The Suffering of God

Few people today truly know the God of the Old Testament. Most Christians focus their study of Scriptures almost exclusively on the New Testament. For many, the God of the Old Testament is a violent God, a God of wrath, and an evil deity. Consequently, the view of a God who suffers with and because of his people is foreign to many Christians.

One book that has changed the way I perceive the God of the Old Testament is Terence Fretheim’s book, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984). Fretheim’s book shows how much Christians have been influenced by Greek philosophy, a philosophy that led the leaders of the early church to adopt the doctrine of the impassibility of God.

The doctrine of the impassibility of God teaches that the God of the Bible is a perfect being and as such he cannot suffer. Since God is a perfect being, he cannot be affected by outside events and thus cannot suffer, for suffering is a sign of imperfection. Today I begin a series of studies that will summarize some of the issues Fretheim raises in his book. Those who have read The Suffering of God will notice how much Fretheim’s views have affected my own views.

The God of the Old Testament is a God who chooses to identify himself with his people in their suffering. There are several passages in the Bible that reveal the pain of God for the sins and disobedience of his people.

The God who in the New Testament suffered in the person of Christ is the same God who in the Old Testament suffered because of the sins of his people. Several Old Testament texts give strong evidence that God experiences suffering. The suffering of God is portrayed in his words and actions. God’s suffering for his people is consistent with his nature as a God who chooses to enter into the history of Israel and establish a genuine relationship with his people.

The God of the Old Testament is known primarily by his role as creator and redeemer. In these two roles, God voluntarily limits himself to a gradual process of creation from the chaos of nothingness to the world in which we live. He is also the God who chooses to be patient with people who are arrogant, stubborn, and disobedient.

The stubbornness and rebellion of Israel are summarized in the words of the Levite prayer: “You warned them in order to turn them back to your law. Yet they acted presumptuously and did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your ordinances, by the observance of which a person shall live. They turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey” (Nehemiah 9:29).

It is this voluntary limiting of God that sets the framework for the concept of God’s suffering. Since the God of the Bible reveals himself to his people in human form (Genesis 18:1-2) and communicates directly with human beings, the people of Israel assumed that God had thought and will, and that he was capable of emotions, anger, and love.

Throughout the Old Testament one can see that the moral evil of the world, the rebellion of human beings, and the disobedience of his people provoke God to anger (Deuteronomy 4:25; Judges 2:12) in the same way his love for them also moves him toward costly sacrifice (Joel 2:13; Hosea 11:1-9). The God of the Bible is a God who carries the burden of his people, who knows the failure of his purpose for them, who sorrows over them with a love that prevails over wrath, and who suffers because of their affliction.

The suffering of God in the Old Testament anticipates the pain and the agony of the Suffering Servant of the New Testament: “It is as if there were a cross unseen, standing on its undiscovered hill, far back in the ages, out of which were sounding always, just the same deep voice of suffering love and patience, that was heard by mortal ears from the sacred hill of Calvary” (H. Wheeler Robinson, Suffering: Human and Divine [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939] 145).

These words express the nature of the God believers find in the Old Testament, the very same loving, caring, hurting God who reveals himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

Israel believed that God was present with the people in their suffering, that their God was a God who understood what the people were going through. Although Israel believed that God was the cause of their suffering, they also believed that God understood their suffering. Divine understanding for them presupposes suffering with them. The God who revealed himself to Israel could not be the personal God of his people without experiencing suffering. Those who do not experience suffering cannot sympathize with the pain and suffering of others (Hebrews 4:15; 5:8). God is a loving and compassionate God and it pains him to see humanity suffer.

According to Fretheim (p. 35), there are two poles for understanding God in the Old Testament. One is that God is a radically transcendent Lord who stands outside the world without acting in the world. This is what he calls the traditional view of God.

