Thursday, April 02, 2009

If God is All Good and All Powerful, Why Does He Permit Suffering?

Last Sunday (5th of Lent Year B), the Gospel (Jn. 12, 20-33), the gospel related that the Greeks wanted “to see Jesus.” The response of Christ was: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world, will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be.” There must be a mystical death whereby Christ enters into us, and we into Christ such that “I live; no not I, Christ lives in me” (Gal 2, 20). No suffering, no love, no seeing God = eternal life (Jn. 17, 3). Suffering, love and seeing/living.


“Where is God Now? … Where is He? He is here.”

For starters, let me quote from a piece by Thomas G. Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?”: “Jorgen Moltmann, in ‘The Crucified God,’ was the first to employ Elie Wiesel’s graphic and horrific story (which has subsequently appeared in over thirty books and articles) of a Jewish boy hung by the Nazis along with two men in the Camp at Buna (Moltmann wrongly places it in Auschwitz). It took half an hour for the youth to die and, as the men of the camp watched his torment, once asked: ‘Where is God now?’ Wiesel heard a voice within him answer: ‘Where is He? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows.’ While Wiesel interpreted his inner voice as expressing what has now become disbelief in a loving and just God, Moltmann exploited the story to argue for a God who suffers in union with those who suffer. In the midst of the Holocaust and hundred of other contemporary occurrences of horrendous human suffering, this argument, often expressed with passionate sentiment and emotion, continues to win theological adherents. How can God be an immutable, impassible, idle, and indifferent bystander in the midst of such unspeakable suffering? If God is a loving and compassionate God, as He surely is, He must not only be aware of human suffering, but He must also Himself be an ‘active’ victim of such suffering. He, too, must suffer.”

(Weinandy ends by trying to show the contrary: that God – as God – does not suffer, and cannot suffer, because if He did, He would not be God. To suffer implies a diminution in being and perfection. Hence, it is impossible from our standpoint and conceptual way of thinking that God be God and suffer. Weinandy will acquiesce that God suffers [as Christ on the Cross] in His humanity, but not in His divinity: “I have attempted briefly to argue that God is impassible and so does not suffer. In the Church’s most important public task of communicating the gospel, speaking of the God who does not suffer as we suffer may go against the cultural grain, but such is the God of Scripture and normative Christian tradition…”
[2] The problem is that what Weinandy says is not true regarding the God Scripture and normative tradition. It is true only for the Greek metaphysics that is at the base of Weinandy’s and the neo-scholastic tradition.

My response to the question, Why suffering? Because God created us to have the same perfection that He is, that is Love. But God doesn’t Love. He is Love. His to be is the act of engendering the Son. He is not the Father as a Being-in-Himself and then acts to engender the Son. He is the act of engendering the Son. And the Son is the act of obeying and glorifying the Father.

As creatures, we are made of the same “stuff,” but have to achieve the act that the Divine Persons are. We are potential to what we must become. Hence, our “love” has to become His Love. And we achieve this by beginning to go out of ourselves, until it reaches the point of self-gift to death for another.

From the beginning, God gave us commands to begin to initiate the perfection of imaging Him as self-transcending. By going out of ourselves in obedience, we become “like” Him. However, the temptation of the demonic was to insinuate - not that God did not exist - but that He was holding something from us that we should have a “right” to, namely, the so-called fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The temptation was not to atheism, but to disobey the Original Covenant.

When we disobeyed, the very structure of our being as imaging God as relation was damaged. Because of sin, there was sickness (cholesterol/a-fib) and death. And suffering. Note that this is not the work of God, but the work of man as a nothingness that is introduced into the positive and beloved structure of creation. Suffering is our work as ontological disintegration of who we are as imaging a tri-relational God.

God becomes man, not to pay back an infinite debt that finite man committed against God, but to restore the ontological integrity of us as images. God became man from His own love for us.

