Scripture Reference: Isaiah 53, Matthew 27:45-50
The Lie That God Has Personally Never SufferedDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | October 3, 1999
Selected highlights from this sermon
Can God suffer? Yes: look at the cross.
While Jesus, fully man and fully God, was hanging on the cross, bearing our sins, God the Father withdrew, causing Jesus to cry out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me!”
God, in the form of the Son, was suffering. His shoulders bore all the sins of the world - past, present and future.
And all of the punishment and judgment we deserved—not Him—was paid for with His blood.
Yes. God can suffer.
Note: Pastor Lutzer quotes from Elie Wiesel’s “Night”
I want to begin today with a question to ask you (by asking you a question). Has God has ever suffered? I think that’s a question that the Jewish people would like to have answered when they think of the Holocaust. Christians would like to have that question answered when they think of the slaughter, for example, of the Armenians. Kosovars want to have that question answered when they think of the civil war in their own country and the atrocities that were committed. And you and I would like to have an answer to that question when we see a young mother come down with cancer. When we see the despair of a child who has been abused, we want to ask the question. We suffer, we say, but does God ever suffer because we know intuitively that a god who cannot suffer is a god who really cannot love?
You know, when you look around this world you try to find proof that God cares. It’s difficult to come by. You say, “Well you know He sends rain and sunshine, and we get crops.” Yeah, nature, but it’s a very mixed bag, isn’t it, with tornadoes and earthquakes and tidal waves and hurricanes and what have you? And we’ve been having our share of those.
You say, “Well I see God in people. When there is tragedy there is some good in us.” Yeah, there is some good. It is interesting that when we have a snowstorm or some tragedy how the media plays up the fact that there is some good in people that actually makes news. Somebody actually shovels the walk for somebody else, and that is news, isn’t it? The problem is that people also are a mixed bag because for every good person, you know that there’s a lot of deceit around, and there’s a lot of dishonesty, and there’s a lot of cheating and a there’s lot of hurt and pain, and there’s a tremendous amount of abuse. So you can’t prove that God cares about the world by just looking at people. Where then do we turn?
C. S. Lewis said that he was on the verge of deception. He said, “It’s not that I am in danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is to believe dreadful things about Him.” And that’s my danger. I have no danger about ceasing to believe in God, but I am sometimes tempted to believe dreadful things about Him, considering the suffering that is in the world. Is there some reason why we don’t have to be cynical? Is there a reason why we don’t have to think dreadful thoughts about Him? I think that the only place where we can find hope to resolve this is on the cross because when Jesus died on the cross, this was God’s farthest reach. He came to our side of the chasm. Here love burst upon the world. God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Those nine words give us hope.
As you know, this is a series of messages titled Ten Lies About God (and how you already may be deceived). We’ve talked about the first lie, that God can be approached in any way by anyone. The second one is that He’s more tolerant than He used to be. And today we come to lie number three, which is that God Himself, the Father, has never personally suffered. I think it’s a lie, and you have to hang in with me so that I get a chance to prove my point.
But before we talk about that specifically and talk about the cross as an example of God’s suffering, let me back up a little bit and speak first of all briefly about the self-substitution of God, which leads to the cross. The idea of substitution is found throughout the Scriptures all the way from when God killed animals to clothe Adam and Eve. Then Abraham finds that ram that is caught in the thicket. And then the Israelites put blood on the doors. The lamb dies for them and that’s the whole basis of the sacrificial system.
There was a problem. God looks around and He finds that all of these sacrifices cannot pay a price that He will accept, and He realizes what He always knew, namely that if man is to be redeemed, God is going to have to pay His own price. And that’s why the Scripture, speaking about Christ, says, “Surely He had borne our grief and carried our sorrows. We did esteem Him. Stricken of God and afflicted, He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities.”
One theologian, Canfield, puts it this way. God purposed to direct against Himself in the person of His Son the full weight of that righteous wrath, which we deserved. Calvin said our guilt was transferred to the head of the Son of God.
Please listen carefully. The essence of sin is for man to put himself in God’s stead. The essence of redemption is for God to put Himself in man’s stead. We always like to substitute ourselves for God. God comes and substitutes Himself for us, and dies for us. The self-substitution of God!
We’re leading to the cross, but first of all, we must stop at one other juncture, and that is the submission of God. The Scripture says again in Isaiah regarding Christ, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep for her shearers is dumb, He does not open His mouth.”
