Chapter 10: Odes to a Suffering God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 10: Odes to a Suffering God

God’s immutability and God’s impassibility as apatheia are two sides of one coin. If God is beyond change, then it is not possible for God to be affected by what is other than God, wherefore God can be said to be “apathetic.” True, God could change in some ways and still be beyond affectations. But the notion that began to gain traction, in the midst of the twentieth century’s horrors piled one on top of another, that God truly suffers, becomes possible only when the illusion of divine immutability is shed. Therefore I turn immediately to this topic before pursuing others than may have initially arisen in history at an earlier date.


We have already met Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. Of Irish extraction, he was an Anglican vicar of a very poor parish in Worcester at the beginning of the war, then became a chaplain to the British forces in 1915.

He went through a good deal of fighting, and the brutal realities of war brought him face to face with the problem of reconciling belief in the love of God with the omnipotence of the [131] Deity . . . These pages express the thoughts which came to the writer amid the hardships of the trenches and the brutalities of war. It is literally theology hammered out on the field of battle.1

Studdert-Kennedy spelled out the nature of his situation vividly in his own Preface to the 1925 second edition:

If the doctrine of the sovereign Kaiser-God was impossible to hold on the battle-fields of Flanders and of France, it is even more impossible in the Europe of to-day. That God is dead, as dead as cold mutton, and even deader, because He can be no longer used as food even for the poor, Even the most poverty-stricken in mind and spirit have in these days learned to spew out any teaching about God which makes Him less good than Jesus.2

With irony dripping from his pen, he went on to concede: “Of course the book won’t satisfy theologians, but then it’s not written for them to read but for the man who has to earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.”3

Studdert-Kennedy’s writing is colorful, vivid, and highly contextualized (right in the middle of the blazing guns). “One needs a Father, and a Father must suffer in His children’s suffering. I could not worship the passionless potentate.”4 His agonized bluntness is embodied in the poem he wrote for the title page of the book, from which its title was taken:

The sorrows of God mun be ‘ard to bear,
If ‘e really ‘as Love in ‘is ‘eart,
And the ‘ardest part i’ the world to play
Mun surely be God’s Part.5

His dissatisfaction with the inherited notion of a God-in-charge, a God ultimately over everything and in control of everything, fairly screams from the printed page. “I don’t know or love the Almighty potentate—my only real God is the suffering Father revealed in the sorrow of Christ.”6

Nothing makes much odds. God Himself seems non-existent— the Almighty Ruler Whom all things obey. He seems to have [132] gone to sleep and allowed things to run amuck. I don’t believe there is an absolute Almighty Ruler. I don’t see how anyone can believe it. If it were a choice between that God and no God, I would be an atheist.7

And so he proclaimed rather “God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father’s sorrow and a Father’s weakness, which is the strength of love; God splendid, suffering, crucified.”8

Behind the vast history of effort he could see “a will” but “not an absolutely omnipotent will that knows no failure and no strain.”9 Either “God is helpless to prevent war, or else He wills it and approves of it.”10 Christians in the past have affirmed the latter. If God is indeed omnipotent, we are inevitably “driven to the conclusion that war is the will of the Almighty God. If it is true, I go morally mad.”11 Therefore Studdert-Kennedy concluded: “God, the Father God of Love, is everywhere in history, but nowhere is He Almighty.”12 “If the Christian religion means anything, it means that God is Suffering Love, and that all real progress is caused by the working of Suffering Love in the world.”13

War is the crucifixion of God, not the working of His will. The cross is not past, but present. Ever and always I can see set up above this world of ours a huge and towering Cross, with great arms stretched out east and west from the rising to the setting sun, and on that Cross my God still hangs and calls on all brave men to come out and fight with evil, and by their sufferings endured with Him help to lift the world from darkness into light.14

What was then known simply as “the War” challenged theology to give up time-worn declarations of the sublime power of God. J. K. Mozley observed, after reviewing Studdert-Kennedy’s contributions: “as the War sounded the doom of absolute monarchy upon earth, so we must abandon the idea of such power as vested in God.”15 Clearly, the collapse of an apathetic God untouched by human suffering is a fierce blow to the traditional doctrine of divine omnipotence, leaving open the question of just what kind of power could be attributed to God at all.



