God Of Our Silent Tears explores the question of why there is suffering, and offers some insights, but no final answer. Maybe we don't want a final answer. A final answer might pretend to justify things God and we are actually against! The book then turns to the question of how God responds to our suffering. The Trinitarian God offers a short run hope through immanent grace and a long run hope through the very nature of eternity. Then there are three more specific responses. First there is the existence of a Serene Center represented by the Father. We can touch that serenity, draw on it, breathe it into our anxious hearts. Second, is a paradoxical compassion. But what difference does God's compassion make when we are hurting. Chapter 10 of God Of Our Silent Tears offers these thoughts. (God of Our Silent Tears is available for order on line. http://www.godofoursilenttears.com)
When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich
and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before
us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming . . . by suffering, then perhaps
we must look . . . at the face of that woman with the soup tin in hand and bloated
child at side.
– Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament For A Son
Professor Bart Ehrman tells the story of attending a Christmas Eve Service in which the Intercessor prayed, “You came into our darkness and made a difference. Come into our darkness again.” Ehrman says the failure of this prayer is why he cannot be a Christian.
“If God came into our darkness with the advent of the Christ child,
bringing salvation to the world, then why is the world in such a state?
Why doesn’t he enter the darkness again? . . . Why is the darkness so overwhelming? . . . If he came into the darkness and made a difference,
why is there still no difference? Why are the sick still wracked with unspeakable pain? Why are babies still born with birth defects? Why are young children, kidnapped, raped, and murdered?”[i]
Theologian David Kelsey struggles with the same issue in his book Imagining Redemption.[ii] He builds his thought on a case study of a little boy who suffers Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which leaves him with severe physical, psychological, and behavioral disabilities. Under the strain of parenting him, his mother falls into despair and commits suicide. This leaves the father struggling to raise the disabled child while working to support the family. Kelsey puts the question pointedly, “What earthly good does Jesus do in this situation?” But Kelsey has a very different understanding of the difference Jesus can make for us. He comes to a position of faith. Can we? Can we find a way in which God the Son does in fact make a difference?
A. WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “THE SON?”
When we say “the Son,” many people think we simply mean Jesus of Nazareth. They are mostly right. Jesus of Nazareth was the Son in human form. However, John’s Gospel, the Epistles to the Philippians and the Hebrews, and the Creeds are clear that the Son has existed from all eternity. The Son was part of the godhead long before Jesus was born. The Nicene Creed says the Son is “eternally begotten of the Father.” The Son has always been part of the Family Trinity. In the Job Description Trinity, the Son always has always been and always will be a way God connects with creation. Jesus is the fullest occasion of that connection, but God the Son and his involvement with humanity did not begin or end with the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth.
We encounter the Father and the Son in different ways. The Father appears to us as a vastness, a great distance. The Son is close at hand (immanent), “with us always unto the end of the age.” We glimpse the Father aspect of God when something – the desert sky, the mighty river, the mountain, the ocean – evokes the perspective of eternity. There is a spiritual truth in the large view, the panoramic scope of infinity, the “God’s eye” view in which we and all around us become small. But there is also a truth in the direct experience of this moment – now, now, and now.
The Son appears to us as the present moment. Russian poet and novelist Boris Pasternak said, “. . . [T]he instant (far more than hours and ages) is eternity’s rival.”[iii] The 17th Century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Causade wrote of “the sacrament of the Present Moment.” Buddhist writers like Tich Nhat Hahn construct an entire spirituality out of attention to this instant. “Be here now,” Ram Das said. It is appropriate and no coincidence that Alfred North Whitehead, who gave us the God image of the “fellow sufferer who understands,” described reality as consisting of discrete present moments. We find the Father in the big picture; we find the Son close at hand right now. This may be St. Mark’s point in beginning so many sentences about Jesus with the word, “immediately.”
