The God Who Feels

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    
“I feel your pain.”
Even though he spoke those four words on just one occasion – when addressing a heckler at a 1992 campaign rally during his first run for president – that simple phrase became lastingly associated with Bill Clinton.  Many observers responded (then and now) with something on the order of “Yeah, right – as if a career politician could actually care.” 
Interestingly, the same kind of skepticism prevails across the global religious smorgasbord when it comes to God. 
Does God actually have feelings? 
Certainly not, according to Muslims, who insist that Allah’s unchanging perfection is incompatible with transient emotional states.  Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists imagine the Ultimate Being (if there even is one) to be impersonal, and thus incapable of feelings. 
The so-called God of the Philosophers, embraced as a necessary principle by thinkers like Plato, was assumed to be disinterested in trivial realities like love, anger, and compassion.  The Deists of the Enlightenment suggested that an all-powerful Cosmic Force apparently got the universe going – it was a bit like winding up a clock – but then permanently left the scene.  We cannot touch the heart of such a God, and he will certainly never touch ours.
The texts of both the Old and New Testament are stunningly different.
Yahweh – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Father of Jesus of Nazareth – responds to human requests.  He laughs.  He becomes exasperated.  He cares.  According to Jews and Christians, God feels our pain.
Such emotions rise to the surface in Jesus’ conversation with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, whose body has now been in a limestone tomb for four days.  Jesus, for reasons the sisters cannot fathom, chose not to show up when there was still time to heal him.   
Therefore we can presume there’s an edge to Martha’s “greeting” when he finally shows up: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Nevertheless, her hope is relentless.  “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (John 11:21-22).
Jesus counters with a word of assurance: “Your brother will rise again.”  Yes, says Martha, I know that’s true.  That will happen someday.  But what about today?  What about now
Jesus’ next response transforms the conversation.  “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live even though they die, and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (11:25-26).  He appears to be saying, not, “Could you come up with the right answers about life and death in Sunday School?” but rather, “Do you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that all this is actually true?”
Author Rebecca McLaughlin thinks Jesus is saying to Martha, “As you stand here in your desperate grief, your greatest need is not to have your brother back.  It’s to have me.” 
We often spotlight Jesus’ claim, “I am the resurrection,” overlooking the fact that he also says, “and the life.”  In John 14:6 he asserts, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  He himself is our life.  He is the meaning of life in the face of suffering, death, and unanswered prayer. 
When Mary arrives, she echoes her sister: “If you had been here, things would be different.  My brother would still be around” (11:32).  People standing nearby observe, “Could not he who opened the eyes of a blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (11:37)
Anyone who has ever heard or read this story knows what’s coming.  Jesus is about to perform a spectacular miracle.  “Lazarus, come out!” 
The only problem now for Lazarus is that he’ll have to do the whole thing over again.  He’ll have to die again one day, and his family has already used up his burial insurance.
McLaughlin makes an important observation.  The miracle may be wonderful, but for Martha, the real action – an altogether different kind of miracle – happens in the space between her brother’s death and resurrection.  It’s during that in-between time that she learns who Jesus really is.  He is her very life.   
He is also the living representative of the God who feels our pain – something that jumps out at us in two special Greek verbs.
The first is splagkhnizomai, which is often translated into English as “having compassion.”  But it means so much more than that.  Its root is the Greek word for small intestines, or “guts,” which were widely assumed to be the seat of human emotions.  It denotes a visceral reaction – something that makes you clutch at your stomach, perhaps with a twinge of outrage. 
The word isn’t used very often in the Bible.  But wherever it appears, it definitely leaves a mark.
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus says that the waiting father (who represents God) has a gut reaction when he sees his lost child approaching – he runs and throws his arms around him.  In another parable, the good Samaritan who comes upon the mugged traveler feels a visceral surge of compassion and stops to help him.
Splagkhnizomai is significantly associated with Jesus’ miracles.
When he sees the restless crowd “like sheep without a shepherd,” his heart goes out to them (Mark 6:34).  He then provides a banquet with a few loaves and fishes.  His “guts” are moved to compassion when he sees a widow who has lost her only son, hears two blind men crying out for mercy, and is approached by a leper whose disfiguring disease has left him nowhere else to turn.
In each of these dire circumstances, we see God’s Messiah stirred to do something.  He is not neutral.  He doesn’t remain on the sidelines.  This is a God who rolls up his sleeves and goes to work.
The second Greek verb is even more dramatic.  It is embrimaomai, which is usually translated “deeply moved.” 
It appears twice in the account of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha. 
Most of us know “Jesus wept,” one of the shortest verses in the Bible (John 11:35).  But as author and theologian Os Guinness points out, sorrowful weeping doesn’t begin to exhaust the description of what Jesus is experiencing in this cemetery.  Embrimaomai is the verb used in John 11:38 to describe his feelings as he approaches the tomb.  Its root meaning is to “snort in spirit.”  The ancient writer Aeschylus famously used this verb to describe Greek stallions – war horses – just before battle.  They pawed the ground, reared on their hind legs, and snorted before they charged towards the enemy. 
Jesus likewise displays a surge of anger as he approaches the enemy.  What enemy? 
He is coming face to face with Death. 
Guinness writes, “Entering his Father’s world as the Son of God, he found not order, beauty, harmony, and fulfillment, but fractured disorder, raw ugliness, complete disarray – everywhere the abortion of God’s original plan.  Standing at the graveside, he came face to face with a death that symbolized and summarized the accumulation of evil, pain, sorrow, suffering, injustice, cruelty, and despair.”
Crying real tears and feeling heartfelt outrage, Jesus – who is Immanuel, God With Us – declares that Death’s days are numbered. 
“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  And then he provides a preview of coming attractions by raising Lazarus from the grave. 
Most important of all, he is more than just the God who is all-powerful, omniscient, high and lifted up. 
He is the God who feels – which means he’s the God we need more than anything else over the next 24 hours.