Between Heaven and Earth

A Suffering God—Part 1

Note: large segments of this class have been taken from The Suffering of God by Terence Fretheim. 

Today we will continue our discussion that we started last time on the character of God in the Old Testament. Last time, we discussed how we often get hung up on the question: Do you believe in God? And forget about the other, perhaps more important question, what kind of God do you believe in?

I mentioned that the image of God that non-believers have is largely the image that the church has provided of the God of the Old testament, an angry, vengeful, judge who is out to punish sinners for their sins. We discussed how the image we have of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the image of God the father; Jesus gets the attributes of Love, compassion, and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming, while God gets the attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power, and justice. I’m starting to realize that this may not have been coincidental, since it can serve the religious institutions in their curriculum on God and morality. As with most of our education curriculums, we are often taught with a stick and carrot model. If you are bad, you will get the-stick-judgment of God, but if you are good, then the -carrot- your belief in the name of Jesus will save you. 

It is hard to overemphasize how your belief of who God is can affect every aspect of your existence. Your image of God can dictate how you view the world and your part in it, it is the corner stone of your spiritual and religious life, and it will also affect your relationships with other people and your community. 

In the OT, God says: Malachi 3:6 

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.”

In the NT, Jesus says in the Gospel of John: I and the Father are one. (10:30); The word which you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me (14:24); He who has seen me has seen the Father (14:9). 

How do we reconcile the two very different images of God and Jesus with these biblical statements and our knowledge of the trinity?

We discussed last time that we often get hung up on labels that we created about God, labels such as omnipotent, meaning: all powerful, and omniscient, meaning: all knowledgeable. These labels tend to skew our understanding of God and don’t seem to align with the biblical narrative of who God is. 

The highly symbolic and sometimes poetic language of the OT often depicts God in a relationship with the people (of Israel). This relationship takes several forms, two of the common ones are a husband to his wife (e.g. Hosea) or a father, sometimes mother, to her children. In a genuine relationship, both parties have to give up a measure of freedom and power. As in any relationship of integrity, God will have to give up some things for the sake of the relationship. So, God will have to give up some freedom. Any commitment or promise within a relationship entails a limitation of freedom, so if God made a promise, as God often did in the OT, God’s freedom is truly limited by those promises. Moreover, for the relationship to have integrity, each party to the relationship must give up any monopoly on power for the sake of the relationship. Neither party to the relationship can be overwhelmed for the relationship to be a true one. God gives up the exercise of some power because total control of the other is not a relationship of integrity. 

“In addition to limitations on God’s power and freedom, a temporally relevant relationship would entail a limitation on God’s knowledge of the future. God’s knowledge of the future is limited in such a way as to include a genuine divine openness to the future. An openness which is constantly informed by the divine will to save.”

If you view God as an all-powerful and all knowledgeable being, then it’s hard to have a relationship with this God. In this view, God is more distant, does not have to be involved in any matters of the day to day, but instead has created the world, set things in motion, and may or may not be aware of anything that happens.  If you view God on more personal and intimate terms, then a relationship with God entails a limitation on God’s power, freedom, and knowledge of the future for the relationship to be authentic.

“The OT reveals a fundamental continuity between God and world. God is graciously present in, with, and under all the particulars of creation, with which God is in a relationship of reciprocity. The immanent and transcendent God of Israel is immersed in the space and time of this world; this God is available to all, is effective along with everyone at every occasion, and moves with us into an uncertain future. Such a perspective reveals a divine vulnerability, as God takes all the risks that authentic relationships entail. Because of what happens to that relationship with those whom God loves, God suffers.”

According to Fretheim, there are three reasons for the suffering of God in the OT: 

  1. God suffers because of the people’s rejection of God as lord
  2. God suffers with the people who are suffering
  3. God suffers for the people 

Today we will focus on the first of those, that God suffers because of people’s rejection and sin: 

One of the earliest passages referring to the suffering of God is Genesis 6:5-6: 

5 The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. 6 The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.” Other translations say, “it grieved him to his heart.” 

We note here that God’s grieving goes back to the beginning of creation. Grief has been characteristic of the history of God almost from the beginning of things. 

Isa 54:9-10

“To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10 Though the mountains be shaken, and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

God’s promise to Noah after the flood witnesses to God allowing creation to endure in spite of human sinfulness. The sinful response of humankind has indeed touched God, God is not apathetic. It also indicates that judgment is not a detached decision. Grief is always what the Godward side of judgment looks like. But, given God’s promise to bear with creation in all of its wickedness, this means for God a continuing grieving of the heart. 

