The God Who Knows What It's Like
Late Thursday night after sitting with a family that had hours earlier lost their teenage son, I got into my car, turned it on, and the radio was playing the most unsuitable song possible, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”
There is something odd about tragedy during the Christmas season. I can remember the same emotions last year after the Newtown school shootings. In the presence of profound suffering, you don’t really know what to do with Christmas cheer; at best it feels awkwardly forced, and at worse it feels mockingly insensitive.
Yet Christmas is exactly what everyone needs right now. I’m not talking about the shallow sentimentality of Christmas, which only disparages our suffering. I’m talking about Christmas in its truest and most scandalous form—the birth of God.
We Christians believe that Christmas is not the birth of the main character of the story; it is the birth of the Author of the story. God literally writes Himself into His own narrative, subjecting Himself to the same story with all its trials and pains. And in this way, God can indeed relate.
Christmas is what the suffering need because it affords us the utterly unique consolation that God knows what it’s like.
In the midst of trial there is nothing more comforting than others who have been there before. People want to know that somebody else has lived this nightmare. In other words, they want to know they’re not alone.
And the opposite is true as well. It’s patronizing when those who haven’t been there try to comfort you. You smile and politely say, “Thank you,” but inside you’re screaming, “You have no idea what it’s like!”
Well Christmas no longer allows us to say this about God. He does know what it’s like. He is literally Immanuel, God with us. As a minister of Immanuel, I often say to the hurting, “I may not know what you are going through … but God does.”
I suppose you could say there are things that Jesus never experienced. He never lost a child, for example. But we are able to say that there is no degree of suffering He is unfamiliar with. You cannot suffer more than Jesus.
Nobody has or ever will endure a trial like the cross. Only one Man has gone through the grim darkness of Calvary, and in this way, Jesus suffers alone. Nobody can say to Jesus, I know what it’s like, but Jesus can say to every single one of us, no matter the pain, “I know what this is like.” Jesus is utterly alone in His suffering, so that nobody will ever have to be alone in theirs.
When tragedy draws near we always want answers. We want to know the meaning behind it, but ultimately it’s not for us to know. However because of Christmas we can at least know what it doesn’t mean.
It can’t mean that God is detached and doesn’t care, it can’t be that God has no purposes in it, it can’t be that God doesn’t love us or doesn’t take our suffering and misery seriously. If Christmas is true than none of that can be true. He loves us so much, He cares so deeply, He takes suffering so seriously that He is willing to enter into His own story and take it upon Himself.
Dorothy Sayers said it like this, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and subject to sorrows and death— but God had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man.”
Perhaps you are suffering so much right now that every time someone wishes you merry Christmas, part of you just wants to punch them in the face. I understand. Actually, I probably don’t understand. But God does. Whatever you may be going through, because of Christmas, God knows exactly what it’s like.