In my first semester at United Theological Seminary (this Fall) I will be teaching a classed titled “The New Testament and Suffering.” It is a topic that has fascinated me for some time. Suffering is everywhere in the biblical story. Whether we’re talking of exile, remembrance, lament, crucifixion, final judgment, or future hope, suffering is central. Strange then that much of my religious experience has involved masking or marginalizing this element of the human experience. I have learned well from my fellow Christians how to avoid talk of suffering and to give every testimony a bright, Jesusy silver lining. For this reason and others I am looking forward to developing a more “Christian” way to think about God, the Bible, and suffering in conversation with my students.
One of the books I will be assigning is Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective. (Tip of the hat to Brad Anderson for recommending this book to me several years ago.) This may seem an odd choice for a New Testament class, but it was the first book that came to mind when I decided to teach it. Fretheim’s portrait of a suffering God tied to a suffering people has become crucial to my thinking on this topic. In preparation, I picked up this book again recently. Here is an excerpt from the first pages:
The preaching and teaching of the church have commonly been so focused on a certain portrait of Jesus that many of the biblical images for God have been neglected, and stereotypical images have been allowed to stand unchallenged. It is almost as if faith in Jesus were thought to take care of the picture of God automatically; thus, one need pay no special heed to it. But this assumption has commonly created inner tensions for the faithful, perhaps intolerable tensions; for the picture of Jesus presented often stands at odds with the commonly accepted picture of God. Attributes such as love, compassion, and mercy, accompanied by acts of healing, forgiving, and redeeming, tend to become narrowly associated with Jesus, while the less palatable attributes and actions of holiness, wrath, power, and justice are ascribed only to God. …. If God is not the cause of all the ills in the world, God is still seen as the one who is to blame for not really doing anything about them. It is the goodness of God that is ignored not the goodness of Jesus. …. People seem to have a view which suggests that Jesus is friend and God is enemy. An understanding of the atonement gets twisted so that Jesus is seen as the one who came to save us from God. …. Such perspectives regarding God and the relationship between God and Jesus, even if exemplified in nothing more than a tendency in language and thought, have probably commonly led to a kind of “Jesusology,” in both naïve and more sophisticated forms. God remains at a distance as someone to be feared, while Jesus lives tenderly in one’s heart. Or, when combined with an idea that God is really unknowable, one is lead to a notion that Jesus is finally all we have, and commonly only in a very human form: Jesus, not Jesus Christ. A very close correlation can be seen between the idea of a God who is “wholly other,” a totally removed from the world, and “God is dead” proclamations, whether the last phrase is to be understood literally or figuratively. This tendency is reinforced by secularist trends which have made the activity of God in the world problematic, while Jesus continues to be seen as an actual historical figure; hence one can talk about his spirit living on in the hearts of the faithful with less difficulty.
I am so glad to be reading this book again. It is the kind of book that looks closely enough at one theme that it causes one to rethink a dozen other themes simultaneously.