Only the Suffering God…

suffering christ

Continuing something now that I had started before Thanksgiving and the coming of the advent season.   Looking again at the question of pain and suffering in our world.  Pain is the price of admission, we might say, the price of admission into this thing we call being human.  We’ve been raised by Denial University to deny our pain, but denial or not, we all feel the pain of living in this broken world.


So today I’m going to jump forward, out of advent, straight into the passion story of Jesus Christ.   Heche Homo.  Behold the man.  Pilate, during his “trial” in Rome leading to the crucifixion, brings forth Jesus to the jeering crowd.  See this man who is suffering.  See him bleed, watch us mock him, spit on him, beat him.  Is it enough?  It was not enough.  He would have to suffer more, much more.  Further torture.  Crucifixion.  An agonizing death.  Heche homo, behold the man.  This man whom we behold, this man is God.  But he is seen here not as the omnipotent God, but as the suffering God.


From the beginning of human religious consciousness  we have shared similar images of god throughout cultures and throughout the religions of the world.  We’ve had our ideas of god which go way back.  The  creator god, mighty god, merciful god, omnipotent god, the all powerful god.   We had known the glorious god, the holy god, the avenging god, but this is something other, something altogether unanticipated, unimagined, unexpected.  This is the suffering god.  A god who suffers.  The idea that god could and would suffer.

suffering christ2

This idea is so foreign to us (and by us i mean humanity), even scandalous, that it took nearly 2000 years for even the church to admit it, to see it, to confess it.  It took 2000 years after the suffering Christ to see the suffering god.  It took two world wars and the holocaust for the church to see the suffering god.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the great theologians of the twentieth century.  A few days before his execution by Nazi Germany at the Flossenburg Concentration camp he scribbled the words “only the suffering god can help” on a scrap piece of paper which was somehow smuggled out of that prison and  preserved for history.  Written on a scrap piece of paper by one of the most brilliant theologians of the 20th century days before he himself was hung from the gallows for being a prophetic voice against his own brutal empire.

From the beginning of the Church and throughout its history, from the Greek philosophy, Platonist influenced Church fathers until middle of 20th century, we talked not of the suffering god, but instead of the “impassibility” of God.  Impassibility means incapable of suffering.  The argument went like this – To suffer is to change, God doesn’t change, and therefore God does not suffer.   This way of thinking about God dominated Christian thought from about the 2nd to 3rd century until the mid 20th century.   That’s when we discovered the suffering god.

What forced Christianity to re-think the suffering of god was the horrors of the twentieth century and the two world wars, which can really be seen as a single event stretching over 20 to 30 years.


World War I highlighted the coming of both mechanized and chemical warfare, along with trench warfare and our general advancement of technology.   It was the war to end all wars.  It was a war that saw 20,000,000 deaths.  The world had never seen anything thing like this.  Until the one that came after that.  We didn’t see this consequence of technology coming.  So much for our enlightenment bringing about a more peaceable world.


Then WWII came, and for the first time, it was not just not just about the armies.  Before WWII war was fought by soldiers out in the battlefield, civilians and cities were left alone.  But with WWII, the battlefield was everywhere,  the battlefield included the cities and population centers.  We were truly “enlightened” by this point, I suppose.   Really, why should only those in military service suffer and die?   While World War 1 saw 20,000,000 deaths, WWII. saw 25,000,000 military deaths, and 40,000,000 civilian deaths.  65,000,000 people gone with civilian deaths nearly doubling actual military combatant deaths.  We came a long way baby…war was now totalized.


When we add in deaths produced by totalitarian regimes of mao and Stalin, first half of twentieth century saw death of 150,000,000 people through systematic killing.  The battlefield was truly everywhere.

At the dark heart of the twentieth century was the Shoah, or as we know it, the holocaust.  How is it that the most advanced, educated nation in the world (which is what Germany was at the time) could systematically murder 6 million just for being Jewish?


After the smoke cleared from the ovens of Auschwitz and mushroom clouds of Hiroshima, the church could no longer speak of god as being impassible.  There was a seismic theological shift in Christianity and Judaism.  In the post holocaust world to speak of god as non-suffering seems almost blasphemous.  Bonhoeffer had it right, only the suffering God can help.  After the holocaust, if God doesn’t know what it is to suffer, then never mind.

