Does God suffer?

Christ on cross

A Suffering God

As we draw near to Holy Week and Easter our thoughts turn to the Passion. Memories from the past float to the surface: statues shrouded in purple, solemn church services, Stations of the Cross and a general air of gloom descending on everything. Growing up in a small Irish town I recall we every single shop in the place closing its doors all day on Good Friday. Good Friday was a day when you stayed at home, emerging only to go to the afternoon service. The whole town came to an absolute standstill. There was a real sense of being caught up in something cosmically greater than ourselves. Salvador Dali’s image of the suspended Crucified Christ over the Earth catches this beautifully.

The Passion of Jesus

Nowadays, I like to listen to either of the two Bach Passions, the Saint John or the Saint Matthew during Holy Week. I also still try to read the whole of the Passion in John’s Gospel at some point. Both the music and the Gospel texts confront us with a suffering Christ, a Crucified Christ. Not very comforting images. In school we were told that because Jesus was God his suffering as a human being was all the greater. I’m not sure that I ever quite agreed with that. Especially once I began to see images on the TV of slaughtered people in places like Vietnam, Rwanda and, now, Syria. And, in recent years, we have become aware of other forms of cruel and degrading suffering. At the moment, I am re-reading Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls where he recounts in graphic detail the slaughter of the Spanish Civil War. Did these poor people suffer less than Jesus?

God does not suffer?

We are familiar with the famous story told by Elie Wiesel of an incident in the German concentration camp for Jews during World War II. The German camp commandant publicly executed by hanging some of the prisoners as a punishment intended to be a deterrence. Someone whispered in the ranks: “Where is God now?” Someone else whispered a reply: “He’s up there on the scaffold”. God suffers.

As a theology student (many aeons ago!) I remember reading Jürgen Moltmann’s, The Crucified God. In this text, Moltmann takes seriously two ideas. First, the claim that Jesus is God. And, secondly, the claim that God does not suffer. Since, by definition, God cannot suffer, it seems preposterous to claim that God could have suffered in the Crucifixion. And, yet, the logic of the Incarnation would seem to imply this. The Crucifixion appears to confront the idea of the Incarnation with an inherent contradiction. Unless, ….

A Suffering God: the God of Jesus

I am currently reading Jacques Duquesne’s book on this topic, Le Dieu de Jésus, The God of Jesus. Duquesne challenges us to reflect on the implications of the Incarnation. Most of the time we see Jesus as God. Only rarely do we see Jesus as fully human. And rarely still do we really reflect on what is entailed by the Christian claim that God was in Jesus. Jesus, we say, was not a ‘messenger’ from God, but rather God fully present with us in Jesus. God assumed fully the human condition in Jesus.

Duquesne refers to a story from a Jewish text by Rabbi Simeon bar Yochaï, a Kabbalistic writer active in the second century BCE. Rabhi Shimon notes that God spook to Moses from the burning bush. This bush, he says, was one of hardest and thorniest of all the bushes in the world, so much so, that if a bird got caught in it, the spines would tear off its wings. This bush was the humblest and most derided bush of all. Rabbi Shimon believes that the story of the Burning Bush underlines the extent to which God is prepared to enter into the cruelest and most debased situations of human existence.

A Revolution in our Idea of God

Which brings us back to Moltmann and the Crucifixion. The Crucifixion once and for all obliges us to let go of the image of a remote unchangeable and unchanging God, the God of the philosophers. The God of Jesus is a God who suffers with us and is ‘devastated’ for us (to use the contemporary language of the talk shows). God journeys with us and suffers with us. That is the revelation of Jesus.

As Moltmann says in his book, The Crucified God, the Incarnation understood in light of the Crucified Jesus brings about a revolution in our idea of God.

When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s [sic] godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.

So, when you see the Cross on Good Friday, or walk with the Cross in the streets, or listen to a Bach Passion, just recall for a moment that you are being challenged to see God in a new way, to really believe that God is ‘with us’, on our side. God is in the suffering and the humiliation.

You are engaging in a revolutionary act because a renewed understanding of God along these lines challenges so much of the pious complacencies of Christian theology. Including almost everything you were told about ‘the value of Christian suffering’. Suffering is an evil not a blessing. But suffering is also an inescapable dimension of human existence. To be is to suffer. The glory of the human condition is that God is present in this suffering.

Have a truly revolutionary and disturbing Holy Week!

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