“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” – John 12:24
“The last enemy to be destroyed is death...Death is swallowed up in victory.” – 1 Corinthians 15:26, 54
"The greater the sin, the greater the mercy, the deeper the death and the brighter the rebirth.” - C. S. Lewis
"This story...has the very taste of primary truth." - J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Suffering of God

Here perhaps something more can be said in answer to the “problem of evil” and in answer to those who cry out in the darkness “where is God?!” Where is God in this terrible world, in our suffering and death? Where is God in the horror, the evil? Where is God when there are children starving or being sold as slaves, when families are ripped apart, or when planes fly into buildings? Is God dead? Is he dying too? Yes, God is dying. He’s here with us – hanging on the cross in unfathomable pain and anguish, his body broken, his skin torn to shreds, and his blood pouring out, scorned and humiliated as a criminal, with the immeasurable weight of the horror and evil of a fallen and terror-saturated world on his shoulders. “On the cross [Christ] went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God p. 30). God is familiar with our struggles and pains – having “identified himself with the extreme of human wretchedness” (Martin Hengel, Crucifixion p. 89), he knows fully the reality of a fallen world. He suffers with us, giving himself for us in love.

I have not suffered much at all in my life, so you might fairly question whether my judgment of such weighty things is at all accurate. Would I find comfort in God’s presence on the cross if I was in a death camp or had lost loved ones? Would I lose my faith? I don’t know. All I can say is that, from what I have seen in the world, I think that deep down we know that God is here in the suffering, and there are others who have suffered more and have found him there in the darkness. Granted, many have lost their faith in suffering, but many have come to faith in God through similar experiences.1 As C. S. Lewis said, God whispers to us in our pleasures and yells at us in our pain. God is present in the darkness. To cry “God!” in the darkness and horror and great suffering is the only fitting response to such enormous realities. Atheism gives no answer but that suffering is a byproduct of particles moving according to the laws of physics, and this is a weak response to such a huge thing as the problem of evil. It leaves us crying out “why!” Only God is big enough to answer to such great moral horror. And his answer is the cross of Christ.2

As we will see, the cross is not the end of the story. By itself, the cross would not give us comfort that God is with us, but despair – despair because God himself had been defeated. If the cross were the end of the story, we would be right to despair, for the darkness would be complete, and there would be only demons to cry out to. Imagine what a horror and a hell it would be to exist in such a world! But something follows this death of God that renders it a mystery and a victory, and a comfort to know that God is familiar with our pain. Even in the cross God is sovereign, in complete control – his plan moves forward exactly as he intended from eternity. God has a plan to turn his own suffering into something glorious – he has made a way to defeat evil finally and fully with his own “death.” What a paradox, what a mystery! Who but God himself could have come up with such a beautiful design? And it is beautiful, this victory of God.

1 Lewis writes, “I have seen great beauty of spirit in some who were great sufferers. I have seen men, for the most part, grow better not worse with advancing years, and I have seen the last illness produce treasures of fortitude and meekness from the most unpromising subjects” – The Problem of Pain, ch. 6

2 Listen to this message by John Piper on “Treasuring Christ and the Call to Suffer.”

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