I read the next chapter in Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God. He takes up the idea that God suffers with Israel and, indeed, all people.
Israel’s historical experience of deliverance from Egypt and other adversity underlies their perception that God cares about them and suffers with them. When the Israelites were experiencing compulsory national service in Egypt, God heard their groaning. He saw them undergoing forced labor. He knew or understood their situation (Exodus 2:24-25). His hearing and seeing precipitated his entering into their experience and participating in their pain. More than that, God was able to do something about their plight (Exodus 3:7-8)
The book of Judges also contains several examples of this kind of thing. Early in the book the theme gets stated:
And when YHWH raised them up judges , then YHWH was with the judge , and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge : for YHWH felt sorry for them because of their groanings because of those who oppressed them and vexed them (Judges 2:18).
That God felt sorry for them or was moved to pity for them was the beginning of their deliverance. First, the heart of God was moved. Then historical deliverance resulted. In the Psalms this reflection on Israel’s experience began to get applied to individuals. The Psalmist felt that God was with him in trouble or the valley of the shadow of death. This was because God heard the cries and saw the affliction of individuals.
God first suffers because of Israel’s trouble or the trouble of one of his people. This suffering of God along side of people is what motivates God’s presence and action.
God does not just suffer with Israel and Israelites. There are striking passages where God suffers with foreign people as well. The prophets have several oracles against other nations. Judgement will fall on these nations as well as Israel. But God does not enjoy allowing judgement to fall on the nations. God speaks:
So I will weep with sorrow for Moab.I will cry out in sadness for all of Moab.I will moan for the people of Kir Heres (Jeremiah 48:31 NET Bible).
There are other passages like this in Jeremiah and Isaiah.
Whether it is judgment upon Israel or other nations, God suffers with the people when these judgments fall. And his suffering is not from a distance. God mourns for the people, but God also mourns along with the people. In Jeremiah 9:18 God calls for the wailing women (who had an official role in funerals in ancient Israel) to come. They are to sing a loud song of mourning for “us” until “our” eyes overflow with tears. The “us” and “our” clearly include God who mourns and sheds tears with his people.
I am grateful to Terence Fretheim for this interpretation. As a career pastor and in my personal and family life, I have often attended events that called for tears–funerals, of course, but also things like election defeat parties, final divorce hearings, and cancer diagnosis conferences. I think I have experienced the tearful God.
Some rationalists have taken to the internet in the wake of pastor Rick Warren’s family tragedy (his son apparently committed suicide). See here. They have taunted the Warrens with the question of where God was when this happened.
People’s children have been having tragedies for thousands of years. It is a purely modern kind of reverse fundamentalism that uses this as an excuse for atheism. I suspect the isolation of people in modern life causes this. I have always been in these situations as part of a faith community. People have wept together. A very concrete outward-quest way of seeing God is to see him in other people. When the people of God weep with me, I can see God weeping with me.
I hope the Warren family can experience the tearful God even as they have to grieve in public.