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Suffering Without Sinking

Derek Caldwell

Only the suffering God can help.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer[1]

In all their suffering, He suffered.

Isaiah 63:9[2]

“She didn’t deserve this,” my grandfather said, breathlessly, desperately. Death. Gone. God. Abrupt. No goodbye. Over. Silence.

My grandmother, his best friend for sixty years, had complained of difficulty breathing, and those would be the last words they would share. A few agonizing minutes later, she was unconscious at the hospital. And soon after that, she would be gone. “She died peacefully,” a nurse comforted us, but I knew already that death was never peaceful. It is always a seismic and cosmic disruption, a thing that should not be. A week later my grandfather was diagnosed with lung cancer and given eight months to three years to live. He would leave us three weeks later.

Grandpa had all of us to lean on, but we were poor substitutes for the love of his life. When I tried to talk to him about Jesus’s love for him and grandma, and His hatred of death—the final enemy—grandpa could only say that his wife didn’t deserve death. Of course, we know what will happen in this life. As comedian Norm MacDonald quipped, we “come from a long line of death.”[3] But when we experience it up close, we get a real sense of the alien nature of it; our souls recoil from its unnatural appearance. As I talked to my grandfather, my heart pounded so loud and hard that I assumed it was audible and visible. I tried to comfort him, I tried to tell him that Jesus hated death even more than he did, that Jesus came to do battle with death and that He won that battle. We cried together. I had only ever seen my grandfather cry one other time, at my brother’s funeral decades before, and I felt a connection between that moment and this one. He said he would rather we didn’t talk about Jesus again for a while, that it was too painful. We hugged. I left him a copy of Greg Boyd’s Letters from a Skeptic, a book of correspondence between a father and a theologian son (Greg) who had been shaped by the untimely loss of his mother.

It is hard to imagine the profound loneliness Grandpa must have been experiencing in that time. His best friend and love gone, and death itself metastasizing inside of his lungs, soon to spread to other parts of his body as well. I didn’t so much want to argue with my grandfather about Jesus as I wanted to comfort him—Jesus is on your side, Grandpa. He hates it too. He is with us in our suffering, He suffers with us and for us. This has been a comfort to the faithful for two millennia: God is not a feelingless dictator, but an empathetic rescuer.

But is it true? Does God suffer with us?  

As much as a stumbling block the gospel has been to people throughout the ages, it has always captured the imagination. To those who understand and believe it, meditating on it leads to the welling up inside of a great orchestra, sometimes moving us to the point of tears. God loves us so much that He became one of us, suffered, and died for us. He saw us suffering and, moved, Christ stepped down from His throne to save us. As one ancient Christian text put it, humanity is “earth suffering,” to which Melito responds that Jesus “accepted the suffering of the suffering one, through suffering in a body which could suffer, and set free the flesh from suffering. Through the spirit which cannot die he slew the manslayer death.”[4]

God grieves with us. One day all mourning will end, not because mourning is impossible, but because the reasons for it are no more. God does more than bestow upon us a rule book for life from afar; He is there to sit with us, console us, and mourn with those who mourn.

Or so we think. The doctrine of Impassibility has been one of the more controversial of the concepts adapted from the Greek philosophical system.[5] It states that God is not affected in His emotional life by the actions of agents like human beings. Where the doctrine becomes most troubling is where it posits that God is incapable of suffering no matter how much humans suffer. Since God is self-existing (He has no needs outside of Himself) and is immutable (not subject to change, perfect as He is), He must not be able to suffer, since that implies that an object can be changed by a subject. If there is room for change, then the object must have been imperfect or incomplete. Since God is perfect, He is not subject to change, and therefore He cannot suffer.

To some who are suffering, knowing that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, no matter how the present appears, is a catalyst for hope. In other words, His “love” (depending on how we apply that term, if we allow God has emotional states at all) is unwavering. It is a way of differentiating our God from the capricious gods of the pagans. To others, the doctrine of Impassibility smacks of the aloof god of the Stoics, a god that sufferers cannot relate to because he cannot and will not relate to them; he is simply too far above us to be bothered. 