Here is the Son submitting to the will and the purposes of the Father, but I need to caution you. Don’t ever think to yourself that a very benevolent and loving Jesus had to convince an angry, reluctant Father to redeem humanity. That’s wrong. It’s easy to think that way but that’s wrong. It’s a distortion. The Bible itself speaks about the tender mercies of our God. And then we think, for example, of the most popular verse in all the Bible. “For God so loved the world.”
So let us keep in mind that there was agreement within the Trinity. In fact, John Stott said, “The Father did not lay on the Son an ordeal He was reluctant to bear, nor did the Son exact from the Father a salvation He was reluctant to bestow. The Trinity, though playing various roles, was unified. Jesus died by divine consent.”
Now with that background let’s speak about the suffering of God at the cross. Take your Bibles and turn to the story that we are very familiar with, but I’m using the Matthew version of the story of the hinge of history. Here we come now, folks, to the greatest mystery that we could ever ponder. Paul said, “Great is the mystery of godliness. God was manifest in the flesh.” The cross is the centrifugal force. It is, as it were, the hub in which all of the spokes of God’s purposes converge.
In Matthew 27 we come to the death of Jesus, and let me read at verse 45: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, ‘This man is calling Elijah.’ And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.’ And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
Let me answer three questions, and this is somewhat theological, but you’re going to stay with me to the end. I know you are. The first question is can God suffer? The second question is did God suffer? And the third question is does God still suffer?
The first one is can God suffer? Throughout the history of the Christian church there was much debate upon this. In the early centuries, it was believed that God was impassable, not impossible but impassable, meaning incapable of feeling pain. You even have the Westminster Confession of Faith written by marvelous clear-headed theologians, saying that God is, among other things, without passions. Wow! Now why would good theologians say that? First of all, it’s because they wanted to preserve the immutability of God, his unchangeableness. “I am the Lord and I change not.” They wanted to preserve that. They thought, “What kind of a God would we have if He would (and listen carefully now) be moody? What kind of a God would He be if His moods were to change?” Somehow that seems inconsistent with the nature of God. That was argument number one.
Argument number two was this: “We want a God who is self-existent, whose pleasures and pains in no way are determined by something outside of Him.” The argument was that God is always in a good mood. He’s always pleased. Our God is in the heavens. He has done whatsoever He has pleased. Nothing stands in the way of His purposes. Therefore He can never be frustrated, and therefore He can never really feel pain or deep disappointment because He has within Himself all the resources He needs to stay in a wonderful, wonderful mood.
Is that biblical? With all due respect, I’m going to challenge that in today’s message. I’m going to challenge it because you read the Old Testament, for example, and you find that there seems to be passion almost on every page. Frequently we read, “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people of Israel,” and “The anger of God was hot against them.” That sounds like a lot of passion to me.
We read in the book of Hosea. God says, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I surrender you?” And God is there, speaking about Israel as His son, and saying, “Don’t you know that I am consumed within Me because of your behavior?” It’s the words of a father who finds a son being wayward, and the father is going through agony. You know, you may think that one of the advantages of being God is that you never have to be frustrated because you have all the power and all the wisdom and everything at your disposal. But as we shall see in a moment, God chose to be frustrated and hurt.
Let me give you a couple of points that will help us. First, it would be dishonoring to God if we thought He was something like we are, subject to our emotions, subject to our passions, and therefore sometimes out of control because of our anger, or elated with things that would be the wrong things that would give us pleasure. Let’s make sure that we never, never fall into that trap.
Secondly, let’s not think that God is a victim. See that’s what I think the framers of the Westminster Confession were afraid of. God isn’t a victim who suddenly discovers that he’s having a bad day. God chose suffering. He is still the sovereign one. He is still the King, but He chose to suffer. And therefore He suffers because He willed that He suffer.
John Piper, in one of his books, talks about the infinitely complex emotions of God. I love that phrase – infinitely complex emotions of God. On the one hand, of course God is always pleased with what has happened because He has everything under control when He looks at it from the long- range point of view. But when He looks at it more narrowly there are things that displease Him, and there are things that make Him angry. And all of these emotions are not contradictory. You and I, if we really feel happiness, also know what it’s like to feel sadness.
