IT IS A GOOD THING to learn early that God and suffering are not opposites but rather one and the same thing and necessarily so; for me, the idea that God himself suffers is far and away the most convincing piece of Christian doctrine.—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison
A THEOLOGY that embraces the idea that God cannot suffer has to answer the question: Can God love? Abraham Heschel rightly said that the essence of Hebraic prophetic faith is that God takes the people of his covenantal love so seriously that he suffers for their actions.—Dennis Ngien, in Christianity Today
I DO NOT UNDERSTAND suffering. My experience of suffering is limited in the extreme. I have lost grandparents, a parent, and some close friends. I have watched my father suffering in trauma ICU and I have wept for months, so afraid that he would never be able to care for himself again, that he might become incapable of memory or understanding. I have lost jobs twice. I have gone almost a year without a job and wondered if I would lose everything. I have been insulted by people about whom I cared little. I've had my share in back stabbings from people I thought I could trust. I have been in far too many arguments with my wife and we have hurt each other with our words.
Even so, these experiences do not count to me as suffering. I have sat with parents who have had their hearts broken in two by rebellious children. I have sat with teenagers and children as they cried over the death of a parent, a nasty divorce, or as they struggled with self-destructive impulses. I have performed funeral services for children. I have sat in the hospital while friends went through incredibly painful and dangerous procedures. I have drank coffee with people who were fighting for their very lives against the cancer that was eating them from the inside.
But these have happened to others, not to me.
I do not understand suffering, and I have so much to learn. At times I feel strangely removed. And yet, and yet--I know I will not escape the bone crushing and chilling grasp forever. I am human and I am all too aware of my destined embrace with this spectre.
So I am reluctant to speak of suffering since I have been so sheltered. I know advice and cliches are easy to dispense but worse than useless--they can be downright harmful.
What I have discovered in my reading of the Bible is that God offers no answers, either. He never explained to Job why he suffered. Naomi never was given a satisfactory answer as to why her husband and sons had to die in Moab.
God never tells the Israelites why he allowed them to stay 400 years in Egyptian slavery. In fact, for most of the first two chapters of Exodus, representing 400 years, there is little mention of God.
What he does say to Moses is: "I know their suffering."
This is the word yadah--a word which means intimate experience. In the old King James Version you may remember statements like: "And Adam knew his wife and she conceived..." It is the same word.
Interestingly enough the first two chapters of Exodus poses an unvoiced question: "Where are you God? Who are you God? Do you even care?"
By the end of the book the questions are answered in quite mysterious ways. God tells Pharaoh through a series of plauges (three sets of three with a tenth plague that stands alone in its fierceness): "You will know who I am. You will know I am in the land. You will know there is no god like me." At the end of the book we see the elaborate plans for a tent that is to be erected in the center of the Israelite camp where this God will dwell. We are also confronted with the presence of this God in the form of a cloud-pillar by day and a blazing fire by night leading the Israelites on.
All of this to say: "In this symbolic representation of fire, cloud, and tent you will see me where I have always been: in your midst. Do you want to know where I've been during your suffering? I've been right in the middle of it all of this time. I know your suffering because I've suffered it with you. I've walked with you.."
This same language is used to describe the coming of Jesus in the gospel of John: "He made his dwelling among us" is literally "he set up his tent, he 'tabernacled' in our midst." In Isaiah: "He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." In Hebrews: "He learned obedience through the things he suffered."
He does not tell us "why". What he does tell us is: "I am here to suffer with you."