Thursday, March 01, 2007

Divine Suffering

We are living in a world of suffering. Our lives are all lives of “quiet desperation.” It is in these trying times that we look for God. Where is God? Where is he in our sufferings? Does he understand our suffering? Can he suffer?


Before we discuss whether God can suffer, there are three attributes of God that we must understand. First, God is transcendent and immanent. Transcendent means that God, who is the creator of the universe, is outside the universe. He is not part of the universe. But if God is only transcendent, then he will be a creator who once created something, sit back and watches his creation from afar. God is also immanent. This means that God is also in his creation. He is here with us on this earth now, not far away somewhere peeping at us with a telescope.

The second attribute is that God is Triune. This means that God is One. It also means that the essence of the Godhead has three persons; God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This three are distinct persons but one. They are not facets, dimensions, emanations, or roles of God. They cannot be described like three states of water: liquid, solid (ice) and vapour. They exist in the same instant as three separate persons yet they are one. And as three separate persons, they relate to one another. One of the greatest lessons we can learn from them is from the intimate interpersonal relationships within the Trinity.

God is immanent means that God is intimately involved in this world which he has created. He is present in all of history. The whole story of mankind is “his story.” Man’s (also woman’s) rebellion against him has separated mankind from him. In spite of their rebellion, God has never ceased to love them. Therefore God has devised a plan of redemption. This plan will satisfy the punishment for mankind because they have rebelled, and yet express his love for them. What this plan involves is Christmas and Easter. Christmas is when God himself become man as Jesus Christ, God incarnate. Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. Easter is when Jesus took on the sins of all mankind (the rebellion) and died on the cross for them. This atonement satisfies God’s justice and brought mankind back into relationship with God once again. Jesus was resurrected on Easter morning. A new era dawns on Easter morning when the remaking of a new creation begins.

The third attribute is that God experiences emotions. Jesus Christ is a human being. Human beings are emotional beings. Jesus Christ is part of the Trinity. Therefore what Jesus experiences and feels is also felt by the other two persons of the Trinity. God is not limited by time and space as we are. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that the Trinity had experienced all human emotions even before Jesus incarnate on earth.

The Old Testament is full of emotions-evoking metaphors; God as an eagle (Deuteronomy 32:11), a rock of refuge (Psalm 31:2-3), a parent (Hosea 11:1), and a shepherd (Psalm 23:1). Other metaphors include God has a mouth to speak (Numbers 12:8), and be able to rejoice (Zeph. 3:17). Abraham Hershel, a renowned Old Testament scholar re-examined the prophets and their relationship with God . His conclusion is stunning in that he discovers that God actually have real emotions, not just metaphoric ones. God’s passion for his people, his love for them and his heartbreak at their unfaithfulness is as real as our own emotions. Hence we can conclude that as Jesus can suffer, God can also suffer.


Many of us think of suffering in physical terms. Our bodies develop diseases, cancers, or are injured in accidents. Suffering means bearing the pain, discomforts, and coming to terms that we cannot do the things we always wanted to. However, suffering also includes emotional trauma, psychological stress, being separated from loved ones, rejection, broken relationships, poverty, and the manifestations of evil. Many of us experienced suffering early in our lives. This is because of the fallen world that we exist in. Why then God has to suffer?

1. The Cross

Jesus suffered the torture, humiliation, and death when crucified on the cross. Jesus actually felt the pain, the thirst, and the separation from his divine essence when he died. Jesus, who is fully God and fully man is sinless and hence can die for our sins as atonement. Only Jesus can do that. The suffering of Jesus is felt by all three persons of the Trinity. This suffering is necessary because Jesus, in doing so, brings us salvation.

2. Personal Love

God is love. Love is a two-way relationship. As lovers know, sometimes love is reciprocated one-way only. Pain and suffering occurs in such an occasion. The parable of the prodigal son as told by Jesus to his disciples is a powerful story about the love of a father (Luke 15:11-31). The heartache of the father can only be imagined when the second son wanted to leave with his share of his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture, this means that not only is the son telling the father that he is rejecting him but also that he wishes him dead! It also tells of the love of the father when he welcomes his repentant son home. God cannot involve himself in a truly loving relationship without experiencing suffering. Maldwyn Hughes states, “It is the very nature of love to suffer when its object suffers loss, whether inflicted by itself or others. If the suffering of God be denied, then Christianity must discover a new terminology and obliterate the statement ‘God is love” from its Scripture.”

