Divine Suffering

November 10, 2021

This past year, I’ve been trying to get more into cooking. You know, the more stereotypically “manly” kind of cooking; steaks, ribs, grill-master stuff. As part of this journey to be the Simpson family master of all things grilled and fried, I sought to learn the art of cast-iron cooking. Everything at least looks cooler when being cooked in cast-iron. My wife had got me a wonderful cast-iron pan set for Christmas, and it was off to the butcher’s for me.

There are some things in life that at first appearance would seem to go well together, but in reality quite simply don’t. Cast-iron cookware can teach us this lesson, though unfortunately it’s often learned in hindsight. After cooking one particularly tasty meal with my wife for some family of ours, my wife and her sister cleaned up while I entertained in the living room. There is a vital rule about cleaning cast-iron that must not be broken: Do not wash with soap or chemicals so that you don’t strip the grease coating that prevents food from sticking while cooking. Most importantly, do not wash in the dishwasher. I had failed to relay these instructions, and lo and behold the next day found my cast-iron skillet a rusted out hunk of metal in the bottom rack of our dishwasher. 

The truth is that it’s not obvious that cast-iron detergents, and slow drying don’t mix. With all the coatings and metal blends that we cook with nowadays, we forget that something as simple as iron will simply rust out. On the face of it, with all the cooked-on remnants left in the skillet, it would seem that the most powerful dishwasher cycle would be the perfect solution. 

If simple mishaps like this happen to us with elements we use daily, how much more at risk are we to make similar mistakes with things we know less about. How much more at risk are we in making these kinds of mistakes in our understanding of God. As much as we know God through the Scriptural record of Jesus and the witness of the Holy Spirit, there is a significant limit to what our minds can comprehend, and a limit to what God chooses to reveal. This limit leaves us open to making bad judgments about God that can detrimentally impact our faith. I see this in the issue of God’s suffering.

At first glance, like the skillet and the dishwasher, the idea that God suffers with us in our plight and pain seems like a good idea. The thought immediately warms our hearts, knowing that God is up there, perhaps crying with us over our tragedy. As comforting as that may seem, once we dig further we see that the true result is far less than what we had hoped for. The idea that God suffers with us, His creation, has been growing over the past century and is becoming more and more embraced within the church. Rather than seeing this as a positive development, I worry that this will only serve to damage and weaken our faith and witness to the world. 

God Suffers?

In my view, the belief that God can suffer is something people are likely to just assume. More often than not we foist upon God attributes that are familiar to us, human attributes, that actually do not define Him at all. We suffer loss at tragedy and hardship, why wouldn’t God? We even feel a sense of comfort with the idea of a God who suffers with us. Ultimately though we need to dabble in a deeper end of theology to get at the root of the problem.

Perhaps the most notable theologian to develop a theology around the suffering of God, at least in the West, is Jürgen Moltmann. His book, The Crucified God, is a significant and thorough defense of his proposition.

On the topic of divine suffering, Moltmann takes us to the one place where suffering is undeniable: the cross. Working out of Mark 15:34 where Jesus cries out in His abandonment, Moltmann declares: “The God-abandoned Son of God takes the eternal death of the abandoned and the damned upon himself in order to become God of the abandoned and brother of the damned.” While traditional Christian theology locates Jesus’ suffering on the cross in His human nature, Moltmann sees that as insufficient. He sees Jesus suffering in His divine nature as well, which in turn brings God into the shoes of those who suffer. God in His divine nature identifies with suffering humanity. It is a supreme act of love and a denunciation of power on God’s part to the world. Not only does God suffer as the Son on the cross, but the Father too suffers the loss of His Son. God truly experiences deep pain and loss in this one event that is central to our faith.

From this theological standpoint God does indeed seem ever more close to us, His human children who suffer in a world of brokenness and sin. God truly does care and love us, and He showed it by literally suffering in all of the divine Trinity. It’s a tempting proposal and the more we grow sensitive to suffering in our society the more people become attracted to a God like this. Yet, two things must be considered: is it true, and does it help?

