Whether Christian or not, questions concerning suffering often show up during grief and tragedy. In times of great distress, we often want to know that our suffering matters to God and that He cares about our pain. We also wonder in these dark times how God relates to human pain, injury, violence and involuntary suffering. When it comes to emotional suffering, many Christians wonder about mental illness. There are many people braving mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder in silence because so many churches teach that these individuals have a “sin problem” and don’t address the mental illness. How does God view suffering? How should we respond to it? There is no better place to find these answers than the Bible.
There are countless biblical passages involving God’s suffering. One key passage is in Genesis 6:5-6 which says, “Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of His heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” We see in this passage that God is greatly affected by the events in His world. The word “sorry” indicates the emotional anguish of God. We see grief in God’s judgment. While pre-flood humanity had a scheming heart, God responded with a wounded heart, filled with pain. Walter Brueggemann, an American Protestant Old Testament scholar and theologian explains that God’s commitment is costly: “It has effected an irreversible change in God…It is now clear that such a commitment on God’s part is costly. The God-world relation is not simply that of strong God and a needy world. Now it is a tortured relation between a grieved God and a resistant world. And of the two, the real changes are in God.” Humans were intended to act differently. God’s judgment is not a detached decision but a very personal decision, with the mixed sorrow and anger that go into the making of decisions that affect the people whom He loves.
Another key passage is Exodus 3:7-10: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry…I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them…The cry of the people of Israel has come to me…Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel out of Egypt.” When God address Moses in this passage, there are three key words that highlight God’s intimate attention: seen, heard and know. God is physically mobilized into the very midst of their trouble. The severity of Israel’s oppression provokes a radical intervention from God. He is a God who is willing to come down to deliver to Moses, and through Moses, who even has the staff of God in his hand. God is present.
We can also look at the life of Job and see how suffering produces intimacy with God. Job 42:5 which says, “My ears had heard you but now my eyes have seen you.” We see through this passage that intimacy with God is often born in affliction. During times of stress and suffering, our soul opens up to God and we experience Him at deep, profound levels. We also see that suffering equips us to comfort others. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 tells us, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.” Suffering gives us compassion for others who are hurting. This enables us to minister better to others.
When it comes to profound suffering, a key passage is Revelation 5:6: “And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain.” John hears the conquering Lion but when he turns to look, he sees a slaughtered lamb. Though the Lion doesn’t appear again in the Bible, the Lamb appears countless times in the Bible to designate Christ. The Lamb now stands, resurrected, highlighting His sacrificial role. The Passover Lamb in 1 Corinthians 5:7 is ready to lead a new Exodus. The Lion and the Lamb together form a new symbol – conquest by sacrificial death. Instead of evil being conquered by military conquest, it is defeated by sacrificial death. This is a powerful picture of power redefined in weakness. We see through these images that Christ joined humanity in His suffering. Through this we see that suffering, not force was a key to His victory.
God has always chosen to be vulnerable, from Creator to Savior. In His freedom and demonstration of His love toward all creation, especially humankind, He has shown us a spectrum of His own suffering. There is no greater demonstration of suffering than Jesus’ death on the cross. There is plenty of time spent in the Gospels describing the torture that led to Calvary and the pain Jesus suffered while nailed to a piece of wood. Jesus paid for our salvation. Through Jesus’ pain and suffering, we see a God who is relationally intimate with all creation. We also see that Jesus experienced very human emotions, just like us. Gerald W. Peterman and Andrew J. Schmutzer, authors of “Between Pain and Grace” discuss biblical suffering and stress the importance of seeing Jesus life and ministry in a real way.