A Groaning God in a Suffering World, Part II

The Problem of Suffering in Divine Perspective

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Suffering involves more than the intellect. It invades the whole being. Theodicies supply answers that touch the intellect, but little more. They are limited in their ability to satisfy the soul. No matter how great one's explanation for the presence and possibility of sin and suffering, no answer is fully satisfying on the emotional or spiritual level. Even on an intellectual level, every theodicy leaves much to be desired.

In the mystery of God's work in this world, we should not be surprised that God acts in ways that transcend human understanding. Job discovered this when God responded to Job's questions with more questions in order to demonstrate that Job could not possibly understand all the reasons why he suffered. It is difficult to find comfort in an intellectual argument, especially when one is in the throes of suffering. For this reason, the superficial but sincere answers people give in an attempt to alleviate our pain when we suffer leave us empty.

Comfort comes best from a sympathetic presence, especially from a fellow sufferer. Comfort is even greater when the sufferer knows us intimately. God is that sympathetic presence in the life of the believer. God himself, in Christ and through the Spirit, is the Christian's comfort in the face of evil and suffering. God does not give us all the answers we need. We could not understand them if he did. Instead, God gives us himself, his loving presence - his suffering presence - for God experiences our sufferings on a much deeper level than we could ever imagine.

For this reason, we need to rethink how we approach the problem of evil and suffering. Instead of constantly regarding it from the human vantage point we should attempt to understand it from God's vantage point. When we do this we confront one of the most neglected truths concerning the problem of suffering, namely, the suffering of God.

Does God Suffer?

Under the influence of Greek philosophy, the early church denied that God suffered. The early theologians labeled God as "impassible" - unable to feel, especially in regard to suffering. It was assumed that if God suffered, it would demonstrate God lacked something, and - according to the early church - this could not possibly be the case. In the last century, this assumption has been challenged. In my opinion, this has been a good thing.

There are at least three reasons why I believe that God is not impassible but passable (susceptible to feeling, especially suffering).

First, human beings are made in the image of God. We reflect God more than any other creature in the cosmos. As creatures we possess mind, will, and emotions. When these three faculties are united in righteousness and love, we are fully human - fully alive. In light of this, it would be absurd to think that God possesses only mind and will.

Second, the Hebrew Bible is full of passages that indicate God's passionate feeling for this world and for people. Some theologians discount God's actual experience of emotion by interpreting the emotional descriptions attributed to God as "anthropopathisms" - ascriptions of human feelings not intended to accurately describe God's experience but merely intended to help us understand God. God doesn't really feel emotions, they argue, the expressions are simply used so we can have a human referent to guide us. But the emotional references do not discount God's genuine experience of emotion. Instead, they explain God's experience in a way we can grasp. God's actual experience is far greater than we can imagine, but it is certainly not any less. Anthropopathisms are used by biblical authors because God truly feels. Indeed, God feels more deeply than any human could ever conceive. From the beginning of time, God's deep feelings for his creation and humanity are revealed. When Adam sins, he tenderly pursues Adam by calling out, "Adam, where are you?" Before the judgment of the flood, we read "Then Yahweh saw the wickedness of man… and Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in his heart" (Genesis 6:5-6). In Hosea, God pleads for his people: "How can I give you up… How can I surrender you, O Israel?... My heart is turned over within me, all my compassions are kindled" (Hosea 11:8). Passages could be multiplied that speak of God's deep feelings of love, joy, delight, sorrow, grief, and even anger in regard to his creation.

Finally, God's ultimate revelation in the person of Christ indicates that God is a God who feels deeply. One of the predominant words regularly used to describe Jesus' emotional state is the word "compassion." Deep in his gut, Jesus experienced strong feelings of sympathy and tenderness toward suffering people. The climax of his ministry has been labeled by theologians as "The Passion" because of the intense suffering Christ experienced on behalf of others. Christ reveals a suffering God. Since Christ reveals the very heart of God for us, we can speak, not simply of the passion of Christ, but of the passion of God. Christ's passion reveals the suffering love at the heart of God. The Breadth and Depth of God's Suffering When considering the problem of evil and suffering, we must not simply speak of human suffering. We must also speak of divine suffering - God's passion - for us, with us, and in us. As we begin to grasp the breadth and depth of God's suffering we will come to find solace in the passionate love of God that embraces us all.

