The suffering of God

Does God suffer, or is He impassible? If He is impassible, how would He be able to care for this world? And if He suffers, wouldn’t that ascribe weakness to an all powerful God?
To provide an answer to those questions, I will discuss the concept of a suffering God in the Old Testament, the suffering God in the New Testament, an finally I will discuss the question if God suffers today, in a post – Biblical time.

Does God suffer in the Old Testament?

To begin this blog I will look at the definition of suffering. According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, it can mean two things: physical or mental pain, feelings of pain and unhappiness.[1]

To see if God suffers, we have to look for these characteristics attributed to God in the Old Testament. There are several accounts in the Old Testament where God is expressing several emotions and feelings. I will discuss a few of them.

In Genesis 6:5 God saw “how great man`s wickedness on the earth had become, and the every inclination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil all the time.” His emotional response in verse 6 is: “the LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. “ in Ezekiel 36:6 God is speaking  in His “Jealous wrath”  and in Jeremiah 7:20 He says: “ My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, on man and beast, on the trees of the field and on the fruit of the ground, and it will burn and not be quenched.” So after reading these passages, can we say that the God of whom we are speaking, was suffering?

St. Augustine believed in the divine impassibility, that is, not subject to suffering, pain, or harm. [2] But on the other hand, Augustine recognized the emotions of God. “Confronted with the biblical accounts of divine repentance, anger, compassion and patience, St. Augustine makes optimal efforts to show that God`s emotions do not interfere with His immutability[3]  Augustine explains this: “God, can love and be angry; He as emotions, but unlike human beings, He cannot be subject to His feelings; He is in perfect control of His emotion.”[4] So Augustine implies that God can have emotions, but is in perfect control of this emotions.  And thus God can suffer but is in perfect control of it. God
is not subject to his suffering but His suffering is subject to Him. Impassible for the world passible for Himself.

Taking these Biblical accounts into consideration, a conclusion may be made that God expresses feelings of pain, anger and unhappiness throughout the Old Testament. But would the same be true for the New Testament?

Does God suffer in the New Testament?

The Oxford definition of suffering implies both physical and mental pain. While searching the New Testament for evidence of a suffering God, you have to look at the life of Jesus Christ. Only when interpreting Jesus’ suffering as the suffering of God, one issue arises: are Jesus and God the same? And thus, can the pain Jesus experiences be translated as God’s suffering?

First of all, one has to acknowledge the Trinitarian belief that God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are one God. John 3: 16 “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son…” is talking about God, sending His Son Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther believed that Jesus, like the councils declared, was both fully God and fully man[5].  One with the Father and the Spirit but apart.  “For Luther, Christ is God by nature though He, according to His office, subjects Himself to the Father.[6] The Father and the Son are two different divine beings, yet they are one.  If we hold on to the Trinitarian belief, could I say that if God the Father suffered in the Old testament, He was also effected by Christ’s suffering on earth?
Luther  states that “what is being attributed to the one nature of the person is attributed to the whole person[7]  So the suffering of Jesus on earth, effected God the Father. Nevertheless many theologians including Luther will not accept the Father as a suffering God, because it shows weakness. God is  omnipotent, unchangeable, all powerful.  And that all is true, even when they say that God is therefore impassible.  But the last statement is just a human philosophy that removes all what seems not logical for us. If God is able to suffer, He is, according to His other characteristics, not subject to His suffering, but the suffering is subject to Him. This would make Him even more powerful.  Luther said: “You must confess that Christ, or the person, suffered and died. Now that person is true God. Therefore it is correct to say that the Son of God suffered. For although one part of Him namely, the deity, does not suffer,…….”[8]

Accepting the fact that Jesus Christ is the Son and therefore part of the divine Father, we can now explore the suffering of Jesus on earth.

The first form of suffering in the life of Jesus is described in Matthew 4:1-11 where the Holy Spirit lead Jesus into the desert where the devil could test Him and “After Jesus had gone without eating for forty days and nights, he was very hungry.”  Here the Bible implies Jesus had His first physical and mental pain. In his life, Jesus experienced joy, sadness, anger, and compassion.  At the end of his life, He was crucified,[9] where Jesus suffered both mentally and physically, and finally died a horrible and painful death.

