For God So Loves the World

by | Mar 7, 2024

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
John 3:16

My spiritual director encourages me to begin times of prayer by imagining God’s loving gaze upon me. It’s not as comforting a posture as you might think, for whenever I do this, I can’t help but think of all the other people God is also gazing upon.

And I wonder how God holds the suffering and grief of this world.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the conviction that God is love. In Jesus, God’s response to human suffering is compassion and a love that overcomes death. In our darkest hour, Scripture assures us, God’s light still shines. We are never alone, and death does not have the final word.

I live my life by these truths. Yet there are times when the depth of human suffering leaves me silent before God. In those times God is also silent, and the silence itself seems to ask—as many of you ask me as your bishop—“What are you going to do?”

I have no illusion that any of us, myself included, can respond to all the sorrows of our world, or even, for that matter, to all grief, pain, and manifestations of injustice in our immediate communities. Yet we also know, in words attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, “Christ has no body now on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Ours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”1

A pastor I admire periodically asks the members of his congregation, “What breaks your heart?” By that he doesn’t mean what they feel badly about or wish were not true. He wants them to identify the particular form of human suffering that truly breaks their heart. This is the pain that won’t let them go and seems to require something of them. “Pay attention to what breaks your heart,” he says. “For in the pain there may be a call to action, something that God needs you to do.” Moreover, he points out that it’s likely for there to be entire organizations filled with passionate people dedicated to that same concern. “Don’t go it alone,” he counsels. “Join them.”2

Proximity to suffering is important, as renowned human rights attorney Bryan Stevenson reminds us. The closer we get to suffering, the greater chance it has to soften our hearts and inspire sustained commitment. Theologian Dorothee Soelle writes, “Gratuitous solidarity with the afflicted changes nothing. We can only help sufferers by stepping into their time frame.”3

There is, of course, no greater proximity than the suffering that touches us personally. So it is that ones grieving the death of a loved one will be the greatest comfort to others who will soon grieve; that returning soldiers traumatized by war can speak to the trauma of their comrades; that survivors of gun violence are the ones who will not let us accept what has become the greatest cause of violent death in this country.

We also need other people to shed light on suffering that we cannot understand from our vantage point, or to which our own sins and privilege have blinded us. I am grateful—and challenged daily—to serve a diocese filled with people passionate for justice and mercy, you who dedicate your lives to serving others in great need and repairing past wrongs with multi-generational impact, whose family ties bring you in close proximity to the calamities across the globe, and whose personal suffering has stretched your hearts in Christ-like ways.

How I wish that we had the capacity to address all these needs with the dedication and sacrifice they deserve. But this I know: we are called, as a body, in ways that defy human understanding, to show up, love our neighbor, and work for justice. The work can feel impossible. Yet through Christ and with the encouragement—and sometimes the goading—of one another, we can, and are, making a difference for good in this world.

In my own prayers, I ask for the strength to stay present and responsive in the places where my heart breaks. As your bishop, I feel deeply connected to the places where your hearts are breaking, too. Within the diocese, certain priorities have risen to the surface and we will continue to invest ourselves in them. But that doesn’t mean the places of need that have claimed your heart are not also of importance to us all.

Given our diversity and breadth of life experience represented among us, not to mention that vastness of suffering and calamity before us, we will always be stretched beyond our capacities. That, I am persuaded, is what God loves most about the Diocese of Washington. We also love the world, and are willing to join with Jesus in his self-giving love, for the sake of others.

So carry on, dear ones, in the ways that your broken hearts move you to love, and give, and work for God’s vision of a better world. As my spiritual director says to me, I say to you: God’s loving gaze is upon you. God is grateful for you, and so am I.

1Teresa of Avila, Christ Has No Body
2See Andy Stanley’s sermon series, A Better Question
3Dorothee Soelle, Suffering (Fortress Press: 1984), p. 15