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote of his struggle with loss after the death of his son, Eric. After the natural questions one would have about God, he describes how his suffering crystallized for him some of the theological apprehensions he had for some time:

For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before. God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.[6]

Love in our world is suffering love. … In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer. … God is love. That is why he suffers.[7]

Did Grandpa begin to understand this too? Did he begin to feel the metaphysical intrusion of death and did the God-shaped hole in his heart, a hole that we all have, begin to cry out for help? Through the prism of his tears, did he see a suffering God and, finally, a loving God?

It seems clear that God has no needs and that He does not change; and yet the Bible is so clear time and time again that God grieves for and with us (Genesis 6:6; Psalms 34:18, 78:40; Isaiah 15:5, 16:9, 63:9-10; Hosea 11:8; John 11:35; and Ephesians 4:30 to name just a few); that He can be affected by us by being provoked to anger or brought to delight. One always has the option of chalking that up to anthropomorphism and anthropopathism (attributing to God our human emotional states), but are these merely biblical illustrations instead of analogies meant to speak at least some truth?[8] Surely these depictions of God found all throughout Scripture (well before the Incarnation) say something of the reality of God’s inner life, or else we run the risk of saying we can learn nothing of God from the words of Scripture. CS Lewis wrote of this paradox in his classic book The Problem of Pain. For Lewis, this was solved by appealing to what God has opened Himself up to, and for whom He has opened Himself up:

If God sometimes speaks as though the Impassible [Himself] could suffer passion and eternal fullness could be in want, and in want of those beings on whom it bestows all from their bare existence upwards, this can only mean, if it means anything intelligible by us, that God of mere miracle has made himself able so to hunger and created in Himself that which we can satisfy. If He requires us, the requirement is of His own choosing. If the immutable heart can be grieved by the puppets of its own making, it is Divine Omnipotence, no other, that has so subjected it, freely, and in a humility that passes understanding. … If He who is in Himself can lack nothing chooses to need us, it is because we need to be needed. …He has no natural necessities, no passion, to compete with His wish for the beloved’s welfare: or if there is in Him something which we have to imagine after the analogy of a passion, a want, it is there by His own will and for our sakes.[9]

This we might call a modified or qualified impassibility. Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer turns the tables a bit on this equation. First, Vanhoozer helpfully explains that impassibility “means not that God is unfeeling but that God is never overcome or overwhelmed by passion [suffering]. Though certain feelings may befall God, he will not be subject to them.”[10] Then, elsewhere, he goes further in a helpfully corrective direction. He writes, “In light of the doctrine of the Imago Dei, then, perhaps the Bible’s depiction of divine suffering is less a matter of anthropopathic projection than it is a case of human suffering being theopathic (God-like).”[11] In other words, rather than humans projecting their imperfect emotional life upon God, perhaps it is God who has instilled something of His perfect inner life into us, corrupted and capricious though it has become.

The early church often spoke of this paradoxical truth by proclaiming that the impassible suffered impassibly, or in the words of Origen, “The Immortal dies, the Impassible Suffers, the Invisible is seen.”[12] Theologians like Cyril of Alexandria could speak of Christ suffering in His human nature, but, as J. Warren Smith helpfully explains, “that suffering is degenerative change was the commonplace opinion in late antiquity.” Therefore, the divine nature must be untouched by suffering. It is through suffering that the Lord conquered death, and it is through divine unchangeableness that He frees us all from it.[13] In other words, Christ—God—did suffer, but He did not change. Smith writes, “The divine will that the human race be freed from death overrode Christ’s human instinct for self-preservation. Christ’s mastery of the passions did not entail simply the suppression of the emotion but also entailed its transformation into a virtue.”[14] As my colleague Olivia Davis explained in a recent article, Christ’s sinlessness, His defeat of the human “passions,” does not make him less understanding and compassionate, but more so, for He has not been shaped by the callousness that a life of brokenness and defeat can produce.[15] In the end, Smith writes,

Christ suffers impassibly in the sense that the divinity of the Word is unchanged by the suffering, and also in the sense that though he suffers the emotions of fear and dread he is not swept away by the passions. He suffers impassibly precisely because his adherence to the Father’s will is not changed by the passionate impulses of his flesh. Thus Christ’s impassible suffering is a capacity not of the divine nature alone but also of divinized humanity.[16]

In that sense, then, Christ is the one Who is with us the most. He can bear the weight of suffering the most, for He suffered without being degraded or hardened by it. We are still left with the question, though—can God, in and of Himself, “suffer”? Christ’s human nature can, and since Christ is God one can say God suffered, but can the divine nature experience anything like “suffering,” or are the analogies in Scripture to God’s feelings totally erroneous?