As Ratzinger said, the opposite theological theory (from St. Anselm) has permeated the Catholic world, namely, that God became man to pay back an infinite debt to God by God Himself becoming man to pay it back. Ratzinger remarked:

“Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109) had been concerned to deduce the work o Christ by a train of necessary reasons (rationibus necessaries) and thus to show irrefutably that this work had to happen in the precise way I which it in fact did. His argument may be roughly summarized like this: by man’s sin, which was aimed against God, the order of justice was infinitely damaged and God infinitely offended. Behind this is the idea that the measure of the offence is determined by the status of the offended party; if I offend a beggar the consequences are not the same as they would be if I offended a head of state. The importance of the offence varies according to the addressee. Since God is infinite the offence to him implicit in humanity’s sin is also infinitely important. The right thus damaged must be restored, because God is a God order and justice; indeed, he is justice itself. But the measure of the offence demands infinite reparation, which man is not capable of making. He can offend infinitely – his capacity extends that far – but he cannot produce an infinite reparation; what he, as a finite being, gives will always be only finite. His powers of destruction extend further than his capacity to reconstruct. Thus between all the reparations that man may attempt and the greatness of his guilt there remains an infinite gulf which he can never bridge. Any gesture of expiation can only demonstrate his powerlessness to close the infinite gulf which he himself opened up.
“Is order to be destroyed for ever, then, and man to remain eternally imprisoned in the abyss of his guilt? At this point Anselm hits on the figure of Christ. His answer runs thus: God himself removes the injustice; not (as he could) by a simple amnesty, which cannot after all overcome from inside what has happened, but by the infinite Being’s himself becoming man and then as a man – who thus belongs to the race of the offenders yet possesses the power, denied to man, of infinite reparation – making the required expiation. Thus the redemption takes place entirely through grace and at the same time entirely as restoration of the right. Anselm thought he had thereby given a compelling answer to the difficult question of `Cur Deus homo,’ the wherefore of the incarnation and the cross. His view has put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of Western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence which had been committed and in this way to restore the damaged order of things.
“Now it cannot be denied that this theory takes account of crucial biblical and human perceptions; anyone who studies it with a little patience will have no difficulty in seeing this. To that extent it will always command respect as an attempt to synthesize the individual elements in the biblical evidence in one great all0embracing system. Is not hard to see that in spite of all the philosophical and juridical terminology employed, the guiding thread remains that truth which the Bible expresses in the little word `For,’ in which it makes clear that we as men live not only directly from God but from one another, and in the last analysis from the One who lived for all. And who could fail to see that thus in the schematization of the `satisfaction’ theory the breath of the biblical idea of election remains clear, the idea that makes election not a privilege of the elected but the call to live for others? It is the call to that `For’ [to be Love which is to be Who God is] in which man confidently lets himself fall, ceases to cling to himself and ventures on the leap away from himself into the infinite, the leap through which alone he can come to himself. But even if all this is admitted it cannot be denied on the other hand that the perfectly logical divine-cum-human legal system erected by Anselm distorts the perspectives and with its rigid logic can make the image of God appear in a sinister light (my underline). We shall have to go into this in detail when we come to talk about the meaning of the cross. For the time being it will suffice to say that things immediately look different when, in place of the division of Jesus into work and person [my underline again – meaning that the Person of Jesus is Love], it becomes clear that with Jesus Christ it is not a question of a piece of work separate from himself, of a feat which God must demand because he himself is under and an obligation to the concept of order; that with him it is not a question… of having, but of being human. And how different things look further on when one picks up the Pauline key, which teaches us to understand Christ as the `last man (’έσχατος Άδάμ: 1 Cor. 15, 45) - the final man, who takes man into his future, which consists of his being not just man but one with God.”

Love for Man as the Reason for the Cross

“What position is really occupied by the cross within faith in Jesus as the Christ… As we have already established, the universal Christian consciousness in this matter is extensively influenced by a much coarsened version of St. Anselm’s theology of atonement, the main lines of which we have considered in another context. To many Christians, and especially to those who only know the faith from a fair distance, it looks as if the cross is to be understood as part of a mechanism of injured and restored right. It is the form, so it seems, in which the infinitely offended righteousness of God was propitiated again by means of an infinite expiation. It thus appears to people as the expression of an attitude which insists on a precise balance between debit and credit; at the same time one gets the feeling that this balance is based on a fiction. One gives first secretly with the left hand what one takes back again ceremonially with the right. The `infinite expiation’ on which God seems to insist thus moves into a doubly sinister light. Many devotional texts actually force one to think that Christian faith in the cross visualizes a God whose unrelenting righteousness demanded a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his own Son, sinister wrath makes the message of love incredible.