Nicolas Berdyaev, born in Kiev, Russia, in 1874, was a Marxist who was also a Christian and an anti-totalitarian who was expelled from his homeland in 1922 because of his opposition to the Communist regime. He eventually settled in Paris where most of his important books were written prior to his death in 1948. His religious writings occupy the boundary of theology with philosophy.

Berdyaev identified freedom as the essential will of God for God’s creation. “Freedom is not created because it is not a part of nature; it is prior to the world and has its origin in the primal void. God is All-Powerful in relation to being but not in relation to nothingness and to freedom.”16 So freedom is a given for God, leading to an understanding of a self-chosen tragedy in God: God’s love of what God has created, and especially the other dearest to God, the one bearing God’s image—i.e., humans—is the origin of God’s suffering. God expects freedom from us; God waits for our free response to the divine call. And this response cannot be compelled. Compulsion and constraint mark the absence of freedom.17

If the destiny of freedom’s availability is tragic, in its misuse, how is that fate overcome?

How, in a word, can freedom be separated from the evil it brings in its train except by the destruction of freedom itself? To this universal problem there is no solution save in the coming of Christ . . . The grace of Christ is the inner illumination of freedom without any outward restraint or coercion . . . The mystery of Christianity, the religion of God made man, is above all the mystery of liberty.18

The mystery of the cross conveys, once again, the mystery of “a crucified God,”19 wherefore the topic of love enters the discussion.

Truth crucified possesses no logical nor juridical power of compulsion and it made its appearance in the world as infinite love, and love does not compel; rather it makes man infinitely free . . . In the suffering of the God-Man willingly endured, which sets men free, there lies hidden the mystery of Christian love.20


“God is infinite Love, and Love cannot rest shut up within itself; it is always moving out to others.”21 The third person of the Trinity is “the Spirit Who is Love realized. The kingdom of Love in freedom is the kingdom of the Trinity.”22 Again, the reign of God cannot be built “by force; it can only be created in freedom.”23 In that coming realm, “all power and all autocracy, whether individual or collective, are limited, for there only the power of truth and justice are recognized . . . God will be all in all and freedom will triumph over force.”24 Of course, the obvious question remains: How? What is the nature of the power-in-freedom that prevails over compulsion?

Redemption, we are led to see, is understood as a divine “work of love,” which is no less than a suffering love: “the sacrifice of a divine and infinite love, not a propitiatory sacrifice . . . God himself longs to suffer with the world.25 In the passion enacted on Calvary, “freedom becomes the power of divine love.”26 All of this leads Berdyaev to conclude that Christianity is no less than “the religion of the suffering God.”27 This isn’t patripassianism, Berdyaev insisted. The interpenetration of the three persons of the Trinity causes Berdyaev to say that God, not just the human aspect of Jesus on the cross, suffers. Aquinas was wrong, Berdyaev contended: God is not a static constant. The cross discloses to us “a process in God, a divine tragedy.”28

The phrases are provocative. Human freedom is not cancelled out because God exercises power as love that leads but does not compel. Rather than curtailing our exercise of freedom, God enters into our tragic condition of self-inflicted suffering that has arisen through freedom’s abuse. The concession to divine suffering is an empowering acknowledgment. It does not, by itself, however, solve the riddle of how power that is defined by love is to be understood, in contrast to traditional understandings of power.


Born in 1916, Kazoh Kitamori was a pastor and professor in his native Japan through the devastating years of World War II. His book on [135] Theology of the Pain of God was first published in the year after the war ended, and translated into English in 1958 after going through five editions. Ironies abound. This is one of the earliest examples of nonWestern theology but almost all the dialogue is with the West; the Japanese tradition of tragedy comes into the discussion only on a few pages.29 It was written during World War II and published a year after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet seems blissfully unaware of any of this context. The author champions the “pain of God” yet distances himself, unconvincingly, from patripassianism—unconvincing because, e.g., “the pain of God is neither merely the pain of God the Son, nor merely the pain of God the Father, but the pain of the two persons who are essentially one.”30