B. HOW THE SON RESPONDS TO SUFFERING
Jesus reveals how the Son responds to our suffering. In the Gospels, we see Jesus searching and longing just as we do – going to John for Baptism, seeking his mission in the desert, trying unsuccessfully to explain himself in his hometown, exhausted and retiring for prayer, weeping over the fate of Jerusalem, seeking deliverance in Gethsemane. All the while, he lives among us as one of us, he teaches, he heals, he suffers and dies. Then he is resurrected and ascends to glory. In all of this, the Son participates in and responds to our human situation. Too often theologians focus exclusively on the crucifixion of Our Lord as his response to suffering. The crucifixion is, no doubt, at the heart of the story, but it is not the whole story. If we are to have a comprehensive picture of how the Son meets us in our times of trial, we must consider the entire Jesus story from birth through the Ascension.
The historical story of Jesus is part of the Son’s response to suffering. However, it is more than that. The Jesus story reveals how the Eternal Son always responds. The Son suffers with us. The Son is the Compassion of God, feeling what we feel every bit as much as we do.[iv] Still we must ask what difference the Son’s response makes.[v] There are two basic kinds of response to the question of “what earthly good” does the Son do for us in our suffering?[vi] One is substitutionary. Jesus suffers in our stead. The other is compassionate. Jesus suffers at our side.
1. Suffering In Our Stead
The substitutionary theory holds that Jesus suffers on our behalf so we will not have to bear that pain. The underlying premise is that our afflictions are punishments for our sins. Jesus helps by taking some of the punishment for us. We deserve far more affliction than we actually suffer. We have actually gotten out of much of our well-deserved torment, because Jesus suffered such a large share of our penalty on the cross. However, we still have to pay for the excess over and above what Jesus has suffered.[vii] The theory may be extended to the eternal Son by saying he still suffers when we sin and thereby continues to bear the brunt of our guilt.
This way of thinking is profoundly unsatisfactory. We have already observed that suffering falls far too randomly to be understood as punishment for sin. Jesus himself did not accept this notion. Portraying God as the punisher from above may instill “fear of the Lord” but not devotion to the Lord. That is just the beginning of what’s wrong with the substitutionary model. According to this way of thinking, Christ has proven only somewhat effectual. As for the suffering we still endure, it is cold comfort to be told we deserve worse. Moreover, this account utterly disregards Jesus’ teaching and healing ministries as signs of the Son’s response to our affliction. In fact, it sides with the Pharisees who opposed Jesus’ healing ministry because it undermined the just retribution of God. This model has no role for the Resurrection in addressing our affliction. Finally, this dark doctrine portrays God as an abusive Father torturing and murdering his Son. In Naked Before God, Bill and Martha Williams offer a compelling rebuttal to such a brutal theology.
One Sunday Martha asked her [Sunday School] kids what they
thought about God . . . “Well, she said . . . “Is he good or bad or what?”
One of them – we’ll call him Timothy -- looked at her and said . . . “Well,
. . . God killed his Son.”
Shut your ears Timothy! You’re listening too well . . . You just hold on
to the notion that God is good, not evil, and that loving you doesn’t mean
he wants to kill you. If you let that filth in, you’ll spend your life trying
to scrape it off. When they start to bleat that poison in the big room
just plug your ears and chant with me: God is good. God is good. God
is good. That will be our measuring stick, you and me. If anything
doesn’t measure up to that, you’ll know it’s broken. . . Don’t believe
that God is the Devil no matter what your church says. God is good . . .[viii]
Bart Ehrman looks at the Christ-event, the Incarnation, and sees that it has not “made a difference.” If the “difference” he is looking for is the cessation of suffering, he is dead right. It has not made that difference, but we must look deeper to see if it may have made another kind of difference.