Now you think of God who (What shall we say?} fills the whole universe from end to end. He has a multitude of different emotions, not in conflict but in harmony, and I want to say today that one of them is even disappointment and sorrow.
One day Martin Luther wrote a letter to Erasmus and said, “Erasmus, your god is too human.” And Luther was right. In the next message, in fact, I’m going to talk very critically about modern conceptions of God that are far too human. But I want you to know that it is also possible to have a concept of God that is not human enough. God created us with emotions, and because we’re created in His image we can see in the Scriptures that He has emotions too.
And with all of that background now we look at the text that I read just a moment ago. We take a look at the cross. First of all, what was happening here in the passage I just read when the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness comes over the land, and Jesus says, “My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me?” What’s going on there? First of all, remember that Jesus became legally guilty of the sin of the world. He was made sin for us, the One who knew no sin. Imagine holiness and purity beyond our imagination coming in contact with the impurities of the world, suddenly becoming legally guilty of child abuse, and child neglect and rape, and all the other sins of murder and greed and selfishness. And now suddenly that is being laid upon Him because He is becoming a sin offering. So Jesus is becoming legally guilty, not personally but legally guilty of your sin. That’s pretty terrible!
Secondly, the Father now is withdrawing. And when the Father withdraws He does not give comfort to the Son whom He loves, nor does He intervene in the situation, but He withdraws. And so the Son says, “Why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus is going through existential despair, and He is walking through those hours alone. The thief says, “Call, and come down from the cross if You are the Son of God.” Could He do it? Of course He could do it. Angels had to be restrained from coming to help Him, but the plan was that He die. And so as He becomes that sin offering, the Father does not intervene.
No wonder it becomes dark. No wonder the hymn writer writes:
Well might the sun in darkness hide,
And shut its glories in,
When Christ, the great redeemer died
For man, the creature’s sin.
And here at the cross now you have all of the emotions of God converging. On the one hand, you have justice, which says, “I cannot overlook sin. I cannot forgive it.” On the other hand, you have love that is saying, “We have to find a way. There’s got to be a way to resolve this.” And so you have anger against sin at the same time that you have the Father pleased with the death of Christ. It says in Isaiah 53, “It pleased the Father to bruise the Son,” because He knows what is going to come as a result of that bruising. And suddenly you have all of these divine emotions converging in what one preacher called this divine catharsis when all of the emotions are finally resolved in mutual satisfaction.
Justice got what it wanted. And love got what it wanted. And you find that anger was resolved as it was taken out on the sin offering on Jesus. And now mercy is extended, and all of the things that God wanted to accomplish are right here at the cross when Jesus is calling out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
Now I speak to you fathers, those of you who have had children, and mothers as well. What is it like when your child is suffering? What is it like? I remember when one of our daughters was in the hospital for quite some time, and I found I could scarcely work here at church. I was constantly thinking about her, wondering if she was getting better, and if they were able to analyze what she was going through. And when a child suffers, your insides, the (what shall we say?) effective part of you begins to agonize along with them.
Are you telling me that the Father who loves the Son, in whom He is well pleased, that it was only the humanity of Jesus that suffered, and the Father stayed absent and was emotionally passive when His Son was dying on the cross? I don’t think so. “For as the father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who love Him.” Let’s not have a God that is not human enough. It is God there at the cross.
I think Luther was right when he said, “If only a man died on the cross, we are damned.” The One who died on the cross was the God-Man, and when the humanity died and went through that agony, the deity was affected, and God suffered.
William Butterick tells the story of being in a church in Italy in which, he says, there is a beautiful painting of Jesus dying on the cross. And behind that painting there is a shadowy huge figure that extends to eternity. And then he says that the nails that go through the hands of Jesus go through the hands of God. And the sword that goes in the side of Jesus goes into the heart of God, and we can say there then with authority that it was God, the God-Man on the cross.
I know that in a different context I quoted already to you some time ago the words of Phil Donohue. When giving reasons why he abandoned Christianity, he asked the question, “If God loves the world, why did He send His Son to die? Why didn’t He come out of heaven and do it Himself?” And the answer that I hope you know from the Scriptures is, “Phil, He did! He did do it Himself.” And that’s why we sing “Amazing Love” and “And can it be that Thou my God should die for me.” Yes, God can suffer. Did God suffer? Yes, I believe that God suffered on the cross.