Kallistos Ware is helpful to us in describing the issues at hand in the early centuries of Christianity. A being is “passible” if they are prone to passion, or pathos, such assuffering, strong emotions, sexual attraction, and other things that can simply happen to them, whether they choose to allow them or not. They are in a passive state rather than a state of dynamis, or power. To be passible is to be vulnerable. It is being overwhelmed—and therefore overpowered—by something external to oneself. “Applied to the inner life of humans,” he writes, “pathos thus commonly has the sense of a violent feeling dominating the soul without its consent.”[17]

How do we reconcile this, though, with the depiction of God even in the Old Testament? Here is a God who loves abundantly, who “could no longer bear to see Israel suffer” (Judges 10:16). What we see in the early church is also the notion that, in some way, God must have participated in the emotional life, since He could not have been moved only by His incarnation, but prior to that, to cause the Incarnation.[18] So then, what if, in agreement with Lewis, God opened Himself up to suffering, not in a way that changed Him, not in a Passive way, but in a way to be truly open to the ones whom He loves, the suffering ones on earth?

To love, Ware explains channeling Origen, is “to render oneself vulnerable, so that we are affected by what the other undergoes, making their joy or sorrow our own. … Love is to be changed by what the loved one does.”[19] He continues,

God’s power, then, is the power of suffering love; “omnipotent” thus means all-loving, all-suffering. … Suffering that is inflicted upon us contrary to our own will, that we reject with resentment and against which we protest with bitterness of heart, may prove to be entirely negative in its effect, crushing and destroying us. But suffering that we accept and embrace out of love, even though it too may sometimes seem to crush and destroy us, proves in the end to be creative and transfiguring. Indeed, there is no passivity in God; when he suffers out of love, he is not passive but supremely active. … As Fr. Lev puts it, “God’s suffering is divine love freely creating its own burden.”[20]

Thus, though it took us a while to arrive, we are here at the point. Does God suffer with us? Yes, perhaps, in His own way, but not in our way. God’s suffering is “an expression not of weakness but of power, not of subjection but of victory.”[21] Through His taking on our suffering out of love, He bestows upon us His defeat of suffering. As Ware explains, it might be something of a comfort for someone to sit with you in your suffering, but if you are sinking in quicksand, it doesn’t help if they come to sink alongside of you! God’s suffering can do more, for He pulls us out of the quicksand as well. “He offers us not only sympathy,” Ware writes, “but also a new life, not only solidarity but also redemption and restoration.”[22]

The mystery here is indeed very real, but my overall takeaway from the debate is this: God will not be tamed or cornered by our categories. The pages of Scripture may seem wild and unkempt to the logicians, but it is on those pages that God’s feeling voice leaps out like a whale from the sea.

What then does this mean for the parents who cry out over the loss of life untimely departed? What does it mean for those of us who have lost elderly loved ones who “went peacefully” (it was “just their time”), knowing full well that death is always rupture and never peaceful, even when it is a mercy? It means to say that God understands it and feels it. He mourns death because He is pure Life and Love. Death is the intruder into paradise, patient zero of the original virus.

When the painstaking task of cleaning up my grandpa’s belongings to prepare his house for sale began, I went searching for the book I had loaned him. A few days before, while he was in his hospital bed, I had held his hand as he whispered “yes” to the question do you want to accept Jesus as your savior? My grandfather was as loving as he was stubborn and staunchly atheistic, so I did a double take after he said yes and had to ask again just to confirm. This is the greatest miracle I have ever witnessed. While we had spent time together in his last three weeks, I honored his wishes to not bring Jesus up again—there was not much more to be said anyway. To my delight, I saw a pink Sticky-Note tucked inside of the book I had loaned him, with the words Kroger, Bob Evans sausage, and Menards in my grandfather’s writing (and dog treat in my grandmother’s). Given the location of his makeshift bookmark, he may have just read something about why the world is full of suffering, why God cares about humans, and “Why didn’t God spare your mother?”[23] Perhaps he read something that spoke to him, that had helped to change his perspective. The mixture of loneliness, fear, and the stench of death had perhaps sharpened his senses to find hope in Christ. In his final days, living in the midst of pain and fear, I just hope he didn’t feel alone. And I’m sure he doesn’t feel alone now.

