The previous chapter in Terence Fretheim’s book on The Suffering of God was all about divine empathy. God feels with us, even weeps with us. I like this emphasis and even know that it is true. However, I was hoping that he would quickly affirm that God not only feels our pain but helps us.
Now I realize that having someone feel your pain can help. It can make you feel better. Having someone listen sympathetically can help you put your pain into perspective and help you see your own path. In the case of God, it undercuts the notion of a distant, angry, or even cruel God.
I sometimes complain about our therapeutic culture. I mean that our emphasis on therapy as “talking about it” is superficial. I always objected to the kind of pastoral care my seminary in the 1970s insisted on. It was empathetic therapy inspired by Carl Rogers. In pastoral conversations you were supposed to listen, reflect feelings, and never offer critique or advise. I found that people needed more than that and quickly turned to unapproved ideas like cognitive therapy, family systems therapy, the neo-stoicism of Albert Ellis, and life coaching.
I admit that my perspective on this may be colored by my gender. A couple of years ago the University of Missouri had a study that showed why men often go to counseling reluctantly or not at all. It wasn’t because of fear of emotions. It was because men thought talk therapy was a waste of time. See here. Do many women find that empathy actually helps solve problems, as opposed to making them feel better?
When I saw that Fretheim’s next chapter would be about how God suffers for us, I was looking for something more results-oriented than what I got. I thought the perfect follow-up for a chapter on God’s empathy would be a chapter on how God’s suffering actually helps.
But Fretheim hasn’t gone there yet. God suffers for us passively–by restraining his desire to act. The main emphasis of his chapter is on the cost to God of restraining his helping action. So it sort of fills out the chapter on empathy by helping us see that God’s grace and forgiveness are not free.
When God offers grace, there is a price to be paid. The prophets often speak of God’s weariness with human sin and hypocrisy. God is even tired of their religion (see Isaiah 1). God’s love overcomes his justice at the cost of God carrying a great burden that in some way dissipates the divine life.
Moreover, God pays the price of humiliation. He is God but, by holding back his power, he experiences the humiliation of appearing weak. Thus, when the Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant, it is akin to their taking God prisoner. Psalm 78:61: “He let his strength be captured, and surrendered his glory to the enemy.” But God’s suffering this was part of a project for Israel that would take time.
When the Babylonians took many Judeans into exile, this also made God look weak. Isaiah 42:14:
“I have kept silent for a long time, I have kept still and restrained myself. Now like a woman in childbirth I will groan, I will both gasp and pant.”
God pictured as gasping and panting is not very dignified. This is what Fretheim stresses. But the previous verse pictured God as something of a superhero, a warrior, so the main idea is that God will now take action. There has been a long period of gestation. Now God will bring forth something new.
Yet divine humiliation and suffering seem very much a part of these servant songs in Second Isaiah. God identifies with his servant who suffers and experiences indignity and humiliation. Christians, of course, read some of these passages on Good Friday, and Jesus may have had the servant songs in mind when interpreting his own ministry.
So I think we will get to the issue of how God’s suffering helps in the next chapter. The present chapter ends with an affirmation that “suffering unto death” are needed to overcome the forces of evil. So I think this will be a theme of the last chapter about the prophets and suffering. I have read some reviews that say this is the best and crucial chapter. So I will probably devote more than one post to it.