CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A God Who Cares, and Gets Involved

Mar 14, 2014

No day passes without some tragedy or horrific case of suffering. And when these things happen, inevitably the questions arise: Why? Where was God? How could God allow this to happen? At the moment much of the world is still waiting to learn more about Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, missing for almost a week now.

Just what became of the plane and its 239 passengers and crew? Was it terrorism? Just where is the plane – or its remains? Why are there so very few details so far? Obviously for family and friends the wait for answers is excruciating. But suffering and evil are a common occurrence, and MH370 is yet just another example of this.

MH370I of course am not here going to shed any new light on this particular tragedy or the bigger issue of God and suffering. Entire libraries have been written on this, and we still do not have all the answers, and never will, this side of eternity. But a few points can be raised nonetheless.

My daily reading can come to our aid here. Just a few days ago I read this passage: “But the Israelites said to the LORD, ‘We have sinned. Do with us whatever you think best, but please rescue us now.’ Then they got rid of the foreign gods among them and served the LORD. And he could bear Israel’s misery no longer.” (Judges 10:15-16)

Admittedly the Hebrew of 10:16b is rather ambiguous. But if the NIV is more or less correct in its translation, then we have here the idea of a supreme being who is the transcendent creator of all things, yet a personal being who actually cares deeply about our everyday plight.

This is an amazing yet biblically-sound reality. Our God is not unconcerned about our situation, and regularly acts on our behalf. Many other texts could be appealed to here. Consider just one other Old Testament passage, Isaiah 63:9-10:

“In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. So he turned and became their enemy and he himself fought against them.”

Here we have a God who both cares for and acts on behalf of his people. No other religious system offers us such a concerned and involved God. Many in fact present us with the opposite. Deism for example posits a God who created everything, but after that, has taken a hands-off approach to creation.

The God of Islam – Allah – is also remote, aloof, totally transcendent, and impervious to the claims of mere men. The idea of a personal relationship with Allah, of seeing him as a loving heavenly father, is of course totally unknown in Islam.

Only the Judeo-Christian portrait of God gives us what we need: a fully transcendent and all-powerful God, yet one who is also fully immanent, involved in our personal lives and responsive to our needs. But I speak to that in much more detail here: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/08/05/on-gods-immanence-and-transcendence/

The whys of suffering and tragedy will never be fully answered in this life. But instead of a why we have a who. We have a personal God who is intimately concerned about us, and who will act on our behalf – not always perhaps, but when and where needed.

In his brand new book, A Reasonable Response (a collection of his earlier Q&As from his web site), William Lane Craig cites another Christian philosopher, Alvin Plantinga. He writes: “As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer.

“I believe they are wrong. God’s capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son’s humiliation and death.

“He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don’t know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.”

Now at this juncture some of my more theologically astute readers will want to ask more about an issue just raised by Plantinga: divine impassibility. That is a mega-topic which I of course cannot do proper justice to here. But I have briefly discussed it elsewhere, eg: billmuehlenberg.com/2013/02/07/a-review-of-god-is-impassible-and-impassioned-toward-a-theology-of-divine-emotion-by-rob-lister/

Let me simply offer a few quick closing words about this issue. Christians can and do disagree as to what extent, if any, God actually suffers, has emotions, and so on. We want to be true to the biblical data however as we approach this issue. While God clearly does not change, he may be said to have passion or emotion.

And as always, the best way to get a proper handle on all this is to look at the cross. There we so fully and so vitally learn about who our God is and how he acts on our behalf. Of the many authors I can cite here, let me mention just one: D.A. Carson. In his very helpful volume How Long O Lord? (1990, 2nd ed., 2006) he has a whole chapter on “The Suffering God”.

He reminds us that “The cross reveals the kind of God we trust”. Discussing the doctrine of the impassibility of God, he urges us to reject two unbiblical extremes: that God is changeless and has utterly no passion or emotion; and that God has passion but is ever-changing.

Scripture assures us that God is unchanging, but it also clearly speaks to his emotions. As Carson writes, “The biblical evidence, in both Testaments, pictures God as a being who can suffer. Doubtless God’s suffering is not exactly like ours; doubtless metaphors litter the descriptions. But they are not metaphors that refer to nothing, that are suggestive of nothing. They are metaphors that refer to God and are suggestive of his profound emotional life and his distinctly personal relationships with his people.