God sits with us not just as an eschatological encourager, but as a fellow mourner who warmly embraces the brokenhearted. The difference is that where we are crushed, He is not overcome. Where we are crippled in fear, He moves forward with redemption. Where we see the end of life, He sees the beginning. To the one who thinks to themselves, this can’t be the end, He confirms that it isn’t. It is through this assurance and hope in Christ who lives and everlastingly loves that we can face every tomorrow.

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[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 8 (Minnesota, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 478. Many interpretations of what Bonhoeffer meant by this quote have been given, but read in context it seems to me to be a call to Luther’s “Theology of the Cross,” by which we finally accept the biblical portrayal of God coming in humility and vulnerability and release the quest for God to come in power, to empower us with His power. Rather, we should reject that corrupting influence and live in weakness and humility where God is to be found and will minister to us. This section of Bonhoeffer’s prison letter—in which Bonhoeffer writes, “Before God, and with God, we live without God. God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross”—was paraphrased in another publication by his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, in order to bring more clarity to the misused and abused quotation: “Before and with the Biblical God we live without the Greek God”; “before and with the concretely crucified God on earth we live without the metaphysical triumphalist God”; “before and with the suffering God we live without the powerful God at our disposal.” Eberhard Bethge, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews” in John D. Godsey and Geffrey B. Kelly, Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer’s Legacy to the Churches (New York and Toronto: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1981), 85.

[2] Holman Christian Standard Bible translation. Other popular translations render the word for suffering as either distress or affliction.

[3] Norm MacDonald: Me Doing Standup, directed by David Steinberg (Comedy Central, 2011), 1:00:45. https://www.amazon.com/Norm-Macdonald-Me-Doing-Stand-Up/dp/B0076QLB1S/.

[4] See The Epistle of Barnabas, trans. JB Lightfoot, retrieved from http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html; Melito of Sardis: On Pascha, trans. Alistair Stewart-Sykes (Crestwood, NT: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 54. This is not the same writing as the pseudepigrahical Gospel of Barnabas, a sixteenth century apocryphal Islamic text written to bring depictions of Christ in line with Islamic orthodoxy.

[5] I do not mean this in a derogatory sense. Often Greek philosophy gave an ideological framework and a vocabulary for difficult Christian theological concepts that the Early Church appropriated (i.e., adapted without wholesale adoption). The theological development of the hypostatic union in the Christological controversies is one positive example of this relationship. Furthermore, I am not of the opinion that the Early Church in any way “sold out” to Greek philosophy, as some have been wont to prove, unsuccessfully. For a charitable look at the relationship between faith and philosophy historically, see Gerald McDermott’s chapter on Clement of Alexandria and the “divine gift to the Greeks” in God’s Rivals (IVP Academic, 2007).

[6] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 81. My mother read this book upon my recommendation a couple years ago. After she had finished, I remember she spoke to me, saying something along the lines of, “Wow. This is exactly what it felt like.” Thank you, Mr. Wolterstorff.

[7] Ibid., 89-90.

[8] Anthropomorphism is a term describing the attributing of human characteristics to God, like the “hand of God.” Anthropopathism is the attributing of human emotional states to God, like when “grieves” or is “jealous.”

[9] CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 2000), 43-44.

[10] Kevin Vanhoozer, First Theology: God, Scripture, and Hermeneutics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2002), 93. This and the following citation originally came to my attention through John C. Peckham’s essay in Divine Impassibility: Four Views of God’s Emotions and Suffering (IVP Academic, 2019).

[11] Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 77-78.

[12] Origen, Homilies on Leviticus,Quoted in Kallistos Ware, “The Impassible Suffers,” in Nonna Verna Harrison and David G. Hunter (eds.), Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 213.

[13] J. Warren Smith, “Suffering Impassibly: Christ’s Passion in Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriology,” in Harrison and Hunter, Suffering and Evil in Early Christian Thought, 198.

[14] Smith, 203.

[15] Olivia Davis, “A Compassionate High Priest,” Lighten, 2022, lightengroup.org/a-compassionate-high-priest.

[16] Smith, 204-05.

[17] Ware, 216.

[18] So says Origen. Ware, 230.

[19] Ware, 231.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 232.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Gregory A. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic: A Son Wrestles with His Father’s Questions About Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO: Life Journey, 2003). The bookmark was found between pages 78 and 79.