“This picture is as false as it is widespread [my emphasis]. In the Bible the cross does not appear as part of a mechanism of injured right; on the contrary, in the Bible the cross is quite the reverse: it is the expression of the radical nature of the love which gives itself completely, of the process in which one is what one does, and does what one is; it is the expression of a life that is completely being for others. To anyone who looks more closely, the scriptural theology of the cross represents a real revolution as compared with the notions of expiation and redemption entertained by non-Christian religions, though it certainly cannot be denied that in the later Christian consciousness this revolution was largely neutralized and its whole scope seldom recognized. In other world religions expiation usually means the restoration of the damaged relationship with God by means of expiatory actions on the part of men. Almost all religions center round the problem of expiation; they arise out of man’s knowledge of his guilt before God and signify the attempt to remove this feeling of guilt, to surmount the guilt through conciliatory actions offered up to God. The expiatory activity by which men hope to conciliate the divinity and to pout him in a gracious mood stands at the heart of the history of religion.

“In the New Testament the situation is almost completely reversed. It is not man who goes to God with a compensatory gift, but God who comes to man, in order to give to him. He restores disturbed right on the initiative of his own power to love, by making unjust man just again, the dead living again, through his own creative mercy. His righteousness to grace; it is active righteousness, which sets crooked man right, that is, bends him straight, makes him right. Here we stand before the twist which Christianity put into the history of religion. The New Testament does not say that men conciliate God, as we really ought to expect, since after all it is they who have failed, not God. It says on the contrary that `God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5, 19). This is truly something new, something unheard of – the starting-point of Christian existence and the center of New Testament theology of the cross: God does not wait until the guilty come to be reconciled; he goes to meet them and reconciles them. Here we can see the true direction of the incarnation, of the cross.

“Accordingly, in the New Testament the cross appears primarily as a movement from above to below. It does not stand there as the work of expiation which mankind offers to the wrathful God, but as the expression of that foolish love of God’s which gives itself away to the point of humiliation in order thus to save man; it is his approach to us, not the other way about. With this twist in the idea of expiation, and thus in the whole axis of religion, worship too, man’s whole existence, acquires in Christianity a new direction. Worship follows in Christianity first of all in thankful acceptance of the divine deed of salvation. The essential form of Christian worship is therefore rightly called `Eucharistia,’ thanksgiving. In this form of worship human achievements are not placed before God; on the contrary, it consists in man’s letting himself be endowed with gifts; we do not glorify God by supposedly giving to him out of our resources – as if they were not his already! – but by letting ourselves be endowed with his own gifts and thus recognizing him as the only Lord. We worship him by dropping the fiction of a realm in which we could face him as independent business partners, whereas in truth we can only exist at all in him and from him. Christian sacrifice does not consist in a giving of what God would to have without us but in our becoming totally receptive and letting ourselves be completely taken over by him. Letting God act on us – that is Christian sacrifice.”


Therefore, God becomes man, enters our condition of suffering and uses it to re-create us into becoming relations again. He connects suffering and love in Himself and therefore gives it a new meaning.

Since suffering is an experience of the “I” of the person, the harshness of it is always involves a consciousness of self. Since Christ took on that suffering as Love (He identified the two in Himself), that harshness can be the call to love as self-gift. Hence, suffering can rebuild mere love (as good feelings “for,” on the human level) to Love (as self-gift even to death on the divine level).

Does God Suffer as God?

The question again imposes itself on us. Did Christ suffer as God or as man? Weinandy and the neo-scholastic tradition say, “as man.” Ratzinger and the tradition of the Fathers of the Church [Origen] say “as God.” The deep reason for this second opinion is the experiential and philosophical underpinning that insists with St. Thomas that “actiones sunt suppositorum.” That is, only subjects, or person, experience. In a word, the will as an abstracted aspect of the person, does not will. It is the person who wills. As an aside, it must be said that the “parallelism” of the human and divine “natures” in Christ was overcome and rendered as “compenetration” in a single, personal “Yes” of obedience of Christ to the Father on the Cross by the understanding of St. Maximus the Confessor in the Third Council of Constantinople in 680-681. Ratzinger explains using the text of Jn. 6, 38: “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” He says, “Here the divine Logos is speaking, and speaking of the human will of Jesus in the mode by which he calls his will the will of the Logos. With this exegesis of Jn. 6, 39, the Council proves the unity of the subject. In Jesus there are not two ‘I’s’ but only one. The Logos speaks of the will and human thought of Jesus using the ‘I.’ This has become his ‘I,’ has been assumed into his ‘I,’ because the human will has become fully one with the will of the Logos, and with it has become pure assent to the will of the Father.”[5]