“If the term ‘impassible’ is to be preserved – and I think it can be – then one must use it to affirm that God is never controlled or overturned by his emotions. We human beings speak of ‘falling in love’ and ‘exploding in anger’ or simply ‘losing it.’ God never ‘loses it.’ What he does – whether in righteous wrath or in tender love – he does out of the constancy of all his perfections. In that sense, I think, we may usefully speak of God being ‘impassible.’ But never should we succumb to the view that God is exclusively cerebral, utterly without emotions.”

Once again, the cross is where we must look to get a proper handle on this. And it is the way to properly deal with suffering and tragedy. “To focus on the cross of Christ not only grounds our faith on the God who is loving and faithful, but also gives us an example in his sacrificial and redemptive love that we can never outstrip. When we suffer, there will sometimes be mystery. Will there also be faith? Yes, if our attention is focused more on the cross, and on the God of the cross, than on our suffering.”

And again: “In the darkest night of the soul, Christians have something to hang onto that Job never knew. We know Christ crucified. Christians have learned that when there seems to be no other evidence of God’s love, they cannot escape the cross. ‘He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Rom. 8:32).”

In this life suffering and tragedies will continue. But for the Christian, there is genuine hope: hope in a God who is not impervious to our suffering, but very much enters into our world of suffering. Somehow and some way, we appear to worship a suffering God – a God who cares deeply about us and acts on our behalf.

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8 Responses to A God Who Cares, and Gets Involved

  • Bless you Bill for this wonderful message, so timely for me as I prepare an Easter message. Very much appreciated by this 71 year old. Have a Blessed weekend. Rodney

  • I can’t see any contradiction in unchangeableness and having emotions. We were made in His image and we have emotions, just because they are now going haywire and can’t cope with the evil that is now in the world, the evil in us and others, for which they were never designed doesn’t mean they weren’t part of the original creation in His image. I can’t imagine a God without emotions, a God who has “zeal” must have emotions, a robot wouldn’t have zeal but would execute all decisions with calculated reason, good or bad, but a robot also doesn’t live in relationship. But our God loves, so he must suffer too, the two go together when evil has entered the world.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • That the Author of Life was born, the Seed of the woman to become the Man of Sorrows does indeed tend to the conclusion that God is more than the eternal Word, the Mind who created all other intelligences: He also has real, true and pure feelings – otherwise compassion could never be a noble emotion – He is the One of Whom the apostle wrote “God is love”.

    The divorce of reason from the emotions is one of the afflictions Western culture has inherited from pre-Christian Greek philosophy.

  • Thank you Bill. This message is timely for my family and I at this time also. As we struggle through some dark times it is good to remember that we have such a great high priest.

  • G’day Bill,
    And, the alternative has to be considered also. This is Richard Dawkin’s take on events:

    ‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, or any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference …’

    He can have it. I’d rather God who cares, even though I don’t get what He’s doing.

    Andrew Campbell

  • Great article Bill.
    I also believe that God has angst and is suffering too, because of mankind’s continual disobedience towards Him. We suffer, decay and die because of our sinful nature. It was not meant to be this way however, the wages of sin is death.

    I do believe though, that God is also rejoicing as well because He is winning new hearts and souls every day.

    We are definitely living in the end times because the Gospel of Our Lord and Saviour has spread throughout the world because significant advances in communications technology.
    Therefore there is no excuse for people to say that they did not know. God has given us all ample warning of the criteria which is needed to enter His Kingdom.

    I worked out long ago that our primary purposes in life is to multiply and to serve God by perpetuating His message.

    God has been extremely patient with us. I don’t believe He has to endure much more angst over us any further because His begotten Son will be here soon to collect His children and bring them into the Kingdom of God, while this corrupt earth and its unrepentant people be destroyed and will cease to exist.

    Only then will our most awesome, merciful, patient and loving God will truly rest.

  • I am with you Andrew, I am glad our requirement is to obey, to follow, whether we get it or not. I mean understanding is not a requirement for the Christian life, though it can be a by-product when we walk closely with the Lord Jesus, or else I would be disqualified as I don’t “get it” most of the time, so I just try to concentrate on obeying.
    Frank, I dont think God has “angst” as angst means fear. I know psychological jargon has reinterpreted the meaning to any kind of stress, but that is not what it means.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  • Dear Bill,

    Thanks for the brilliant article as usual. The suffering of old age is not mentioned much whenever suffering is discussed. This is because it can be extremely hard to bear especially when the brain seems as young and fresh as ever it was.

    I understand much more now than I did what is said on Anzac Day about the war dead when they say ‘Age shall not weary them’ because the weariness of old age is very hard to bear and a genuine cause of suffering.

    Jesus would have seen Joseph suffer from it although he would not have been old by today’s standards.

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