“There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper.” These are the words of Corrie ten Boom’s sister, Betsie, in the former’s autobiography, The Hiding Place. Betsie is dying from the horrible conditions of the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where 60,000 inmates died.
The ten Boom sisters had been imprisoned for hiding Jews during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They had already witnessed horrifying evil and gone through unimaginable suffering. But they discovered that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper. Raised by a saintly father, they experienced the wisdom of the lessons he taught them. They found that God gives no burdens that we can’t bear; that He gives us strength just when we need it, not a moment before; that when the mystery of suffering and evil overwhelms us, “cast all your anxieties upon him, because he cares about you” (1 Pt 5:7).
The power of The Hiding Place springs from the contrast between Corrie and Betsie’s harrowing experiences and the radiant faith and forgiveness that permeate the narrative. Toward the end of the book, Corrie describes the post-war ministry she organized. It was for the hated Dutch citizens who had collaborated with the Nazis. These were the people who had betrayed Corrie and her family. They ultimately were responsible for the deaths of her father and sister. But shunned by the rest of the Dutch after the war, they were in need of food, clothing, shelter, and – above all – kindness. Gently, slowly, Corrie persuaded others to join in providing these.
Corrie is no Pollyanna coaxing us to put on her rose-colored view of the world. She has seen the worst that life has to offer. Yet she still bears with, hopes, and trusts (cf. 1 Cor 13:7). Betsie had prophesied that Corrie would survive the camp and have the opportunity to tell her story to many. “They will believe you, because you have been here.”
Many of the clients I work with have similarly gone through crushing pain. They haven’t known the horrors of Ravensbruck or Auschwitz. But they have endured a sadistic parent, a sexually abusive brother, the suicides of loved ones, or the horrors of fighting ISIS in Iraq. They have suffered loved ones being murdered or unjustly imprisoned. They have battled the hate-filled voices or terrifying images of auditory and visual hallucinations. They have experienced the financial chaos and ruined relationships that bipolar mania or depression can bring. They have borne the often hidden burden of unwanted same-sex attraction.
If they are believers, these clients have also had to wrestle with how a loving, all-powerful God could allow such suffering. At least a Corrie ten Boom could say, “I may not have gone through exactly what you have, but I do know dreadful, prolonged suffering from the inside.” But God couldn’t say that…could He?
Several years ago I went on a retreat which led to my asking Jesus that question as forcefully as you can imagine. Although I had visited and revisited the issue often over the years, the retreat had brought me once again face to face with the thousand ways in which my Dad had failed to father me. The consequences of his deep (and admitted) inability to be a father were far-reaching.
I raged at Jesus: “How can YOU say that You know what I’ve gone through and what I feel? YOU had a perfect Father! You knew at every moment that you were perfectly and completed loved! ”
“And while we’re at it: my suffering is NOTHING compared to people being tortured, children and women being raped, and others suffering from horrible, lifelong physical or mental pain. Sure, You went through a day or so of horrible physical and emotional suffering, but not years. What do YOU know of how people suffer who are disabled, deformed, quadriplegic, blind, bullied lifelong, horribly burned, undergoing chemo or ALS, going through parental divorce, witnessing the massacre of family members, or a billion other pains?”
I was furious.
And then He responded, in my heart. His response was twofold. First, I had an image of a funnel placed on top of Jesus’ head during His Passion. Into the funnel was poured all of the suffering anyone ever did suffer or would suffer throughout all of time. As a human being, Jesus couldn’t possibly take in that enormity of pain. But as God, He could. THAT was the true suffering that racked Him during His Passion and death. The torture, the mockery, the abandonment, and the hatred were the lightest part of his burden. Through them, one could see the depth of His love. But the real suffering was to bear every consequence of every sin that ever was or ever would be. Every suffering.
It had to be. We MUST be able to say to Jesus, “You know. You’ve been there. You know my pain from the inside.” Somehow, mystically, He has to have undergone the ravages of cancer, the helplessness of wars and murder and suicide and bloodshed. He has to know in his bones the terrors of psychosis, the humiliation and pain of being raped, abused, hated by a father or mother. He has to have lived through the grinding years of being a POW, the injustice of sexism, racism, genocide or religious persecution.
In His Passion and death, Jesus made the descent into our individual hells. He loved us that much. He wanted, He needed to be able to say, “There is no pit so deep that I have not gone deeper.” At my next meeting with my retreat director, I checked this out, in tears. “Is it true? Is that what we believe as Christians?” “Absolutely!” he confirmed.
To my “YOU had a perfect Father!”, He gently responded, “So do you. I died so that you could have him as your Father, too.” “But You had the perfect Mother, too!” Again, “So do you. I died so that you could have her as your mother.” I almost said, “But what about St. Joseph – your practically-perfect foster-father?”, but I already knew His answer. And as for siblings, having every saint who ever lived or ever will live for family…not so bad.
There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper. There is no pit so deep of suffering that He has not plumbed its depths. And there is no love deeper, broader, wider, or higher than His for us.
“O marvelous exchange!” sings the Church on the octave of Christmas. Jesus experienced the pit of suffering in order to win for us the heights of Heaven. He suffered fatherlessness and abandonment so that we can be Fathered and loved. He underwent the rupture of all relationships so that we can know the fellowship of the saints. He
suffered the worst that humanity can suffer so that we can know – through union with Him – the glory of divinity.