To the question, why, if God is all good (Goodness itself) and all powerful, why does He permit suffering? The answer: to bring forth love and, with it, to restore being and Life to man. Suffer for and with love for God and others in the ordinary things of life, and you will bring Life to yourself and to the others. In his last book, John Paul II wrote: “The suffering of the Crucified God is not just one form of suffering alongside others, not just another more or less painful ordeal: it is an unequaled suffering. In sacrificing himself for us all, Christ gave a new meaning to suffering, opening up a new dimension, a new order: the order of love. It is true that suffering entered human history with original sin. Sin is that ‘sting’ (cf. 1 Cor. 15, 55-56) which inflicts pain, wounding man mortally. Yet the passion of Christ on the Cross gave a radically new meaning to suffering, transforming it from within. It introduced into human history, which is the history of sin, a blameless suffering accepted purely for love. This suffering opens the door to the hope of liberation, hope for the definitive elimination of that ‘sting,’ which is tearing humanity apart. It is this suffering which burns and consumes evil with the flame of love and draws forth even from sin a great flowering of good.”

Reason for Suffering Evil: “To awaken our love”

And then, John Paul II concluded explaining the reason for the suffering of the 20th century, and I suggest it as the reason of the suffering that is beginning to befall us in this economic and human debacle. He said: “All this evil is present in the world partly so as to awaken our love, our self-gift in generous and disinterested service to those visited by suffering. In the love that pours forth from the heart of Christ, we find hope for the future of the world. Christ has redeemed the world: ‘By his wounds we are healed’ (Is. 53. 5).”

Freedom: Christ Yearned To
Keep in mind the freedom with which Christ suffered. John Henry Newman said it marvelously: “He did not come to suffer as little as He could; He did not turn away His face from the suffering; He confronted it, or, as I may say, He breasted it, that every particular portion of it might make its due impression on Him. And as men are superior to brute animals, and are affected by pain more than they, by reason of the mind within them, which gives a substance to pain, such as it cannot have in the instance of brutes; so, in like manner, our Lord felt pain of the body, with an advertence and a consciousness, and therefore with a keenness and intensity, and with a unity of perception, which none of us can possibly fathom or compass, because His soul was so absolutely in His power, so simply free from the influence of distractions, so fully directed upon the pain, so utterly surrendered, so simply subjected to the suffering. And thus He may truly be said to have suffered the whole of His passion in every moment of it.

“Recollect that our Blessed Lord was in this respect different from us, that, though He was perfect man, yet there was a power in Him greater than His soul, which ruled His soul, for He was God. The soul of other men is subjected to its own wishes, feelings, impulses, passions, perturbations; His soul was subjected simply to His Eternal and Divine Personality. Nothing happened to His soul by chance, or on a sudden; He never was taken by surprise; nothing affected Him without His willing beforehand that it should affect Him. Never did He sorrow, or fear, or desire, or rejoice in spirit, but He first willed to be {330} sorrowful, or afraid, or desirous, or joyful. When we suffer, it is because outward agents and the uncontrollable emotions of our minds bring suffering upon us. We are brought under the discipline of pain involuntarily, we suffer from it more or less acutely according to accidental circumstances, we find our patience more or less tried by it according to our state of mind, and we do our best to provide alleviations or remedies of it. We cannot anticipate beforehand how much of it will come upon us, or how far we shall be able to sustain it; nor can we say afterwards why we have felt just what we have felt, or why we did not bear the suffering better. It was otherwise with our Lord. His Divine Person was not subject, could not be exposed, to the influence of His own human affections and feelings, except so far as He chose. I repeat, when He chose to fear, He feared; when He chose to be angry, He was angry; when He chose to grieve, He was grieved. He was not open to emotion, but He opened upon Himself voluntarily the impulse by which He was moved. Consequently, when He determined to suffer the pain of His vicarious passion, whatever He did, He did, as the Wise Man says, instanter, "earnestly," with His might; He did not do it by halves; He did not turn away His mind from the suffering as we do—(how should He, who came to suffer, who could not have suffered but of His own act?) no, He did not say and unsay, do and undo; He said and He did; He said, "Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God; sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not, but a body hast Thou fitted to Me". He took a {331} body in order that He might suffer; He became man, that He might suffer as man; and when His hour was come, that hour of Satan and of darkness, the hour when sin was to pour its full malignity upon Him, it followed that He offered Himself wholly, a holocaust, a whole burnt-offering;—as the whole of His body, stretched out upon the Cross, so the whole of His soul, His whole advertence, His whole consciousness, a mind awake, a sense acute, a living cooperation, a present, absolute intention, not a virtual permission, not a heartless submission, this did He present to His tormentors. His passion was an action; He lived most energetically, while He lay languishing, fainting, and dying. Nor did He die, except by an act of the will; for He bowed His head, in command as well as in resignation, and said, "Father, into Thy hands I commend My Spirit;" He gave the word, He surrendered His soul, He did not lose it.”[7]

