Undoubtedly, suffering and death changes us in some degree or another. It’s a given in life. A death of a close friend, parent, or loved one can profoundly affect the outlook of one’s life.
I can only imagine the unimaginable pain a parent has to go through if their child dies. It would undoubtedly change the parent’s life.
Is it the same for God then? Did God change when he experienced Jesus’ death? Does God himself change in response to suffering, pain, and death?
Recently, I was going back to Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom, and was reflecting upon a footnote on one of the book’s pages.
Moltmann was writing about the how love constitutes the very nature and existence of God. Love is the very ontology of God. And God supremely demonstrated this on the cross. And he goes forth to display how the cross intimately connects with the Trinity when he states:
God is love. That means God is self-giving. It means he exists for us: on the cross. To put it in trinitarian terms – the Father lets his Son sacrifice himself through the Spirit. ‘The Father is crucifying love, the Son is crucified love, and the Holy Spirit is the unvanquishable power of the cross.’ The cross is the center of the Trinity… Before the world was, the sacrifice was already in God. No Trinity is conceivable without the Lamb, without the sacrifice of love, without the crucified Son. For he is the slaughtered Lamb glorified in eternity. (p. 83)
In the second to last sentence above, he includes a footnote to another theologian’s work who quoted another German theologian named Adrienne von Speyr who wrote:
In the night of the cross that fell between the Father and the Son, God himself experienced the surrender in the form of sinful death. He had a new experience, unknown to him in his eternal life. He therefore gathered death into eternal life … Through this reception into eternal life, the death of sin was destroyed;… Every death that is died in Christ is therefore for the future a way to eternal life. This does not merely make it something different for us; the Trinity has a different relation to it as well. Death is no longer something alien to it. The Son tasted death in his estrangement from the Father, and hence the Father also tasted death in the separation from the Son. Even the source of life in God, the Holy Spirit, is touched and transformed by this separation from the Son. For during the duration of the separation this source was sealed up and closed, as it were. It only begins to flow again when the Son returns to the Father.’ (p. 234)
When I first read this, I had to step back for a moment.
I think the reason why was because I went through the tragic death of my aunt firsthand when I first read this about five years ago. That event transformed my way of thinking about life and God, and after reading Moltmann’s footnote above, it haunted me for some reason.
Think about what von Speyr is saying here for a moment. He’s saying that God the Father had changed and experienced something he had never experienced before. But then again, more explicitly, the whole being of God – the Trinity – had irreparably changed and transformed.
The reason I think it jarred me was because I came to the realization that for years I had so embedded into my unconscious the traditional Platonic/Aristotelian concept of God that I think most Western Christians have who does not change, is static, immovable, unflappable, omniscient and omnipotent, so therefore he cannot be affected by circumstances that would normally affect us.
We have this “security-blanket” view of God as “the Rock”, and we hold onto this metaphor of him when we go through the “storms of life” so we psychologically feel comforted that everything is in control. We need this somewhat stoic approach to life and faith (again another Greek concept that has been adopted by Western and evangelical Christianity) to make sense of things when things go wrong in life – like the experience of death – and we constantly hear “encouragements” from pastors and other Christians to “remain strong” throughout all of this and that “God will make a way” etc, etc. [insert your standard Christian comforting cliché here] . (And of course, a big taboo in Western culture is the idea of death – it has an inherent fear of death – and we often hide this fear with reductionism and materialism.)
Most of us shutter at the very thought or idea of God changing.
I think it’s because the idea of God changing implies that he’s somewhat not in control – that he doesn’t have it all together in some shape or form, and therefore he wouldn’t be worthy of our worship. We have this view of a strong, indomitable, supremely masculine, macho, “Malboro Man”, cowboy Jesus or God.
But a suffering, weak God- a God of kenosis? Hmmmmm…
Perhaps our preference for the strong, dominant, successful God is a projection and reflection of our sinful idolatry of strength, comfort, success, and power.
I believe that the Bible portrays God who suffers with people, especially when you get to the middle parts of the Old Testament and the Prophets, but you do get hints of it in Genesis as he’s grieved by all the wickedness of mankind and regrets having created them right before the Flood happens. In another instance in Exodus, God gets pissed off at the sinfulness of the Hebrews and tells Moses that he’s going to wipe them all out and start fresh with Moses, but Moses intercedes on behalf of his people, and God relents destroying them. There are numerous times where God is truly heartbroken, saddened, and moved to compassion by Israel’s infidelity and unbelief – especially in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea.
Now some people will say that this is too much of an anthropormorphized interpretation of the stories depicted above and that God really wasn’t grieved or that he never changed his mind in response to Moses’ pleading. They’re just metaphors or ways of trying to accommodate our understanding of a transcendent or infinite God.
I think the verses are clear.
“So the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.” – Exodus 32:14
In many verses of the Old Testament, we’re shown to have a passionate God – a God with true feelings, raw emotions, and a certain vulnerabilities who reacts and changes in response to human circumstances.
So it shouldn’t be too far of a stretch, I think, to imagine God being forever changed by experiencing the pain of the death of his only begotten Son on the cross. Yes, that God was forever changed by that event and he was never the same again after experiencing the trauma of experiencing his child brutally suffering on the cross.
One outcome of this view of God that many might feel uncomfortable about is, if this view is adopted, this might mean that God is in time, somehow experiences time as we do, and therefore might not know the future, because the future hasn’t been created yet. This places severe limitations on God’s omniscience that might be too much for traditional believers to accept.
Perhaps this might be too much of an emasculated portrayal of God.
There are many other complex theological and philosophical issues involved that I can’t go through in one post, but this idea that God can change in response to our circumstances- that he can experience something new, that he’s surprised by some things in life, that he can experience the novelty of an expanding, evolving, universe- in essence a dynamic God – may be liberating for some or at least something to consider in their personal mediations about God during this Lent season.
Do we worship a God who chooses to evolve along with us in experiencing life?
An evolving God…… Hmmm….