How To Avoid Accidentally Becoming One Of Job’s Friends

During my treatment, two friends with cancer reached the end of the line, moving from experimental chemotherapy to palliative care, to dying, to death. It all happened so quickly. I was in remission, but for what? To wait around for this to happen to me, just as it had happened to my friends? At certain moments, while other people’s lives were moving ahead at full speed, mine seemed to be spinning in the direction of my dying and dead friends. Rather than reentering into my previous, purposeful life, joyous at my recovery, I felt “forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (Ps. 88:5).

…When Christ on the cross laments with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” his desolation means that when we pray this ourselves, we are not in a free fall, even when it feels that way. We can utter a cry of unspeakable anguish and yet maintain a profound hope, because, in Christ, God himself has taken on our human suffering, including our alienation and dread. As the Heidelberg Catechism testifies, Christ’s suffering and lament “assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.” In the words of Ambrose, “Even as His death made an end of death, and His stripes healed our scars, so also His sorrow took away our sorrow.”

As I look back, I can see I received comfort, support, and reassurance in Christ’s suffering, but not in the way suggested by trends in recent academic theology and popular Christian piety. We’ve all heard messages like these: Since God is relational and loving, God is “suffering with me.” Or, God is in such solidarity with sufferers that he simply identifies with us in our calamities. Or, Christ’s suffering expressed something called “divine suffering,” an essential part of God’s identity.

This way of thinking about God and suffering was not good news during my ordeal. In the midst of my daily shots, sharp headaches, and heavy fatigue, these reflections on God and suffering didn’t console me. They troubled me. They didn’t encourage hope that I was not in a free fall. If Christ’s suffering does not triumph over death’s claim to have the final say over life, then I might as well give up. If the suffering of Christ is not, finally, a revelation of the triune God’s faithful, impassible love, then the cross could no longer be my solace in the midst of my physical agony and existential despair.

As strange as it may sound, I found myself clinging to a different sense of God’s saving solidarity with us: the doctrine of divine impassibility. As I felt my life drained by the cancer, I took profound comfort in this doctrine that God’s power of life suffers no limits. As the Letter of James puts it: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The doctrine of impassibility affirms God’s steady, indomitable love. He has the backbone to take on our terror and overcome it in Christ. Read more»

Todd Billings, “Undying Love: In Our Suffering, We Find Comfort in God’s Impassibility” First Things (December, 2024)

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