The Suffering God

Original version: September 29, 2009

This is a response to Andre Sullivan’s “What Is Evil For The Darwinist?”—his reply to the many comments on a previous post—at The Daily Dish, which was forwarded to me by my brother.  Skimming the comments may be helpful background to my thoughts which follow.

The Meta-Problem

This discussion of the theodicy subject is encouraging: a civil debate, with thoughts clearly expressed, is much more pleasant than the general bulk of public dialogue.  Nevertheless, I am troubled by what I’ve read of this particular debate, on account of the rather thin presence in it of a deeply relevant topic: the suffering and death of Jesus.  The whole exchange has been very centered on man’s suffering, and on man’s solutions, and on man’s reason, and in a debate about God, this seems not as it should be.

The problem with trying to present “rational” explanations for God, for evil, for the sovereignty & freedom interplay, etc. is not that they don’t get you anywhere helpful, but that they become such great temptations to think that you might somehow be able to—as Milton described his own attempt—“justify the ways of God to men.”  And this, from my reading of Job, is something not even God cares to do all that much.

God doesn’t say to Job (or to most of us), “Look, I know you’re suffering, and here’s the deep reason behind it that gives it meaning.”  He says “Job, are you God, or am I God?”  Which is the first question we all have to answer.  As long as we insist on being God, we are frustrated by suffering, because it falsifies our sense of control.  However, when we admit that God is God, we come to the place where God’s reasons can begin to make sense to us.  Previously, as Paul says, they are “foolishness.”  We cannot completely know the purposes of God, but when we value what He values, and have our minds renewed and conformed to His, we can begin to see or to guess why He acts the way He does—because we know Him.

The Author’s View of Good and Evil

The crux of the whole matter, and the thing that makes this even plausible, is as usual the Cross of Christ.  When you view reality through that lens, you realize that the Christian God is not one who arbitrarily inflicts suffering (as some of your readers so bitterly assert) but rather one who takes suffering onto Himself.  He is not a God who erases suffering, but rather one who makes it meaningful by through it working redemption for us, overcoming our alienation from God, which is sin, which brings spiritual death—all of which things are, in God’s economy, immeasurably worse than the physical or emotional sufferings of Auschwitz or Nagasaki.

If God was primarily concerned about disease and war and “not being nice,” Christ would have come in 6000 B.C., stuck around forever, and popped all over the planet like Superman, plugging up volcanoes, healing lepers, producing bumper crops and keeping the genome on track.  He didn’t—and not only because human free will and its consequents are important to Him.  He didn’t, because God is not a divine slot machine to make up our deficiencies or bring “peace on earth” in the way that the sillier Christmas songs mean it; rather, He is a loving Father who disciplines his children for their good.  He is an artist and an author who is telling a good story through the history of earth, of mankind, and of redemption.  Like any good author, He loves His characters—even when He takes them through dark chapters, even when they reject Him and spit in His face.

This last truth is why I’m baffled at the sharp distinction being made by several commenters (and perhaps even by yourself) between “reality” and “fable,” or between history and allegory.  Whatever your view of Genesis or of the entire Bible may be, if you call it “Word of God” in any sense, it should be very clear that God LOVES parable, fable, myth, allegory, and the whole lot.  So if God wants to structure the tapestry of history with mythic or allegorical elements, or according to the principles of good art, is this a problem?  Should it even be surprising?  Here again we have a case of men trying to impose their own categories on God, without taking the trouble to actually get to know Him and the way He operates.

By “getting to know God,” I do not mean mere personalized, subjective experiences (feelings, insights, visions, small miracles, epiphanies, “warm fuzzies,” etc.).  These do indeed play an important role in how we—as individual emotional beings—know God.  But we are also rational, communal, inter-relational beings.  Thus I also come to know God through taking a theology class, or discussing His attributes and works with a friend, or studying how His hand has worked in history, or basking in the beauties He’s fixed in geometry, chemistry, or the glories of an organism or ecosystem.  I also come to know Him by taking Him at face value, hearing the propositions (and poetry, and historical narratives) that He gives about Himself in His written Word.  And perhaps most significantly, I encounter God in His Body—meaning both a) the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth, and the people of God into which we are redeemed, and b) His Body and Blood given to us in Communion, which is the spiritual food of the Church and Her central act of worship.

