Suffering is a reality we all experience. Although it is used by some to reject God’s existence, when properly understood, it confirms just how much we need God.
But what kind of a God do we need? It is important that we find a thoroughly biblical answer to this question, because many sincere people have proposed wrong answers. Chief among these is the idea of a ‘suffering God’.
This is not a new idea. Forms of it arose and were rejected by the early church, for example, patripassianism. New versions became popular in the 20th century with the rise of modern psychology and the tragedy of two world wars.
A victim God?
The modern idea of love is that, to truly love, one must be able to share in another’s suffering — God, if he is love, must be able to suffer. To the question of suffering raised by the horrors of the Holocaust, Jurgen Moltmann answered, ‘Only a suffering God can help us’; meaning, a God who as a victim suffered with us.
Later, open theists taught similarly and some evangelicals influenced by them have modified the church’s traditional doctrine on this matter. In the 39 Articles, Westminster Confession, Savoy Declaration and London Baptist Confession we find an important statement about God, that he is ‘without body, parts and passions’.
‘Without passions’ tells us God is impassible (incapable of suffering or experiencing pain). It represents the church’s historic view, that only a God who can’t suffer in his essence can help us in our sufferings.
People hear this and start to think that God must be an emotional iceberg. Then they look at Scripture passages that speak about God being grieved, such as Genesis 6:9, and conclude that God can surely suffer.
However, a closer look reveals that God sometimes reveals himself in the language of human emotion in accommodation to our understanding, but elsewhere denies that he has these same emotions. So, in 1 Samuel 15:11, God says it repented him that he made Saul king, while in verse 29 he denies that he can repent.
A humanised God?
This is a reminder that we must read Scripture carefully. Just because it speaks of God having hands, eyes and feet, it doesn’t mean he has a body like us.
Similarly, when it speaks of God in the language of human emotion, it doesn’t mean he has changing emotions like us. Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture, and clear statements about God’s being should govern how we interpret statements about his responses.
An example of interpreting correctly is found in the doctrine of God’s immutability. God does not change (Malachi 3:6, James 1:17), however all suffering necessarily involves change. To be pained and grieved involves moving from one experience to another. How then can God suffer? The answer is he can’t: he is impassible.
We instinctively humanise God and make him like us. When we do, we get the God we want, but never the God we need. We don’t need a God who suffers in his own being with us; rather we need and have this glorious, infinite, eternal, unchangeable God, who promises to be with and for his people in their suffering. This helps us in four ways.
First, the God who can’t suffer confronts us in our sufferings, with his transcendence.
When Job’s life was decimated in a day and his troubles increased by the false answers of his friends, God at length broke his silence.
The modern theologian would be waiting for God to tell Job, ‘It’s OK. I have been suffering with you; I feel your pain’. But, instead, God confronts Job in stark terms with his transcendence (Job 38-41). Job in his suffering needed a God who was not like him, and we, like Job, in our afflictions need to be brought to say, first of all, ‘Who am I?’ and then to look up and say, ‘What a God!’
The sense of the Lord’s transcendent greatness then breaks into our hearts with the assurance of his perfect purpose and absolute control.
Second, the God who can’t suffer assures us in our sufferings, of his power.
God is independent of all he has created and is not moved or acted upon by it. His creation has no power to change him. God is therefore not our fellow-victim, suffering with us; he is our almighty Sovereign, over our sufferings for us.
When we are sick in hospital, we would gain no comfort if the doctor got in bed beside us with the same sickness; we want him to use his expertise to help us. We are glad that God who reigns on high has more power than all the floods of affliction that move us, and that nothing can move him (Psalm 93).
Third, the God who can’t suffer confirms us in our sufferings, with his love.
When we say God is impassible, we do not mean he is an emotional iceberg. What are passions in us, are perfections in God. He has such qualities as love, infinitely and without change.
This means that the suffering Christian has One who is perfect in love toward him. Though God may reveal — and we may experience — more or less of this love at different times, his love is ever toward his saints. He is never loving you today and forgetting you tomorrow. Nor is he waiting to actualise some part of his love in the future that he does not love you with in the present. This truth confirms suffering saints.
Fourth, the God who can’t suffer comforts us in our sufferings, with his immutability.
Scripture not only teaches that God is unchangeable, but often does so in relation to our experiences of suffering.
The broken-hearted psalmist in Psalm 102 cries out because everything around him seems uncertain. Jerusalem has been destroyed and even the heavens and earth will be changed (v.26). His only hope is that everything changes except God; ‘Thou art the same and thy years shall have no end’ (v.27).
This is the reason we can get up in the morning and know that, if a job is lost or cancer comes, or if a loved one dies, God remains unchangeably good and that does not change with our suffering circumstances. He is always the same, always strong, always ready to help, always there!
Gavin Beers is a native of Northern Ireland and pastor of Ayr Free Church (Continuing) in Scotland, since 2006. He is also a lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament at the Free Church (Continuing) Seminary, Inverness. Gavin is married to Alison, and they are blessed with six children.