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Suffering and the Character of God

Suffering is an inescapable part of life east of Eden. This fallen world is pock-marked and ravaged by sin. Shortened lives, violent deaths, famine, plague, war, childlessness, painful losses, deprivations, impoverishments, failures, and betrayals stain our lives. Suffering is a punishment for sin. Sin entered into the world (Gen. 3; Rom 5:12) and part of the consequence was a curse on the ground and that work would become toil.

Suffering is part of life. But you likely already know this. You’ve been to funerals and hospitals. You’ve wept over a lost child. You’ve grieved broken relationships. You’ve stared wide-eyed while the TV broadcasts disaster and chaos into your living room. It takes no convincing to see that suffering is part of life. But what does it mean? Philosophers and theologians throughout the ages have tried to answer this. What does our suffering say about God? And does God say anything about our suffering?

The character of God has a great deal to say about how we are to understand our suffering. In fact, the character of God is the only reason we can have hope in the face of suffering. God is sovereign and impassible. And yet God is not detached or apathetic to our sufferings. God is with us.

God is impassible. This means that God does not have passions. God cannot be acted upon from without in any way that changes him. God is incapable of suffering and does not experience changes in his emotions. God is simple, so there are not parts to him. Because he has no parts, he cannot experience loss or change in a part of his being. God is in complete control of who he is and what he does. God is never conflicted by his emotions. He does not feel dread, greed, lust, or unjust anger. He is impassible.[1]

But where is God when we suffer? Can a God like this love us? God can (and does) love his children. When we use a term like impassible, we need to acknowledge that we’re using a term of negation, that is, we’re using a term to describe what is not. He is not passible or passion-ed. We shouldn’t then take it in a positive sense to say that God is indifferent, stoic, or apathetic.[2] God is a pure act. His love and care for his children is not the result of some external force acting upon him, thus causing him to love and care. Nothing caused God to love and care for his children, it is simply an expression of his being.

If God does love us, then where is God when we suffer? This was the question of Elie Wiesel asked in his book Night, as he wrestled with his experience in Nazi concentration camps. Some, like Wiesel and Jurgen Moltmann, have argued that God was there in the suffering. God, as God, suffered and does suffer. Moltmann argued that when the Bible speaks of God’s emotions or suffering, they are not anthropomorphisms or anthropopathisms (attributing human forms or emotions to God), but they are literal, deep, and real. And when God redeemed humanity, he also had to redeem himself. This idea attempts to be compassionate and to help us connect with God. It attempts to make sense of the tragedies in life by saying, “God feels this too. God is overwhelmed with anguish, just like you.” But a God who suffers is literally pathetic. To say God suffers is to say that God changes based on circumstances. This is not good.

If God is changed by anything, then who is to say that God won’t change in his steadfast love? A God who changes is fickle and unreliable. A God who changes is not really God. We need a God who remains impassible. Augustine wrote, “You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours; for no suffering injures you.”[3]

But what about the Cross? Did not God suffer on the Cross? This is answered with another important theological term that begins with the letter “i.” The incarnation deals with God becoming man and dwelling with us. Jesus, the Son of God, did suffer. He suffered in his humanity. Jesus, the Son of God, is fully God and fully man. He possesses a human and a divine nature. The Council of Chalcedon (451AD) laid out the traditional understanding of the Christological relationship between the human and divine natures. The Son of God in the person of Jesus Christ shall be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, change, division, or separation. We cannot attribute a human attribute (passibility) to the divine nature. This changes the divine nature. The Son, as God, did not suffer. But the Son does suffer in his humanity.

This is Good News for us. Instead of making God less, it makes Him more. His redemption is more secure because God does not change. God knows the suffering we experience because God suffered, as man. God’s divine impassibility ensures that God’s love, grace, and redemption are steadfast, free, and secure.

[1] Barrett, None Greater, 115.

[2] Barrett, None Greater, 116.

[3] Quoted in: Barrett, 121.

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