CultureWatch

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

Our Wounded God

Apr 21, 2017

There is only one religion in the world in which it makes sense to speak of a wounded God. And even more unique, this was a case of self-wounding. What religion would ever dare to speak this way? Just one: Christianity. The heart of the Christian faith is the suffering God who suffers with us and for us.

He suffers because he loves. Love always entails suffering. The greater the love, the greater the possibility of suffering. Any parent who has children knows of both the pains and pleasures which their offspring can bring. Indeed, any parent who loves his or her own children will tell you that the capacity to love includes the capacity to suffer. The more a parent loves a child, the more potential for hurt, grief and suffering.

jesus 42C. S. Lewis, as usual, captures this thought with insight and eloquence:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. . . . The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Or as Alister McGrath once put it in:

Our sense of loss and sorrow when someone dies is in direct proportion to how much we love them. Our heartache would cease if we cared nothing for anyone, and regarded everyone with a splendid sense of detachment. . . . We suffer when those whom we love suffer. Love is the link which unites us with the lives of others, and allows the pain of their suffering to spill over into our lives. There is a bitter-sweet bond between love and suffering.

If all this is true of humans, how much more of God? The concept of the suffering love of God is found throughout Scripture. Plenty of passages could be appealed to here, but the book of Hosea is one obvious place where we find this so clearly laid out. If the book of Hosea is the pinnacle of Old Testament thinking on God’s suffering love, then chapter 11 is the book’s pinnacle.

Consider but one verse: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboiim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused” (11:8). The pain Hosea experiences is only a mere shadow of the divine heartache. David Hubbard offers this helpful summary:

The depth of what God feels, as Hosea understands those feelings, can never be separated from the height of who he is. The sharpness of the pain that registers in the divine complaints is directly related to the majesty of the Person who is suffering. . . . Not until Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, endures the betrayal of a disciple, and complains against the withdrawal of the Father, do we see a clearer picture of wounded Majesty.

Peter Lewis makes a similar observation: “In Hosea’s prophecy and in Hosea’s pain we are going to discover the secret heart of God; his innermost feelings, his profound sorrow and his sovereign grace. Not until the Word becomes flesh will God appear so tender and so vulnerable as in the book of Hosea.”

And Peter Craigie nicely summarises the connection between love and suffering as found in Hosea: “When we say ‘God is love’, we must not say it too glibly, for that fundamental statement carries with it a necessary counterpart: ‘God is suffering’. The love and the suffering are inextricably interrelated: God suffers because he loves and because those whom he loves do not return his love.”

Obviously the clearest and most profound example of how God is involved in our suffering and grief is the crucifixion. In the incarnation God is not only with us, but in the crucifixion he suffers for us, in our place. There is no better example of God taking upon himself our suffering than at the cross.

In fact Jesus is known as the suffering servant (see Isaiah 53). Even before his cruel death on a cross he was a man of sorrow and suffering. His heart continually broke for those he loved. The passage describing Jesus weeping over Jerusalem is a classic example: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Matthew 23:37).

Here divine pathos is clearly apparent. A wayward people can only be a constant source of pain to the divine heart – to the Son as much as to the Father. Another passage (of many) is John 11:33, “When Jesus saw her weeping [because of the death of Lazarus], and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled”. Says Herman Ridderbos,

Jesus’ deep inner agitation is not limited to what, in his confrontation with death, applies to himself, but also expresses itself in his solidarity with the grief of those who once more go to the tomb to weep over the loss of their dear brother and friend. He weeps with those who are weeping. . . . As the Son of God he does not come to redeem the world from imaginary grief or to make grief over death imaginary. Therefore he joins the mourning procession for the friend whom he is to raise from the dead, and he weeps.

And the cross was the greatest case of his own suffering of course. But not only does Christ suffer, but there is a sense in which God the father suffers as well. While debate goes on about the propriety of speaking of a suffering God, Jesus clearly suffered. And the Trinity itself, therefore, cannot go unaffected. Donald Macleod is worth citing at length in this regard:

Not only did God the Son suffer crucifixion, but God the Father suffered the pain of delivering Him up. The Father was as really bereft as the Son was forsaken: and the Father suffered the loss of the Son as really as the Son suffered the loss of the Father. The Father did not suffer what the Son suffered (He was not crucified). But He suffered seeing the Son suffering and the even greater (and quite unfathomable) agony of being the One who had to bruise and forsake Him. He had to steel Himself not to respond to the terrible cry from the far country, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’
Yet Calvary was not an isolated moment of pain or pity in the experience of God. Its roots lay in the primeval and permanent concern of God for His creation. The cross does not inaugurate that concern. But it does show how deep and passionate it is, and how far God was prepared to go.

