Thursday, January 12, 2012



Not to beat a dead horse but the recent discussion over whether God suffers, it occurs to me, is a question about what religion really is. To me, religion—to bind back together—is the question of what it means to be human. We're not asking, or answering, the questions in a vacuum. All theological questions have at their core: does the answer to them, or even the asking of them, make us more fully human: more compassionate, more open to both suffering and joy, more lost in wonder, more disposed to see Christ in the faces of those with whom we rub up against, interact, and in my case, clash, during the course of my day?

The purpose of theology, for the follower of Christ, in other words, is not to come up with a formula. The purpose of theology is to break open our hearts in love.

A reader recently opined “I think God suffers without anxiety. As beings with imperfect vision, knowledge, and love, we suffer with it.” Which certainly raises more interesting questions, and also brings me back to the  musing that kicked off the discussion in the first place; to wit, without questioning that God knows in the end, that good will triumph, that love will reign, that Christ will take his place upon the throne—we “know” that, too—I wondered whether, like us, God doesn’t know exactly how that will happen. To give people free will, it seems to me, is to consent to not know, to wait knowing that but without knowing how.

I’m just groping here. But to say God knows no anxiety, it seems to me, is to say it would have been all the same to God--to the Father of Christ, to the First Person of the Trinity--whether He created man or not, whether He gave us free will or not. It's to say that the same God who created mortal, fragile, glorious man could just as well have not created him, or could have created him to be a programmed robot. It's to believe we play no part whatsoever in ongoing creation. It’s to believe in a God who is inert, preternaturally calm, distant, removed, uninvolved, and utterly uninterested in and detached from what crazy, wild-card thing happens next in this ongoing drama called Planet Earth.

Instead, we have a very particular kind of God, a stupendous, utterly counterintuitive God, a God who pitched his tent among us, took on human form so he could know, among other things, the excruciating existential anxiety of knowing we are going to die, who nonetheless laughed, ate, drank, danced, gazed  upon the trees and flowers and mountains and sky, who went to weddings and parties, who got pissed off and had a sense of humor, who loved, who sweat tears of blood in the Garden at Gethsemane the night before He died, who gave us His very Body so that we could break Him—knowing that we would break Him—and eat.

Who said, "I'll be with you till the end of time" but did not add "pushing you around like puppets" nor "sleeping."

I think God contains his anxiety, consents to be stretched as far as He can possibly go, and to hold, as Christ did on the Cross, the stretched-to-the-breaking point tension, without lashing out, without transmitting the suffering, but rather in love, as a mother holds that kind of tension in labor--and is then split apart in birth.

A quote from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy:

“No two ideals could be more opposite than a Christian saint in a Gothic cathedral and a Buddhist saint in a Chinese temple. The opposition exists at every point; but perhaps the shortest statement of it is that the Buddhist saint always has his eyes shut, while the Christian saint always has them very wide open. The Buddhist saint has a sleek and harmonious body, but his eyes are heavy and sealed with sleep. The mediaeval saint's body is wasted to its crazy bones, but his eyes are frightfully alive…Granted that both images are extravagances, are perversions of the pure creed, it must be a real divergence which could produce such opposite extravagances. The Buddhist is looking with a peculiar intentness inwards. The Christian is staring with a frantic intentness outwards.”

And an essay by Marco Bersanelli, at English Spoken Here: that includes this passage:

"But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us. God is waiting for us. He is looking for us. He knows no rest either, until he finds us. God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us...God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to 'catch' his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us". We too, children of modernity, may not remain completely insensitive to a God who is restless for us.”

That's not from some ex-drunk untutored layperson such as myself. It’s from Pope Benedict XVI.



  1. For some reason, I'm thinking of Francis Thompson right now -- his much-anthologized poem "The Hound of Heaven." Yes, definitely Thompson perceived God as restless and relentless! And I think, too, of another Francis, the late Msgr Frank McFarland, quondam director of Boston Catholic Television, who would tell us in between decades of the Rosary, "God courts us, He woos us, He tries to win us over any way He can!"

    A god that suffers? A god that longs? A god that pines in a state of something like unrequital? I know there are some who will say that such an image teeters on the brink of the Patripassian heresy -- but where one member of the Trinity is, there the other members are, in a mysterious way that I dare not explain! And we do know that Christ suffered, and in fact, suffers -- mysteriously, inexplicably as the whole creation groans in travail (Romans 8?). I don't see why a suffering God should be an inexcusable anthropomorphizing, while a wrathful God (for instance) is perfectly acceptable!

    But I, too, am an untutored layperson -- albeit one who is favorably impressed (as are you, Heather) by the words of Pope Benedict quoted here! He does speak as one with authority, and not merely an authority of the "official" variety!

