John Alan Turner

Writer, Theologian, Consultant, Speaker, Teacher

The God Who Suffers

I'm reading the controversial book The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann. As far as I can tell, the first 50 pages or so are just a restating of the central argument of Dallas Willard's The Divine Conspiracy. Steve tells a story, though, that really resonates with me, and it's really making me think through some things. Like many of us who grew up going to Sunday school, he had an array of teachers who tried to make the hard parts of the Bible easy to understand for kids. One difficult portion is the story found in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God's backside -- seeing something of his glory. But Moses isn't allowed to see God's face because, as the text says, "Anyone who sees [God's] face will die" (v. 20).

What's up with that?

Well, Steve's Sunday school teacher did what a lot of our Sunday school teachers did. He took a kleenex and lit a candle. Moving that tissue slowly closer to the candle's flame, it ignited before the two even touched. God is like that! God is an all-consuming fire, and we are thin and sinful -- like tissue paper. No one can get close to him without being burned up. That's why no one can see God's face and live.

Well, that's scary. That's the premise behind Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But is it accurate? I suppose in one sense it may be. And yet....

I have a friend whose mother is gradually losing her battle with Alzheimer's while his father is going blind. I see how hard this is on my friend. He looks miserable sometimes and feels helpless. I have another friend who suffers chronic pain -- everything he does hurts. There is no comfortable position for him to sit or stand. I am afraid the pain will drive him mad. I know a couple who cannot have children biologically. Sometimes I catch them watching me with my kids, and I see the confusion and sadness.

These are not the most horrific sights. Certainly, none of my friends would compare their situation with those who are suffering in Sri Lanka or Rwanda or even the ghettos of Brazil -- where it's a miracle of you live to be my age. My friends live in relative comfort compared with those whose lives are wracked with the torture of AIDS and abject poverty. And yet the pain of my friends is most accutely felt because...well...because they're my friends. I'm emotionally attached to them. The people in other parts of the world are easier for me to ignore. All I have to do is turn off the TV.

I sometimes look at the suffering of my friends, and it reminds me of just how deep the reservoir of pain is in this world. In those moments, when I stare deep into the well of human suffering, I just want to die. I don't want to live with the pain of what I've seen. Going on with the knowledge that such suffering exists in the world is difficult.

Now, imagine how God feels.

If he is who the Bible would have us believe he is, he has witnessed every act of suffering, every time innocence has ever been lost, every example of depravity. He has heard every cry, every agonized silent scream.

Perhaps it is this, rather than our sinfulness, that explains why we cannot look at God's face and live. If God is love -- it says that in the Bible, you know -- then it makes sense for the one who loves most to also be the one who suffers most. I imagine all that suffering etched on his face. I also imagine that no one could bear to see a face marked with that much pain and live.