Why does God suffer?
33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.
34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”
36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.
38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
I was recently, for a little while, engaged in a moderate debate with an agnostic individual over the problem of evil within the context of the Christian faith. Most of us will be familiar with this paradigm; that if God truly has the nature that we attribute Him, ie, being all-powerful and all-loving, then why does He allow suffering to transpire in the world? Why does He not intervene? Why does He even allow it in the first place? Can’t God and humanity coexist without evil and injustice having to permeate the world? The atheistic argument so goes, that God (at least in His so-called Christian conceptualisation) cannot possibly exist given the state of things.
I do have a few thoughts on the problem, I’m not going to outline them all here. What really interests me, above the other considerations, is the passage I have quoted. In this excerpt, the individual who cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is not, in that moment, the Son of God. He isn’t even the Messiah. In that moment, the individual is not a prophet, the warrior-king of the Jews, or even an inspired individual.
In that moment, Jesus of Nazareth was above all else a man.
With his hands and feet nailed to a cross, his body broken, skinned, and twisted, having been left to hang there until death for several hours, and with most of his following and inner circle having fled, Jesus’ greatest anguish came from none of these. The greatest anguish came from the feeling, perhaps even the desperate belief, that God had abandoned Him.
In Mark’s Gospel, the major running theme is that no human being, not even the Twelve, could fully grasp Jesus’ identity in spite of His great works and teaching. The only entities which had professed His divine nature were, ironically enough, the evil spirits who opposed Him (Mark 3:11). In the passage of Jesus’ death, however, we see a human being finally profess Jesus as the Son of God. It was a Gentile. A Roman soldier. A violent officer of imperial rule.
The all-encompassing love of God was achieved once and for all in that moment when Jesus cried out to Him in the belief of abandonment, almost immediately afterward giving up the ghost. In that moment, we see the Son of God stripped bare and exposed in the deepest, most humiliating grip of suffering. And it is in that moment, that the God of the universe truly becomes the suffering servant. The transcendent creator, by the cross, has become the God of the victimised, the lonely, the abandoned, the wounded, the dying, and anyone who ever found themselves oppressed by evil. The suffering God in doing so became the God of the suffering, and it was by that otherwise wretched cross that we find a God who truly comes into the world. With the curtain of the Temple ripped apart and a Gentile man confessing Jesus’ true identity, the cross of Christ becomes the agent for the salvation of the entire world.
The question in my own mind, then, is not “Why does God allow suffering?”, but rather, “Why does God suffer?” And the present tense is intentional, for at least two reasons:
1.) The crucifixion, while very much a temporal event having specifically occurred at a particular point in space and time, is likewise an eternal event. Its significance permeates the whole of time and space, and by it the entire world is centred through its own final restoration. Moreover, God Himself is seated upon the whole of eternity. Our temporality can have no true effect upon His nature, and so I can only imagine that the despair of the cross is as vivid to the mind of God as it was 2000 years ago. The Trinity is surely tainted and simultaneously glorified by the taste of blood.
2.) In the person of Christ, the God of the universe descends into the world He made and takes on the form of the people He made. Likewise, in the cross, this God shares in the suffering that His creation goes through. No one could ever accused God of not understanding what being human is like, or what pain is like. The cross is the ultimate symbol for the reality that not only is God with us, but that He also suffers and grieves with us.
And so, through the burden of the cross, Jesus dies as the suffering servant and is raised as the triumphant King. Therefore, He is truly the God of the powerful and the powerless, the influential and the ignored.Through that trial and that scream of ultimate despair, Jesus becomes the Saviour of the entire world, bringing together Jew and Gentile, disciple and disbeliever, God fearing and godless. By the deliverance of faith, Jesus, lifted from the earth, draws all people to Himself.
I, like every other person on the planet who has ever lived and will yet live, do not know why suffering exists. I have some nifty ideas, but I am also willing to leave some room for the mystery of God Almighty. What I am aware of, however, is that God is not alien to our suffering. Christ suffered so that one day all pain will end. He became sin so that one day all sins will end. And He became estranged from God so that all humans would have the genuine hope of being reconciled to the One who loves them.
In each of our trials, we have with us the hope of the God who daily suffers, dies, and is resurrected to glory even as we shall be ourselves.