“Only a suffering God can help.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
The early church Fathers taught that, because God was perfect and self-sufficient, He could not be affected by any external agency or circumstance. And that meant that He could neither feel emotions, nor suffer pain or distress. Heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, it seemed self-evident to them that an all-powerful, completely self-sufficient and independent Being could not possibly have any kind of weakness or vulnerability. The unfortunate consequence of that doctrine was to make God seem cold and remote, because a Being who cannot suffer cannot truly love.
Yet the Old Testament repeatedly portrays a God who is emotionally involved with the human race and concerned for the well-being of His people (e.g. Exodus 2:24,25; Zechariah 1:14,15). He is distressed by our sins (Genesis 6:5,6), offended by our stubbornness (Exodus 32:9,10), and grieved by our estrangement (Jeremiah 31:20). Conversely, He rejoices over repentant sinners (Zephaniah 3:17; Luke 15:10). And when His people are oppressed, He suffers with them: “In all their distress He too was distressed” (Isaiah 63:9).
It would indeed be grotesque to worship a god who was immune to pain and indifferent to suffering. But if, as John tells us, “God is love” (I John 4:8), then He is potentially vulnerable. So God can suffer – not (as we do) because of circumstances imposed upon Him, but through His own free choice. Indeed, by loving those who have the freedom to reject His love, He lays Himself open to the pain of that rejection. And if at the same time His wrath demands the destruction of the objects of His love, an unbearable tension is set up within Him. We can glimpse something of that tension in the message of Hosea (Hosea 3:1; 11:8,9).
The only possible solution to this fractured relationship between God and man also involves suffering on the part of God. The Father who sent His Son to die for our sins did not do so impassively. The horror of such a situation strikes us forcibly whenever we read the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his beloved only son Isaac (Genesis 22:1-12). ‘How could God demand such a thing?’ we ask. On one level it was a test of Abraham’s faith, leaving us with an unforgettable example of the depth of commitment that faith can sometimes require; but it also paints for us a picture of a father who voluntarily surrenders that which is most dear to him for the benefit of another, and of a son who accepts death in willing obedience to his father. And that is the picture that we should be visualising when we read Paul’s words, “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all…” (Romans 8:32)
God’s suffering is not confined to the Cross. The extreme suffering inflicted on so many people during the wars of the 20th century (including the obscenities of Hiroshima and the Holocaust) caused many of that generation to question the existence of God. ‘Where was He?’ they demanded to know. And the 21st century, barely a decade old, has already thrown up atrocities of its own. Where in all this nightmare is God?
…Where was God
on September 11th? He was begging
in old clothes in the subway
beneath the World Trade Center.
He was homeless in Gaza,
imprisoned in Afghanistan,
starving in Somalia,
dying of AIDS in an Angolan slum,
suffering everywhere in this fast-shrinking world;
and boarding a plane unwittingly in Boston,
heading for a meeting on the 110th floor…(Godfrey Rust)
We know this because we understand the image of God to be bound up in our humanity, so much so that the Bible views the way we treat other people as the way we are treating God Himself. “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD.” (Proverbs 19:17) “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of Mine, you did for Me.” (Matthew 25:40). But maybe there is even more to it than that, Saul found to his horror that in torturing Christians and condemning them to execution (Acts 26:10,11) he had been attacking and wounding the very God he professed to love, when Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” (Acts 26:14) It appears that when we suffer, God also suffers – with us and in us. He does not merely observe our pain; He shares it and feels it.