The suffering God
The question of whether or not God can suffer in any way has stirred up considerable emotion among believers over the centuries, with charges and countercharges of heresy - to the shame of all - being hurled back and forth by the two sides. The classical Christian view, to which the church gave adherence until Aquinas's time (1225-1274), stated that God could not suffer in any way, including even feeling grief over human suffering. The rationale behind that view was that, "the thought that God could suffer would mean nothing less than the fact that God could be altered, by compassion or love, by the experience" (Christian Theology). So what?, one may well ask. Well, you see, Greek philosophy, which lay behind classical Christian ideas about God, held that God is perfect, and that, "To be perfect is to be unchanging and self-sufficient. It is therefore impossible for such a perfect being to be affected or changed by anything outside itself" (Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, p. 214). Any change would necessarily mean either a move away from perfection or towards perfection; both cases would imply imperfection on God's part either before or after the change. In more recent years, a huge groundswell of discontent with the classical notion has arisen. As one writer puts it: "How could God be love and not lay wounded on the battlefields of France?" (The Suffering God). McGrath calls the kernel Greek concept of divine impassibility (the philosophical word used in speaking of God's inability to suffer) a "pagan idea".
The God revealed in the Bible is plainly portrayed as suffering. Of course, He rejoices, too. In other words, He has perfect empathy for human beings - when they suffer, He suffers, when they rejoice, He rejoices. The true God is not only worthy of our fear (because of His infinite power) but also of our utter adoration in that He experiences our pain along with us. In spite of the potential that this topic has for portraying God as more "human" than He actually is, recognizing that He can suffer is essential to a proper understanding of His attributes.
For reasons too hard to explain in brief, we will avoid taking the suffering of Jesus Christ as our proof of God's capacity to hurt. Our brief case depends on three basic Scriptures.
1 John 4:8
He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
Admittedly, this Scripture primarily tells us that if we want to know what love actually is we need to consider what God is like rather than taking human concepts of love and then applying them in reverse to reveal God's nature. However, our own experiences of being loved and hated by others must give us at least some insight into the essence of God's love or such a passage can carry no meaning at all. His attitude towards us is more like that of our friends and loved ones who love us than it is like that of our enemies who hate us. Love, at its most basic level, will respond to the triumphs and tragedies of those being loved. God responds.
He who planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who formed the eye, shall He not see?
This revealed piece of logic can be revealingly applied to the question at hand. If we are to be convicted of God's ability to see on the grounds that He made our eyes, we can be equally assured of His capacity to experience emotion - He created the human capacity for lacerated emotions. (Let us not get bogged down with extrapolating this logic to absurd lengths; some may argue that since God created blood He can bleed.) Though one cannot catalogue a definitive list of divine attributes based on the majestic truth that human beings are created in His image, surely something so utterly central to what it is to be human - to experience both elation and grief - must have an analog in God Himself.
In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the Angel of His Presence saved them; in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bore them and carried them all the days of old.
What a powerful verse! Here we have an explicit assurance that God feels along with His people. Can we grasp a grand idea? That God actually experiences the accumulated totality of human suffering? When you are experiencing grief, He feels it with you every bit as much as you do. We simply cannot grasp a "being" so compassionate as that. It lies beyond us. But that, unless we have totally misread such verses, is what the God of love is like. Who can help but burst forth into singing at such a magnificent thought?