Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Does God Suffer?

In January, 1983, Alex Coffin, son of William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was killed in an auto accident in Boston. By his father’s own admission, Alex had probably tossed back a few too many suds at the local bar, drove his vehicle into an area that had no warning sign on a foggy evening and ran off the end of the pier that had no guard rail. At that time, William Coffin was Senior Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. Ten days after the accident, Coffin returned to the pulpit and preached a sermon entitled “Alex’s death.” In the sermon he said, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the water closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

Does God’s heart break? Does God “feel” with us in our suffering?

Everyone has the hour of trial and we all, sooner or later, journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Some things happen to human beings and the earth that are simply inexplicable and occasionally the happening is so horrific as to be indescribable. We simply cannot rationally work our way through it. I would hope that we could say with Coffin that such is not God’s will; that God does not desire this way for any of us. But bad things do happen to both good and bad people, and the end result is truly that of broken hearts. Some folk seem to experience more pain than others. “Why? “Is one of those questions that is interesting for philosophical debate on our good days, but for which there is no reasonable answer. But suffering will eventually catch us all.

We don’t do suffering very well. Often we will ask, “Why me?” We may grieve, assign blame, or feel guilty, but we most likely will do everything within our power to flee the pain. The result may be near clinical depression or medicating ourselves with mind-numbing substances. “Where was God?” may become the cry of the moment. Did God turn a back to us? Does God even care?

Some will speak of the impossibility of the suffering God. In speaking of God as divine, the idea would be that this One cannot know the passion of the human heart. Impassability is the word used to describe the inability of God to feel pain or know suffering. But another technical word has now made its way into the lexicon; namely, theopaschism. This is the thought that God, indeed, does suffer with us. The theoposchite position, once considered heresy, is now considered, by some, as orthodox.

I take my position with those who say that God does suffer with us. Maybe it is just wishful thinking on my part; hoping that God feels our pain. But if we are going to delete this concept from our thinking, then what will we do with the ideas that God loves….that God shows mercy….that God forgives……that God will never leave nor forsake us? All very meaningful human qualities and passions that are used to describe God. I cannot imagine a love, any love that does not experience pain when the object of one’s love suffers.

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