  2. from The Mystery of the Holy Innocents - Charles Peguy

    A beatitude of slaves, a salvation for slaves, a servile beatitude, how do you
    expect that to interest me. Does one love to be loved by slaves.
    If it is only a question of proving my power, my power has no need of those
    slaves, my power is well enough known, people know quite well that I am the
    ... ... ...
    Having once known what it is to be freely loved, one no longer has any taste for
    Having once known what it is to be loved by free men the prostrations of slaves
    no longer mean anything to you.
    That whole business of love, suffering & Free Will runs together like a three strand length of rope.

    Steve Sparrow

  3. Well, you are beating something ... maybe a drum instead of a dead horse.

    For what it's worth, I don't believe He suffers or is anxious. I've got no problem with Him being wrathful, however (good one, dylan!).

    I do wonder sometimes, especially when I'm not feeling well, WHY WHY WHY did You create me, when my presence adds absolutely nothing to You? Interesting (sort of) that suffering seems to call forth this kind of questioning,as opposed to when I'm feeling well and things are on cruise control.

    He does ping me with an answer and it usually has to do with my wife or kids. Something having to do with a burning, out of control, filled to the brim and spilling over ... something ... oh, love. The experience (what a paltry word) also occurs attending the birth of a baby at the hospital or a funeral, of total strangers in either case. Like the earth just moved.

    So, grope away, Heather. Perhaps choose another verb for the sake of good taste and precision.

  4. We weep, He wept (Lazarus); we get angry, He gets angry (Dt 29 and elsewhere); we are overwhelmed with sorrow; He too (Gethsemane); and so on. We get anxious; I think He does also. Why do I think this? Because He made us in His image (Gen. 1).

    And your answer to your own question, Heather, about what religion really is echoes JPII's question to a group of students during his historic 1979 visit to Poland when he asked a group of students " consider the great question, what is a human being...?" His answer, from the Scripture readings that day for the feast of the Holy Spirit was that "the true measure of the human heart and spirit was 'the measurement of concience' the 'measurement of the spirit open to God.'"


    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  5. Hmm, my meandering two cents...
    I believe wholly that God as Trinity feels many things which, as His image bearers, we experience. Except anxiety. That is the only emotion-related thing he tells us NOT to be about. I wonder if human anxiety isn't experienced only in those moments we forget that all is in His hand, ultimately, and that all will be well. ALL manner of things will be well.

    Which isn't to say that God doesn't suffer the longing and pain on our behalf, out of love, for what we are going through, or what we are experiencing, or the many ways we refuse to rest in His love, all because of his gift of free will. We know that He is capable of feeling grief ("do not grieve the Holy Spirit"), but somehow I cannot fathom God experiencing anxiety.

    And isn't anxiety entirely different from restlessness? I like the idea of God's restlessness. That gives intimacy to "maranatha".

  6. I've begun beating the horse/drum on lumiousmiseries, Heather and as it happens we both quoted exactly the same B16 passage. If interested,

    P.S.That Nolde woodcut is an all time favourite of mine

  7. Randy and Carrie: you make a good point. Jesus did command us to be anxious about nothing. And, as you suggest, he may make that command to help us not forget that all is in His hand, that all will be well. Nevertheles, in the accounts of the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew and Luke, Jesus was "overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death...". In Luke he was also "deeply distressed and troubled." And in Mark "...being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground." This was Jesus, fully God, and fully man. So, I don't know. So I wait.

    Heather, it's a great question you've posed, with very good insights in response.

    John W. White
    Purcellville, VA

  8. Again, Heather, thank you for this thoughtful and provactive post. Provactive in a good way.

    I still don't really think of God as restless, but, waiting patiently for US to FIND HIM.

    I know that Jesus walked among us, laughed, got pissed off, healed, preferred many miracles( I think more than a few of us could use them now!)

    I think GOD waits and it's always up to us to seek.

    Long day for me.
    My Mom died nine years ago today.
    It's been a long journey to try and face the day without so much pain and even to laugh with friends. Long day.

    Sleep peacefully, Heather.

  9. "God doesn’t know exactly how that will happen. To give people free will, it seems to me, is to consent to not know, to wait knowing that but without knowing how."

    This wouldn't be correct no matter how you look at it because God is outside of time and He literally knows everything. Maybe Christ in His human nature does this...but not the Godhead.

  10. Often I find that non religious people try to make God too human, for a truly good God wouldn't allow evil, but that is very human thinking.

    At the same time, some religious people, in a bout of hopelessness at ever comprehending God, also turn him into a perplexing robot: no emotions and a logic we'll never understand.

    So, we musn't confine him to human limitations, but acknowledge him as the feeling, sentient God that he is: lover, friend, father, brother, hero.

  11. I do believe that God speaks just as clearly through "ex-drunk untutored layperson" as through anyone. As Christians we are called to constantly reflect upon God and our experience of God. The Church guides and guards us, true, but God is within us, sharing our own trials.

  12. replying to John,
    well, I guess I was thinking that in my life, at least, sorrow and suffering and distress and anguish are very different from anxiety. I'm grateful and comforted that my Lord has experienced human suffering. And because I know He has, and perhaps still does, it helps me afford to let go of some of my own anxiety.


I WELCOME your comments!!!