This the fourth part of my series on Terence Fretheims' book Creation Untamed. Last week we looked at suffering in the book of Job. This week we look at chapter four which is entitled "Suffering and the God of the Old Testament."
This chapter takes a slightly more pastoral tone than the previous chapters. Fretheim is trying to sort out the problem of suffering and the oft asked question of "why"? Fretheim believes strongly that it is important to ask the "why" question. It is important pastorally so as (1) to help bring healing, (2) to help us recognize our own participation in causing suffering, (3) to encourage us to explore the suffering of others, (4) to better prepare us to engage people of faith when they do ask "why", (5) to determine what we are going to do with our suffering, and (6) to confront God. (101-102)
The last point is the one which guides much of the chapter. Fretheim points-out that there is a strong tradition of questioning God about suffering, from the cry of the Psalmist, to Jeremiah to even Jesus on the cross (Matt 27:46). "The Bible dares to confront God with such suffering questions and invites readers in to a conversation about the nature of the connection." (103).
To talk about God and suffering is to talk about God as a God of relationships. God enters into relationship with creation. But by doing so God also places certain restraints and constraints on what God will do. The decision/promise not to do certain things indicates divine self-limitation (Gen 8:20-21, 9:8-17) which in turn allows for both freedom and power on the part of the creation. But this is not without its drawbacks. As Fretheim notes:
This is a risky move for God. God may well look bad in the eyes of those who think that God should not exercise such constraint and should simply take charge or take control of such suffering moments in our lives. God's honoring of relationship opens God to the charge of neglect (105).
So what then are the reasons for suffering? The first is that, as already mentioned, suffering is part of God's creation. There is randomness and wildness and there are no risk-free zones. God allows the creatures to be what they were created to be, which means that bad things sometimes happen.
Another major cause is sin and evil. First, our own sin which is often returned to us in the form of consequences. Second, the sin of other people that effects us even though we were not responsible for their actions. Third, the effects on the cosmic and moral order. Some of the evil that we cause has consequence not just for us, but also for other creatures and even the earth itself (112-115).
Yet another reason we suffer is because we belong to communities in which the effects of sin has a long history. The result is that suffering has become woven into society's fabric and part of the system. This is sometimes manifested in things like racism, sexism and ageism. Sometimes particular individuals or even communities can embody the evil that causes this type of suffering. Other times these various forms of evil take on a life of their own and become a power unto themselves (116).
Sometimes we suffer because it is part of the vocation to which God calls us. We dare not overlook the numerous instances in the Bible where we or others are called to suffer. (118). But God suffers too and it is a part of the relationship that God has chosen to enter into with creation. God "knows" the suffering of Israel (Exod 3:7) and in Jesus has entered deeply into the suffering of creation so that neither suffering nor evil has the last word. Fretheim closes the chapter with this thought.
To see the face of God in a crucified man would not be a radical move for those steeped in Old Testament understandings of God. The kind of God whom early Christians knew from their Scriptures was a God who could know the experience of suffering. In opening up the divine self to the vulnerabilities of a close relationship, God experiences suffering because what happens to the relationship. This could be called "God's problem." God seeks to find a resolution, and that becomes possible only through divine suffering. (120)