Does God still suffer today? There is a story by Elie Wiesel, a Jewish writer and Nobel Prize winner. He tells the story of being in a concentration camp. And the Jews were asked to come and to watch the death of three people. Two men were hanged and also a child. And Wiesel said that the two men died quickly, but the child (the boy) struggled on the gallows for nearly a half an hour. And someone behind him whispered what all of them were thinking, “Where is God? Where is He?” And then Wiesel said that as he saw that he was asking the same question. And then there was an answer that was born in his heart. And the answer was, “God is on those gallows. That’s where He is.” Ravi Zacharias, commenting on this, said that it is the cross of Jesus Christ that invades human suffering.
Where is God? God is in that ghetto where that child is being abused and neglected. Where is God? God is in that suburban home where you have intrigue and greed, and where children are subjected to all kinds of expectations, and where children sometimes are being so abused and hurt. God is there.
God is (Dare I say it?) in that plastic bag in the abortion clinic. That’s where God is. And if you say, “How do we know that God is there?” all that we need to do is to point to the cross and to say, “It is the cross, it is the wounds of Jesus that reminds us that God can suffer.” God can suffer. And I believe that Bonheoffer was right as he was standing against Nazi Germany when he said, “Only a God who suffers can help us.”
We look at the world today and we see that tremendous suffering. And people say, “Well, why is it that you do not think terrible things about God?” What about the cynicism?” And it is at the cross that the cynicism ends, and we (you and I) say that in the words and the actions and the suffering of Jesus that God cares about the world. And because He loves, He suffers.
I know that there is a lot of pressure (Isn’t there?) for us to accept other religions. In fact, in this series of messages an entire message is going to be devoted to the question of whether or not God is obligated to save people from other religions. But there is a story that comes to us from Africa that might help us at this point.
The story is that there was a blaze of fire that burned this hut. Because of the materials with which they are constructed there the houses burn quickly and they are very hot. Everyone in the family died except for a little boy. The story is that when the blaze was in full (What shall we say?) strength, someone (and no one knew who) went into the blazing house and rescued the child and laid him on the ground, and then disappeared into the night.
Well, everyone was dead in the morning, but the child lived. And so the elders of the village thought that this must be a very special child, possibly because of some superstitions that if a child survived the fire, he has to be especially honored. So they called a tribal meeting, as they do in some villages, to discuss what to do with the child who survived.
One nominated that he go into the home where the man was known especially for his wisdom and this would be a good home for the child to be brought up in. Someone else said, “No, I think that he should be brought up in my home because we have more resources; we have more money.”
And as this discussion was taking place, suddenly one man came into the middle of the circle and asked to be heard. They turned to him and he said, “I think I have prior claim – special claim,” and then he showed them his freshly burned hands, and they realized that he was the one who went into the hut and rescued the child.
I know that there are many options out there. I know something of the fact that today there are different religions and different teachers that say, “We can do this and we can do that,” and they may even have some truth that is dispensed from time to time. But I want you to know that no one else has wounded hands. No one else is at the center of the universe with a God who says, “I suffered for you and here is proof in the wounded hands of Jesus.”
The other gods were strong, but Thou art weak.
They strode, but Thou did stumble to Thy throne.
Yet to our wounds only God can speak,
But not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
Can God suffer? Yes.
Did God suffer? Yes.
Does God suffer? Yes.
“Give me proof so that I may not think dreadful thoughts about Him,” you say. And I say, “Look at the wounds of Jesus because Bonheoffer was right. Only a suffering God can help us.”
Let us pray.
Our Father, we want to thank You today for the cross of Jesus. We thank You today that there it is that love and mercy and grace and anger and compassion were all resolved, mutually satisfying all the demands of God. We thank You that justice got what it wanted, and love got what it wanted. And we thank You today that we can point to Jesus who said, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father.” We thank You that when we see Jesus on the cross we see God perhaps more clearly than we can ever see Him until we see Him face to face.
And now even in this moment if you are here today and you have never trusted Christ as Savior, He’s the only One who has the claim of Saviorhood, the only one with wounded hands who died that we might be redeemed. Would you trust Him right now? You talk to Him.
And if you know Christ, why don’t you affirm your love, your confession and your yieldedness to Him, and to His wounds?
Do in us today, oh Father, all that You desire that we might love the Savior with all of our hearts we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.