“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses…” Hebrews 5:15
The ancient Greeks highly valued the quality of being beyond the reach of pain. “Patheo”, suffering, was a too earthly ignoble thing. They worshipped a God beyond “patheo”, an apathetic God.
It is often said that we are what we worship. A God with no “passion”, no vulnerability produces a people immune to genuine human experience. On the one hand we see hard faced hordes addicted to busyness and decadence in order to escape the glance into the abyss, and on the other, prostrate practitioners bereft of feeling, willing to cause untold misery in the name of religion.
Some argue that without an “apathetic” God we have no sense of Sovereignty. God, indeed does not change, no-one can force God to suffer or impose suffering upon Him from outside of His own being.
However it may be worth considering two other possibilities.
- God is free to change Himself.
- He is free to allow Himself to be changed by others and to allow them to make Him suffer.
God’s suffering is not suffering imposed on Him from the outside because of some weakness in Himself, but the suffering of love, an active, chosen, dynamic suffering.
Jesus’ words in John 10:18 hint at this principle of the sovereign choice of suffering.
“No one takes it from me, but I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
In Revelation 5:6, expecting to see the triumphant Lion of Judah, we see instead a “Lamb looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne.”
At the very heart of God’s sovereign rule we find vulnerability and chosen suffering.
Even the very foundations of creation and history are imbued with the overflow of God’s intentional love and suffering in the Agnus Dei, “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.” Revelation 13:8
The early Rabbis translated Psalm 18:35 (NIV – “you stoop down to make me great.”)
“You show to me your greatness through your self-humiliation.”
God’s true greatness lies in His chosen self humiliation in Christ.
Rabbi Hershel saw in the Old Testament prophets a theology of “Pathos”. He saw their cries reflecting the wounded heart of God for His people. His wrath, a fiery curative expression of His own passion. Wrath and apathy never mix. So, far from being distantly apathetic, God is passionately caught up in human existence. He sympathises with us. He shares our very sufferings.
In the Trinity we see a sacrificing Father, an abandoned Son in the power of holy sacrifice called Spirit. This event explodes into the world bringing healing, hope, reconciliation and resurrection.
As the “apathy” of ordinary Western life calls us away from the true “sympathy” of the Christ life event when God stepped down into the world as a tender babe, let us turn away from our tearless idols, let our hearts be softened and let us sympathise with our fellow-men.
Handel’s Messiah begins with the description from Isaiah 40:11 of a shepherd God, gently leading His people.
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Let the Lord carry you close to His heart this day.
Being close to God’s heart is the very opposite of apathy. It may well lead us into suffering, echoing the Lord’s words to the “chosen instrument” Paul in Acts 9:16.
“I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
The theologian Jurgen Moltmann liberates us from a purely negative, fearful view of suffering.
“How is this to be understood? The person who suffers does not only protest against his fate. Indeed, he suffers because he lives, and he is full of life because he has an interest in life and because he loves. He who no longer loves becomes apathetic and no longer even suffers. Life and death are for him a matter of indifference. The more one loves, however, the more vulnerable one becomes. The more one becomes capable of suffering, the more one becomes capable of happiness. The reverse is also true. The more one is capable of joy, the greater one’s capacity for sorrow. This could be called the dialectic of human life. Love gives vitality to living, but it also makes man mortal. The vitality of life and the deadliness of death are experienced at one and the same time through that interest in life we call love.”
May you indeed know that “interest in life” we call love.
That love that shone out from the face of Jesus – Godhead veiled in humble flesh. Pure Sovereignty stooping down into the mess of this world to make us great…but more indeed to show His greatness.