I lost my dad unexpectedly in my early teenage years. The pain and grief of this loss contributed significantly to a post-college crisis of faith. Is God really good? Can I trust him? Is he even real? As a teenager, members of my church family described me as having “a halo of hope around my head.” I had experienced the love and care of God in the midst of the intense suffering of grief. But years later, when life hadn’t gotten better and the loss of my dad hadn’t been redeemed as I expected, I lost heart. I was hurt and confused, which led to cynicism. God wasn’t acting as I expected. It took years to climb out of that pit of doubt, and I still experience some residual effects today. But there was one moment that profoundly moved me back toward God.
It was, oddly enough, being surrounded by children who were suffering—suffering the loss of their own families, suffering the loss of love—that helped me know the true heart of God for me in the middle of my pain.
I was serving at an orphanage in Cambodia for children with HIV. I learned their stories: contracting HIV because of the choices of a parent; a bad blood transfusion during a surgery; abandoned by family because of the stigma; or losing their parents to the same disease. I saw deep sadness in some of their eyes—despite the fact that their physical needs were being met and they were receiving a better education and hope for the future than many other children in Cambodia. And my heart broke. I hid away in a quiet place and sobbed my heart out.
I wanted them to know that they were wanted, that they were loved, that God knew them and created them with purpose, and cared about them deeply.
And suddenly I felt God’s presence with my tears, with my broken heart. I knew deep down that what I was feeling for these children was also what God felt. He longed for them to know the same things. I felt his compassion for these children. And I felt to my core God’s compassion for my own pain.
The English word is from the Latin words cum (with) and pati (suffering). The book Compassion (by Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison) explains that it literally means “to suffer with.” The corresponding Greek word used to describe Jesus on various occasions has a connotation of being moved to your very bowels (did someone say gut-wrenching?). Compassion is far more than sympathy. It is being moved to the point of actually suffering and being in pain over the situation of another person.
As I wept over these children in Cambodia, as I was moved with compassion for them, I began to understand the compassionate heart of God. He wasn’t far off and distant from my life and from my suffering. He was right there. And he cared so much that he was suffering with me.
When I was confronted with suffering, I began to know God in a new way. I began to know his love and his character in a new way. Out of the depths of my pain, I began to know the depths of God’s love for me and for others. It’s a love that is true whether we see his redemption of that suffering or not. It’s a love that is real even when there are no answers to the question of why.
My story has given me significant “skin in the game” when it comes to our current blog series on suffering. I am passionate about it because I know from personal experience that how we face suffering can either lead us toward God or break our relationship with him altogether.
Over the next few weeks we are going to hear several stories about suffering from CRM staff. This isn’t because we want to host a pity party. Rather, it’s because facing the reality of pain in a broken world can change the way that pain affects us. Our hope is that these stories can be a space where we learn how to walk the road of pain from each other, where we learn to reach out to the God who is with us right in the midst of suffering.
This journey may not be easy. At times it may feel heavy. But in the end it is the path to life.
The path of suffering can be a sacred path to knowing the compassionate heart of God. But in order to know that heart, we have to walk the road.
As you read these stories from fellow pilgrims, I pray you will realize that you are not walking alone.