2. Suffering At Our Side
There is a better way to understand how the Son helps us. In the Cross, God the Son identifies with the suffering – compassionately, not manipulatively. God is so present with the hungry that his stomach cramps. God is so present with the lonely that his throat constricts and cannot call out for comfort. God is so present with the grief-stricken that he cannot move. But God does not suffer at our hands to make us feel guilty. Rather God suffers with us to make us feel loved. God’s suffering is compassionate, not manipulative.[ix]
When we become like this kind of God, we relate to suffering, our own and that of others, in a different way. We acknowledge our own pain, then notice that we aren’t the only ones who feel this way. We take off the blinders and dare to look at the suffering of others – the suffering of abject poverty in Haiti and Zimbabwe, the suffering of shame and remorse in the people right next to us. When we take off the blinders, we see right off that all forms of suffering are essentially the same. Life hurts. We all hurt. We all have to go to the cross.
But we do not go to the cross without hope if we go to the cross together with Christ and with each other. When we bleed together, that’s Communion. And Communion is the Divine Nature. That’s what the Trinity signifies. Compassion connects us to eternity and the soul of eternity extends beyond suffering. The soul of eternity is the Father’s peace and wisdom and serenity. And the heart of eternity is the exuberant joy that created the universe and fills it with life and beauty. That’s where compassion leads us.
This part of the divine response to suffering is often trivialized. It is apt to be misconstrued as nothing more than saying, “Jesus understands what we are going through.” Mere understanding is a long way from real redemption. Understanding is a good thing to have from one’s friends and family, but one might hope for more from God. As Kelsey says, “Redemption is something beyond giving comfort.”[x] When one has just been diagnosed with a life-threatening cancer, the attention of one’s friend is welcome, but one is more interested in the help of a first rate oncologist. The redemption we read about in the New Testament is more substantive than the promise of a fellow sufferer to “be there for us.” The New Testament repeatedly affirms that our heartaches not only share in the suffering of Christ and take us to the same cross, but also will lead us to the same comfort, healing, and resurrection. 1st Corinthians 1:15; Philippians 3: 10-11; 1st Peter 4: 12-13. Ultimately, these are promises for eternity. But is there a way in which the Son’s joining us in the human predicament changes the situation now? Is there resurrection for us now because the Son is in this with us? There are four helpful ways to think of how the Son’s compassion represented by the Cross can redeem our pain.
a, Liberating Our Identity From Suffering
Kelsey offers a helpful variation on the “fellow sufferer” model when he turns to the question of what makes one’s life worth living. We are apt to justify our lives by identifying with our role as victim or as one who has survived something captivatingly horrific. Such identifications, however, bind us to the worst parts of our past and cut us off from joy and from the unfolding, vital, dynamic future. This is decidedly a common response to suffering, and it is psychologically crippling and spiritually atrophying.[xi]
Kelsey proposes a healthier kind of redemption: Jesus’ crucifixion reveals God’s love for us. The Son does not have to suffer. Nothing compels him to go to the cross. Rather, the Son chooses to join us in our pain. Jesus shows us a God who values us enough to join us in our suffering instead of sitting blissfully serene in Paradise. If we can find our identity in being loved this much by God instead of by attaching our identity to our defining tragedy, then we are set free from the tragedy’s power to define us.[xii]
b. Evoking Love
Redemption achieved by the compassionate suffering of the Son is, however, more comprehensive than the liberation of our identities from tragedy. In the 11th Century, Peter Abelard argued that the suffering and death of Christ saves us by revealing God’s love, and inspiring us to love God in return. This stirring up of our love for God sets us free from bondage to sin and self. Abelard gave us a medieval precursor of the fellow sufferer who understands. He also gave us a psychologically credible foundation for the notion that suffering can be spiritually helpful.[xiii]
The question remains what difference loving God makes when we are suffering. The answer is neither simple nor rational in a linear sense. But experience validates it. Suffering can make us turn inward upon ourselves. We fixate on our pain. The result is embittering and atrophying. We not only suffer because of what has happened to us. We compound the pain by suffering because we suffer. So many of the books on the problem of evil are exercises in precisely this compounding of affliction. But if we turn our attention and energy outward – to love another person, or to serve a higher cause, -- the suffering, though not diminished, can be borne. This is what Victor Frankl saw in the concentration camps. Love and meaning can often get us through what otherwise could not be endured. If we turn our energy all the way outward, to love Eternity itself, Reality itself, to love God, that love is salvific.