The Impassibility of God

The task of understanding God’s self-revelation to us through scripture is not always easy, or cut-and-dry. Thankfully today we stand on the shoulders of two thousand years of past Christians who thought long and hard about who God is. We must always consider their ideas seriously. The Bible does not give some simple list of all God’s attributes that you might find in a textbook today, and the early church diligently pulled from scripture all depictions of God to understand who He was. One such attribute that they discerned was His impassibility. In other words, that God cannot suffer. It is related to His immutability, of unchanging-ness. Simply put, God is perfect, therefore any change would imply that He is becoming less perfect, or more perfect (and His previous state was less-than-perfect). Add to this the issue of impassibility, if God  suffers that would mean He is being acted upon by another agent. Something is making God suffer. If something can make God suffer, He’s no longer perfect, nor all powerful.

Now if we run to the logical conclusion of an impassible and immutable God, we may soon end up with a God completely removed from His creation. A cold and distant God devoid of emotions towards us. Certainly, this is not the picture of God in the Bible. Aware of this problem, the early church was careful to express a nuanced view between God’s transcendence and His immanence and participation with His creation. 

Should we be so quick to depart with the early church consensus? A God who all the sudden can change would present some frightening changes to other aspects of our faith, most notably regarding our forgiveness and salvation. Is a God who suffers with us really better than a God who is above our suffering? More powerful than our suffering? Most importantly what do we make of passages like Malachi 3:6 and 1 Samuel 15:29 in which God declares his unchanging nature? What at first seems like a kind-hearted theological and pastoral perspective begins to corrode other areas of faith until the whole of what is believed begins to crumble as we tighten our grip on it.

The challenge is to harmonize these two seemingly contradictory states of transcendence and immanence. Here I have found Thomas Weinandy to be particularly helpful. Weinandy points us to see that God’s perfect love is far greater than our own concept of love. God’s love is an active love that is ready to perfectly respond to the changing circumstances in the lives of His creatures, which means that what we may experience as either His compassion or His discipline are actually different expressions of His perfect love responding to our circumstances. We so often fall into the habit of projecting human attributes to God, but we really must remember He is wholly other than we are. Once we accept this truth we can begin to see how things that don’t make sense from a human perspective are actually quite possible for God. In fact, as scripture reminds us, with God all things are possible. 

Does it Really Help?

As I mentioned earlier, traditional Christian theology understands that Jesus suffered in His human nature only, not His divine nature. It’s indisputable that Jesus experienced suffering. Not only the horrendous suffering on the cross but multiple moments are depicted in the Gospels where Jesus is suffering in human life. The Letter to the Hebrews also is an explicit proof of this suffering: “Therefore, he had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people. For since he himself has suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Hebrews 2:17-18 CSB).

I find it unnecessary that God experiences my human suffering as a divine being in order to really understand what I’m going through, or a source of comfort in my distress. I know that God knows what it is to suffer, not as a God but as a human. Does it really help that God could suffer as a God, when we suffer only as humans? I don’t think so. Rather I find comfort and companionship in that God knows, through the human life of Jesus what it means to be a human who suffers. In this way Jesus becomes our fellow-traveller through the deserts and valleys of life. 

In fact it’s essential to fully grasp the way in which Christ’s two natures have beautifully allowed God to be our everything in times of suffering. In His divine nature God remains unchanging and perfect in all His attributes at a time when we need stability the most. God proves to be greater than our suffering and our foes, the only One who is capable of bringing peace and justice to our pain. Furthermore, since He Himself does not suffer, God is not in need of alleviating His own pain and is free to fully attend to our needs. Yet we turn to the same God who knows His fair share of suffering. The God who became human, and not only that but lived His life not among the rich and powerful but the rejected, the poor, and the disabled. In the end He died as a criminal in a humiliating and torturous way, although being innocent. He chose to identify with those who suffer as a human being, and thus He is our perfect source of comfort in our suffering today. 

¹ Jürgen Moltmann, “Crucified God,” Theology Today 31 (1), 1974, 15, https://searchebscohostcom.ezproxy.mytyndale.ca:2443/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lsdar&AN=ATLA0000748116&site=ehostlive&scope=s
‎² Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: 40th Anniversary Edition, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015) 359, Kindle.
³ Thomas G. Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?,” Ars Disputandi, 2:1, (2002), 11, doi:10.1080/15665399.2002.10819720 

Image: Julius Hübner, 1863 – 1866

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