The love of God for us is a suffering love. And God deals with our suffering and wounding by also suffering and being wounded. In his important 2005 volume, Unspeakable: Facing Up To Evil In an Age of Genocide and Terror, Os Guinness reminds us about this remarkable truth:

God is all-good: no other god has wounds. At the very heart of the Bible is a God who cares and comes to the aid of those who look to him. In contrast to the Eastern religions, the biblical response to evil and suffering is one of engagement, not detachment. And in contrast to secularist beliefs, we are not on our own as we fight evil….
In a real world of pain, how could one worship a God who is immune to it? Unless God has wounds too, any mere sense of duty always flags in facing the worst evil, high-minded principles run out of breath, education and speculation become mere chatter, and sophisticated therapy is exposed as charlatan incompetence. Here is where the silence of the Bible over why God permits evil is outweighed by the Bible’s stentorian shout about what God is doing about it. In the crucifixion of Jesus, sheer and utter evil meets sheer and utter love; unadulterated love wins out over unadulterated evil. No one can ever go so low that God in Jesus has not gone lower.

And Peter Kreeft, in his equally helpful volume, Making Sense Out of Suffering, puts it this way:

We began with the mystery, not just of suffering but of suffering in a world supposedly created by a loving God. How to get God off the hook? God’s answer is Jesus. Jesus is not God off the hook but God on the hook. That’s why the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is crucial: If that is not God there on the cross but only a good man, then God is not on the hook, on the cross, in our suffering. And if God is not on the hook, then God is not off the hook. How could he sit there in heaven and ignore our tears?
There is, as we saw, one good reason for not believing in God: evil. And God himself has answered this objection not in words but in deeds and in tears. Jesus is the tears of God.

Let me conclude by directing you to the 800-year-old hymn attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” Kenneth Osbeck says this about the man and the hymn:

Forsaking the wealth and ease of a noble family for a life of simplicity, holiness, prayer, and ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of others, Bernard was one of the most influential church leaders of his day. Martin Luther wrote of him, “He was the best monk that ever lived, whom I admire beyond all the rest put together.” “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” was part of the final portion of a lengthy poem that addressed the various parts of Christ’s body as He suffered on the cross.

Here are the lyrics:

1. O sacred head, now wounded,
with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded
with thorns, your only crown.
O sacred head, what glory
and blessing you have known!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I claim you as my own.

2. My Lord, what you did suffer
was all for sinner’s gain;
mine, mine was the transgression,
but yours the deadly pain.
So here I kneel, my Savior,
for I deserve your place;
look on me with thy favor
and save me by your grace.

3. What language shall I borrow
to thank you, dearest Friend,
for this, your dying sorrow,
your pity without end?
Lord, make me yours forever,
a loyal servant true,
and let me never, never
outlive my love to you.

One recent version of the hymn which you can listen to and be blessed by is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO2d0AD5wBg

We serve a wounded saviour. Glory to God.

[1853 words]

5 Responses to Our Wounded God

  • Well said Bill

  • My favourite hymn! “Oh Sacred head ill used ” goes the version I know and it is a very moving reflection on the sufferings of Christ for us.
    I had one of those “light bulb” moments recently reading in John 10:25-30 “Yet I have not come of myself, no, there is one who sent me and I really come from Him.” It struck me deeply – Jesus didn’t choose the mission He was given by the Father but humbly accepted it. The more I reflected on it the more layers of material for reflection, praise, thanksgiving and adoration came to light. It happens, doesn’t it? A familiar scripture passage suddenly cuts to the heart. Overwhelming.

  • Hi Bill, I’ve really struggled with this article. I am in total agreement with what you’ve written, however when I look at the love that was displayed by Jesus in going to the Cross, and his ongoing love for us today, I then am forced to look at my own inadequacies. I struggle on a daily basis to love and forgive others within this world that is rotten to its core. I am so thankful that Jesus also extends me His Grace to keep going. Thank you so much Bill for continually challenging me personally with these indepth & soul searching articles. Kind regards, Kel.

  • Bill,
    One of your best articles – excellent.

    In one’s walk with Jesus, one has to develop a philosophy of suffering, because that is the way of the Cross. Too much of Christianity today wants only the blessing, but the blessing is always balanced with suffering.

  • Amen. Well said, Bill. Yes because there was nothing remotely Christian on TV over Easter I dug out “The Passion” DVD.

    Rom 8:22 And we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now.
    Rom 8:23 And not only so, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruit of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, awaiting adoption, the redemption of our body.

    People have forgotten that prior to Christianity the idea of conquering and suppressing others was considered a virtue by even groups like the Stoics. This is the natural mind which is reflected in atheistic thinking and all other false religions but what Jesus gave us was a perspective from that of all creation, not simply from ourselves, where those who would be leaders must serve because that is how you do the greatest good to all creation.

    I pray that God’s grace be with us and allow us to move forward and do His will and that He will lift us up to stand strong.

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