Must God Suffer in Order to Experience Compassion?

Jurgen Moltmann’s great theological contribution was the idea of the “suffering God.” In his book The Crucified God, Moltmann refers to the cross as the beginning of the Trinitarian history of the suffering God in which all human suffering is “taken up” into God. He writes, “There is no suffering which in this history of God is not God’s suffering; no death which has not been God’s death in the history on Golgotha.” The idea of a suffering God is also a recurrent idea in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology. He writes in one of his letters from prison, “God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us . . . The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”

The concept of the suffering God received widespread acceptance in the twentieth century among process theologians, liberation theologians, and feminist theologians, and the idea was also endorsed in Richard Kearney’s Anatheism, which I just finished. Why such broad appeal of the idea of God suffering? In short, the level of atrocities experienced in the twentieth century (World War I, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and most especially, the Holocaust), brought into question the immutability and perfection of God, what is often referred to as the “God of metaphysics.” People assumed that an impassible, immutable, unchanging God must be indifferent, remote from creation, and uninvolved with human affairs, which was inconsistent with the Christian idea of the “God of love.”

As I mentioned in the last post and will probably repeat in later posts, I think this reflects an inadequate understanding of the God of metaphysics, and so I want to attempt to defend the impassibility and immutability of God as consistent with, not opposed to the Christian God of love.

First of all, one of the main critiques of the impassible God of metaphysics is that such a God cannot experience compassion for suffering creation. In human experience, compassion refers to the suffering one experiences at the distress of another, what is referred to as “affective compassion.” If God is impassible, then God cannot suffer, and hence, God cannot have compassion. Insofar as suffering is an evil in itself, and no evil can be in God, then critics are right in saying that God cannot have compassion, at least in the way we use the term in human experience.

But compassion also includes action on behalf of the person with compassion in seeking to overcome the other’s suffering as if it were her own suffering. That is, when we suffer ourselves, we act in order to make such suffering cease. Likewise, when we experience compassion, we take similar actions but on behalf of another. Aquinas says that mercy as “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 1). This action-oriented dimension of compassion is what is called “effective compassion.”

In this sense, God does have compassion, not because God experiences suffering, but because God acts to end the suffering of others. Michael Dodds writes in The Unchanging God of Love that “it is not the degree of suffering as such we admire in the compassionate person, but the degree of love that suffering manifests” (224). Because God’s essence is love, meaning that God is the pure act of love, God’s very essence is the act of ending the suffering of others. As Dodds says, “we attribute to God…the unlimited goodness of compassionate love— a love…bringing unending comfort, healing, peace, and joy” (225). This is what Aquinas calls mercy, “for it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others, and, what is more, to succor others in their wants, which pertains chiefly to one who stands above. Hence mercy is accounted as being proper to God: and therein His omnipotence is declared to be chiefly manifested” (II-II, Q. 30, art. 4).

In Christology at the Crossroads, Jon Sobrino writes

“We must insist that love has to be credible to human beings in an unredeemed world. That forces us to ask ourselves whether God can really describe himself as love if historical suffering does not affect him… We must say what Moltmann says: “We find suffering that is not wished, suffering which is accepted, and the suffering of love. If God were incapable of suffering in all those ways, and hence in an absolute sense, then God would be incapable of loving.”

But if God is love, and if love is an action of ending the suffering of others, I see no reason to assert that God must therefore be able to suffer if God is to be able to love. Suffering is a privation, a lack of fullness. The fullness of God’s love is capable of overcoming such privations without requiring that God experience privation. This is the power behind the assertion that God is love—not that God has emotions in the sense that we say “God can love.” No, God’s very existence is love, a love which extends to all of God’s creation, and in a particular way to human beings, uniting them to the God of love through mercy in whom is found all peace and succor.


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