c. Transforming Suffering Into A Place We Meet God
Healing us by evoking love in us is decidedly part of what the Son can do. But that healing depends on our response. It depends on our belief in God’s love. Does redemption depend entirely on our subjective understanding and belief? Is there more going on in the Son’s response to human affliction than a shift in our psychology, something objective, not dependent on whether people “get it?”[xiv] The answer is “yes.” God’s joining us in our pain is an act of love, and that makes a real difference, whether we “get it” or not. Of course, if we acknowledge and accept grace, we experience the blessing all the more, but the blessing is there by God’s act. It doesn’t depend on our understanding it.
Paul wrote that something had actually happened in the death and resurrection of Christ, that the world had been objectively changed. In the 4th Century, St. Athanasius, one of the most influential people in shaping the Christian understanding of God, Jesus, and salvation, said salvation turned on the notion that when God “assumed” something – took it on, make it part of the divine experience, whatever had been assumed was redeemed. Kathryn Tanner applies that idea to Jesus’ experience of human suffering. She writes:
The humanity assumed by the Word suffers from the effects
of sin . . . tempted, anxious before death, surrounded by
sufferings of all kinds, in social conditions of exclusion
and political conflict. The Word’s assuming or bearing of
all this means a fight with it . . .[xv]
Tanner’s argument is grounded in the mystical apprehension that when God walks a path, the path is changed. Such an argument is difficult to articulate; but it is intuitively compelling. If Christ has suffered as we suffer, that must make a difference. But what difference does it make?
Marilyn McCord Adams contends that our ultimate redemption from suffering is found in our relationship with God whose Goodness and Beauty vastly exceed all the goods and ills of the created order. By joining in the experience of suffering, God makes suffering a common ground, an occasion to establish the human-divine relationship that will ultimately redeem us and bring us to joy. Adams does not offer this argument as a cause of or justification for suffering. Rather she is saying this is how God turns otherwise meaningless suffering into something of positive value.
Divine identification with human participation in horrors
confers a positive aspect on such experiences by integrating
them into the participant’s relationship with God.[xvi]
Our joining with God in suffering does not, however, mean we stay in suffering in order to stay with God. We pass through suffering together on the way to joy. Paul prayed to share the suffering of Christ in order that he might share the resurrection of Christ. Tanner insists that Christ did not suffer in order to enshrine suffering, but to overcome it. Jesus assumed (took on) affliction all the way into a disgraceful death, and then overcame that affliction in the resurrection and ascension. That has made a basic difference in the order of things. Suffering and death still happen, but they do not get the final word. This divine action permeates all situations with hope. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for by his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”[xvii]
Tanner’s reminder that Christ suffers in order to overcome suffering, not abide in it, is particularly important when we think of the Eternal Son always sharing our pain. If we understand the Son’s only response to be suffering alongside us, then we deify suffering, get stuck in it, and fail to avail ourselves of the power to rise up and live. The Holy Spirit infuses that power, so most of this aspect of the divine response to suffering will be in the next chapter. However, so that we do not misunderstand the value of Christ’s compassion, we need to clarify the meaning of the cross for our lives. If we are to think of the cross as Christ eternally sharing our sorrow, we must match that image with the Resurrection as Christ eternally rising up from sorrow so that we may rise with him. Veneration of the crucifix, of Christ on the cross, must not obscure celebration of resurrection as Christ’s power of life continuing to happen for us now.
We may well ask why we have to meet God in suffering. Can we not, yea do we not, encounter God in joy? Don’t we see a beautiful day and thank God for it? When we are deeply loved by another person, don’t we thank God for them? We do meet God in the good times. But the good times don’t need an independent justification. They are just plain good. What if God chose to meet us in the good times and leave us alone in the bad ones? Then the bad ones would be meaningless. There would be nothing to redeem them. But if God chooses to stay with us, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, then we meet God in special way, a better way, than if God were a fair weather friend.
