The God Who Suffers
by Dennis Ngien
If God does not grieve, then can he love at all? An argument for God's emotions.
Does God ever feel distressed?
The early Christian theologians said no. They accepted the Greek idea of divine impassibility, the notion that God cannot suffer since God stands outside the realm of human pain and sorrow. Philo, the Hellenistic Jewish theologian, had already assumed this in his understanding of Israel's God. Virtually all the early church fathers took it for granted, denying God any emotions because they might interrupt his tranquillity. The Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451) declared as "vain babblings" the idea that the divine nature could suffer, and it condemned those who believed it.
Like most theologians of Chalcedonian and earlier times, Calvin--and Reformed theology after him--assumed divine impassibility. The Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly asserted that God is "without body, parts, or passions, immutable." Similarly, a contemporary evangelical theologian argues that when Jesus died on the cross it was his human nature that suffered, not the divine.
But I would like to argue that this Greek notion that emotions or pain are unfit for deity is quite alien to biblical thought, and it leads to some unhappy results, as we will see.
Can an unfeeling God love?
A theology that embraces the idea that God cannot suffer has to answer the question: Can God love? Abraham Heschel rightly said that the essence of Hebraic prophetic faith is that God takes the people of his covenantal love so seriously that he suffers for their actions. God "indwells" the Israelites so that he even goes with them into Babylonian exile and feels their sorrowful plight. This capacity to feel for the other in vulnerable love is part of what it means to be God.
If love implies vulnerability, the traditional understanding of God as impassible makes it impossible to say that "God is love." An almighty God who cannot suffer is poverty stricken because he cannot love or be involved. If God remains unmoved by whatever we do, there is really very little point in doing one thing rather than the other. If friendship means allowing oneself to be affected by another, then this unmoved, unfeeling deity can have no friends or be our friend.
Elie Wiesel, Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, never shrinks from saying that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference. If God were indifferent, he could not love. This is made plain in Wiesel's story about the hanging of two Jewish men and a youth in a Nazi concentration camp. All the prisoners, Wiesel included, were paraded before the gallows to witness this horrifying spectacle. "The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. 'Where is God? Where is he?' someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, 'Where is God?' And I heard a voice in myself answer: 'Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.' " Any other answer would be blasphemy, says Jürgen Moltmann.
God suffers because God wills to love. When I was eight years old, I lost my father to cancer. A week after his burial, I became severely ill. The pain in my body eventually paralyzed me. I still remember how my mother, newly widowed, cared for me. She did not discuss with me how I felt. Instinctively she took me into her arms and caressed my back with her gentle hands, reassuring me with words of comfort and love for me. I grew so sick that I was hospitalized. Since we lived in a remote village about 10 miles from the hospital, my mother carried me there on her back, walking powerfully, uphill and down. With tears streaming down her cheek, she said: "Son, Daddy is not here. But Mommy is still here. Hang in there. We will make it to the hospital soon."
This childhood experience confirmed for me that a love that does not suffer with the suffering of the beloved is not love at all. What consolation would it have been if my mother had remained aloof from my suffering? Of what help to wounded people is a God who knows nothing of pain himself? "Only the suffering God can help," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote from his death cell. God helps not through supernatural miracles, but through his own wounds--his suffering with victims and sufferers.
Our Christian foreparents were right to speak of God as impassible if that means God is not emotionally unstable and cannot be manipulated by humans. But they were wrong to conclude from this that God has no passion. They were wrong to think a suffering God is an imperfect being who necessarily seeks his perfection and tries to overcome his deficiency though actions. C. S. Lewis makes a helpful distinction between "gift love" (agape) and "need love" (eros). God does not act out of need love--a love dominated by self-seeking desires. Rather, God acts out of gift love--a free, self-giving love--sharing his boundless goodness without thought of return. God's goodness means that he loves us with a completely unconditional love, involving himself with us even in our pain.
If God is devoid of passions, we would have to rewrite the Bible. The Bible eloquently affirms that God can be wounded. In Hosea, for instance, God cries out about wayward Israel: "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath" (11:8-9, NRSV).
God suffered the pain of the broken relationship with Israel, but as the Japanese scholar Kazoh Kitamori comments: "The 'pain' of God reflects his will to love the object of his wrath." God's anger is not a childish loss of temper nor is it a frustrated love turned sour or vindictive. Rather, it is an expression of pure love that does not allow him to stand by idly in the face of unrighteousness. God's true nature is active love; wrath is God's "strange work," which opposes anything that stands between God and us. Wrath is God's love burning hot in the presence of sin, proof that he cares.
