Can God Suffer?
Those who answer “no” to this question base their opinion on the notion of God’s impassibility, apatheia, i.e. the (originally pagan) view that God lies beyond all human emotions and pain. If God is not transcendent and unchangeable He is not perfect and since pain is an experience that is considered to be of this world and constitutes a change of being, God cannot suffer. Trying to fit this with the descriptions of God suffering in the Bible, Philo of Alexandria argued that these were metaphors. Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas explained God’s compassion and love as something only we experience, since God does not feel anxiety or misery. One could think that the “no” would collapse when it came to Christ, but most patristic writers held that Christ suffered in His human nature, not as God. (McGrath 2011:204)
Today’s Christian’s and theologians would perhaps more readily answer “yes” to this question. One reason may be that a suffering God is significant while answering to theodicies, the problem of evil, which is of great importance to modern man. Jürgen Moltmann, much influenced by Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Althaus 1966:25ff), writes that in order to redeem sinful humanity, the Father suffers through the death of His Son on the cross. In complete contrast to the pagan view of God’s impassibility, Moltmann points out that a God incapable of suffering is not perfect but lacking something that humans have. And if God cannot suffer, how can He love when only a loveless being does not suffer. Moltmann takes care to point out that God is not forced to suffer, being God He may do as He pleases, and He chooses to suffer because of His love for us. Thus, God’s love and suffering go hand in hand. (McGrath 2011:205ff)
I consider that God’s being an almighty, loving person rules out any talk of Him not being able to suffer. As Almighty, there is nothing He can‘t do (see McGrath 2011:209ff) while, as Moltmann writes, no one can force anything upon Him. But He does not choose to be a tyrant, but to be loving (see McGrath 2011:212). And since He is a person, i.e. one who can “stand in a relationship” (see McGrath 2011:200) He is always with us not only in the human form of Jesus but as a triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit because He loves us and because we need Him. And He especially demonstrated to us, through Jesus Christ, His agony at our precarious condition because we thought that He meant us to suffer, being angry at us for turning away from Him. Thus I believe that God suffers as much from our estrangement from Him as we do, but we didn’t realise that until He showed it to us by descending here and living and dying among us. This is the purpose of the incarnation: He did it for us!
Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!