The prophecy of Isaiah begins in a startling manner (1:2-3):

Sons I have reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand. 

The first chapter of Isaiah, which is commonly considered to be a summary of all that follows, is largely an admixture of lament and accusation. The speech that opens the book of Isaiah, and which sets the tone for the utterances of the prophet, deals not with the anger of God, but with the sorrow of God. The prophet pleads with us to understand the plight of a father whom his children have abandoned. It is important to note that the focus is not on Israel’s disobedience to an external legal code, but on the broken state of a relationship between father and child. We can recall Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son here. The rebellion occurs even though God has lavishly bestowed love and care. The people have not been deserted, nor had they been mistreated. In the face of the best parenting possible, they had left home. They did not see that God the parent had been concerned with their welfare. 

The prophecy of Jeremiah begins in a similar manner (2:2): 

I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. 

Once again a prophetic work begins, not with hellfire and damnation, but with a picture of the pain and anguish of God. All the subsequent accusations and judgment can only be understood properly if seen as spoken out of the deeply pained heart of God. God’s memory filled grief informs all that follows, making it clear that these developments are the last thing in the world God wanted. 

More from Jer 3:19-20:

I thought – how I would set you among my sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beauteous of all nations. And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me. Surely, as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel. 

What intimacy God desired in his relationship with the people, and what disappointment is expressed here! God has been rejected both as parent and as husband! God suffers the effects of the broker relationship at multiple levels of intimacy. The wounds of God are manifold. 

Listen to the anguish of God expressed in these statements: 

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here am I, Here am I.” to a nation that did not call on my name. I spread out my hands all the day to rebellious people. Isa 65:1-2:

Yet my people have forgotten me days without number. Jer 2:32:

My people did not listen to my voice; Israel would have none of me! Psalms 81:11

These passages reveal God as one who is not vindictive, legalistic, or exacting as to matters of judgment. The disappointment evident in these responses of God indicate that judgment is not something God wants: “What else can I do?” (Jer. 9:7). But it is important to note that judgment does fall on the people. However, this judgment has to be understood in terms of a breakdown in a personal relationship with its associated effects-all the anger, pain, and suffering which would commonly accompany such a breakdown. The analogy of a marriage breaking up is one that could be profitably used here. As the closeness of the relationship ebbs, as the partners remove themselves from intimacy with one another, they experience the effects of the break-up in all aspects of their lives. From the prophets’ point of view, the effects of the broken relationship between people and God in life is called judgement. It is striking how commonly the language of God’s judgment consists of images involving withdrawal, forsaking, hiddenness, or giving the people up. As the people remove themselves from God, God engages in major efforts at healing the breach, but may finally be forced into a tearful withdrawal, reluctantly allowing all the forces that make for death and destruction to have their way with the people. But, while God may give them up, God does not finally give up on them. Into the midst of those suffering judgment God returns. 

Next week we will talk about how God returns to those who are suffering. The suffering of God during this stage takes the shape of mourning. This is very important, because mourning means that judgment means death for Israel, and not just discipline. God voices a funerary lament, not parental pain after a spanking. Perhaps this explains the severity of the judgment passages in the bible. The purpose of them is to show how destructive life without God is, and to get the people to repent and return before it’s too late. I think this is applicable to us today. Whether we are believers or non-believers, we fail to realize that God is present and active in our lives. Perhaps only after hitting a roadblock or contracting an illness that we spend a moment to lament what happened and remember the “good times” that we hadn’t appreciated fully before. During times of hardship, we get the feeling, and sometimes the misguided teachings of the church, that God has deserted us. But several passages in the bible indicate that this is not true. And in that regard, I would like to end with a short discussion on the Beatitudes: 

Matthew 5

3Blessed are the poor in spirit, 
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. 
4Blessed are those who mourn, 
    for they will be comforted. 
5Blessed are the meek, 
    for they will inherit the Earth. 
6Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
    for they will be satisfied. 
7Blessed are the merciful, 
    for they will be shown mercy. 
8Blessed are the pure in heart, 
    for they will see God. 
9Blessed are the peacemakers, 
    for they will be called the Sons of God. 
10Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, 
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

The beatitudes can be difficult to understand. They are counter intuitive. They suggest that God’s blessing is for the lowliest and the poor in faith, making it is hard to accept them. Unfortunately, I think the church has failed to provide a proper explanation for them. 

