Can God suffer?
We know that Christ suffered in His human nature on the Cross but what about His divine nature? Did God suffer too?
Today, many Christian theologians would argue yes.
This is a radical departure from centuries of Christian Orthodoxy. Jurgen Moltmann really brought this theology of the suffering God to the fore. In his book, The Crucified God, he insisted that if God cannot suffer, He cannot love. Other prominent 20th Century theologians who espouse a suffering God to some extent include Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, Elizabeth Johnson, Hans Küng, John Cone, Robert Jenson, Richard Bauckham, and Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Today, the idea of a God who suffers with us is appealing to many Christians. Indeed, some like Moltmann believe that it is necessary for God to suffer in order to be the God of love. Unless God suffers in Himself, He can’t truly understand our suffering and therefore cannot comfort us.
One word in particular is despised by many who seek comfort in a suffering God: impassibility. Traditional orthodox Christianity has always insisted that God is impassible, without passions or passing emotions. It’s not hard to see why such language is unappealing. It sounds like we’re saying God is impassive, that He is distant, static, or simply doesn’t care.
Nothing could be further from the truth. God is impassible because God is love. He is Love in His very Being. As Thomas Weinandy explains,
The persons of the Trinity are impassible not because they are devoid of passion, but because they are entirely constituted as who they are in their passionate and dynamic fully actualized relationship of love.
How, we wonder, can God really love if he can’t suffer with us? The word compassion means to suffer with — is God then not compassionate?
As creatures, we must feel another’s suffering in order to love them as they need. God, however, loves fully and perfectly. His love is all the more perfect because it is a free love that embraces the suffering. Again, Weinandy,
God is perfectly compassionate not because He suffers with those who suffer, but because His love fully and freely embraces those who suffer.
The heart of compassion isn’t the suffering but the love. This is why the suffering or passion of Christ could atone for the sins of the whole world. It was not the amount that He suffered but the passionate and unquenchable love with which He suffered.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice. (Hosea 6:6)
It is because God loves us freely and fully that He does not suffer. Think about it. If someone is compassionate towards us, do we take any joy or comfort in the fact that they are suffering? Of course not, that would be cruel. In fact, their suffering often makes it worse. I know that one of the hardest things about having suffered depression is see the pain it causes my family and friends because they love me.
It is the love, and the not the suffering, that we see and need in their compassion.
Yet, as I said above, because we are limited human creatures, we have to experience the suffering of others as if it were our own in order to love them. The second of the Great Commandments is “love your neighbour as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) Their suffering must become part of our subjective reality.
God, however, is utterly infinite and transcendent, nearer to me than I am to myself. He knows all and therefore can love fully, freely and completely.
Yet, because He knows us and knows our limitations, God freely took on human flesh in order to suffer in His humanity. The suffering of Christ doesn’t make God compassionate. It is is not if God learns what suffering is really like. The suffering of Christ is for us. It is gratuitous, reckless display of suffering love so that we can learn just how deeply and perfectly God loves us.
God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)