Does God Suffer?
The name “God” reﬂects the incomprehensible wellspring of love at the heart of an expanding universe. The Christian understanding of God’s relational nature begins with the first divine person, the Father, the fountain fullness of love, who vitalizes and engenders all that is, including the personal center and expression of God, who is Son and Word. The Spirit is the personal energy of divine love unifying the Father and Son. To ask if God suffers is to ask, how does God love? The Kabbalistic notion of zimzum or divine withdrawal means that God makes a space within Godself for creation to exist. This self-limitation suggests that God suffers with or compassions the pain and suffering of creation’s new birth. God bends low in love to embrace and accompany fragile created life, as it develops toward freedom in love. God suffers in, with and through creation so that we do not suffer alone. This compassionate loving presence of God is the hope and source of nature’s becoming. Thus while suffering causes pain, it does not necessarily diminish life. The pain in suffering, Jürgen Moltmann states, “is the lack of love, and the wounds in wounds are the abandonment, and the powerlessness in pain is unbelief” (1991: 46). Where we suffer and give of ourselves in sacrifice because we love, God suffers in us, and it is because of God’s suffering in us that light can break through the darkness of our pain. If God was incapable of suffering, then God would also be incapable of love. Love bears the weight of suffering in relation to another. The one who is capable of love is also capable of sacrifice, for such a person is also open to the suffering which is involved in love and yet is not succumbed by suffering by virtue of love (Moltmann 1991: 230).
Chaos, Cross and the Wages of Love
If we seek a God who will save us from suffering and sacrifice, we shall not find such a God to be the Christian God. For centuries, Christianity held that God cannot suffer; indeed, those who held to a suffering God under the notion of patripassianism were considered heretics in the early Church. In the twentieth century, a renewal of trinitarian theology, based on personhood and relationship, argued otherwise. The Trinity is the unfolding of God in history and culminates in the mystery of the cross. Here, according to Moltmann, we find God deeply immersed in suffering. The cross reveals an inner dynamic of conflict in God: the Father suffers the death of the Son and, on the cross, the Son suffers the abandonment of the Father. The letting go of the Father and the surrender of Son gives rise to the Spirit who is the bond of love between them and thus the breath of God open to the future of new life. God’s letting go out of love for the sake of the other reflects both the nature and freedom of God. In the historical event of Jesus, the cross reveals the vulnerability of God’s love, “it is God’s going forth into the danger and the nothingness of the creation that reveals [God’s] heart to be at its origin vulnerable” (Von Balthasar 1984: 356). The cross, therefore, signifies a God who is radically in love with the world and this love bears within it the ultimate sacrifice of God’s Son for the world. Love is not what God does; love is what God is. Love is the Being of God, the very “Godness” of God. That is why the cross is the most revealing statement about God, as Moltmann wrote:
When the Crucified Jesus is called the image of the invisible God, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in his humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity. All that can be said about God is said in the cross (1991: 205).
God enters into history and assumes death and the abyss of godforsakenness so that there is “no suffering that is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history on Golgotha” (Moltmann1991: 246). This is a deep truth to ponder in our day, with the ongoing, tragic war in Ukraine and the recent destruction of life due to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria. The power of divine Love is shown in the powerlessness of the cross, as Cardinal Walter Kasper writes: “On the cross God’s self-renouncing love is embodied with ultimate radicalness. . . .God need not strip himself of his omnipotence in order to reveal his love. . . . Only an almighty love can give itself wholly to the other and be a helpless love” (1999: 194-95). God does not prevent suffering and death, but neither is God immune or apathetic to these realities. The very act of creation reflects something of a “divine crucifixion,” for in creation God reveals his power to be his unconditional love for the world. The cross reveals to us the heart of God because it reveals the vulnerability of God’s love. God suffers through the tragedies of loss and destruction and is with us in our weakness as the power of human, compassion and peace. God is the power of love that enables the victims of tragedy to carry on amidst life’s struggles and to hope for new future of life. God suffers in us without losing anything of God’s integrity, for indeed, God is love and the only real response of love is compassionate suffering. While God cannot suffer ex carentia since God cannot lose what pertains to God’s integrity, God can (and does) suffer ex abundantia: out of the divine plenitude God suffers out of love for us. God shares our pain and bears our burdens out of the divine fullness of love. This is a God who gets so “foolishly close” that the boundaries between what is human and what is sacred become blurry.
Suffering is a door through which God can enter and love us in our human weakness, misery and loneliness. As we sacrifice and suffer loss, so too God personally experiences loss with us and in us. One can experience God’s suffering as desolation or absence of God’s comfort, and yet God is deeply present as Spirit and thus sustaining me in love. It is my act of surrender that brings God’s indwelling Spirit to life within me because I am now joined to God on a new level that is open to the future. My act of surrender is an act of trust by which Saint Paul writes, “now it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
In this mystery of love and surrender is my hope that I will not die because God’s love is pulling me forward into a new future. Hence, my suffering and willingness to offer my life for others is, at the same time, God’s own suffering and sacrifice in me. My commitment to love is God’s commitment to love; my willingness to surrender in love is God’s willingness to surrender in love; my pain or sorrow is God’s pain as well. My hope comes precisely in the act of relinquishing control of my pain or sorrow, recognizing that I am not alone; that God suffers with me. By surrendering to God, I am one with the Son in his obedience to the Father and I am one with the Father in his surrender of the Son and thus I am caught up in the breath of God’s love and this love is always new; hence despite my loss, I live on the cusp of new life because God’s love is the power of the future. As Holmes Rolston writes: “Things perish with a passing over in which the sacrificed individual also flows in the river of life” (Creation as Kenosis 2001: 59).
This deeper truth of suffering must lead us beyond a sense of loss to compassionate suffering; that is, a willingness to be sacrificial love for others. Suffering and sacrifice are intertwined. Suffering ex abundantia can lead to sacrifice when love for another impels one to give oneself entirely to the other. Several years ago, I heard of the story of Mary Johnson, On February 12, 1993 Mary Johnson’s only son, 20-year-old Laramiun Byrd, was murdered. The perpetrator was 16-year-old Oshea Israel who received a 25-year sentence for second degree murder. Many years later Mary visited Oshea in prison and realized that she would face a difficult decision: remain bitter or forgive. She was initially deeply angry but realized that “unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out,” she said. Her decision to forgive her son’s murderer was a choice she made out of her own deep faith and the need for reconciliation. “It’s not about that other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done,” she said in an interview. “Yes, he murdered my son – but the forgiveness is for me.” Oshea was released on March 7, 2009, after serving sixteen years of his sentence. Mary’s organization hosted a homecoming celebration for Oshea and his family. Mary also introduced Oshea to her landlord, who invited Oshea to move in next door to her. Mary came to regard him as her “spiritual son,” and he saw Mary as his second mother. Since his release from prison, Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel have been working out a new future together.
Love can be a power of transformation if we are free to forgive and allow the burdened heart to have a space wide enough for a new future to emerge. Forgiveness, Beatrice Bruteau wrote, is the act of making a new future. It is giving love in abundance for the sake of creating a new future together. Mary Johnson found a wellspring of love within her to reach out to the murderer and to believe in the power of life. We too have the capacity to love others in the face of suffering. It is not easy, but it is the capacity of the human person to strive for something higher, something more, to become truly human together. Only when we know that we belong to another can we be with others in their suffering. Suffering together into a higher love is the beginning of a new creation.
When Did Jesus Become God?
[God is another name for personhood. The Christian mutation is the development of personhood in freedom and love.] In an article on “The Emergence of Devotion to Jesus in the…