Was God present at the Cross?
If the attribute of impassibility is ascribed to God, there can be no real incarnation of God in Jesus. If God is denied suffering, then the Cross cannot be a genuine revelation of God.
The Greek idea of God obscured the fullness of God's self-revelation in Jesus. One result was that the early church fathers concluded that Jesus suffered in his humanity, not in his divinity; and they separated Jesus' humanity from his deity, thus in effect making each nature an independent person, as the Nestorian heresy does, thereby jeopardizing the unity of Christ. To say that the Son of God, as divine, is impassible is to affirm that Christ's divinity is untouched by the suffering of his humanity. Consequently there is no real Incarnation; or if there is, it is robbed of its main significance.
But God has willed that we should think of Jesus when we think about him. For God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus rather than through philosophy. Evangelicals should not be offended at the thought that the death of the crucified Christ involved not only the humanity of Jesus but also his deity.
As John Austin Baker says, "The crucified Jesus is the only accurate picture of God the world has ever seen." The sight of Jesus on the cross disclosed God as one who suffers with humanity. If we take the Trinity and Incarnation seriously and recognize that this human Jesus is the second divine person, there is no suffering closer to God than the suffering of the human Jesus. Thus, the human suffering of Jesus is really God's own suffering: God suffered as we do.
Further, if God is denied suffering, the Cross is evacuated of Christ's deity. Consequently, we have no salvation through him. Christ's death would be the death of just another human being, not the death of the Son of God. And his work would be merely a human work. On this delicate topic, the Lutheran theologians of Formula of Concord quoted Luther as saying: "Unless God is on the balance and throws his weight as a counterbalance, we shall sink to the bottom of the scale. . . . If it is not true that God died for us, but only a man died, we are lost. But if God's death and God lie dead in the opposite scale, then his side goes down and we go upward like a light or empty pan. But he could not have sat in the pan unless he became a man like us, so that it could be said: God dead, God's passion, God's blood, God's death."
Here is no surrogate; God himself died a real death, and the outcome--our salvation--hung in the balance. The greatest marvel of the gospel is that the divinity was present in the Cross, working out our salvation through the suffering of Christ. God has suffered our sin and his own wrath, thereby defeating sin. Johann Rist's Good Friday hymn echoes this:
O great distress, God himself lies dead,
He died upon the cross,
In this he won the kingdom of heaven
for love of us.
If it were true that only Christ's humanity suffered and his divinity had no part in the action of his passion, then he is of no more use to us than any other saint because his death was merely a human death. In order for God to redeem humanity from the power of death, his act must be at one and the same time a human and a divine act. God had to suffer and die in Christ. God let himself be overtaken by death in the suffering and dying of Christ, and yet he remained the victor over death.
Unlike Calvin and his followers, Luther proclaims a Christ in whom the divinity did suffer. The Reformed tradition should listen to Luther, who affirms that if God cannot really experience crucifixion, then "Christ would be too weak a savior."
The God who is known in Christ is the God who came in lowliness and humility, not in power and majesty. Christ emptied himself, not of his divinity, but of the "divine form" by assuming a "servant form" (Phil. 2:5-11). He took the form of a servant, yet he remained divine. He did not withdraw his deity from the Cross, but he did not use his divine power to protect himself. God in Christ experienced a public humiliation, abandoning all self-protection and self-defense in order to save us. God's self was poured out for us and for our salvation.
If it were not the very God himself who became sin and suffered for us, what hope of life is left? What God cannot participate in, he cannot redeem. If God has not entered into our suffering and death, then there is no hope for redemption of our pain.
How then should we live?
What are the implications of recognizing this vulnerable God as the Christian God?
The church and the Christian life should be patterned after the Cross. Just as the way of Christ was through a cross, Christ's followers must also experience the darkness and suffering of the cross. As Luther wrote graphically, "If you are a lily and rose of Christ, therefore, know that you will live among thorns."
The world must observe that we suffer not because of public scandal or vice, but because we hold to the Word of God, preach it, and practice it. In suffering we are conformed to the image of Christ.