In a previous discussion (see: The Suffering of Jesus), I suggested that a genuine state of suffering can fulfill all of the beatitudes. “Through suffering, we are stripped of all of our defenses and control. Everything we are afraid of is here. Through suffering, we are forced to become poor in spirit, we mourn the loss of a loved one, or even a world view or a changing self. Suffering humbles us, opens our hearts to be merciful and peacemakers, and invites us to seek God and his righteousness instead of our own will and desires.” But you may wonder, where does the blessing come from in a state of suffering?

I think that our discussion today can shed an important light on this question. We tend to view suffering as a uniquely human experience. However, throughout the bible, we are presented with a God who suffers because of the people, suffers with the people, and suffers for the people. The culmination of the suffering of God was through his son on the cross. If the divine suffers, then it is hard to make the argument that suffering is unique to humans. It is also difficult to think of suffering as an evil visited upon the individual or people. I suggest that an interpretation of the beatitudes based upon a state of suffering offers a tremendous blessing for the suffering party. It is a blessed state precisely because God is a suffering God. In the course of suffering, we are in the intimate company of God. This effectively elevates the state of human suffering to a spiritual experience.

What do you think of this image of God, a suffering God? How does it change your understanding of the bible? Fretheim says that the anguish of God in these passages is focused on the broken state of a relationship between father and child and not on the breaking of a legal code. What does that mean to our understanding of what sin is? How do you view the terms of your relationship with God?

Donald: I think this goes back to a fundamental question that I’ve brought up multiple times, and that is, we talk of God and Christ as being quite individual. That’s not three in one. It’s actually three people as the Godhead, but not necessarily three in one. So, I think that’s a fundamental question because we’re describing Christ in a particular way, and we’re describing God in a particular way, in a radically different way. I think that would be a common response. So that affects my understanding of God, because if you ask my understanding of God and my understanding of Christ, they would be two different answers, as Michael has articulated this morning.

He also said something about friendship. We sing “What a friend we have in Jesus.” We don’t sing “What a friend we have in God.” So, I think we are more comfortable with the concept of a friendship with Christ, but there’s a mystery there with God. That might be because we think of God as being, you know, vindictive, and Christ is not vindictive. I don’t think we would consider that. 

I think your last point is a good one, that we know and understand, and that is suffering brings us closer to God. That’s unfortunate. In a marriage, if things are broken down, I’m not sure it brings you closer together. I guess that depends on what brings it down. If you’re bringing it down against each other, then it doesn’t bring you closer. But if a child of a set of parents, that would bring them potentially closer. 

What kind of God do I believe in? Well, that depends!

C-J: I think that God is the Creator, and He gave us free will because He wanted a relationship. I believe that, as a parent looks at his or her child, that relationship is one of growing, wanting productive, independent identities to emerge. I also think it supports innate bias through experience, that coupling together suppression takes out the potential for creativity, because you just give up. It’s just too much work. But my experience is that when I come before God in humility, not just “I’ll submit because I know I should, or if I don’t, it could get worse. God’s going to really punish me.” But if I come before God in humility and say, “I have tried my best, and I admit my error, my bias, my culmination of experiences, my wounds, my scars”, God fills the gap. Because what I am unable to do, God can change my heart, the circumstances, the heart of another. 

And the most important thing always comes down to how much do I value the relationship? How much do I value where God has said, “I’m going to put you in a place and it will be uncomfortable, but if you will allow yourself to be humbled and be the student, you will emerge having a greater understanding of me in that relationship, meaning God, and of yourself, the potential that I have put within you.” I do not think God would ever want us to be fearful of Him. I can’t think of a parent who loves a child that would want that child to be fearful. They want a relationship that is loving and supporting and mutual and trusting, and that only comes with humility, not with fear.

David: Michael wondered how to align the different views of God. To me, the way you align the different views of God is by becoming a process theologian. Most of the regulars here know my liking for the theory of process theology, whereby God is both a Being and a Becoming entity. God the Becoming has evolved in our understanding of “him” over time, whereas the Being of God has not changed. God the Being is the unchanging heavenly Being. God the Becoming is an earthly, time-bound being. We see both of them in the Bible. 

