Why Does God Suffer?

2012 Lenten Reflection Series

“Sweeping Up the Heart: A Father’s Lament for His Daughter” by Paul Nisly (Good Books. 1992)

Sweeping Up the Heart: A Father’s Lament for His Daughter (Paul Nisly. Good Books, 1992) provides both a raw and a rich narrative of a Messiah College English professor’s wrestling with God (and himself) after his daughter Janelle’s death. As you may remember from last week, several months after her Messiah College graduation and the beginning of the practice of nursing, Janelle was struck by a tractor-trailer rig. The truck rear-ended several cars, then smashed over into the lane of oncoming traffic and right into her vehicle.

Paul opens Chapter 11: Through Flood and Fire with Psalm 88 and Isaiah 43. Then he turns to three questions:

  1. Should believers suffer?
  2. Where is God when we suffer?
  3. Why does God suffer?

Imagine yourself as a colleague or a student of Paul, who in addition to being an academic serves as a bishop in the Mennonite Church:

  • How would you have counseled him?
  • How would you have avoided offering words similar to those of Job’s friends?

After taking a few minutes to walk through the above scenario, I encourage you to reflect on how you have addressed Paul’s three questions in your own life and/or those of close friends, family, and colleagues.

Wondering what insights Paul has to share with us? . . . 

In the end Paul confesses in response to Should believers suffer?

Suffering is awful — and seemingly unavoidable (64).

Personally I find the complex nature of the brokenness of creation and those created in the image of God disturbing throughout the day. Should we suffer? No! But such is the world in which we find ourselves in as a result of the willful disobedience of Adam & Eve, i.e., the Fall and the forthcoming Original Sin which continues to play out across the broken/groaning creation generation after generation.*

With regard to Where is God when we suffer?, Paul concludes

As God told Moses, “My face you cannot see and live.” Pascal says rather enigmatically, “A religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true — truly you are a hidden God.” I rest, then, in a God who is beyond our understanding, a God whose mystery I cannot fathom, a God whose ways I cannot always justify. But I also believe that God does not abandon us in our pain (69).

In response to Why does God suffer?, Paul shares a number of helpful “texts” which I’ll continue to meditate upon this Lent:

“Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” — Isaiah 53:4

“My soul is exceedingly sorrowful even unto death.” — Matthew 26:38

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 — Nicholas WolterstorffLament for a Son. Eerdmans: 1987 (70).

The fourth man in the fiery furnace “who looks like a son of the gods.” — Daniel 3:25

The master is coming — not tomorrow,

but today,

not next year, but this year,

not after all our misery is passed,

 but in the middle of it,

not in another place

but right here where we are standing — Henri Nouwen. The Wounded Healer. Doubleday: 1972 (71).

Paul finishes the chapter by affirming:

Through fire and flood we have the assurance that the Wounded Healer stands with us in the blistering flames and the smashing torrent. He has not abandoned us. Amen (71).

Amen! A shout out/thank-you to Paul for sharing his deep wounds and confidence in Christ with us through Sweeping Up the Heart. After celebrating Easter, we’ll return to Paul’s concluding chapters: Hope in Christ and Living in Eternity — and in Time.

In the next post in this series we explore Why and how (?) God suffers through the added lens of the first chapter of Thomas H. McCall’s Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (InterVarsity, May 2012). I’m really excited about the material wrestled with in this May 2012 release.

2012 Lenten Reflection Series

*A topic to be explored at another time, but feel free to comment upon: The range of suffering encountered by human beings is quite large.
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Tom Grosh IV

Tom enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa and their four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he teaches adult electives and co-leads a small group), among healthcare professionals as the South Central PA Area Director for the Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA), and in higher ed as a volunteer with the Emerging Scholars Network (ESN). The Christian Medical Society / CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine is the hub of his ministry with CMDA. Note: Tom served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / USA for 20+ years, including 6+ years as the Associate Director of ESN. He has written for the ESN blog from its launch in August 2008. He has studied Biology (B.S.), Higher Education (M.A.), Spiritual Direction (Certificate), Spiritual Formation (M.A.R.), Ministry to Emerging Generations (D.Min.). To God be the glory!

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One Comment

  • 1w0ldacgl@gmail.com'
    Amanda commented on October 25, 2015 Reply

    Dear Tom,I agree on the philosophers. Regarding scinetists, I’d put Francis Collins, author of The Language of God in the top shelf category in human genetics. Fritz (Henry) Schaeffer, a quantum chemist, and Owen Gingerich, an astronomer, are often mentioned in physical science. There are quite a few others. Your categorization seems to place a premium on writing at the interface of faith and profession, whereas many scholars don’t do this.

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