God's loving vulnerability thus provides us with a model for Christian living in this world. Being vulnerable necessarily involves risk, pain, and loss. Acts 9 tells how Ananias, in obedience to the Lord's vision, risked his reputation to seek out Saul, the enemy of the Christian faith; and then the whole Damascus church, in love and obedience, risked its security by forgiving Saul's violent past and welcoming him into the church.
This is what it means to make love our first priority. "Where the world exploits, [the Christian] will dispossess himself, and where the world oppresses, he will stoop down and raise up the oppressed. If the world refuses justice, the Christian will pursue mercy, and if the world takes refuge in lies, he will open his mouth for the dumb, and bear testimony to the truth . . . [on behalf of] Jew or Greek, bond or free, strong or weak, noble or base" (Bonhoeffer).
My neighbor, an arrogant and wealthy businessman, scorned the church for many years. Whenever church members phoned him, he would criticize them: "You church people are only interested in my money. You don't care for me; you only care about my pocketbook." But then he became ill and was paralyzed. When I went to visit him, to my utter surprise his entire room looked like a flower shop, and cards were posted everywhere on the wall. The flowers and cards came from church members whom he so disdained for many years. Posted on the wall, facing his bed, was a big sheet of paper with these words on it: "I was wrong. The church does care." Later he became a Christian, all because of the church's willingness to risk loving vulnerability.
The church of the suffering God must exist in and for this world, accepting suffering itself as it cares for the needy, the sick, and the poor and seeks the liberation of the oppressed. If God is found in the human suffering of Jesus, we should not then preach a triumphalist doctrine of health, wealth, and freedom from affliction for those who believe.
Once a Christian couple came to me in Russia, requesting that I pray for divine healing for their sick baby. After prayer, the baby died in my arms. One could have asked, "Where is God?" Triumphalism has nothing to say at such moments, except lashing the wounded into deeper guilt and pain for their supposed lack of faith. But these bereaved parents said: "It is better to be in the storm with Jesus than to be in it without Jesus."
The belief in a suffering God can provide an appropriate entry point for sharing the gospel. A few years ago, I was in the former Czechoslovakia on a preaching tour. On the plane home a government official spoke to me. He told me that he had attended the service when I had spoken about Christ's suffering for his people, and he had left the service in rage, cursing God for the suffering he and his family had known: 40 years of suffering under Communist rule; the starvation and death of his parents; the long years he had spent as a lonely child in an orphanage.
His rage continued when he arrived home. On the apartment wall hung a crucifix, given to him by his mother with the prayer that one day he would come to Christ. Furious, he hurled a cake topped with thick, white icing at it. The icing covered the crucifix, dripping down the face of the crucified figure. And in that moment, my words about Christ's suffering came alive to him. For the first time, he said, he saw Jesus' tears. In his apartment, he knelt in front of the cross and gave his life to Christ. And he uttered these words: "Christ is for me, not against me."
The man told me: "I don't understand many of the things that happened politically, but I know that Jesus did not forsake me. He was in pain when I was in pain. He was in tears when I was in tears. He did not experience joy when I suffered the most." Forgoing speculation as to why suffering befell him, he was now risking himself to the loving care of the Divine Sufferer. It sufficed this wounded governor to perceive in the Cross God's deepest pain and his loving scars. Thus sensing God's presence in his suffering, it enabled him to receive the gospel, and eventually to find faith.
Our compassionate God meets us in every corner of our lives. Catherine of Siena once cried out: "My God and Lord, where were you when my heart was plunged in darkness and filth?" And she heard a voice: "My daughter, did you feel it? I was in your heart." Because our Lord knows pain firsthand, we can pray with confidence that he will be moved by our cries.
How our prayers are answered is a matter of God's wisdom and sovereignty, and to these we may well submit with the assurance that he hugs us close to him as his beloved.
In turmoil and trials, Staupitz's pastoral advice to Luther speaks to us, too: "Contemplate the wounds of Christ and the blood that was shed for you." With this we can be assured in our hearts, "I am his, and he is mine! He was in agony for us on the cross; he feels for me and with me still; he cares!" And that, surely, is the best news ever.
Dennis Ngien, preaching associate at First Alliance Church of Metro-Toronto and adjunct faculty member at Ontario Theological Seminary, is an international evangelist and the author of The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther's Theologia Crucis (Peter Lang Publishing, 1995).