This assumption theory of redemption is a narrative of hope, of “the Word becoming flesh” to endure suffering, and eventually to triumph over death itself through the resurrection. Jesus’ life of healing, reconciling, and teaching is a sign of how the Son is always present, working for the good in our human situation. His death and resurrection reveal how the eternally faithful God will make all well in the fullness of time.[xviii]
d. Suffering To Become Our Mediator
Hebrews offers a further interpretation of our salvation story in which the Ascension is as vital a part of our salvation as the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection. Hebrews says we need a bridge between mortal, frail, fallible humanity and God – a personal bridge, an intermediary, to plead our case, to tell the Infinite what it is like to be finite, to tell the Perfect what it is like to be fallible, to tell the Serene Center of the Reality how it feels to be afraid. Such a bridge must be at home both in heaven and on earth. He must be truly God and truly human.[xix]
In Jesus, God the Son took on flesh lived a human life and died an all too human death. Hebrews tells us that the Son is God from all eternity, before all time. He then took human form. He had to live and suffer his way into becoming fully human so he could serve as the bridge. We need someone to tell the Serene Center what we are experiencing. And we need someone to assure us that the Serene Center cares for us. Jesus forges the link between human passion and divine serenity. A helpful metaphor might be to think of the Father and Son as connected by the Spirit as the ocean is connected to the moon by gravity. The movement of the Son, the suffering of the Son with us, effects a merciful tide in the oceanic Father.[xx]
Our faith is that God the Son has come into our darkness and he comes into it over and over again. He does make a difference. It may not be the difference we want. It is not what Ehrman means by a difference. But it is the difference between suffering without meaning in a cold indifferent universe (such as Camus paints in The Stranger) versus suffering with God in a way that connects us to love. It is the difference between hope and despair.
We have seen God responding two our suffering now in two ways – with wise equanimity and with compassion. These responses help more than words can say – but they are not enough. When we have been laid low, we need to be raised up. That brings us to the work of the Holy Spirit.
[i] Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem: How The Bible Fails To Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. p. 5.
[ii] David Kelsey, Imagining Redemption. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
[iii] Letter to Marina Tsveteyeva, July 1, 1926 in Letters, Summer 1926 (ed. Yevgeny Pasternak, Yelena Pasternak, Konstantin M. Azadovsky. trans. Margaret Wettlin, Walter Arndt, Jamey Gambrell (New York: The New York Review of Books, 2001) p. 208.
[iv] There is the Protestant emphasis that Christ’s sacrifice was made once; it does not have to be repeated. That teaching, derived from Hebrews, is not meant to deny that Christ compassionately shares our pain. It is meant to reject a medieval understanding of the Mass. The underlying assumption of that medieval idea, derived from St. Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement, was that Christ’s suffering was a substitution, Christ suffering to pay the penalty for our sins. Baptism served to accept the benefit of that sacrifice. But what about the sins we commit after being baptized? Some medieval Christians believed Christ had to be sacrificed anew in each mass to propitiate God to forgive our more recent transgressions. The idea that there was only one sacrifice of substitution was meant to correct that distortion of what the celebration of Holy Communion truly is, an encounter with God in love. The whole notion of a sacrifice of substitution is questionable anyway, but the idea that it has to be carried out over and over is even worse. The “one sacrifice” doctrine addresses that point. It has nothing to do with understanding the cross as a sign of Christ’s constant compassion, of his being with us to the ends of the age, including in our suffering.
[v]There is a huge part of this question I will not attempt to address here. Theologians customarily treat it separately, and it is a book unto itself. That is the question of how the Son’s response to our human situation redeems the evil we ourselves commit. Answers to that question are called Doctrines of Atonement. I will limit this book to the question of how the Son’s response may be helpful for the evil we suffer at the hands of others or at the hands of nature.
[vi] Of course, the question of what the Son does for us is larger than the question of what good he does for us in our suffering. The matter of atonement for sin is another question, perhaps not unrelated, but certainly not the same. Our focus here is on suffering.
