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The Suffering God

W e have already looked at various responses to suffering in the Old Testament book of Job, which teaches us to draw comfort from remembering God’s transcendence and infinite wisdom. The Old Testament also teaches that suffering is usually the painful result of sin, whether Satan’s activities since the Fall, or a Divine punishment for an individual or community, or as simple cause and effect. It can also be a God-ordained test.

But is God Himself able to suffer? Is He moved by our suffering? 

Theologians and philosophers have grappled with this question for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks believed that God could never suffer or change in any way, and this idea profoundly influenced both Jewish and Christian theology from the first century AD for about 1900 years. The general consensus was that, although God was loving, compassionate and actively intervened to relieve suffering, He Himself could feel no pain or sorrow. 

Various Biblical passages emphasise that God does not change, for example:

You remain the same (Psalm 102:27)

“I the Lord do not change …” (Malachi 3:6)

the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows (James 1:17)

From verses like these, some argued that it is impossible for God to have emotions that come and go in response to situations; therefore He cannot suffer. Others argued that it is impossible for the Creator to depend on those He created for any part of His happiness; therefore He cannot suffer. Although His Word seems to speak of God’s “emotions” they would say these are not like human emotions and that God has graciously expressed Himself in terms that are familiar to us although He does not really suffer. 

The one exception, for the Christian theologians, was when the Son of God suffered on the cross, not only physical agony but also spiritual agony, as He, though sinless Himself, took on the sins of the world. 

The doctrine of Divine suffering

However, from about 1890 onwards, a stream of Christian theologians began to argue for a doctrine of Divine suffering. Some called it the doctrine of the infinite sorrow of God, or the doctrine of tragedy within the Divine life. The Japanese Lutheran theologian Kazoh Kitamori later called it the theology of the pain of God. 

The suffering of God is an awesome and holy mystery, a concept that is beyond human words or understanding. But we will now, with reverence, consider it.

Rabbinical insights

Simultaneously, some leading Jewish theologians of the twentieth century were arguing for the same thing. Rabbi Abraham Heschel (two of whose sisters died in Nazi concentration camps) described Jeremiah 2:31-32 as “the voice of God Who felt shunned, pained and offended”.1 Heschel argued for the Divine pathos, meaning that God in His nature has the capacity to feel pain and to suffer. Indeed, he sees this as the most important part of His nature.

The reality of the divine is sensed as pathos rather than power, and the most exalted idea applied to God is not infinite wisdom, infinite power, but infinite concern.2

Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet also writes of the Divine pathos, drawing attention to Scriptural texts such as “He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble” (Psalm 91:15) or in some translations, “I will be with him in distress.”

Twentieth-century Christian theology 

Some twentieth-century Christian theologians also argued from the Old Testament that God suffers with His people and because of His people. 

In all their distress he [the Lord] too was distressed. (Isaiah 63:9) 

In the following verse we read of how the people’s rebellion “grieved his Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10). So there were two separate causes of God’s suffering: He was distressed by His people’s distress and He was saddened by their rejection of Him when they rebelled.

In Hosea (11:1-9) we read of God apparently grieving over His people’s disloyalty to Him, yet His heart recoils from any anger and His compassion “grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8 ESV).

The psalmist Asaph also writes of God’s grief, caused by His people’s behaviour, for example during the Exodus:

How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the wasteland! (Psalm 78:40)  

To this Christian theologians added God’s suffering on behalf of His people, arguing that in the incarnation the Son of God suffered not only as man but as God. Furthermore, at the crucifixion, not only did the Son suffer the loss of His Father (Mark 15:34), but also the Father suffered the loss of His Son. 

Dinsmore, reflecting not only on Old Testament texts (such as Isaiah 53), the incarnation and crucifixion but also on “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8 AV), wrote:

Christ, the self-expression of God in time, must have suffered from the foundation of the world, and he will suffer so as long as men sin. Every human affliction is felt by Christ. We endure in our person and fortunes the recoil of our own transgressions; but Christ is really taking upon himself the sins of the world. He is being wounded today for our transgressions; he is being bruised by every one of our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace is upon him, and by his stripes we are healed. In Jesus of Nazareth the Eternal Word felt the pangs of the cross. But that three hours’ pain was not a spasm ending in unbroken joy. It was symbolical of a perpetual feeling. What Jesus experienced in spiritual revulsion from sin, and his suffering on its behalf, is a revelation of an unchanging consciousness in God. As the flash of the volcano discloses for a few hours the elemental fires at the earth’s centre, so the light on Calvary was the bursting forth through historical conditions of the very nature of the Everlasting. There was a cross in the heart of God before there was one planted on the green hill outside of Jerusalem. And now that the cross of wood has been taken down, the one in the heart of God abides, and it will remain so long as there is one sinful soul for whom to suffer. 3

Campbell Morgan, also embracing the thought of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, wrote that without Divine suffering it would have been impossible for sinful humans to be saved. 

That which we see in the Cross did not begin at the point of the material Cross. The Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world. In the moment in which man sinned against God, God gathered into His own heart of love the issue of that sin, and it is not by the death of a Man, but by the mystery of the passion of God, that He is able to keep His face turned in love toward wandering men, and welcome them as they turn back to Him. Had there been no passion in His heart, no love, no suffering of Deity, no man could ever have returned to Him. Had He been none other than holy and righteous, and had there been no emotion, no tenderness, then He might have vindicated His holiness by the annihilation of the race. To know what God is we listen to some of the verses of the Old Testament. Go back to the beginning of beginnings and hear the voice in the dark, “Adam, where art thou?” My beloved and revered friend, Dr. Henry Weston, said: “That is not the call of a policeman; it is the wail of a Father over a lost child.” Hosea, out of his own heart’s sorrow, expressed the feeling of God’s heart concerning the wandering. “How shall I give thee up, Ephraim?” That is God’s attitude toward all sinning men. He has gathered up into His own Being, not by mechanical effort, but by the very necessity of His nature, all the suffering which issues from sin.