The various covenants, starting with Adam and Eve and ending with the new covenant of Jesus, show that God the Becoming has evolved through the Bible over time. We see different faces on God not because God has changed, but because our Bible-driven understanding of God has changed over time.

Don: The concept of limiting God is always difficult to wrap our minds around. We see God as a transcendent being that has no limitations, and to even suggest that God can suffer seems to be a way of limiting God. And yet we don’t have any trouble limiting Jesus in the incarnation, the arrival of God to man on earth. It’s a concept of limiting that we embrace freely, but for some reason, we have difficulty doing that with God. 

We’re told in many places in scripture that God forgives us for His sake, which means that part of His recovering from suffering is the process of forgiveness. This again puts God in a very funny place, not where we customarily place Him with the infinite knowledge, power, and presence that we generally associate with God.

Robin: I wonder if it’s hard for us to understand, or if sometimes we may even forget, that beings—sentient beings, certainly the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and their creation have characteristics, or they have character. Maybe we forget that we also have personality, and our character is expressed through personality. I don’t know if anyone else sees a difference there between the two. I would imagine that, after thousands of years of being physically separate from God since the fall, God has to reveal more and more of who He is. These revelations then may be culminated in the life and the mission of Christ.

C-J: I think misconceptions in relationships often lead to arguments like, “But you did this.” I think, especially when we’re getting to know somebody, they might make a statement, and I wonder, “How did you come to that conclusion? Haven’t you seen me demonstrate things that contradict your perception?” This comes down to how we process information and reach conclusions, which impacts the health of a relationship. 

Going back to humility, I think it’s important to remember that in the garden, we had a face-to-face relationship with God. They were on the same page, walking in the cool of the evening and talking about things. When sin entered the picture, it created a disconnect because behavior no longer aligned with the relationship or the rules. This causes pain in any relationship when there’s a disconnect, leading to misunderstandings like, “I thought you understood,” or “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” The damage can be progressive and not an easy fix. 

God is so gracious in His desire to make the relationship healthy and perpetuate it generationally. This is why we write books to remember stories, history, personalities, time, and place, as seen in the Bible and other faith traditions. It’s crucial to see ourselves as not a finished product and to be receptive to God’s guidance.

Reinhard: I believe God suffers, number one, because His intention in creating humans was to have a personal relationship and to be worshipped. I see three progressive stages in God revealing Himself to humans. The first stage was from Adam until the flood, where there was no clear-cut rule or law from God until Moses. The relationship with the Creator was likely passed down orally from Adam, but because of the rebellious nature of creation, God wiped them out through the flood. 

The second stage began at Sinai with the commandments and moral law given through Moses, which dealt with the behavior of the Israelites and God’s response to their rebellion. The Old Testament largely covers this stage, focusing on the Israelites’ behavior and God’s punishments when they disobeyed. The third stage is God coming Himself through Jesus, showing how He wants the relationship to be. This is the final revelation of God’s desired relationship with His people. 

God’s suffering is primarily because He cares for us and wants a good relationship with His creation. However, due to human behavior, especially in the Old Testament, God had to enact laws and punishments. With Jesus, God revealed how to truly relate to Him, showing humility and proper worship. The ultimate suffering of Jesus on the cross is a significant display of God’s physical suffering. 

Throughout these stages, the Bible shows how God continually tries to embrace us and guide our behavior for a harmonious life with Him. The idea is that God’s suffering is not for His own sake but because He cares deeply for those He must punish or has punished for their rebellion.

Michael: In the beginning, there was maybe more direct communication, but then in the second stage, it becomes the Ten Commandments. But what if we think of the Ten Commandments as relationship guidelines? For example, if I’m in a relationship with someone else, one of the guidelines is you don’t cheat. This is a given, even if we might not discuss it openly. Maybe between God and us, the relationship guideline would be you don’t worship other gods because that’s disloyal. So, can we think of them as relationship guidelines rather than a moral code?

Donald: I think C-J described nicely the relationship in the garden. You can see a relationship there that’s face-to-face, hand-in-hand, if you will. There you see a relationship between the Trinity and humanity in such a different way than where we find ourselves today. That was such a personal relationship. 

Think of where the church is in that relationship. It doesn’t exist in that relationship. Now, the church plays such a significant role in the relationship between our understanding of God and ourselves. It’s a huge component of our spirituality. For the most part, I think most people would say that our doctrine defines our understanding of God and Christ, as opposed to that relationship that C-J described. 