[vii] This viewpoint was not widely held in Christianity for the first 1,000 years of our history. But, beginning with St. Anselm (10th Century), and then even more so after John Calvin (16th Century) the most common understanding of Jesus’ suffering is that he is taking the beating which the Father would otherwise be compelled by his sense of justice to administer to us. Theologians call this “penal substitution” or “the substitutionary atonement” doctrine.
[viii] Bill Williams and Martha Williams, Naked Before God (Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing, 1998) pp. 240-241. See also Gray Temple, The Molten Soul (New York: Church Publishing, Inc., 2000) in which Fr. Temple argues that this theory of the atonement is destructive to a vital spiritual life and leads to rigidity and judgmental attitudes.
[ix] C. E. Rolt and Charles Hartshorne portray God’s suffering love as a compassionate gesture of solidarity with people, and thus a gesture toward personal relationship. Adams, pp. 70-71, 159 -161.
[x] David Kelsey, pp. 54-55.
[xi] See also Gerald May, at 98-201 in which Dr. May describes our addictions to self-representations or ways of thinking of ourselves.
[xii] David Kelsey, pp. 55-59.
[xiii] We must be careful here not to fall into the misunderstanding arises when people mix Christ’s compassion up with the notion that Christ continues to suffer affliction whenever we commit sin and because we commit sin. The cross is meant to communicate love, not instill guilt. This is not a matter of our afflicting Christ but of Christ sharing our affliction. Love liberates. Guilt enslaves.
[xiv] Kelsey intends his redemption model to be objective as well as subjective.
[xv] Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity, and Trinity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001. pp. 27-28.
[xvi] Adams, pp. 166-167.
[xvii] 1 Peter 3:
[xviii] This approach should not be allowed to detract from the vital fact of the historical event of Jesus. To say all too abstractly that the Son is always with us is not deeply helpful unless that abstraction is enfleshed in the story of Jesus. Only when it really happens in the particular event, can we take it seriously as a general principle.
[xix] This model of redemption runs contrary to Robert W. Jensen’s understanding. He insists at p. 83 that “Since relation to us, as the Father of our Lord, is internal to God’s being, there is no need for bridge-beings between God and us.” Part of Jensen’s objection to a bridge concept of Christ is that it suggests another metaphor, a more problematic one, a “ladder of divinity” in which the Trinity is made up of successively more divine beings leading from humanity to God. p. 90. The bridge or mediation model of Hebrews is no such ladder of divinity. The fully divine Logos becomes fully human through living a human life in order that he may act as our mediator.
However, Jensen’s objection to a bridge between humanity and God goes deeper. It rests in his repudiation of Greek notions of eternity. Jensen sees God in Hebrew terms. He is concerned to avoid Arius’ idea that God must be entirely uninvolved with time in order to save us from time. p. 81. Jensen notes critically, “(T)he religion of late antiquity was a frenzied search for mediators, for beings of a third ontological kind between time and Timelessness, to bridge the gap.” p. 61. Arius was wrong in trying to keep all of God uncontaminated by time. But the Greek longing to transcend time is deeply entrenched in Christian tradition. In the model of the Trinity proposed in this book, the Father metaphor refers to the aspect of God which manifests as eternity and is untouched by time so that he is able to offer hope to us “ . . . who are wearied by that changes and the chances of this life that we may rest in thy eternal changelessness.” (Book of Common Prayer). The Son, however, is God immanent in time, fully involved and faithfully present with us through “the changes and the chances of this life.” Christianity is a “religion (born in) late antiquity” and Christ does in fact mediate “between time and Timelessness, to bridge the gap.”
[xx] “In union with God, in being brought near to God, all the trials and sorrows of life – suffering, loss, moral failing, the oppressive stunting of opportunities and vitality, grief, worry, tribulation, and strife – are purified, remedied, and reworked through the gifts of God’s grace.” Kathryn Tanner, p. 2.