Men did not know it, and could not understand it; and therefore God came into human form and human life, to the actuality of human suffering, on the green hill and upon the rugged Cross, working out into visibility all the underlying, eternal truth of the passion of His love, that men seeing it, might understand it and put their trust in Him.4 

As the century progressed – rocked by genocide, world wars, the Holocaust, atomic bombs, terrible suffering in Stalinist Russia and more – the importance of feeling that God was a fellow-sufferer increased. 

Such theologians agree with Heschel that Old Testament texts describing God’s emotions should not be sidelined as meaning something different from what they seem to say. It is not that we “make” God resemble ourselves by projecting our traits on to Him, but that He made us to resemble Himself. Where there are similarities between God and humans, it is because humans are made in the image of God. Human reason is a reflection of God’s wisdom. Human desire for justice is a reflection of God’s overwhelming concern for justice. When the prophets were moved with feeling, they were reflecting the emotions of God; they were identifying with the Divine pathos

But we should recognise that the Divine pathos is ultimately beyond our understanding. God’s feelings are a mystery to us in the same way that God’s thoughts are a mystery to us. Heschel says that the famous words of Isaiah 55:8-9 about God’s thoughts can equally be applied to His pathos:

For My pathos is not your pathos, neither are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My pathos than your pathos.5 

God’s emotions should not be sidelined as meaning something different from what they seem to say.

The pain of God

Kazoh Kitamori (1916-1998), likewise, saw great significance in the Old Testament prophets and what they revealed of Divine suffering. Having lived through the suffering of war, including the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by the crushing shame of defeat (an unbearable humiliation in Japanese culture), Kitamori published his famous book Theology of the Pain of God in 1946.

Kitamori derives the phrase “the pain of God” from Jeremiah 31:20. The Hebrew word hamah, used many times elsewhere in the Old Testament about human anguish, is in this verse applied to God. Many English translations are along the lines of “My heart yearns for him” but a more literal translation is the AV/KJV’s “My bowels are troubled for him” or in modern metaphorical language “My heart is troubled for him” (KJ21). But Kitamori points out that when hamah is used of humans its meaning is often much more extreme than “troubled”, so Jeremiah 31:20 is better expressed in the Japanese Literary Version which gives “my bowels are in pain”. He also commends Luther’s German translation in which God says His heart is breaking.6 Calvin writes of God in this verse attributing to Himself human feelings of “extraordinary pain” and “great sorrow”. Kitamori concludes that Jeremiah is speaking in this verse of “the pain of God”.7 

This pain of God, says Kitamori, “reflects his love toward those turning against it”. God’s love and His pain come together at the cross.8 Kitamori says that “love rooted in the pain of God” forms “the entire message of the Bible”. 9

The cross, the Trinity and ultimate joy

Also writing from a war-ravaged and defeated country, German theologian Jürgen Moltmann (born 1926) published The Crucified God in 1972. 10  In this he argues that 

a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man … the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is a loveless being. 11

Moltmann, like Kitamori, sees the cross as the decisive event of Divine suffering. He also sees it as essentially related to God’s Trinitarian nature. On the cross, the dying Son suffered the agony of abandonment by His Father, and the Father suffered grief for the death of His Son. But they were still united in their love for each other, that is to say, their painful separation was bridged by the Holy Spirit’s love, a love which reaches out from the crucifixion to godforsaken humankind.

It appears that for Moltmann the cross is an act of Divine “solidarity with ‘the godless and the godforsaken’, in which the Son of God actually enters into their situation of godforsakenness”.12 This Divine solidarity with sufferers transforms the character of suffering, for it heals the godforsakenness which is the deepest pain of human suffering. 

Also, says Moltmann, the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection and ultimate eschatological joy. The message of Divine suffering is also the message of Divine victory over suffering. God took suffering and death on Himself in order to heal, liberate and give new life. 

In the words of Campbell Morgan,

The lonely mystery of the pain of God is apart from us, but out of it flows the river, and of that river we drink and live.13

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director Barnabas Fund

 

 

 1 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 1, New York, Harper Row, 1962, 1st paperback edition, 1969, p.112.
 2 Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, p.21.
 3 Charles Allen Dinsmore, Atonement in Literature and Life, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1906, pp.232-233. 
 4 G. Campbell Morgan, The Bible and the Cross, New York: Fleming H Revell, c.1909. Reissued London and   Edinburgh: Oliphants, 1941, pp.34-35.
 5 Heschel, vol. 2, pp.55-56.
 6 Darum bricht mir mein Herz gegen ihn
 7 Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God, Richmond, VI, John Knox Press, 1965. (English translation of Kami No itami No Shingaku, 5th edition, Tokyo: Shinkyo Shuppansha, 1958) pp.8, 151-156.
 8 Kitamori, pp.156-157.
 9 Kitamori, p.162.
 10 Jürgen Moltmann, Der gekreuzigte Gott: Das Kreuz Christi als Grund und Kritik christlicher Theologie, Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1972. 
 11 Jürgen Moltmann. The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. RA Wilson and John Bowden, SCM Press, 1974, p.222.
 12 Richard Bauckham “‘Only the Suffering God Can Help’. Divine Passibility in Modern Theology”, Themelios, vol. 9, issue 3 (April 1984), p.11, summarising Moltmann.
 13 Campbell Morgan, p.57.