As I have noted before, I am not typically one to delve deeply into theology.
I want to know God, to experience Him, to be formed and shaped by Him. It is my hope that, in His endless mercy, someday He will allow me to experience union with Him – whatever union a tiny soul like me can experience with its divine Creator.
Knowing and learning about God seldom captivates me in the same way. Too much is speculation or argument about questions to which no one knows the answers.
Opinions, theological or otherwise, do not draw me into the heart of love.
There is, however, the occasional exception.
While I was composing my last post, I was reflecting on an important question: does God suffer?
Naturally, I brought this question to my chief advisor on important spiritual matters, i.e. my internet search engine. 🙂
To my surprise (and subsequent delight) I found an excellent article that addresses this very question: Does God suffer?, by Fr. Thomas Weinandy.
What I discovered as I read and reread the article and some of its references is that there is some poor theology creeping into mainstream faith.
Or more exactly, some of it had started to creep into my own faith without me having critically examined it.
Allow me to explain.
It is quite possible that what I am about to share is already well-known to my readers.
However, my own experience of being misled is most likely not. Hence, it is a good confession for me to make and to make publicly.
My first distinct memory of being exposed to this line of thinking occurred just under 5 years ago, when there was the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. A horrible, heartbreaking tragedy.
Someone posed the question of “where was God?” when the killer opened fire on the little children and their teachers.
Someone else responded that He was there, in the classroom, being shot.
Although I interpreted this response as a metaphor, there was something profoundly moving in imagining that God was there, suffering with each and every child who took a bullet.
(I have since learned that a much more famous account, provided by Elie Wiesel, used the same imagery when describing the horrors of a Jewish boy’s death in a concentration camp.)
Without me being consciously aware of it, this emotional appeal started to influence my conceptualization of God. Though I wouldn’t have said it outright, I began to think of God as somehow suffering with us.
This was not so very hard to imagine, given the suffering that Christ our Savior endured.
However, I am now convinced that this is not a theologically sound way to think of God – and that such thinking has the potential to create some serious delusion.
Although Fr. Weinandy provides a much more scholarly explanation that I am capable of, one danger now occurring to me is that this notion might lead one to equate love and suffering.
Something along the lines of this: “If God truly loves us, He must suffer with us.”
Perhaps you have detected hints of this when, in recent posts, I have linked love with sacrifice.
While I continue believe that such a link is valid in the context of the Paschal Mystery – and it may become valid when we prayerfully bring our own suffering to Christ – it is vital that we recognize that love does not necessitate suffering.
To think that it does is a serious distortion of God’s truth.
Belief in this distortion suggests that our God, Whose law beckons us to love Him and one another, must want us to suffer.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
As I was pondering the points made by Fr. Weinandy, I had to stop and consider why this image of a suffering God held emotional appeal for me.
It is, after all, a rather strange notion when one stops to take a closer look.
How can God be perfect joy if He suffers?
Suffering is, by definition, bad or unpleasant. How could I imagine that God endures either?
If God suffers willingly, suffering is glorified and portrayed as an ideal – which makes no sense. Certainly we do not want to glorify that which is the consequence of evil.
If God suffers unwillingly, then He is not the transcendent and all-powerful Creator to Whom all things are subject. Someone or something else is more in control of the universe than Him.
Both notions are ludicrous.
Fr. Weinandy explains the dialectic between considering God “passible” versus “impassible”.
Impassibility, used in this context, means that God “does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer”*. Passibility, of course, is the opposite.
Because of our human nature, most of us think of emotional responsiveness as essential to love and compassion.
If we imagine God observing horrendous human suffering (such as those mentioned above) and not feeling anything, we most likely begin to feel uncomfortable. At least I do.
The absence of an emotional response in God gives rise to notions that God is passive and indifferent – that He doesn’t care about human suffering.
On a human level, compassion infers something deeper than mere caring. Indeed, the origins of the word carries the meaning of “suffering with”.
If our perception is that God does not even care, how can we consider Him our compassionate and loving Father?
The violent and senseless of death of children is perhaps the most disturbing kind of suffering we humans can conceive of.
Hence, at a time when our doubts are at their peak, the image of a God Who suffers with the children offers us reassurance that He truly is compassionate. Without this reassurance, the world as we know it would seem intolerable.