A New Heart: “We need a sort of heart transplant. It would be interesting to follow up this analogy of the surgical operation and to love God with a new heart, not with this heart of stone (for the heart of Christians is very hard!). When I look at the history of Christianity, I see that Christians have certainly fallen short as regards the heart. If I look at this whole history of wars, religious wars, wherever I open the history of the Church, it can be seen that our heart has been lacking! Surely, we are now suffering from all sorts of political and social unrest because we did not register at the right time the misery of mankind, the workers’ misery at that period, or the misery of the third world today. This is a great sin of harness of heart. We must plunge into the Lord’s Heart, in response to the prophecy: ‘I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh’ (Ezek. 11, 19), a heart that is alive to all the wretched ness of mankind and is close to men and is particularly attentive to what Leon Bloy called ‘the crime of non-love’ through forgetfulness. The Lord’s words, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me’ (Mk. 25, 43), are crucial.
“So, truly, O Holy Spirit, give us a new heart! A new hart to love, and I believe that this is the essential phrase – we must love God and men with the very love of God, and not only for the love of God. We are invited to this, to this transformation of heart which the Holy Spirit alone can bring about. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Rom 5, 5).

“Thus there are, as it were, infinite perspectives that open up, since we are invited to love with the very love with which God love himself… so that… we may love with the very love of God, in other words, with the properties of God’s love.”[8]

Finally, I want to return to Ratzinger’s insistence that, indeed, God suffers as God in Christ for us: “The suffering of Christ, then, was the unshakeable fact; but there is no such thing as a Passion without the passions: suffering presupposes the ability to suffer, the sensibility and it feeling faculty. In the patristic period it was Origen who most profoundly grasped the theme of the suffering God, and who also most straightforwardly declared that this theme cannot be reduced to the suffering humanity of Jesus, but that it colors the Christian conception of God himself (underline mine). The fact that the Father allows the Son to suffer constitutes the Father’s own Passion, and this is also the suffering of the Spirit, of whom Paul says that he sighs in us and that, in us and for us, he bears the passion of our longing for the fullness of redemption (Rom 8, 26f). And it was also Origen, moreover, who formulated the normative hermeneutic on the theme of the suffering God: whenever you hear of God’s passions and sufferings, says Origen, you must always relate these to his love. God is a sufferer only because he is first a lover; the theme of the suffering God follows from the theme of the loving God and continually points to it. The decisive step that the Christian concept of God takes beyond that of the ancients is the realization that God is love.
St. Josemaria Escriva: “We have to learn to disappear, to annihilate ourselves, to forget about ourselves. For the love of men, and for the love of God, we have to burn before God like lamps flickering before the altar, consuming themselves until they are completely spent. My children, if I am bringing you along more elevated ways, it is because they are guaranteed to lead somewhere. And I want you all to practice the penance of self-renunciation. We only succeed in being totally God’s when we forget about ourselves and learn to serve others. This way is indeed a divine way, because it is based on humility. And God rewards it.
“When the soul really becomes aware of all the limitations of the human condition and surrenders itself totally to God, that is when Our Lord stretches forth his all-powerful hand and gives it – he assures it – its vocation , its holiness, its heaven of love.
“For me, love seems to mean more than heaven. They’re really the same thing, but to me love sounds better, and I lay hold of God’s love with all my strength. My children, it’s worthwhile forgetting about ourselves and instead being truly concerned about others.”

[1] Thomas G. Weinandy, “Does God Suffer?” First Things November 2001, 35.
[2] Ibid 41.
[3] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity,” op. cit. 172-174.
[4] J. Ratzinger, “Introduction to Christianity” Ignatius (1990) 213-215.
[5] J. Ratzinger, “Journey to Easter ,” Crossroad (1987) 101-102.
[6] John Paul II, “Memory and Identity,” Rizzoli (2005) 167.
[7] John Henry Newman, Discourses to Mixed Congregations 16. “Mental Sufferings of Our Lord in His Passion.”
[8] Leo Joseph Suenens “Loving Through the Power of the Holy Spirit,” Towards a Civilization of Love Ignatius (1985) 92-93.
[9] St. Josemaria Escriva Meditation 16, February 1964.

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