The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
– Edward Shillito, ‘Jesus of the Scars’
Often ‘the problem of evil’ or ‘the problem of suffering’ is dragged out as a clear objection against a God who is both good and powerful. Sometimes, entire books are written on the subject, and entire books are written as counter-arguments. There are two typical ways to respond to this ‘problem’ in apologetics: forcing the questioner to explain where our sense of good and evil come from, or considering the arrogance in thinking that if we cannot come up with a good reason why a particular evil has happened, neither can God.
But one of the most compelling things, I think, about the Christian faith is that we have a God who suffers. This post by Drew Dyck has a quote by poet Christian Wiman:
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me. . . . The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering.
I’ve been reading a commentary on Job (it’s excellent, written by Christopher Ash) and somewhere in the introduction, he says that Job is not merely an armchair sufferer, but a wheelchair sufferer. And since Job is merely a type, a shadow of Christ, the same – and more – can be said of Jesus.
Christianity does not merely say to the sufferer, ‘Romans 8:28, God is doing something good in your pain even if you can’t tell!’ It does not merely offer empty philosophies that ring hollow, telling you to remain stoic by sheer grit, or to rise above your pain by saying all pain is an illusion. It does not tell you to work harder at your moral goodness or to give more of your money and time to curry favour and placate a fickle god. It certainly rests on God’s sovereignty over all things, but that is not Scripture’s only word on suffering.
We have a Christ with wounds. A God who knows, in the deepest sense of the word, what it means to suffer, and be helpless, and be alone, and be maligned, and be betrayed, and be scorned, and be in excruciating pain (crucifixion and excruciating have the same Latin root crux).
John Stott says,
I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.
But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness.
That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of His. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.
A wheelchair sufferer. Scripture doesn’t have a definitive answer to why suffering happens – sometimes it’s punitive, often it’s discipline, sometimes for believers it is to identify with Christ or to teach us steadfastness etc. And I do not expect one. Answers are good for debate in air-conditioned lecture theatres with smart blazers, but give cold and little comfort when the pain runs deep. As Drew Dyck says, we have more than answers – we have a person. An Isaiah 53, Psalm 22 person.
What sort of God could possibly allow suffering?
Answer: a God willing to subject Himself to it.
– Matthew Lee Anderson, ‘The End of Our Exploring’