Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that only a suffering God can help. But is that true? Is that biblical? Can God suffer, and if so, how does that help?
The classical position in church history has been that God does not suffer. This view is the doctrine of divine impassibility. Yet, in the last century, this doctrine has been upended by the likes of Bonhoeffer and by the works of theologians like Jurgen Moltmann, whose book, The Crucified God, argued for God’s divine passiblity. In other words, for God to love he must be able to suffer. As the German theologian put it, “a God who cannot suffer cannot love either. A God who cannot love is a dead God” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, 38). On the surface, this argument seems compelling; and certainly, in our man-centered, therapy-crazed culture it stands tall. The problem is that it does not measure up to biblical evidence.
Consider two lines of argument proffered by Robert Letham (The Holy Trinity, 303). First, if God suffers and is held captive or overcome by hostile forces–people or spirits whom he created–how is he Lord overall, and how will he actually guarantee victory later, and not more suffering? The truth is, only a God who cannot suffer is able to help us. As John Piper argues in the beginning of his book Desiring God, God is an infinitely happy God (cf. Psalm 115:3; 135:6). No matter what goes on in creation, God is delights in being God, and is not held hostage by the forces of the world.
Second, if God suffers in his deity, how does he know what human suffering is like? As Robert Letham writes, “For it is through the Incarnation, in which the Son lives as man , that he experiences human suffering as man and deals with the root cause–sin–by his death and resurrection. It would be of no help to us if God suffered divinely as God” (Letham, The Holy Trinity, 303). As Hebrews 2:14 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself [the Son of God, cf. 2:9] likewise partook of the same things, that through death [i.e. human suffering] he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”
The Good News is not that the Triune God is just like us, who suffers in his Deity; rather, the Good News is that the Son became man, and suffered in the flesh. Jesus, the Son of God, suffered not as God, but as a man, and in so doing, defeated death, purchased forgiveness, rose from the grave to initiate a new race of humanity, and now sits at the right hand of God mercifully interceding for all those who suffer (cf. Heb. 4:14-16).
So as we suffer, now or in the days to come, let us not find solace in a distorted view of God, one that repeals God’s sovereignty and strength; but instead, let us take heart in the biblical truth that God reigns in heaven, unscathed by the wars and rumors of war on earth, and at the same time that his own Son, Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word, came to earth as a man and suffered hell in our place and has wounds to show for it. May we look to him as our sympathetic high priest who intercedes for us.
Perhaps, this doctrinal distinction seems like an insignificant qualification, but in fact, it is the difference between a God who we make after our own image, and one who glorious presides over all creation. It is the difference between the omnipotent God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus who deserves all reverence and adoration, and all other pretend gods who have no power to save or to comfort.
Can God suffer? In his divinity, no; but in his humanity, in the incarnation of the Son, yes. Hebrews 2:10 says of Jesus, God’s Son, “It was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the dounder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”
May this two-fold truth, of God’s Divine Impassibility and Jesus’ Human Vulnerability, set us to worship the Triune God in Spirit and Truth.
Sola Deo Gloria, dss