Understanding now why the notion appeals to me, I am freer to examine it a bit more objectively.
Relief of fundamental doubt and emotional anguish is so powerfully reinforcing that part of me may just want to drop it there and not explore further.
However, I believe that this would be a mistake. Or perhaps I should say, this was my mistake.
On the most simplistic level, I can readily recognize that compassion, despite the etymology of the word, does not require suffering from the compassionate one.
If, for example, I were to require cardiovascular surgery, I would hope to have a compassionate surgeon. However, I most certainly would not want him/her to feel my fear with me beforehand – or suffer the physical pain of my recovery afterward. It would be disabling to the surgeon.
Similarly, while I strive to be compassionate with my patients, I do not expect myself to experience their suffering with them. Not only would it be impossible for me to do so, it would be of no benefit to them and potentially very harmful to me.
Thus, the rationale for my “need” to imagine God suffering with us deteriorates rapidly upon closer examination.
And that without any argument of a theological nature.
Yet I found Fr. Weinandy’s discussion so compelling that I wish to highlight some of what it stirred in me.
If we are to consider God as impassible, how then do we contend with the Old Testament, where God is portrayed as having many emotions and even changing His mind?
One of the first thoughts that occurred to me is that the writers, no matter how divinely inspired, were still human beings and therefore limited by human words and concepts when trying to describe God.
To say that God was angry with His chosen people communicated a meaning readily understandable to a human audience.
In contrast, an explanation that the perfect goodness of God cannot abide evil is too abstract to be meaningful, especially in a culture where most teaching depended on an oral transmission of the faith.
Furthermore, as Fr. Weinandy explains, such Scripture passages need to be interpreted “within the deeper and broader revelation of who God is”*.
God was revealed to our ancestors to be One, not just numerically one but “distinct from all else”, or “transcendent”.*
In this complete Otherness, God was known to be Savior – such that He could not be thwarted “by worldly power or might, or by the vicissitudes of history, or even by the limitations of the natural physical order.”*
Scripture makes known God as Creator, intimately bound to His creation, but not part of the created world. Being completely “Other” from all else, “radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own”.*
A final fundamental characteristic of God revealed to His chosen people was that He is All Holy. He was incapable of being defiled, even when His people defiled themselves. Thus, “He could restore them to holiness” in a way that no one else could.
God’s chosen people inhabited a world where their neighbors typically believed in multiple gods who fought among themselves and acted out their own emotions and passions on humans.
Hence, the revelation of these truths about God were a radical departure from the prevalent thinking of the ancient world.
This transcendent impassibility of God (as Other, Savior, Creator and All Holy) was therefore central to first Covenant understanding and thus foundational to the birth of Judeo-Christian theology.
An interesting point made by Fr. Weinandy is that the shift to thinking of God as passible (and thus able to suffer) is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The early Fathers of the Church and Tradition assumed the impassibility of God without question. It was only around the end of the nineteenth century that a shift in thinking developed in some circles. (See Fr. Weinandy’s article for further discussion of what led to this shift.)
As familiar as the Fathers were with Old Testament Scripture, they did not interpret its language as signifying mood changes on the part of God.
But what then did this language mean?
And, if God’s disposition never changes, if it is eternally unaffected by anything said or done in human history, how can we experience Him?
Why do I pray if my prayers have no impact on God?
How can I relate to Him, feel connected to Him? It almost seems like trying to bond with a rock.
I just had to say that. Because Fr. Weinandy’s explanation is so perfectly clarifying. This is what he writes:
While God and rocks may both be impassible, they are so for polar opposite reasons. A rock is impassible because, being an inert impersonal object, it lacks all that pertains to love. God is impassible because His love is perfectly in act (“God is love”) and no further self-constituting act could make Him more loving.*
Our author, citing Thomas Aquinas as a source, notes that, as created beings, humans are “constantly changing because they continually actualize their potential either for good, and so become more perfect, or for evil, and so become less perfect.”
God has no need to make such changes as nothing could make Him more loving. He is already “absolutely passionate in His love”*.
We cannot comprehend how God is “pure act”. Yet if we can conceive of Creation pouring forth from the being which is Being, the love which is Love, we may catch a glimpse of its significance.
