He Touched the Pain: God and Suffering

Iris DeMent sings with about as much deep feeling as anyone. And she composes with equal authenticity.

A few years ago she paid honor to her mother, who loved to sing traditional spirituals, by recording an album of gospel music. On that album DeMent added two compositions of her own—both absolutely wonderful.

One was “God Walks the Dark Hills” witnesses to the truth that there is no path of suffering so painful that God doesn’t walk it with us. The other, “He Reached Down ” retells the stories of the Good Samaritan, Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, and the last judgment in which it is declared that what we do “the least of these,” we do to Christ. The refrain at the end of each story in this miraculous song goes like this:

He reached down, he reached down,
He got right there on the ground;
He reached down, he reached down, and he touched the pain.

And after the story of the last judgment it is Jesus himself who turns to us and says that when we fed the hungry, clothed the naked and fed the prisoners…

You reached down, you reached down…and you touched my pain.

Surely any Christian witness, teacher, preacher or theologian should consider whether he or she can give as persuasive and full an account of the gospel truth. The Incarnation, Passion, Crucifixion and resurrection are summed up in this: God reached down to us. He got right there on the ground with us. And He touched our pain. And surely faith is to be measured by this. Are we connected so well with Christ—are we so engaged with what Christ came to do, that we reciprocate—that we touch Christ’s pain in lives spent touching the pain of others?

Beginning with his 1920 work The Concept of Nature and through his 1929 book, Process and Reality, Alfred North Whitehead challenged the common way we think of the world, as composed basically of static substances. As it is in the human body that substances like bone and blood depend on processes like circulation and respiration, all reality is basically composed of events that have an organic attachment or relation to each other. Whitehead even went on to speculate that God has a core, changeless nature, but also a “consequent nature” that grows along with the ever occurring, ever evolving world itself.

Charles Harshorne followed up on Whitehead’s ideas with a fuller philosophy of religion of his own. He critiques the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas (and by implication all of the talk of divine natures spawned by the likes of Plato, Potinus, Augustine and many others) for they do not see a God whose very essence is influenced by his relations with the world. For classical theists God cannot change or grow or feel emotion because God is and always has been perfect. They see emotion and real change as signaling something less than perfection. Hartshorne countered that, in a world in which event is basic, growth and change are good. God’s knowledge of the world changes as the world changes.

I remember one professor’s comment (I assume he “borrowed it” from someone else influenced, perhaps by Hartshorne) that “God must change in order to stay the same.” We could also say that, in an event-filled world, God must grow and even evolve in order to stay perfect.

But the real issue that propelled Hartshorne forward was to assert appropriately that God is in touch. Some would say that this is a sentimental idea. Of course bleeding heart people would want to imagine a God who is actually affected by us, but God is above that. Yet isn’t it also being true to Scripture—to the notion that God hears the cries of suffering Hebrews in Egypt, that he is not above negotiation with Abraham over the fate Sodom or conversation, Job over the meaning of his suffering, prophets over judgment of Israel and Judah.

In the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth, God’s suffering is not something that arises from his essence, but something he chooses. It is a result of his actions in this world. So be it. But we should consider at all times how much our philosophical or theological speculation might be a way of taking offence at the imminence of God—the meaning of the Incarnation and the Passion. I remember Martin Luther saying that the cross is just as much something that comes upon us as it is something we choose if we are to “take up our cross and follow.” We choose, in essence, something that is an essential and inevitable part of reality. We do not turn away, but embrace what comes to us. Surely we can conceive of a perfection of the godhead that entails this sort of not shrinking from pain but touching it and being touched by it. Our God is holy, mighty, and immortal because of the way he is more than we can understand. Perhaps his perfection grows because perfection is more than we had imagined. Perhaps he is changed in his very heart–his very essence—by virtue of his living for us and with us. And perhaps this also is his eternal choice.

In any event, he has touched our pain, and if we truly believe in him, we touch his when we touch the pain of the least of those around us.

 

He got there right there on the ground.

He reached down, he reached down and he touched the pain.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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