The title phrase was triggered by Kitamori’s reflection on Jeremiah 31:20 (“I am deeply moved for him [i.e., Ephraim],” NRSV; “my heart yearns for him,” NIV). Kitamori understood the Hebrew verb (hamah) to mean “to be in pain.”31

The theology of the pain of God does not mean that pain exists in God as substance. The pain of God is not a ‘”concept of substance”—it is a “concept of relation,” a nature of “God’s love.”32

In God, there is a unity of “love rooted in pain.”33 Jesus “is the very pain of God.”34 Kitamori was finally led to conclude: “The concept ‘love rooted in the pain of God’ expresses the whole of God’s love.”35

In 1974, Jung Young Lee published God Suffers for Us at a publishing house in the Netherlands. A Korean who studied and taught in the USA, his work has been pretty much ignored in scholarly dialogue. That is unfortunate. The heart of his position is encapsulated in the following passage.

The Agape of the Cross implies the inclusive unity of both the depth of divine love and that of divine possibility. Thus, it is neither the depth of divine love alone nor the divine possibility alone, but combination of the two which manifests itself as the depth of divine empathy to participate in the world. . . . the redemptive love is always love with suffering. Neither love without suffering nor suffering without love is redemptive. . . . If love is really to be redemptive, it must be a suffering love, that [136] is, the Agape of the Cross. Agape is not redemptive unless it is also suffering. To deny the suffering of God is to deny the redemptive work of God.”36

Empathy was a central tenet for Lee: “in the empathy of God, God fully participates in us” without losing God’s godness (my word) and without our losing our essential humanness.37 “Love directs the course of divine movement.”38 In that regard, Lee posited God’s self-limitation, deriving from the divine empathy, as the reason for God’s non-omnipotence.39


Dorothee Sölle (1929–2003) was a German theologian who wound up spending much of her teaching career at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She unflinchingly blasted “the omnipotence of a heavenly being who decrees suffering”40 as a manifestation of either “Christian masochism” (the calamities we accept as somehow God’s will) or “Christian sadism” (the calamities we inflict on others in God’s name), or both.41 There is “no way to combine omnipotence with love.”42 Christian sadism took an extreme form in Calvin:43 “There is little doubt that the Reformation strengthened theology’s sadistic accents.”44

The key section of Sölle’s attack is found in ch. 2 of Suffering (1975), on “The Christians’ Apathetic God.” “Apatheia is a Greek word that literally means nonsuffering, freedom from suffering, a creature’s inability to suffer.”45 The “apathetic” God “fulfills the ideal of one who is physically beyond the reach of external influences and psychologically anaesthetized—like things that are dead . . . This apathetic God became the God of the Christians, although he was a contradiction to the biblical God, with his emotions and suffering.”46 This leads to the realization that “the stoic concept of suffering triumphs over a Christian concept” of the divine.47

The almighty Lord, who ordains suffering or frees one from it has . . . lost his all-surpassing significance. Whoever grounds suffering in an almighty, alien One who ordains everything has to face the question of the justice of this God—and he must be [137] shattered by it. Then all that remains is either total submission to God’s omnipotence, together with a renunciation of the question about his justice, as Job did at the last, or else rebellion against this God and the awaiting of another deliverer.48

Wherever we are confronted with senseless suffering, “faith in a God who embodies both omnipotence and love has to waver or be destroyed.”49

So what is the alternative, to the extent that Sölle presents one? Is God now simply Love, bereft of all Power? To wit: “Our oneness with love is indissoluble. To learn to suffer without becoming the devil’s martyrs means to live conscious of our oneness with the whole of life. Those who suffer in this way are indestructible. Nothing can separate them from the love of God.”50 Certainly God is not the one who brings the suffering but the one who sides with us in our suffering, who remains with us.

Sölle took Elie Wiesel’s story of a boy’s lingering death on the gallows51 and christianized it.

