The Suffering God

Matthew 25:34-40 The King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.'

After the Holocaust theologians and thinkers from the classical religions of Judaism and Christianity in particular had to revise their solutions to the problem of evil. That problem has always been with us, of course, but gains a new urgency in the light of that supreme injustice and depravity which killed six million Jews, and a variety of others besides. Many of these solutions have been the traditional ones - it was a divine punishment for sin, it was the result of man's sin, God had nothing to do with it, and others. But the solution with which I am concerned here is different: it is not new, as the Biblical quote above shows, but it has not really been emphasised. In the light of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel has given it a new form:

"The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter...'Where is God? Where is He?' someone from behind me asked...For more than half an hour [the boy] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
"Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
'Where is God now?'
"And I heard a voice within me answer him:
'Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows...'" [1]

This type of theology is essentially an emotional response to suffering, when a firm belief in the love of God meets the horrors of evil, when the mind simply cannot come up with the reason why God should allow this. Thus the theist's response is that a loving God suffers with his people, and is with them throughout their pain. It is a response from the heart when the brain has been too numbed to think - God is not evil (God cannot be evil: I cannot conceive of it), God suffers and dies, is lonely and in pain, and knows all evil with every one of us.

Son, I beseech you, don't sleep any more - Michel Quoist

"I shall be in agony till the end of time," God says.
I shall be crucified till the end of time.
My sons the Christians don't seem to realise it.
I am scourged, buffeted, stretched out, crucified. I die in front of them and they don't know it, they see nothing, they are blind.
They are not true Christians, or they would not go on living while I am dying.

Lord, I don't understand; it is not possible; you exaggerate.
I would defend you if you were attacked.
I would be at your side if you were dying.
Lord, I love you!

That is not true, God says. Men are deluding themselves.
They say they love me, they believe they love me, and, as I am willing to admit, they are often sincere, but they are terribly mistaken. They do not understand, they do not see.
Slowly everything has been distorted, dried up, emptied.
They think they love me because once a month they honour my Sacred Heart.
As if I loved them only twelve times a year!
They think they love me because they keep to their devotions regularly, attend a benediction, eat fish on Fridays, burn a candle or say a prayer before a picture of my Sacred Heart.

But I am not made of plaster, God says, nor of stone nor of bronze.
I am living flesh, throbbing, suffering.
I am among men, and they have not recognised me.
I am poorly paid, I am unemployed, I live in a slum, I have tuberculosis, I sleep under bridges, I am in prison, I am oppressed, I am patronised.
And yet I said to them: "Whatever you do to my brothers, however humble, you do to me"...Thats clear.
The worst is that they know it, but that they don't take it seriously.
They have broken my heart, God says, and I have waited for someone to have pity on me, but no one has.

I am cold, God says, I am hungry, I am naked.
I am imprisoned, laughed at, humiliated.
But this is a minor passion, for men have invented more terrible ordeals.
Armed with their liberty, formidably armed with their liberty,
They have invented...
"Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing."
They have invented war, true war.
And they have invented the Passion.

For I am everywhere that men are, God says,
Since the day when I slipped among them, on a mission, to save them all.
Since the day when I definitely committed myself to trying to gather them together.

Now I am rich and I am poor, a workman and a boss.
I am a Union member and a non-Union member, a striker and a strike-breaker, for men, alas! make me do all kinds of things.
I am on the side of the demonstrators and on the side of the police, for men, alas! transform me into a policeman.
I am a leftist, a rightist and even in the centre.
I am this side of the Iron Curtain and beyond.
I am a German and a Frenchman, a Russian and an American,
A Chinese from Nationalist China and one from Communist China,
I am from Vietnam and from Vietminh.
I am everywhere men are, God says.

They have accepted me, they possess me, the traitors!
Hail, Master!
And now I am with them, one of them, their very selves.
Now, see what they have done to me...
They are scourging me, crucifying me,
They tear me apart when they kill one another.
Men have invented war...
I jump on mines, I gasp my last breath in foxholes,
I moan, riddled with shrapnel; I collapse under the volley of machine-gun fire,
I sweat men's blood on all battlefields,
I cry out in the night and die in the solitude of battle.
O world of strife, immense cross on which, every day, men stretch me.
Wasn't the wood of Golgotha enough?
Was this immense altar necessary for my sacrifice of love?
While around me, men keep on shouting, singing, dancing, and, as if insane, crucify me in an enormous burst of laughter.
Lord, enough! Have pity on me!
Not that! it isn't I!

