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Does God continue to suffer?

It’s a provocative question I know, as many Christians would most likely argue that God doesn’t suffer - But I would like to suggest that upon further reflection we might come to a different conclusion. Understanding the Triune God’s relationship to suffering will help us recognise where God reveals Godself. It will also help is understand our mission to the world, and where we might see the Kingdom of God break in as well as how we should love those around us.


When does God first suffer?


This is a question that Jurgen Moltmann raises after arguing that God’s suffering is not limited to Christ’s crucifixion. God’s suffering is central to God’s relationship with creation and with humanity, as it has always existed and continues to exist as we continue partaking in the life of the Community of God.


Growing up, my understanding of God’s suffering was limited to the crucifixion. I remember being involved in conversations during my gap year where we were discussing what this moment meant for God to be the same ‘yesterday, today and forever’. Did this moment cause the relationship of the Trinity to fracture? Has this moment just revealed an aspect of God’s nature that was not yet revealed to us fully? These were just a couple of the questions. But what caused God to become human in the first place? Was it obligation or something deeper? Let’s take a quick look at a few moments before the arrival of Jesus to set the context.


What we’ll notice, almost from the very first pages, is that God’s relationship with humanity is a deeply intimate one. God breathed into the nostrils of humanity to give life - this is not the act of a distant God, but one who is close. We then know the drill: humanity sins and in Genesis 3 we see that (as some scholars explain) God laments. Then comes along Genesis 6 in which God is seen “to be sorry” for making humanity. This word is ‘Nakham’, which can also be translated “to comfort oneself” or “be moved to pity/have compassion”.


When we look at this through a Trinitarian lens we can see each person of the Trinity involved at this moment, which then sets up how each person acts throughout Scripture. This compassion and comforting of oneself leads to action. From the story of Hagar where God meets her in the wilderness, to Isaiah and the promise of the suffering servant, to Hosea and God’s mourning over the nation of Israel, we slowly come to understand suffering to be at the very core of God’s relationship with humanity. When we look close at God’s Character in Exodus 34, we will notice that each attribute is closely linked with having to be sacrificial. To be compassionate is costly. To be slow in anger is costly. To be faithful is costly.


The nature of Love


Jurgen Moltmann puts it this way:


“If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love. He would be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself, as Aristotle puts it. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings him; and yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer.”

What Moltmann is getting at is that we know God loves humanity because God suffers. We also know God to be love itself. “God is love; love makes a person capable of suffering; and loves capacity for suffering is fulfilled in the self-giving and the self-sacrifice of the lover… [God] is the lover, the beloved, and the love itself” Moltmann adds.


This is why Jesus’ death on the cross is the most pivotal moment in history. It is the moment in time where God’s very nature is revealed in its fullest form - a moment of suffering. At the core of Moltmann’s theology is the idea that the moment of the cross is where Jesus identifies and joins those who suffer. But through Jesus’ resurrection it becomes an event that transcends a moment. In a paradoxical way what happened on the cross, and what happened three days later, becomes something that is still experienced to this day. Jesus continues to identify and draw near to those who suffer. Perhaps at the end of his Gospel account, John writes that if every thing that Jesus did were to be written down, the world itself couldn’t contain the books that would be written, because John is aware of how Jesus’ death and resurrection will continue to redeem, reconcile and heal people's lives till this present day.


If love, then, is expressed and revealed through suffering, we can assert the following: God does continue to suffer, because God is still revealing Himself to humanity - God is still drawing near to the brokenhearted and the poor in spirit. The Beatitudes remain true because to suffer is to join Jesus in His mission to the world.


Love thy Neighbour?


In many Christian circles, the redemption and salvation of ourselves through Jesus is suggested to be a route out of suffering - that through Jesus Christ we have victory, and if we ‘have enough faith’ then our pain will be taken away. The problem with this thought is that it isn’t remotely biblical.


We only need to have a quick scan of the parables of Jesus to notice that the Kingdom of God breaks in and is experienced when we choose to do the costly act towards our neighbour. But not just our neighbour, the ones we put at arms length and the ones we put boundaries up against. Paul in Ephesians 2 comes to mind where he proclaims that on the cross “hostility was put to death.” The good samaritan is a great example of this - in the parable we are the levite and the priest, every time. The challenge is to become more like the person who we segregate ourselves from.

Another good example is in Matthew 25 and the parable of separating the sheep and goats.


For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.


Love comes with a cost. And as Moltmann puts it: The “redemption of the world is bound up… in this sense, not only does God suffer with and for the world; liberated men and women suffer with God and for him.”


But not without hope though, and this is the reason why we endure. For us, as for Jesus, it was the joy set before Him that enabled Him to endure the cross; similarly, it is the joy set before us that helps us endure.


How could we participate in God’s sorrow and feel compassion with God’s pain if this unquenchable hope for the reversal of all things and for the divine redemption were not involved?The fellowship of God has these two sides: it leads us into God’s sufferings and into his infinite sorrow, but it will only be consummated in the feast of God’s eternal joy and in the dance of those who have been redeemed from sorrow. For love bears all things, endures all things and hopes all things in order to make the other happy, and thereby to find bliss itself. (Moltmann)

So as God suffers with us, from us, and for us; so it is our response to suffer with, from, and for our neighbour - so that in the process we would meet Jesus, who says we’ll meet Him there when we do so.

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