I saw a documentary not long ago about interrogation techniques. One of them was to use sleep depravation. They found that it breaks down defense mechanisms and causes people to become more emotional. The subjects, without ever being physically harmed experienced it as torture.
I discovered the truth of this when we had our first child. In the first month of her life, the only way to keep her asleep at night was to rock her while standing up. The moment I sat down, she would wake up. It doesn’t take long before that kind of sleeplessness becomes debilitating. But I was compelled to remain standing, because I knew that as long as I was awake, she was able to sleep.
There’s an interesting description of God in Psalm 121. It says “God will keep you and will not slumber.” This image means something to me in a way that it never did before I had kids. I wonder if the image of God as the ever-wakeful parent implies that God suffers. God is sleepless on our behalf.
It always sounds strange to apply the word “suffering” to God. Why would God suffer? Can’t God just wave a magic wand and stop it? It depends on how we define our terms. Perhaps there is a difference between suffering and hurting.
We might use the word Hurting to describe the experience of pain without purpose or meaning. Hurting is something we experience when our pain has no context, when it has no direction or horizon. Hurting is what happens when our pain is somehow bigger than we are.
But when pain finds purpose or meaning it transforms from mere hurting into suffering. We could use the word Suffering to describe pain with purpose. Suffering is pain set in a larger context. Suffering is what happens to a woman giving birth. The labor pains are extraordinary, but the pain becomes mere memory when the child is born (so I’m told). The pain is matched only by the clarity of purpose.
In this sense, maybe God does not hurt, maybe God only suffers. Perhaps God always knows the purpose of pain even when we don’t?
Our ability to endure pain is directly related to how purposeful it feels. I don’t know what God’s role in human pain is. But I do know this. God won’t let anything go to waste. The book of Romans says “God works all things together for good.” That doesn’t mean all things are good, just that God relentlessly brings forth good even amidst the ruins of pain.
If you’re hurting and you can’t seem to find a shred of good, one part of healing is to find meaning. Here’s the tricky thing; no one from the outside can answer the question of meaning for your pain. That is found only within. That is a quest between you and God. It may be a long dark night, but the meaning will come. And when it does, the pain doesn’t hurt as much.