The second is the organismic view, a view in which a greater continuity, that is, a greater intimacy between God and the world is discerned. In the organismic view there is a relationship of reciprocity. In other words, the world is not only affected by God, God is also affected by the world, both positively and negatively. God has chosen to be involved in the history of the world and to be limited by it. Therefore, although God is unchangeable in his steadfast love and his salvific will for all creation, God does change in response to the interaction between himself and his creation.

For Israel to have understood God in any other light would have been incompatible with the revelation of God’s character in their history. The people of Israel could not have understood a God who had complete freedom to act in the realm of history but who refused to do so because of a lack of compassion or desire. After all, they had experienced just the opposite in the Exodus.

The belief in the genuine love of God for Israel necessitated, for them, a God who sympathized with his people, not merely superficially recognizing their condition, but actually participating with them in their sufferings. This is how Israel experienced God in Egypt: Exodus 2:24-25.

For God to have seen the affliction of his people, to have heard their cry, and to have known their suffering (Exodus 3:7) required God taking their sorrows into his very being and allowing those sorrows to arouse feelings of compassion and to affect his being in his interactions with them.

Thus, the suffering of God is basic for the proper understanding of the concept of relatedness or relationship which in the Old Testament derives from the concept of the covenant and the understanding of Israel as the chosen people of God. As Israel understood God, the idea of the suffering of God to some extent limited the concept of God’s power. For the relationship between God and Israel to have integrity required God giving up some of his own power and freedom for the sake of the relationship.

To be continued.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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15 Responses to The Suffering of God

  1. James Pate says:

    >Thanks for this post, Dr. Mariottini.There’s a passage in Hebrews (5:8-9) that says Christ was made perfect through suffering. That seems to say that Christ got something during his time here on earth that he did not have before. What’s your view on this?

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  2. J. Archer says:

    >Thanks for this post. When I was readying about the problem of evil in philosophical literature, I wondered if God would ask us why we allowed so much suffering.

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  3. >James,I agree with that view. Since Christ was fully human, he had to grow in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Tome, this implies that Jesus had to learn many things as he was growing up. If Jesus was acarpenter, he was not born knowing carpentry; he had to learn how to be a carpenter.Claude Mariottini.

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  4. >J.,Thank you for your comment. We cause most suffering but some are caused by God as a resultof what we do. There is innocent suffering and there is suffering that is caused by natural eventsthat are intrinsical to nature’s existence. The reason for most suffering is unknown to us but Godsuffers with us when we suffer. This will come later in one of my posts.Claude Mariottini

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  5. Sam says:

    >Excellent post! The work of Fretheim (as well as, I think, Heschel and South African Adrio Konig) has changed people’s view of God in the OT significantly. I know “The Suffering of God” radically changed my view when I read it. In a way, it felt like “coming home” to a view of God in the OT I had always hoped was there but was never relayed in my church or my seminary training.I’d like to link to this series of posts if that’s okay with you.Sam

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  6. >Sam,Thank you for your comment. I wish more people would read Fretheim’s book. Many people misunderstand the God of the Old Testament because they really do not know him. I believe Fretheim’s book reveals another side of God that is unknown to many Christians.You are free to link to my post. I hope your readers will enjoy reading what I wrote. My next post on the series is coming out this week.Claude Mariottini

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  7. >In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, God is both. In Himself, he is utterly ranscendent, immutable, changless. “For I [am] the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.” (Mal. 3:6) and “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (Ja. 1:17)In His relations with His creation, He is equally divine, but He can interact with us, can stop and start doing things, etc. (When that which He foreknew has come to pass, His foreknowledge ends.) Put another way, His Grace is uncreated. This allows one to have the cake (immutability) and eat it, too, having that “organismic view, a view in which a greater continuity, that is, a greater intimacy between God and the world…”

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  8. >Anastasia,Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your adding the Eastern Orthodox view on this important issue. It is sad that many Western Christians are not well informed about the views of our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers. Your comment adds to my post.Thank you for visiting my blog.Claude Mariottini

