Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | The Suffering God

My roommate came back from a trip to New York City with a crucifix. I found this a bit odd, especially since my roommate is an old-school Calvinist, the kind that usually recoil at icons, images, or anything generally Catholic. But I’d noticed that he’d come back with a zeal, raving about his visit to Trinity Chapel and an epiphany he’d experienced there, so I asked him about it. He told me he got it because it portrayed the horror and shame of the crucifixion. He compared it to a cross on a church he'd passed every week growing up – a stylized, multi-colored cross that looked like a ceiling fan. He asked himself if he could imagine Jesus on that cross.

“I found that I could,” he said. “An invisible Jesus. A cartoon Jesus for a cartoon cross. It was reduced to an icon, ironically Christ-less.”

As Good Friday approaches, I wonder sometimes whether or not we Protestants, with our cross t-shirts, our cross jewelry, and our “3 Nails + 1 Cross = 4Given” slogans, forget that the cross was an instrument of suffering and death. It seems that we skip Good Friday and go straight to Easter. But Christ had to die for our trespasses before he could be raised for our justification.

“In Spite of That, We Call This Friday Good”

Recently, a coalition of Christian philosophers have begun arguing that Christianity has long been under the unhealthy influence of Stoicism, an ancient philosophy which emphasizes the suppression of desire and emotions. Rather than embracing a picture of a God who experiences the full range of human feeling and emotion, Christians have instead embraced a doctrine of divine impassibility which holds that God, by virtue of being unchanging, is incapable of feeling emotion or desire.

According to Eleanore Stump, this has led believers to adopt “the stern-minded attitude” towards life. Rather than actively seeking to pursue the desires of their hearts and good things that God has given them, Christians instead seek to passively accept as fate whatever occurs in this life as “God's will” for them. But this passivity fails to take into account that God desires real, genuine, good things for His children, and that evils in the world are regrettable events brought about because of sin.

God isn't simply unmoved by the afflictions of his children. Our God is a God who grieves and suffers, and when we suffer ourselves, we are drawn closer to Him. When we look at the Scriptures, we see a Messiah who was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). We see that God desires to give good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11). We see that it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). We see the Father himself was grieved in His heart at man's sin, even to the point of regretting His creation (Genesis 6:6).

And then, of course, Good Friday. The death of God himself, as He bore our griefs, carried our sorrows, was stricken, smitten, and afflicted, pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our sins, punished to bring us peace, and wounded that we may be healed (Isaiah 53:4-6). “He who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The cross isn't just two esoteric beams of wood. It's not just the pet symbol of Christianity. It is blood and gore, grief and anguish, betrayal and forsaking, and death. And it is an invitation for us to share in His death – to draw closer to Christ in suffering by continually denying ourselves, taking up our own cross, and following Him (Luke 9:23).

It's why when life crumbles around us, families are shattered by divorce, people waste away of disease and starvation, a young girl is kidnapped, raped, and murdered, and a hurting child of God sits alone, forsaken and in despair, we can still find joy in Christ.

We don't have to rail at God in anger; Christ has already asked “why have you forsaken me”? We don't have to put ourselves at the end of a loaded gun; Christ has already died for us. We don't have to bleed out our pain by adding scars to our wrists; Christ already bears one in each hand.

As one of my favorite philosophers, Nicholas Wolterstorff, wrote after his son's death in Lament for a Son:
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity's song--all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.  
We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.

Posted by Nick Barden
Image: Wood Engraving from the Sainte Bible by Gustave DorĂ© (1866)


  1. Very insightful. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Reminds me of Linda Zagzebski's views on omnisubjectivity. Great article.