The decisive phrase, that God is hanging “here on this gallows,” has two meanings. First it is an assertion about God. God is no executioner—and no almighty spectator (which would amount to the same thing). God is not the mighty tyrant. Between the sufferer and the one who causes the suffering, between the victim and the executioner, God, whatever people make of this word, is on the side of the sufferer. God is on the side of the victim, he is hanged.52

She then went on to conclude: “God is not in heaven; he is hanging on the cross. Love is not an otherworldly, intruding, self-asserting power— and to meditate on the cross can mean to take leave of that dream.”53

So what Sölle finally dared to do was take Jesus’ statement in John 10:30 that “I and the Father are one” and, essentially, reverse it: “The essence of Jesus’ passion history is the assertion that this one whom God forsook himself becomes God.”54 The cross is “neither a symbol expressing the relationship between God the Father and his Son nor a symbol of masochism which needs suffering in order to convince itself of love. It is above all a symbol of reality. Love does not ‘require’ the cross, but de facto it ends up on the cross.”55


Sölle then went on to quote the Russian poet Konstantin Simonov: “There is no alien sorrow, we are all a part of it, we share in it.”56 So in the final analysis she came to regard God not “as an alien superior power but as that which occurs between people” in their living through, and not only enduring, but sometimes even triumphing over, a suffering that can only be fully shared.57

This is the most thoroughgoing analysis I have encountered of the difficulties that emerge when God is identified as being on the side of those who cause suffering rather than its victims. Sölle was scathing in her attacks on theological masochism/sadism. But to understand God to be truly on the side of those of suffer, to the extent of being able to proclaim God’s own co-suffering, only pointed up the problem, without resolving at all how a God of pathos and suffering love remains with any meaningful power at all.58 That is yet to be uncovered.


  1. Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy, The Hardest Part (New York: George H. Doran Co., 1918; 2nd ed., 1925), from the Preface by W. Moore Ede, xiif.
  2. Ibid., ix.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 9.
  5. Ibid., iii.
  6. Ibid., 10.
  7. Ibid., 11.
  8. Ibid., 13.
  9. Ibid., 23.
  10. Ibid., 32.
  11. Ibid., 33.
  12. Ibid., 39.
  13. Ibid., 41, emphasis mine.
  14. Ibid., 42.
  15. J. K. Mozley, The Impassibility of God, 159.
  16. Nicolas Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, tr. Oliver Fielding Clarke (London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1935), 160.
  17. Ibid., 126f.
  18. Ibid., 135.
  19. Ibid., 140.
  20. Ibid., 141.
  21. Ibid., 138.
  22. Ibid., 139.
  23. Ibid., 154.
  24. Ibid., 157.
  25. Ibid., 174, emphasis mine.
  26. Ibid., 178, emphasis mine.
  27. Ibid., 192, emphasis mine.
  28. Ibid., 193, emphasis mine.
  29. Kazoh Kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1958), 134-36.
  30. Ibid., 115.
  31. Ibid., Appendix, 152–53.
  32. Ibid., Preface to the Fifth Edition, 16.
  33. Ibid., 39.
  34. Ibid., 34.
  35. Ibid., 117.
  36. Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into a Concept of Divine Possibility (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), 60.
  37. Ibid., 13.
  38. Ibid., 19.
  39. Ibid., 43f.
  40. Dorothee Sölle, Suffering, tr. Everett R. Kalin (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 25.
  41. Ibid., ch. 1, 9–32.
  42. Ibid., 25.
  43. Ibid., 23, 26.
  44. Ibid., 22. Sölle critiqued Moltmann in The Crucified God for not going far enough in his attempt to move beyond this tradition. (26f.)
  45. Ibid., 36.
  46. Ibid., 42.
  47. Ibid., 43. Cf. above, ch. 6.
  48. Ibid., 134.
  49. Ibid., 142.
  50. Ibid., 141.
  51. Elie Wiesel, Night, tr. Stella Rodway (New York: Hill & Wang, 1960), 70f.
  52. Sölle, Suffering, 148.
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid., 147.
  55. Ibid., 163.
  56. Ibid., 172f., the last phrase being Sölle’s.
  57. Ibid., 173.
  58. See my subsequent chapter on “Inklings of an Impotent God,” where Sölle’s contributions might also be seen to belong. Other voices that merit attention here include Paul Fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), and Wendy Farley, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1990). Farley’s work will be reviewed instead in the chapter on “Breakthroughs to a Loving God.”