Yes, son, it is you.
You, and your brothers, for
several blows are needed to drive in a nail,
several lashes are needed to furrow a shoulder,
several thorns are needed to make a crown,
and you belong to the humanity that all together condemns me.
It matters not whether you are among those who hit or among those who watch,
among those who perform or among those who let it happen.
You are all guilty, actors and spectators.
But above all, son, don't be one of those who are asleep, one of those who can still fall peace. Sleep!
Sleep is terrible!
"Can you not watch one hour with me?"

On your knees, son! Do you not hear the roar of battle?
The bell is ringing,
Mass is starting,
God is dying for you, crucified by men." [2]

This makes a truly powerful theological statement, and it is possible to build a very good and potentially effective religious ethic from this too. It can also be a panacea in times of trouble, and give comfort to the suffering.

But is it true?

And does it solve the problem of evil?

The answer is no. The "suffering God" motif, while powerful, does not answer the important questions we must pose in the light of human suffering, it dodges the question. When we ask, Why did God allow a child to die?, our response cannot be "God died with him", because that is not an answer.

So God suffers with men, let us take that as read - so what? The question of why he allows such horrible suffering still remains. If we believe God suffers with us then we are left with only two choices - God is able to prevent his own suffering, or he is not. That God himself suffers does not matter - it may give consolation for the heart, but not for the mind.

The Divine Masochist

If a suffering God can prevent suffering, and yet chooses not to, how can we avoid the inference that he is a masochist? If a man were to be tortured every day, and we knew that with one word he could prevent that torture, and yet did not, what would we say of him? What do we think of flagellants? What kind of person chooses to suffer when he need not, and for no purpose? And draws others into that suffering?

Those who freely choose suffering when they need not are what we call masochists, those who have "a willingness or tendency to subject oneself to unpleasant or trying experiences" (American Heritage Dictionary). While we accept masochism in a sexual sense, yet we have to admit that this is aberrant behaviour when it involves real suffering and not the insipid suffering of the sexual masochist. A God who chooses to suffer unimaginable torments needlessly is a God in need of a good psychiatrist! And a God who allows these torments to happen to innocents that he might suffer with them is a monster.

The idea of a "suffering God" forces the theist to either accept this, or one other idea:

The Impotent God

If God suffers with us, yet cannot stop that suffering, then he is simply an impotent figure. He is basically in the same situation as we are - the only difference being that, as an eternal being, his sufferings are longer. One has to ask what the point is in worshipping such a pathetic figure? He cannot prevent evil - can he actually do anything? A God whom we feel sorry for is hardly the God whom we must fear of the Bible, he seems nothing but a man who suffers more than the rest of us. Perhaps that is the greatest danger of the "suffering God" motif - anthropomorphism. This God is just like a man, and we must redeem him by stopping his sufferings, we are the parents of the Father rather than he to us! This is an absurdity, surely, how can we sustain belief, or worship for a God who needs our help to stop his suffering, rather than the omnipotent King that God is usually made out to be? The "suffering God" idea makes God just a pathetic figure as liable to chance or fate as any man - this God is simply man's sufferings writ large.

The idea that God suffers is a powerful one, but also essentially an emotional one. It does not solve the problem of evil, but leaves a theist with two equally difficult and unpleasant alternatives concerning him if they choose to take up this idea. The motif seems to be made in an effort to avoid the collision between faith in a God of love and the realities of evil - but slipping sideways and re-defining God's role in evil does not remove that reality, and it does not answer the question of why God allows it.


1 Elie Wiesel, Night. Trans. Stella Rodway, in "Night; Dawn; The Accident" London:Robson Books Ltd, 1987. pp71-2.

2 Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, (Logos Books 1954, 1963) translated by Anne Marie de Commaile & Agnes Mitchell Forsyth.

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