How the God Who Cannot Suffer Comforts Us In Our Pain

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

I still vividly remember the first time I went to speak with an older, wiser Christian about some significant personal pain. I remember sitting down in his office, tongue-tied. I remember my halting effort to find the words to express my questions. I remember, afterward, feeling the joy of a burden lifted.

But as much as I remember anything about that day, I remember why I went to see that particular mentor rather than someone else.

First, I knew that this friend had suffered. He had already described for me his own dark times in which he had cried and prayed to God for relief.

Second, I knew my friend had somehow journeyed on beyond where I was. Not only was he several decades my senior, those years of faith had also deepened and seasoned him, like a rich-hued oak table grown darker and smoother with repeated polishing. It was the combination—suffering and godly maturity—that made me want to confide in my friend.

This experience illustrates why many Christians throughout the ages have wanted to affirm two things about God’s saving relationship to us. Placing their faith in a crucified Savior, the early Christians declared that God has suffered. It was, in the words of the church fathers, precisely one of the Trinity who bled and died for us. As Scripture puts it, “We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin” (Heb. 4:15, MSG).

But, in the same breath, our Christian forebears also declared that God—the same God who hung on a tree for our salvation—didn’t give up his transcendent majesty when he did so. God remained who he always had been: the One who is beyond human change, suffering, and death.

To be sure, holding on to both of these affirmations often resulted in paradoxical statements. Like a third-culture kid trying to straddle her native home and a new environment, the church fathers and those who came after them tried creative ways of speaking about God’s work in Christ. Charles Wesley, the Methodist hymnist, exclaimed, “ ’Tis mystery all: / Th’ Immortal dies!” The One who cannot die—has died. Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century bishop in Egypt, spoke teasingly of “the suffering of the impassible [or ‘unable-to-suffer’] God.” The One who is impervious to human suffering has suffered.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Wesley Hill