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On The Hiding Place & Shared Suffering

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a conference room with a group of my coworkers, and for some reason, my stomach was killing me. Sharp pain was shooting up and down my abdomen and all I could do was sit still and try to hide the pain with a smile. As I looked around at my co-workers, I noticed that no one could tell—either they were all too wrapped up in their own thoughts and actions to notice, or else I am a much better actress than I thought I was.

The situation was a strange and small thing, but I felt so alone, and in the middle of the meeting, my thoughts floated back to a movie I loved in high school—Star Trek: Into Darkness.

My mom is a Trekkie, which means I grew up on Next Generation episodes, and while I enjoyed them, none of the Star Trek storylines ever made much of an impression on me—that is until I started watching the new movies. I remember sitting stunned on the couch, staring at the TV, garlic bread halfway to my mouth, as I watched a scene from Into Darkness. In it, Spock, one of the main characters, puts his hand on the side of his friend’s neck and is able to feel exactly what his friend is feeling—his pain, his fear, his grief—as though it was his own. That scene has followed me ever since. Every time I am in pain, either physical or psychological, I ache for someone to feel what I feel, for my pain to be known and understood exactly as I’m experiencing it—just as Spock experienced his friend’s suffering.

A few weeks ago, I went to see Rabbit Room Theatre’s production of The Hiding Place. There are so many true and beautiful elements in the play, but there are two moments in particular that struck me.

The first is a moment of total despair where Corrie ten Boom, the main character of the story, is in the infirmary of a Nazi death camp with her ailing sister, Betsie. Corrie stands and stares out the window into the hell they are living through and asks: “Where is God in all of this?”

Over the past few years, I have heard a similar question in the voices of some of my friends. As many of the people in my life struggle and grieve, one after another they have asked: “Where is God in all of this?” When a friend sits down across from me, looks me in the eye, and asks why God is hurting them, why God is silent, or how God could exist when their lives are falling apart, all of my carefully-crafted answers fall away. As I sat watching The Hiding Place, I wanted an answer. I wanted Betsie to tell Corrie, once and for all, where God was, what he was doing, and why.

Corrie’s sister answers her question by insisting, “He is here, Corrie. He is.” I sat back in my chair, a little disappointed. True and right as this assertion was, it wasn’t enough for me.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. I couldn’t think of anything Betsie could have said in response that would make me feel less alone in my world, or that would convey to my suffering friends that they were loved and understood, despite all evidence to the contrary.

The deepest truth I carried with me from The Hiding Place is that the one who turns the planets feels everything that I feel, and never once turns away. Carly Marlys

As the play went on, I thought back to a few scenes before and realized that the answer I was looking for had already been revealed. Earlier in the second act, Betsie ten Boom had offered communion to the women in her prison barracks, using smuggled bread from a Red Cross package. The words she spoke over her fellow prisoners played again in my mind: “This is his body, broken for us. Even now he is here. He suffers in each of us. He bleeds as we bleed. He dies as we die and yet he is neither spent nor consumed.”

That line spoke the truth that I wanted to hear when Corrie asked about the absence of God in her burning world. It is what I always want to hear when I feel alone in my pain and what I want others to hear when they feel alone in theirs.

As I sat there, I recalled a story I heard from a pastor in my childhood church. He told the congregation about finding out that his daughter had been born with irreversible developmental damage. She would never live a normal life. She might never even learn to fully communicate. He told us how he sat in the hospital waiting room and wept all of his heartbreak into his hands. During that time, the only thing that actually got through to him was when one of his friends told him this: Jesus feels your pain, and he is crying with you.

Pain and grief are isolating. I can sit in a room full of people who love me and still feel alone because no one can feel what I’m feeling. I could tell them, but it’s not enough. What I long for is that scene from Star Trek: someone to sit with me, hold me, and feel every modicum of physical pain, every anxiety, every moment of spiritual emptiness that I feel. This is what I want for my friends who call me to try and convey their feeling of abandonment, their pain that is too heavy for them to carry and too deep for me to know. I want them to know that someone is with them. I want them to understand that their God has the kind of radical compassion that doesn’t just understand their pain but feels it and bears it with them.

That Star Trek scene is real. Betsie ten Boom is right. We do not have a Savior who is unable or unwilling to experience our suffering. The deepest truth I carried with me from The Hiding Place is that the one who turns the planets feels everything that I feel, and never once turns away. That is our comfort and the answer to the questions that have no easy answers yet. The great compassion of our God reminds us that we are not alone.

In the days since seeing The Hiding Place, a line from a John Mark McMillan song has been turning over in my head: “I’ve got no answers for heartbreaks or cancers but the savior who suffers them with me.” He bleeds as we bleed. He dies as we die. We are not ever alone in our pain. Praise be to God.

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