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  9. >I did not learn that from seminary but did from books written by open theists. Their work have helped me to understand better God’s interaction with the world.At any rate, Dr. Mariottini, I appreciate your thought-provoking article.Blessings,Lou

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  10. >Lou,Thank you for your comment. Sometimes, the label “open theism” is used to attack people who look at God from a biblical perspective.If you read this and the other articles on this topic, you will notice that all the passages are taken directly from the Old Testament.The idea of the suffering of God is biblical and it is derived from biblical revelation. To explain these passages as metaphors or anthropomorphisms is to take away from the reality of what we find in the Bible.Claude Mariottini

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  11. Blackhaw says:

    >Thank you for your post. I would suggest reading the 5th century debates between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius. The Impassiblity of God (which both men believed) was very important in their argument. In the last 5 -8 years or so there have been some very good articels and books that have come out on this subject. Two books of note are:The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought by Paul Gavrilyuk and Does God Suffer by Thomas Weinandy. They give more satisfying answers than postulating a passible God. Many reject the older (Harnackian) paridign that the Christians received divine impassibility from the Greeks. There is a paradox or mystery in the Orthodox view of the Suffering God. Cyril states that Jesus in his divinity is impassible. However he did really suffer. Christ’s Divinity made the suffering of his flesh its own. Christ is one person and one subject so whatever one says about Jesus Christ oe should state it about him as one person or subject. Thus one can state that God suffers. But God does not suffer nakedly or without the flesh. This is really all a function of Jesus being human and divine. He is both and they are not confused. In the passible God/Christ the divinity is confused and Christ’s divinity becomes like his humanity. See also the definition of Chalcedon. It can help also. i probably have not explained things too well here. I will explain more if it is needed but I suggest one read and study the christological controversies of the early church and especially the theology of Cyril of Alexandria.

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  12. david says:

    >I waded through all the intellectual banter. I think all of your intellectualism (and that’s all it is, lots of supposition) would become totally irrelevant if you experienced some real suffering, like for instance being hauled off into a concentration camp because you were Jewish (after all, you didn’t ask to be born Jewish), or if you were some child back in the Old Testament days, whose city was being exterminated by the Israelites, and you watch your mother being harpooned by a sword. Oh, but it wouldn’t matter because you, the child would be dead in about 5 seconds more.You all have the luxury of trying to explain all of the unexplainables away because you are not experiencing the cruelty that other have been through.That causes me to not care one whit what any of you say. The only thing I would take notice of is if you put your religious training in practice by going and helping some bum on the street or something meaningful.

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  13. >David,Maybe you should read books that tell about the lives of many faithful believers who suffered and died for their faith. Even today there are people in other countries who are suffering for their faith in Christ and they are not complaining. If you could only experience the love of Christ, you would understand what it means to suffer for God.How do you know that I am not helping that bum on the street? And how do you know that I am not doing something meaningful to help people who suffer, who are poor, or hungry? You judge me even when you do not know what I do.Remember the words of Christ: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged” (Matthew 7:1-2).Claude Mariottini

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  14. Anonymous says:

    >A little late to the conversation, but I thought that it might be worth mentioned that David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea discusses some of the implications of impassibility (and its relationship to theodicy) in a way that is very concise, meditative and accessible. He is Orthodox as well, so you will know where he is coming from.Two quick comments: many, many scholars reject the view that impassibility is a greek ontological import – that argument is very hard to defend; second, impassibility was a fundamental assumption in the Church when the Christological and Trinitarian dogmas were being defined – it’s unclear (to me at least) whether pulling out the thread of impassibility doesn’t cause much of the tapestry of ‘o’rthodox Christianity to unravel.

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  15. >Dear Friend,Thank you for your comment. I read Hart’s article in the Wall Street Journal and I agree with his arguments.Impassibility is a Greek idea that has entered into the theology of the church through the church fathers. The truth is that impassibility goes against the truth of biblical revelation.I am not very familiar with the Orthodox view of impassibility but this understanding of God does not go against the truth of Christianity.Claude Mariottini

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