Does God still suffer today?

Although the Biblical accounts are very clear about feelings of pain, hurt, grief, and anger attributed to God, one must wonder if the same is true today, in a post-biblical time. What would make God suffer, if He does?

In Matthew 25 Jesus tells about the final judgment, when Jesus will sit on His throne and places the sheep on His right, and the goats on His left. The sheep are the people who receive the kingdom of God. To the goats Jesus says: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ They also will answer: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”  In this passage, Jesus claims that whenever a person is lacking clothes, food, or other basic necessities of life, He is lacking those things Himself. Is God, in a way, sharing in our suffering? Or should this Bible passage be regarded as a metaphor only?

In his book ‘God suffers for us’, Jung Young Lee says: “‘God does not stand outside the range of human suffering and sorrow. He is personally involved in, even stirred by, the conduct and fate of man.’ If God participates in His creatures, He is the One who is concerned with everything, because He lives in and with them. In the perfect empathy of God, as Weatherhead said, ‘the sufferings of men are the sufferings of God.’”[10] . According to his theology, God chooses to participate, and thus chooses to suffer due to our sufferings. The only difference between mankind and God, is that God has a choice, which makes the suffering subject to Him.

Taking this into consideration, God is suffering whenever mankind suffers. But why does mankind suffer, and since when? The answer to that question can be found in the book of Genesis, where God says to Adam and Eve: “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die(3:3).” Adam and Eve ate from that tree nevertheless, and their eyes were opened. As a response, God says to Eve: “‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ To Adam he said, ‘Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, you must not eat of it: cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return(16-19).’

As Genesis tells us, mankind suffers because of our (Adam and Eve’s) choice to rebel against God. Although God is all powerful, He is not absent or in that way impassible. He is participating, and by doing so He suffers, but He is not subject to that suffering. He provides an answer to our suffering in Jesus Christ. And now,  He is not only suffering because of our choice to sin, He is also rejoicing because of our choice to accept Christ.

Conclusion

As the Bible tells us, God does allow Himself to feel pain, anger, grief, and the like. A conclusion may be made that it is Biblical to say that God suffers, although He is in control of it.
God most High, chooses to participate in our lives. He is a God that cares for us, and shares in our pain and suffering. This makes Him not just God, the Creator of all, but a divine Being who is close to us, and feels whatever we experience. I believe that this is true for all times; for the time of the Bible and today. God is a suffering God, which makes Him the omnipotent, all powerful God that He is.

Bibliography

Oxford university Press, Definition and pronunciation, http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/suffering, (accessed October 18, 2011)

Farlex, the free dictionary, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Impassibility, (accessed October 18, 2011)

D. Ngien, The suffering of God According to Martin Luther`s “Theologia Crucis”. New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 1995

Nnamani, Amuluche Gregory: The paradox of a suffering God: on the classical, modern Western and Third world struggles to harmonise the incompatible attributes of the Trinitarian God. Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang GmbH, 1995

J. Young Lee, God suffers for us, a systematic inquiry into a concept of divine possibility. The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1974


[1] Oxford university Press, Definition and pronunciation, http://oald8.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/dictionary/suffering, (accessed October 18, 2011)

[2] Farlex, the free dictionary, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/Impassibility, (accessed October 18, 2011)

[3] Nnamani, Amuluche Gregory: The paradox of a suffering God, on the classical, modern Western and Third world struggles to harmonise the incompatible attributes of the Trinitarian God ( Frankfurt am Main, Peter Lang GmbH, 1995), 86

[4] Idem,.

[5] D. Ngien, The suffering of God According to Martin Luther`s “Theologia Crucis”, ( New York, Peter Lang Publishing, 1995), 55

[6] Idem., 61

[7] Idem., 69

[8] Idem., 70

[9] John 19:28-37, Matthew  27: 50, Luke 23:33-43

[10] J. Young Lee, God suffers for us, a systematic inquiry into a concept of divine possibility ( the Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 48