The Breadth: From Creation to Consummation God's passion is demonstrated in his divine decision to create. God's suffering does not begin at the incarnation or at the cross, but at the opening moments of creation. God's choice to create is a choice to suffer - God's first movement of divine humiliation which finds its fullest expression in the incarnation and cross of Christ. For this reason, the Scriptures speak of "the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8; cf. Acts 2:23; 1 Peter 1:2). Suffering is a consequence of God's love and manifests God's commitment to his creation. Prior to the act of creation God assumed the reality of divine suffering for the sake of the world. God's free choice to create and to suffer as an expression of committed love is at the heart of the great difference between divine and human suffering. Unlike human suffering, which is necessary due to our own mortality, lack of completeness, or simply the consequence of our sin, God's suffering is completely an act of the divine will. God is wholly self-sufficient, lacking nothing. Before God created, in the eternal fellowship of Father, Son, and Spirit, God experienced complete bliss, joy, perfect communion, and love. God did not need to create, but he chose to do so. God's choice to create carried with it the very real possibility of suffering. God did not need to commit himself to such self-sacrifice, but willingly chose to do so. In short, God does not need to suffer, but willingly chooses to suffer as a result of his commitment to his beloved world. It is God's great commitment to his creation that brings suffering. Amazingly, God chooses to make his well-being and joy contingent upon his creation. He does not need to do this, but desires to do it. His commitment to his creation is that great! This does not take away from God's fullness. God's choice to make his joy contingent upon his creation is a chosen limitation, not a necessary limitation. It is an act of love, not necessity. Before creation, God was "all in all." Nothing else existed except God. God's experience was nothing other than joy, delight, and love. In the act of creation, God "made space" for creation to exist and flourish. For the very first time, something other than God existed. God refused to force himself upon his creation, but instead chose to fill it through the act of love. The first humans would either willingly receive God's love or reject it. It would not be forced upon them, but would be freely given if freely received. Through their disobedience, our first parents rejected God's love and chose to follow their own way. In doing so, they stuck a dagger deep into the heart of God. For the very first time, God felt the pain of human rejection - an experience that would be multiplied countless times and continues to this day. Rather than return rejection with rejection, God immediately began to implement a redemptive plan designed to conquer human rebellion and draw humanity back to God. His plan would culminate in the self-giving sacrifice of the cross. God freely chose to commit himself to his creation with all the suffering it entailed. God is too good to abandon his creation. God would rather suffer than renege his commitment to this cosmos. For this reason, we can affirm that God chose to suffer the moment he chose to create. These two choices are inseparable. Neither was necessary. Both are grace.

The Depth: With God's Whole Heart God never does anything half-heartedly. Therefore, when God suffers, God suffers with his whole heart. For this reason, God's suffering is more acute and intense than any other entity. Divine suffering is not only different from human suffering in the fact that it is freely chosen and entered into, it is also different in that divine suffering far exceeds human suffering in every way imaginable. In Romans 8:18-26, we read of a "symphony of sighs" - a triple-groaning. All creation groans in labor awaiting the new heavens and new earth. All the church, prompted by the Holy Spirit, groans for the full redemption that can only come about when we possess a resurrection body. Like his creation and his church, God groans within us. Amazingly, the Creator suffers, accepts, and carries the depths of human anguish within his very being. The Spirit plumbs the depths of our hearts, giving voice to our sighs in the Father's presence. This intense groaning is evidence of God's amazing love. God's desire to completely identify with his suffering church in a groaning creation reveals a passionate and sympathetic heart full of love. "God loves us passionately and lives with more pain from that love than we could ever imagine." [1]

