May 12, 2010

Does God Feel Our Pain?

2010 1513 page18 capn its developmental phase, ancient Christian theology, influenced by pre-Christian Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, pictured God as an emotionless, self-sufficient being, incapable of mental pain. It was a being who had no interest in, and could not be affected by, anything outside of Himself.
This view of an impassible God prevailed among Christians until well into the nineteenth century, when a more biblically oriented view began to emerge. One of the distinctive components of the biblical message is the idea that God Himself experiences mental pain and suffering—grief, sorrow, anguish.
Possibility of Divine Suffering
I’ve long believed that the possibility of suffering mental pain is an inevitable concomitant of the ability to love. And because God loves human beings deeply, the way they live their lives cannot but affect Him deeply. By living our lives in ways that accord with God’s ideal for us, we bring Him joy. But when we refuse to be guided by His ideals, we bring Him acute pain.
A number of other thinkers share this conviction, seeing a direct relation between the ability to love and the capacity for mental pain. According to H. P. Owen, many theologians “hold that the absence of suffering in God would be incompatible with his perfect love.”1
2010 1513 page18As we turn to Scripture, perhaps ?the most explicit reference to divine pain comes in Genesis 6:6. Contemplating the evil of the antediluvian world, the text says: “The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” And Isaiah 63:9 states that in all the distresses of His people “[God] too was distressed.”
Why God Suffers
Before the question “Why does God suffer?” is answered, it must be pointed out that the cause of the divine suffering lies wholly outside of God. There’s no defect or deficiency in His person that would lead Him to suffer, no component of His “lifestyle” that would cause Him pain.
Among the external causes of God’s suffering are the following:
1. The Suffering of Jesus
The Father suffered with His Son—especially during the agony of the Passion Week. In the words of Ellen White: “God suffered with His Son. In the agony of Gethsemane, the death of Calvary, the heart of Infinite Love paid the price of our redemption.”2
2. The Evil in the World and the Destructive Consequences of Sin for Humanity
God is concerned about the havoc that sin wreaks in the lives of human beings. Surely, no human parents can grieve more deeply at seeing their beloved children destroying themselves through vicious practices than God grieves as He contemplates the destructive consequences of sin to human beings. Said Wade Robinson, “The life of God is a perpetual . . . suffering. . . . His pure mind cannot exist in presence of evil without exquisite pain.”3 And in the words of Ellen G. White: “Through long ages God has borne the anguish of beholding the work of evil.”4
3. Our Human Failure to Realize His Ideal for Us
“Divine love sheds tears of anguish,” Ellen White says, “over men formed in the likeness of their Maker who will not accept his love and receive the impress of his divine image.”5 And again: “Every . . . failure of humanity to reach [God’s] ?. . . ideal brings grief to Him.”6
4. Sympathy With All Human Grief and Pain
We may believe that because “God is love” (1 John 4:16), He feels the anguish, pain, and grief of human beings. He cannot contemplate human suffering as an uninterested, unaffected bystander. He suffers with all of the suffering of the world. He suffers in deepest sympathy with the sufferings of every human being. The pain, grief, and sorrow of every human being become His, as well.
Said Paul Little: “God is not a distant, aloof, impervious potentate, far removed from his people and their sufferings. He not only is aware of ?suffering—he feels it. . . . However greatly we may suffer, it is well to remember that God is the great sufferer.”7 “Not a sigh is breathed, not a pain felt, not a grief pierces the soul, but the throb vibrates to the Father’s heart.”8
5. The Final Destruction of the Impenitent
We have to believe that the destruction of the impenitent in the end will be the occasion for the most intense grief of God. Sometimes I wonder if the grief will perhaps leave Him with an eternal feeling of emptiness for every lost ?person.
Implication and Applications
I can, perhaps, do no better at this point than to summarize the foregoing in the following words:
“Few give thought to the suffering that sin has caused our Creator. All heaven suffered in Christ’s agony; but that suffering did not begin or end with His manifestation in humanity. The cross is a revelation to our dull senses of the pain that, from its very inception, sin has brought to the heart of God.”9 Divine suffering is coterminous with the existence of sin and evil and will not be perpetuated.
The question might be raised: What practical meaning does all of this have for human beings and for God’s church on earth? The answer to this question includes several lines of thought:
1. If divine suffering is a consequence of evil in the world, believers in God should do all that they can, in cooperation with Him, to hasten the day when evil and suffering will be eradicated.
2. If God’s contemplation of the destructive consequences of sin in the lives of human beings is painful to Him, we should do all we can, in cooperation with God, to abstain from sin. Christian pastors, teachers, and parents should seek to persuade their parishioners, students, and children (respectively) to refrain from sin.
3. If the final destruction of the impenitent is the occasion of suffering to God, the Christian church should do all it can to reclaim sinful men and women for God. The Christian church must present a gospel message that is compellingly attractive, and one that includes, as components of this attractiveness, a humane perspective of God and a realistic perspective of humanity.
4. If God suffers in sympathy with the suffering in the world, human beings may know, when grief strikes, that the great God Himself feels their grief and seeks to comfort them; and they should find comfort in this ?conviction.
5. A conviction that God suffers because of the evil in the world helps us understand the age-old problem of theodicy—the problem of justifying God as a God of love in the face of the presence of evil and suffering in the world. The concept that God, in fact, does experience mental pain is an important component of any adequate solution to this problem, as theologian Warren McWilliams recognized.10 Believing that God is love, we can reconcile ourselves to the fact of evil and suffering in the world, knowing that He shares in that suffering.
6. That God created morally free beings, beings capable of causing Him acute pain through the misuse of their freedom, constitutes an irrefutable testimony not only to the magnitude of His love for human beings, but also to our value and the importance to Him of our existence. 
 1H. P. Owen, Concepts of Deity (London: Macmillan, 1971), p. 144.
 2Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, pp. 13, 14.
 3Wade Robinson, The Philosophy of the Atonement and Other Sermons (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1912), p. 46.
 4Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 72.
 5Ellen G. White, The Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 3, p. 123.
 6Ellen G. White, Education, p. 263.
 7Paul E. Little, Know Why You Believe (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1968, 1988), pp. 138, 139.
 8Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 356.
 9White, Education, p. 263.
10Warren McWilliams, The Passion of God (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985), p. vii.
Walter M. Booth has been published in many Adventist journals. He writes from Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article was published May 13, 2010.