Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Can God Suffer?

Fr. John Breck

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With the so-called "natural disasters" we have faced this past year, from the tsunami in Southeast Asia to recent tornados in the American Midwest in addition to Katrina, Rita and the devastating earthquake in Pakistan it is only reasonable to ask whether we are alone in our suffering and anguish, or if God Himself participates in it.

During these past months countless articles have appeared in the religious press and on the Internet, making the point that God does not inflict natural disasters as punishment. In Orthodox circles, following the Holy Fathers, we make a distinction between God's "permissive" will and His "intentional" will. As Lord of all, God permits or allows such disasters to happen. Yet He remains a God of Love, who would never, for any reason, inflict wanton destruction on entire populations. He may allow pain and suffering to visit particular individuals, including you and me. But He does so always for a purpose, often beyond our comprehension. There is no doubt that at times He does so for our good, as a burdensome yet effective pedagogical tool to correct us and lead us to repentance. Where apparently meaningless suffering afflicts the truly innocent, we can only surrender, in faith and hope, before the impenetrable divine mystery that allows no rational analysis, no figuring out of the whys or wherefores. God, then, is involved in suffering, as He is in every other aspect of created existence.

The image God offers us of Himself in the Gospel takes this conviction a crucial step further. It is the image of a God who not only governs the world and our individual lives, bringing blessings and permitting pain and suffering. This same God makes it clear that He actually shares that suffering with us.

Scripture declares repeatedly that Christ suffered in order to destroy the power of death and enter into glory, and that He did so on our behalf, so that we might share that glory with Him (2 Cor 1:5-7; Phil 3:10; Heb 2:9-10; 1 Pet 1:11, 4:13, 5:1). He assumed the suffering of the Cross, died and descended into Sheol, the realm of death, and there He destroyed death's power by the greater power of His Resurrection. Through our baptism we are literally "incorporated" into Him, into His glorified life, but we are also incorporated into His redeeming suffering. "By death He has trampled down death." This is the most fundamental conviction of our Orthodox faith. Furthermore, we acknowledge that this suffering is truly victorious, it truly leads to glory, because Christ Himself is God, the eternal Son of the Father and One of the Holy Trinity. The truth is affirmed, then, that Christ our God suffered in order to liberate us from the power of death and to lead us with Himself to the glory of resurrected life.

Yet the question remains: In what sense can we affirm "God suffers," not only in the historical moment of the Crucifixion, but in the pain and anguish that so often mark our everyday existence? And if indeed God suffers, is that suffering borne only by the Son, or can we affirm that God the Father knows and shares our suffering as well?

Struggling with this question, some third-century theologians developed a heretical doctrine referred to as "patripassionism" ("suffering of the Father"). This is a heresy that refused to accept a Trinitarian conception of God three divine Persons united in a single divine Essence or Nature but tended to identify the Father and the Son, so that it could be affirmed that both the Father and the Son suffered on the Cross ("He who is called Father and Son [they hold] is one and the same, not one from the other, but He from Himself, called by name Father and Son according to the figure of the times..." Hippolytus, "Refutation of all Heresies," 9:10). In reaction to this threat posed to Orthodox Trinitarian theology, the Church condemned "patripassionism" and affirmed that only the Son suffered and died on the Cross.

This is a conviction we must uphold today every bit as much as Orthodox theologians did in the third century. Yet it needs to be stated as well that in a particular sense, God the Father indeed "suffered" at the Crucifixion. A child will ask: "Why did God send His Son to die and not come Himself?" The question reflects a double misunderstanding. On the one hand, He who died on the Cross was indeed God: the eternal Son of the Father. Yet when the apostle Paul speaks of "God" and "Christ," he is referring respectively to the Father and the Son. Thus he can declare, "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself" (2 Cor 5:19). To answer the child's question, it is enough to point out that no father could sacrifice his son without undergoing the same or even greater suffering than the son himself is called to bear. In other words, God the Father, in His infinite compassion and boundless love, endured a degree of personal suffering at the Crucifixion that was no less than the suffering borne by His Son, Jesus.

That subjective suffering, borne by each Person of the Holy Trinity, is not limited to the historical moment of the Cross. Like divine Love, divine suffering is a reality that characterizes God's personal existence as He relates to the world He has made. Consequently, there is no human or cosmic suffering that is not part of God's own personal experience. This is not "patripassionism." It is the simple Gospel truth that the triune God indeed shares in He knows and drinks to the bitter dregs the cup of our suffering, whatever its cause, however devastating to us it might be.

Can God suffer? Does God truly suffer in the suffering of mankind and of each individual bearer of His divine image? Preserving a thoroughly Trinitarian perspective on God's existence, we can answer that question with a resounding "Yes!" "We see Jesus," the author of Hebrews declares (2:9), "who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God [the Father] He might taste death for every one."

That tasting of death was not limited to the Cross. It involves His ongoing suffering in the life of every sparrow that falls to the ground, every victim of a natural disaster, and every tormented soul who contemplates suicide. Christ's suffering and with it, the suffering of God the Father embraces the whole world and every particular life within it, including yours and mine. There is no true love without suffering. And God is and always will be the God of Love.

Read the entire article on the Orthodox Church in America website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 02-Jan-06

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