The other point I would make is about the personality of God. Does God have a personality? Is that what we’re seeing here, this is God’s personality? This is Christ’s personality. Personality plays such a significant role in the way we perceive our world. How is personality defined? How does that come to be? Is it our experience? Are we born with our personality? Who knows? Just a couple of thoughts.

Sasha: For me, my personality, or how I’ve been raised, is without the understanding of the Bible or Jesus and God in a Biblical sense, but more about how that relationship naturally guides a person. Instead of calling it God, it might be called fate in our household. 

I wonder if it is possible to have a relationship with God without understanding your own personal sufferings? Is it possible to walk through life without suffering and still have a close relationship with God? We’ve talked about God being vulnerable and taking all this risk for us, and we kind of ride on that. We may not have to suffer as much because of God’s existence and the blessings we’ve been given. But is it possible that we can’t fully understand God and all His teachings, whether negative or positive, without fully understanding the concept of suffering within ourselves first?

Reinhard: After the fall of Adam, God told them life would not be easy. There have been consequences of sin ever since the fall—that’s the suffering humans have been going through up to this time. Illness and disease represent that suffering. God, in His love, tries to pull us back through His plan of salvation. In the Old Testament, God spoke through prophets, angels, and sometimes directly. That’s the character of God we see in the stories of the Old Testament—how God tried to guide human beings, telling them not to do this or that, because He wanted to establish good, righteous people. 

When Jesus came, He showed the real purpose of what God wants humans to do and how to behave in His eyes. The apostles, especially Paul, teach us how to live a good Christian life until the end. So, we see God’s suffering because He doesn’t want us to be destroyed or hurt physically and spiritually. At the same time, we, as humans, suffer physically due to illness and other issues because of the rebellion that started in the past. The curse imposed on humanity continues. But our hope is strong that Jesus, through His salvation and our hope for the future, will save us. We just need to be faithful to Him until the end.

David: The Beatitudes are all about suffering and the blessedness of those who suffer. Physical suffering seems to bear a spiritual benefit. Those who don’t suffer—those who are born rich and idle, who go through life happy, full of the joys of spring, and have no worries or physical suffering—are not as blessed, presumably, so they are not going to benefit as much spiritually as those who suffer in life. 

Of course, nobody goes through life without suffering at some point. Even the very rich probably experience some suffering—physical, psychological, or emotional. There is some spiritual benefit to all of that suffering. But it is a fascinating question whether the strength of our relationship with God—our blessedness—depends upon the degree of our suffering.

Don: My observation as a surgeon and seeing people who are ill is that quite often, though not always, people who are not religious and enter into a period of suffering seek God and sometimes find Him in that experience. But the opposite is also true. People who are religious (using that word for whatever meaning you can derive from it) who enter into illness and suffering often become very skeptical of God and wonder where God is. So, it seems as if whatever your position is on God, suffering has at least the risk of changing your position and view of God as a result.

C-J: I think it goes back to the eye of the needle. If you have a privileged life and you are faced with what you just described, you feel that your position of power and authority has been compromised, especially if you lived a good Christian or righteous life. But that’s not the way it works in the spiritual domain. The spiritual domain is what we need for our soul. It’s not about God challenging us; it’s God revealing grace. It is unpleasant and doesn’t make sense, but God’s metric is different than humanity’s. 

For those who have been extremely blessed, it’s hard for them to suffer or do without, but it’s not because they lack a relationship with God. I think it’s that God is revealing humility in a different way, perhaps. Nobody wants to be in pain, but within our hearts, we want to be close to God. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is not because He wants to punish us, but because He wants us to have the fullness of that spiritual relationship. It’s hard. It’s hard.

Greg: It seems that the way God presented a moral code to the children of Israel was as “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and then it was “you will have no other gods before me.” It’s more of a descriptive code rather than a prescriptive code. “If you are a people of covenant of love with me, this is how you will act.” 

I think the way Jesus talks about it in the Sermon on the Mount also reflects this, where it’s not just the act of committing adultery, killing, or stealing, but the act of covetousness, lust, or hating your brother. You’ve already broken the covenant when that happens, and so the behavior is just a result of the covenant relationship, whether it’s broken or intact. Do we love or don’t we love in our relationship with God?

Don: We’ll pick this up next week.

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