Unlike us, God faces suffering with full knowledge of all that is involved. His suffering is complete. We are exempt from much suffering through our own limitations. The blow is dulled by our ignorance which keeps us from knowing the full extent of what is involved in our suffering. We can deny suffering where God must completely face it. The greater the love, the deeper the suffering. God loves us so deeply and completely, the pain God must experience in light of our sin must be indescribably great. Imagine the pain that must arise from billions of people spurning a relationship with their Creator. Consider the pain that God must endure that arises from all the believers who grieve God's Spirit through continued unfaithfulness. There is no greater suffering than that which occurs when a relationship is rejected.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the prodigal son suffers but he doesn't suffer the most. The father is the one who suffers the greatest pain. The pain begins the moment the son demands his share of the father's inheritance, an indirect way of wishing his father dead. The pain continues throughout the entire time the father anxiously awaits his son's return. Even though there is no guarantee that the son would ever come to his senses, the father's heart continues to passionately desire a restored relationship. The father's commitment to love the prodigal in spite of the suffering it entails is evidence that his heart burns with suffering love.

God's suffering love is demonstrated most clearly at the cross. The cross as the height of human suffering reveals a God who is willing to go to any lengths to demonstrate his love for us. The theology of the cross... is first of all a statement about God, and what it says about God is not that God thinks humankind so wretched that it deserves death and hell, but that God thinks humankind and the whole creation so good, so beautiful, so precious in its intention and its potentiality, that its actualization, its fulfillment, its redemption is worth dying for. [2]

It is amazing how Christians have made the cross symbolize how much God hates us and our sin, rather than how much God loves us! God desires our love so much that he will humble himself to the lowest place and expend himself completely in order to prove it. The Triumph of Divine Suffering The centrality of divine suffering should not seem odd to the church of Jesus Christ. The church regularly celebrates in her worship the triumph of the suffering love of God. Participation in the church's central ritual - the Lord's Supper - is a constant reminder that God has given us his very body and blood in Christ.

Cross-centered preaching persistently announces to the world and all its fallen powers that the greatest power in the cosmos, the power that topples all powers, is the suffering love of God. The centrality of the cross as God's greatest act of redemption forces us to rethink our views of power. Certainly, God is all-powerful, but what is the chief expression of that power? Is it unbridled might, absolute control, complete manipulation? Or is it compassionate benevolent, sacrificial, self-denying love? God is revealed most clearly in the person and work of Christ. If this is the case (and it surely is), what can one profess about omnipotence from the perspective of the cross? What is power in light of the cross? God's ultimate display of power is the weakness of suffering love. It is the divine power that overthrows all other powers. All powers of evil, sin, and hell crumble before the power of suffering love. The crux of the cross is its revelation of the fact that the final power of God over man is derived from the self-imposed weakness of his love. [3]

The weakness of love is the power of God - the ultimate reality at the heart of the universe, the very force that redeems the cosmos. When the Apostle Paul suffers a "thorn in the flesh" God refuses to remove it, but instead teaches Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). This not only describes Paul, but also Paul's God. God's power - "my power" - is perfectly demonstrated in the weakness of surrendered suffering love.


Ultimately, we do not defend God's ways. Instead, we proclaim the suffering yet triumphant love of God in Christ. There are no truly satisfying answers to all the questions that arise from our experience of suffering and evil. No one of us can sufficiently answer the theodicy question, but no one of us can get rid of it either. As long as suffering and pain surround and invade our lives, we will be forced to grapple with the questions that suffering provokes. Although no final answers are completely satisfying, we can take comfort in the fact that we can trust God that all will be well in the end. It is easier to do this when we know that God's passion is for us. God is a groaning God who committed himself to the good of his creation long before he ever created.

He demonstrated his self-denying love to us in the person of Christ, pouring out his heart and soul for us at the cross. He continues to reveal his compassion for us through his groaning Spirit at work in our lives. This same God who groans for us, with us, and in us will one day dry our tears in a restored cosmos (Revelation 21:3-4). Just as our pain is his pain, his joy will be our joy! And when this comes to pass, we will share in an eternal day that never ends, as we enter into the joy of our Master, forever delighting in the pleasure and passion of God.

[1] James Emery White, Embracing the Mysterious God: Loving the God We Don't Understand (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press), 31. [2] Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress), 24. [3] Reinhold Neibuhr quoted from Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Context, 83.

© Richard J. Vincent, 2003

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