On April 5, 1943, a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the German Gestapo along with two of his friends for being involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. During his detention, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to a friend in which he made an interesting observation concerning suffering and the presence of God in the world: “Only the suffering God can help.”
Can God really suffer? The thought seems preposterous, perhaps even unbiblical. The question of whether God can actually suffer has been dealt with in what has been called the doctrine of impassibility. This doctrine holds that God cannot suffer.
Historically, the position has been very predominant in Christian thought. While recognizing Christ had suffered din His body, the early church fathers contended that God Himself did not. But in the past few decades there has been a turning away from the traditional view of impassability and a move towards developing a doctrine of divine passibility or perhaps a redefinition of impassibility itself.
We opt for a redefinition of impassibility, suggesting that God can never be forced to act contrary to His character and other attributes revealed in the Bible. In line with God’s omnipotence and immutability and the revelation of God through Christ, we can assert that God chooses to suffer. He is never the helpless victim of circumstances, actions, or emotions. He cannot be unconsciously or unwilling moved.
He suffers because He chooses to love. But He is never overcome by emotions or emotionally out of control. God is compassionately able to relate with those who suffer pain in all of its aspects but never in a way that contradicts other aspects of His revealed character.
So how does God suffer, from a biblical perspective? As we search the Scriptures, we see God suffering in at least three ways:
- Incarnationally. When God became man incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ, He experienced in full measure the physical suffering that goes along with being a human being in a fallen world. In Christ, God suffered with and for us.
- Relationally. God suffers because of His interaction with His people. In Psalm 78:40-41, we read of how God’s people grieved and pained Him. Jesus wept over Jerusalem as He saw her blindness and stubbornness (Matthew 23:37-39; Luke 19:41-44). Throughout the Scriptures, we come across various illustrations of the story of man’s relationship with God – a story of human rejection and divine suffering.
- Sympathetically. We also see in the Scriptures how God suffers with His people. When Israel was in bondage in Egypt, Isaiah declared that “In all their affliction, He was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9). Jesus also stands with His church when He confronted Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus asking him in Acts 9:4 “...Why are you persecuting me?”
Glenn Penner, former CEO of The Voice of the Martyrs Canada, passed away in January 2010. Glenn was passionate about researching and teaching the theology of persecution. For more of his writing, you can check out his book, In the Shadow of the Cross.