3. The Evil, Sinful World

God cannot help but be filled with wrath at this evil, sinful world we live in. Everyday, men and women do terrible things to each other. Terrible things are been done to children too. God is filled with wrath at this evil. He is also full of love. This tension between wrath and love causes continual suffering in God. It is this conflict of wrath and love that leads to the cross. The cross is where the love of God overtakes his wrath.

4. Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is given to all believers. We are told not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). However, God allows us the freedom to choose. God does not compel us to do what he wants. There will be no real freedom if he manipulates us to make the right choices. It is this freedom that sometimes causes the Holy Spirit pain. The Holy Spirit serves as our guide and we ignore his advice at our peril. Imagine being the front passenger in a car with the map, and a driver who ignores every direction that is given to him. Not only will they be hopeless lost, they may also end up not at the best of terms. This is a fraction of what is causing the Holy Spirit to suffer.

5. The Persecuted Church

The Church is the body of Christ on earth. When Christ ascended to heaven, he still walks the earth. The Church, which is made up of believers is the body of Christ on earth. When the Church is being persecuted, Christ is being persecuted (John 15:18). Christ suffers when the Church suffers. Until the time when Jesus Christ comes again, his body continues to suffer in these uncertain end times.

God suffers. He suffers because he loves us and this love is often not reciprocated. He suffers because of our sufferings in an evil and sinful world. It is his love and his desire to end our suffering that leads him to send Jesus Christ, his Son to the cross.


The suffering of God leads to the cross. In his dying for our sins, Jesus bought atonement for our sins. The suffering of God brings us salvation and eternal life. This life will be lived together with God in all eternity.

The suffering God gives us hopes in this world of suffering. One of the unbearable pains of suffering is the sense of hopelessness, the sense of being forsaken. In the movie musical Paint Your Wagon, there is a song sung about the wind named Maria. The lyric paints a powerful picture of being forsaken and lost, “… I’m lost, so very lost that not even God can find me.” At the cross, Jesus felt this “godforsakenness.” What is more is that Jesus the godforsaken man and the Father of the godforsaken man enter into our suffering. It is this act of God’s suffering that gives our suffering meaning and hope. The crucified God does not remain crucified but is resurrected. In this, it gives us hope in our suffering that one day; all suffering will come to an end. There will come a day where there will be no tears on earth and in heaven.


The Trinitarian God suffers with us as we struggle and live daily with our human frailties. God is not someone remote, up there somewhere, waving a walking stick if we do anything wrong. God is a God who walks and suffers with us everyday. As in C.S.Lewis’ Narnia, we were in the state “where it is always winter, never Christmas.” However for us, Christmas has arrived. Jesus the God incarnate had come. We are now waiting for the Second Coming and the culmination of this era. We await the time to an end to suffering; both for us and for the Trinitarian God.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, come.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. divine suffering has been a theme i've been intrigued with and i think, if taken seriously, can transform much of the way the church (Jesus' Body!) thinks of the world and communicates with and engages it.

what makes it even more 'terrible' is how there is an element of 'eternity' in God's suffering; this is esp. true if one holds to a kind of timelessness in God. it's like the Cross bursts both back and forth from a point in time...if this is right, then the eternal suffering of God is not an illegitimate/blasphemous term...i tremble.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I tremble with you at that thought. It is humbling to discover that we are still discover new truth about God.

Two hundred years ago, it is be blasphemous even to think that God can suffer.

Yet, a God who claims to be loving and yet look down on all the suffering in the world and not do anything is a contradiction.


12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

two books of note:

1. "Suffering of God" - terence fretheim (i've read)

2. "Creative Suffering of GOd" - paul fiddes (haven't read)

1:51 PM  

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