God, by His own verbal Account, is deeply interested in solving our physical problems.  This is why Christ did more than just die and rise again.  But, by His own Account, He is chiefly interested in solving our relational problem—with Him.  Which is sin, rebellion, self-worship, hubris, self-will, “going our own way.”  The Great Physician is interested in getting to the root of the problem, not just fixing symptom upon symptom.  To do that would be false to His own justice, to human nature as He created it, and to the Natural Laws by which He orders the universe.  Rather, the great Author (with full irony) and the just and merciful Judge (with full poetic justice) works to turn Death back on itself, conquering limited human suffering through infinite Divine suffering, conquering the shallow human grave through a descent to the very bottom of Hades, conquering sin through the greatest expression of sin ever unleashed against a perfect God: rejecting, blaspheming, and murdering His humbled human Son.

Συμ-πάθος [sym-pathy – “co-suffering”]

Because Immanuel values relationship with us, He is also interested in suffering with us.  This is why “Jesus wept” with Mary and Martha.  He knew He was going to raise Lazarus.  He knew He was going to fix the problem and end the suffering.  But in that moment, because He cared about His friends, He took time, actually prolonging their suffering, so that He could show His desire to be with them in and through it.  This is foolishness to a human mind (especially a male mind, since we men are so much more interested in the fix; whereas women are more interested in sympathy and understanding), but when you realign yourself to God’s priorities, you discover that disconnectedness from Him is worse than (and, ultimately, the source of) any other suffering you might experience.  Then and only then do His paradoxical actions begin to make sense.

The problem of evil is a very real problem, for any worldview.  It’s more of a problem for the atheist (who has also to explain the existence of good) than for the Christian, but it’s a problem for everybody.  However, in many of its manifestations, the “problem of evil” is merely the pragmatist belief that suffering is the worst possible evil, and that non-suffering is the best possible good.  That, frankly, is a lie.  If God exists, then being at odds with Him is the worst possible evil.

When the problem of evil is expressed with “evil” properly defined as sin (and this cannot be done without the knowledge of God; hence the problem with trying to convert an atheist via theodicy), then it becomes evident that the true problem of evil has already been solved by the work of Christ.  The war is won; all that’s left is the mopping-up action.  The Ring has gone into the Cracks of Doom, and all that’s left is the Scouring of the Shire.  This is hard to assert in the face of the vast evil that parades through all the twentieth century, but it is true.  Our view is myopic: the Real Story is wider than the cosmos, and the twentieth century and all its evil is a breath.

And yet, somehow, the God who stands above the universe, and above the whole timeline of history, can take a moment to stand with His friends beside the grave He has conquered, and weep with them.

Blessed be God.

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One thought on “The Suffering God

  1. The problem of good — or perhaps better-put, the problem of beauty, the problem of joy — is surely a problem for the atheist. The problem of evil is also a problem for the atheist because… well, shoot, what is “evil”? And who says? The atheist can only meaningfully critique the theist by piggybacking on his non-atheistic presuppositions. Only a world with some kind of ultimate reality has any absolute measure for “good” or “evil.” One needn’t be a Christian to have some coherent idea of good and evil. But one must not be an atheist… or at least, one must pretend not to be for the purposes of the conversation.

    On the wonder of God’s “sympathy,” crank the wheel a little further: The God who is beyond suffering, “with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” takes on human flesh and human nature, among other reasons so that He can share fully in our struggle and suffering and pain. And so redeem it.

    Blessed, and most blessed, be God.

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