But to see the suffering God is not just a concession to post-holocaust sensibilities.  It was in scriptures all along, we just did not see it, probably because we did not want to see it.  We barely want to acknowledge our own suffering, let alone a God who suffers.  But if Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us, then God must suffer because to truly be one if us is to feel pain.


Jürgen Moltmann is another important theologian of twentieth century.  In his book The Crucified God he says “A god who is only omnipotent is an incomplete being, for he cannot experience helplessness and powerlessness…Omnipotence is never loved only feared.  A god incapable of suffering can not be involved.

where is god

Elie Weisel is a Romanian born Jew who became an American citizen, Nobel Laureate, and was a holocaust survivor.  In his book Night about his experiences in Nazi concentration camps in Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  At one point, he relates a story from one of these camps of an infraction among the Jewish slave laborers.  To punish them, the guards executed 3 people, 2 men and one young boy.  But the boy was too small and his neck was not broken by impact.  He died a long, slow and tortured death.  The inmates were made to stand at attention and watch.  Someone near Weisel said “Where is God, where is God, where is God”.   To which someone else answers “in the gallows.”


This is the scandal of the cross.  Strangely enough, this is exactly what we confess as Christians.  That God has been hung in the gallows.  Pilate says behold the man!  Confessing Christians say behold our god!  It is almost an incredible claim.  It is scandalous.  The Apostle Paul calls it the offense of the gospel.  The Crucified Jesus hung on the gallows of the cross is the image of the invisible god.   Paul tells us this human being is the logos of god made flesh and his defining moment is being hung upon the cross.   Christ crucified is the image, the ikon, the pure revelation of the invisible God.  Under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Jesus Christ is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who god is.  God is like that.  He does not suffer for us to satisfy god, he suffers with us as god.   What does the symbol of the Christian cross say if it doesn’t say we believe in the suffering god?


God did not only become fully human, which is scandalous enough, but he became the kind of human we don’t want to be.  He became a despised and rejected outcast.  He became a failure.  His death came as a failure.  He did not die the noble death of a heroic martyr.  In light of resurrection we see the cross completely differently, but as he died, condemned by Caiaphas, sentenced to death by Pilate, he died the death of a failure.   It was the ultimate I told you so.  There was no halo.  It was just another shameful death on a Roman crucifix.

Jesus did not fight the good fight, live a full life and die at a ripe old age.   This was a young man in his prime, cut down.  He spoke of a new Kingdom, He spoke of a new way of being.  Everybody said he couldn’t do it, then they nailed him naked to a tree and proved they were right and he was wrong.  Even his disciples had forsaken him.  Jesus died the worst death that he may go down into the ugliest depths of death.  Jesus Christ,  Emmanuel, is god with us.  In life, in struggles, in sorrows, in pain, and yes, even in death.  Whatever it means for a human being to die, god in Christ has experienced, but not just an act of solidarity, but an act of salvation.


The writer of Hebrews says   “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” Hebrews 2:9 ESV

God in Christ suffered death that he might enter into death, and defeat death inside its own domain.  He was swallowed up by death that he might destroy death from inside out.   God in Christ went all the way down into ugliest depths of death that he might lead the way out.  So that,  in Christ there is a way out.  In fact, when you die, you in Christ will not see death but see Christ.  He will be there to meet you having defeated death.  His suffering with us not just solidarity but an act of salvation


This is the mystery of salvation – by his wounds we are healed.  He was wounded so we might be healed.  Even in his resurrected body Jesus s still displays his wounds.  Because when we bring our wounds to the wounds of Christ, we come to one who has really been wounded.  Only the suffering god can help.   His claim is not  “I haven’t really been wounded but I can help anyway”.  Instead he says “I know”. I know what it means to be spit upon, reviled, hated, rejected and betrayed.  I know what it is to be beaten and abused. See my hands, see my side, know that it is I.  He invites us, like Thomas, to touch his wounds, to lay our wounds upon his wounds.  That’s where the miracle begins.  We can’t  explain it, but bringing our wounds to the wounds of Christ does not multiply woundedness but begins the healing.

Only the suffering god can help.

And he is here to help.

“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!””

John 19:1-5 ESV

John Lewis


4 thoughts on “Only the Suffering God…

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