being when in the heart of nature. This makes sense – why wouldn’t we expect to more likely experience the Creator when we immerse ourselves in creation?
· Visual Arts, Music, and Movies. Art in general is one human’s expression of their experience offered to the world. In my experience, the arts need not to be overtly “Christian” or “religious” to be used of God to communicate empathy and compassion. Sometimes instrumental music (no lyrics) is able to convey and draw such great emotion that it seems as if the music is itself a form of prayer to God, an act of sighing and groaning that Paul referenced in his letter to the Roman church.
· Love of a Child. Jesus gave us the right to think of God as a loving daddy that is engaged with his kids. Children can serve as meaning-makers for parents. Understanding God’s love for us both in the inherent love one’s children have for their parents, and the immediate, unconditional love parents often feel for their kids grounds our faith in loving trust. I would include furry kids as well (as well as other types of pets that show devotion to their owners). In my experience, dogs seem to love their “people” unconditionally, giving us love as well as providing an object for our affection. Cats, on the other hand, serve to remind us of our selfish propensities…
Last week, we engaged the idea that there are simply some things God cannot do – driven from internal dynamics (not external). Now we add to that a character trait of God – that this Higher Power truly feels our pain and joins us in it.
How does this resonate with you? What new way of engaging God might you adopt to help you move forward in faith and life?
Questions to Consider
1. Why do you think some people believe God is unaffected and unemotional?
2. How have bad views of God led you away from affirming God’s loving empathy?
3. What’s the problem with saying a loving God who could prevent evil singlehandedly would choose instead to suffer with us?
4. How does thinking of Jesus’ love help us believe God is loving?
5. When have you felt God’s love, and what sparked that feeling?
6. What obstacles hinder us from feeling God’s love?
7. Which of the six practices mentioned near the chapter’s end do you want or need?