Thursday, February 9, 2012

Can God suffer? BIG Ideas on Faith No. 6


Furthering our journey of BIG ideas on Faith, we arrive at a discussion about the nature of God. Let me ask you a few questions:
  • Is God Male?
  • Is God a personal God or a distant God?
  • Can God suffer?
Is God Male?
The simple answer is that God is neither male nor female. We well know the language used of the partriarchs of long ago (e.g. Moses, David, etc) was very masculine, and they (including Jesus), referred to God as 'Father'. Some would say we need to continue to refer to God as 'Father' because those are the words used by Christ himself.

As Alister McGrath says (Christian Theology), it is very different to say that, 'a father in ancient Israelite society is a suitable model for God' and saying, 'God is a male human being'. We may well use the word 'Father' as a title for God, and not be implying that God is male. There is always been difficulty in the English language with the pronouns him/her, as there is no alternative other than say the word, 'it', which is less than desirable for a word that is used for God. Most writers continue to use the word 'him', though acknowledging that God is neither male nor female.

I spoke to a lady once on the streets of Melbourne, Australia, about God. She had issues with the overly masculine language used in the church today. I tried to assure her that God is neither male, nor female. God values all people, no matter their gender. She replied with some happy retort, to which I said, 'Amen!' Then she got all indignant and said, 'There you go again. A-Men. Why does it have to always be about men?! That seems to be all you people are on about, I just wish...' She continued to whinge and whinge, until my friend and I kindly said, 'Look, thanks for the chat, but we really must be going...'

Is God a Personal God or a Distant God?
The question is related to theological themes called immanence and transcendence. Immanence is the idea that God is close to humanity (God is immanent), and that through Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can be in close relationship with him. Transcendence focuses on the sovereignty of God. God is all-powerful, and while not distant per se, he is worthy of respect and honour, as he is Creator of the Cosmos. Most Christians hold those two concepts in tension, that God is soveriegn (transcendent), he is also very close to us (immanent).

Can God Suffer?
Can we speak of God as a 'Suffering God'? Right back to the time of Plato the notion of perfection characterised people's understanding of God. 'To be perfect is to be unchanging and self-sufficient. It is therefore impossible for such a perfect being to be affected or changed by anything outside itself' (McGrath, 210). This is the classic view called 'the impassibility of God'. Though, if we hold to the view that God is perfect in this sense and that God never changes, then how do we grapple with the crucifixion of Jesus?

Read another important post here on why God may allow suffering to occur for you and me.

Martin Luther ruffled some feathers in 1518-1519 when he spoke of 'a crucified God', mentioning that God shares in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Jurgen Moltmann's 1972 'The Crucified God' expands on  this idea. Moltmann says, God willed to undergo suffering, that is, to see his son crucified on the cross for the sins of the world. Also, to believe God suffers and is in pain, for instance at the death of his son, God is able to give meaning and dignity to human suffering on the whole (McGrath, p. 213).

This leads us to BIG Idea No. 6: God experienced suffering when his own Son went to the cross for our sins. Therefore God understands our own suffering and pain.
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<-- The Word of God is Sharp - BIG Idea No. 5
--> BIG Idea No. 7______________________

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