From this glimpse, we may begin to understand how all things so created “are immediately and intimately related to God as He exists in His perfectly actualized love”.*
Yes, I know that I have risked that abstract communication style that can result in lost meaning. But please bear with me.
Fr. Weinandy offers a profound perspective that draws together Old Testament language, prayer and our personal experience of God.
Being human, he reminds us, requires us to enact our love differently in different situations. This is readily illustrated in parents’ love for their children.
Sometimes parental love is expressed in tenderness and gentle comforting. However, in other situations, it may require correction, sternness or even anger.
Because we are imperfect creatures moving through time, our expressions of love change in accord with the situations we face. And we ourselves cannot help but change as we encounter different experiences.
Indeed, we must change to live effectively in this world – and certainly in order to discover the Way of Love.
God, however, does not need to sequentially change His love to fit different situations. His love is always perfectly there and He is the Way of Love.
He does not change – but we do.
As we change, passing through our varying experiences and levels of maturity, both individually and as a people, we come to know different facets of God’s eternal love.
Sometimes we know them by faith. Sometimes we know them by experience.
In one situation, for example, I experience God holding me in love. In another moment, I experience Him withholding from me, that I might better learn my need for Him.
On other occasions, I experience Him “chastening” me because I need correction. At yet another point, I find myself drowning in His mercy.
As I pass through this process, God never changes. He doesn’t need to. But the nature of what I need from Him is ever changing.
In the perfection of His love, He always knows exactly what I need from Him, even when I do not. And His love for me is always completely and unconditionally present.
It is my awareness of His love is that is often lacking. And this is why I must pray – not to change God but to change me.
In prayer, I learn of my need for Him and I learn of His abundant love.
I become open to asking for and receiving His grace.
Of course, It has been there all along. But I have not seen it, lost as I’ve been in the sin of trying to be god myself.
If we take this lesson and apply it to God’s chosen people, we see how the people of God went through similar changes on a larger scale. They encountered many blessings and many obstacles.
Both by faith and experience, they came to recognise in God’s love a “wrath” and a punishment, a compassion and a promise.
This knowledge of God’s abiding love sustained them through the desert to the Promised Land, through the Babylonian captivity to the rebuilding of the Temple.
Certainly their suffering caused them to struggle, to grumble and doubt. But, in the end, a remnant always remained, “a light to the nations” in the darkness of this world.
God’s people today are no different.
We tend to think of the evils of our day as being far worse than those of ancient times. Perhaps they are – or perhaps we simply have broader knowledge of them. Our electronic culture takes our vision of suffering far beyond that of our own families or clans.
However, in the New Covenant, we have available to us a grace beyond any graces known to our ancient ancestors.
We have Christ the Lord, risen from the dead.
The Son has always been and was not merely invented to appear in human history.
But His incarnation brings us more deeply into an understanding of the nature of our God.
Ironically, His suffering may be cited as an argument in favor of the “suffering God” theology.
If God is impassible, should that not make the Son incapable of suffering as well?
And if the Son of God is capable of suffering, does that not mean that God Himself suffers?
But there are problems with this consideration.
Jesus was fully human and therefore subject to all of the same suffering as other human beings. And He did suffer during His human life, voluntarily, to bring about our salvation.
Still, we must remember that it is not the suffering itself that saves us but the love from which it springs.
There is the human love of Jesus, accepting suffering and pain out of love.
And there is the divine love of the Son who became Incarnate in order to lead us to resurrection and new life in Him.
Both loves effected our salvation and were inseparable in the person of Jesus.
But the human suffering of Christ was temporary and limited to His historical life. The eternal Son of God, our resurrected Savior, does not continue to suffer.
If He did, can we say we would want a share in His eternal life of eternal suffering?
If, as the Head of His mystical body on earth, He continued to suffer too, could we trust Him to sustain us until the period of struggle is over?
As the chosen people needed to be led by a pillar of fire through the desert, we too need to be led by the Light while passing through this world of darkness.
The compassion we need is not someone sitting in the darkness with us. Rather, it is a compassion that comes looking for us in the darkness and is capable of leading us into the Light.
And this is the impassible, immutable compassion of our God, made known to us through Christ our Savior.
To Him be all praise and honor and glory forever. Amen.
*all quotes so marked are taken from Fr. Weinandy’s article, Does God suffer?