He that planted the ear, shall he not hear? He that formed the eye, shall he not see? – Psalm 94:9
Yesterday morning I sat to do my morning practice, which is to say the Lord’s Prayer slowly and thoughtfully. At that time I invite Him to guide my mind and spirit where He will, as I navigate my way, or let Him navigate it, through the great prayerful thoughts that make up the Our Father. I hadn’t gotten through “Hallowed be Thy name” before I found myself wondering whether God truly experienced all the suffering of all His sentient creatures, or merely inferred it. Or perhaps experienced it through some sort of filter that allowed His eternal bliss to remain unruffled. But if so – Oh, my God, I thought, I’m sitting here in the comfort of my living room couch, asking for the attention of the Experiencer of All Suffering! – and the thought, by His grace, made me start to weep. It wasn’t a deep cry, but the sobs lasted at least through “give us this day our daily bread,” because I remember imagining our daily bread coming to us wet with tears, His tears. For this first time in my memory I’d had the experience of pitying God.
I won’t talk here about the range and variety of suffering in creation. You can find reminders in every newspaper; you can contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus, the torture-deaths at Abu Ghraib and the Tower of London, the vivisections of animals, the Nazi death-camps, the cases wheeled into the Emergency Room down the street. Then there are the mental sufferings of the terrified and the mad. Read the story of Job, or read the warning descriptions of damnation in the Qur’an. Search your own memory, or tune into the ongoing pain in your own bones, the despair in your own heart. God suffers all that pain, and more. No matter that He also tastes every pleasure had by every creature. No matter that He may be in such an unimaginably high, detached state of consciousness that creaturely pleasure and pain alike dwindle to insignificance. He remains the One Tormented.
Can it be true? On the answer hangs our faith that God fully understands us. The alternative is that God is one Self and we are all separate, independent selves – bare consciousnesses, uncreated, timeless, changeless and without qualities – that experience a “world” of created nature that includes both things and processes going on within our body and mind (including the illusion of doership) and those thing-events going on outside. Such, as I understand it, is the world-view of the Indian Sankhya philosophy, whose best-known classic is the Yoga Sutras attributed to the ancient sage Patanjali. Patanjali’s God is a special self, a particular self (Y.S. 1:24) who enjoys omniscience (1:25). In Patanjali’s system, one consciousness can come to know fully the experience of another (3:19-20). But you and I will never be each other, and while we may one day experience a liberating awakening to our true, timeless nature as pure being, nowhere does Patanjali promise us union with God. We seem to be eternally separate. If this is so, then God may peep into my brain or lurk in my heart to spy on me as often as He likes, but when the going gets rough, He can parachute out of my suffering and turn His back on me forever, for He is He and I am I.
Against this Sankhya world-view stands the equally venerable Indian tradition known as Advaita-Vedanta, which asserts the essential oneness of us all. But more to the point are the words of Jesus: I and the Father are one (John 10:30). And his prayer for His disciples, and all their converts to come (John 17:21), That they all may be one, as thou, Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us. Lest the reader suspect that these were not Jesus’ own sayings, but ones “planted” in the Fourth Gospel by some redactor with Advaita-Vedanta sympathies, look also in the Gospel of Matthew (25:40), where Jesus prophesies that the King shall say at the Last Judgment, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. This could, of course, be mere metaphor rather than plain truth. If it were mere metaphor, then God might not have said to Moses, I am who am (Exodus 3:14), but perhaps “I am one of those who am.” The Creation Story might not have had the Lord God breathing His own breath into Adam to give him life (Genesis 2:7), but rather pressing a button to connect the first man’s clay body to an eternally pre-existent, uncreated spirit of Adam’s own.
But if it is the plain truth that God’s experiencing Self is the very same Self as Jesus’ Self (as Jesus knew by direct experience) and also as our own Self (as we cannot know experientially unless God shows us), then it makes sense that Christ Jesus could have died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3), really taking them on Himself (Romans 5:6 ff, Hebrews 2:9 ff.). If we are not doomed, by the very nature of reality, to eternal separateness and otherness, then we might be baptized into Jesus Christ, dead with Him and risen again with Him (Romans 6, 1 Cor. 15:22, Colossians 3:1-3), and incorporated into the very body of Christ (Romans 12:5), who now lives in us (Romans 8:10, Ephesians 3:17). If the possibility of interpenetration or identity of selfhood between God and His creatures is once admitted, then it becomes possible that God the Father shall gather all things, including ourselves, into Christ and unto Himself (Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:19). It no longer has the uncertain sound of a breakable promise, but the ring of a necessary truth, when Matthew’s Gospel ends: lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. This is the voice of One who cannot parachute out of our suffering and leave us alone in it. Let us therefore bless all suffering that draws us closer to God, mindful that it is God who suffers through us, and cheerfully sit alongside Christ the Crucifixion Survivor, offering our hands and hearts to serve as adjuncts to His own as He ministers to all the suffering creatures He brings to our awareness.