God-forsaken Immanuel: Suffering and the Cross

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Autumn Lent

Do you like autumn?
In a way, it’s a sad season.
Summer holidays are over, it’s getting cold, the plants are dying.
It’s also a beautiful season: all the colours of the leaves.
Places like the South Island and Japan and Korea are stunning.
I was in Kyoto in November one year – I just missed the real colours.

Who knows what season of the church year it is now?
Lent, the month before Easter.
Lent is a bit like autumn
It’s a season of sadness and loss.
Christians remember Jesus dying at Easter.
Like trees letting go of their leaves,
we try to let go of things that don’t please God.

Lent is like autumn in another way.
The leaves are most beautiful as they die.
For Christians, the most beautiful thing in history is the cross.
Yellow, orange, red leaves.  The red blood of Christ.

This month of autumn and Lent we are looking at the cross.
Today we’ll think about the cross and suffering.


Questions of Suffering

Some of you may be suffering today.
Life is difficult.
Some of you have suffered in the past.
Most of you know someone who has.

When studies are going well and our parents are pleased and we’ve got lots of friends.
We often don’t think much about life – we’re just enjoying it. [1]

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

But when someone gets cancer
or we lose our job
or something goes badly wrong,
we start asking questions.

Maybe our first question is: why?
Why is this happening to me?
I’m a good person, I work hard.
Why do I deserve this?
It’s not fair!

When we can’t understand,
When pain seems meaningless.
It’s a lot harder to cope.[2]

I looked on Google and saw many books on suffering that ask “why?”

Here’s another question we might ask: where is God?
Philip Yancey wrote a book called
“Where is God when it hurts?”

Sometimes it feels like God is not in control,
he is not with us any more, he doesn’t care.
That also makes suffering harder.

Why is this happening to me?  Where is God?
And if you’ve got a bad toothache or a bad heart ache
or have been trying to find work for months,
you may well ask,

How long, O Lord, until you restore me?…
How long will you forget me?  Forever?
How long must I struggle with sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 6:3, 13:1-2

Here’s another book on suffering called
“How long O Lord?” (Don Carson)

Why?  Where?  How long?
Since people sat around the fire in caves,
we have asked these questions.

The Bible asks them too.
It doesn’t give complete answers.
In this life suffering will always be partly a mystery.[3]
But the Bible tells us enough to give us hope.


Job: The All-Powerful Creator

The most famous book about suffering in the Bible is Job.
It’s about a rich farmer called Job.
Let me introduce you.
Job is a good man.
He works hard, he cares for his family, he obeys God.

At Eternity's Gate by van Gogh

At Eternity’s Gate by van Gogh

Then tragedy strikes.
Enemy soldiers attack and take all his animals away.
There’s a big storm and his house falls down.
All his children are killed (chapter 1)
Then he gets sick: his skin is covered in painful sores (chapter 2)
He’s lost everything.

For most of the book, Job argues with his friends about the meaning of it all.
And he yells at God, he cries out:
“I’ve done nothing wrong!  It’s so unfair!
Where are you God?  Why have you done this to me?
Give me some answers!”

Near the end of the book (chapter 38) God answers.
God shows Job how amazing and powerful creation is:
The stars in the sky.
Storms and lightning and thunder.
Wild animals and monsters in the sea.

Job realises that all he sees is a very small part of the world.
But God controls the universe and sees the big picture.
God knows what he’s doing.

When Job sees how huge God is.
It blows his mind.
Job forgets his questions.

When I’m worried or depressed,
it can help to go outside and look up at the stars.
It shows me how small my problems are.

But if I’m really hurting.
The stars are cold and far away.
They don’t care if I live or die.
I want a God who comes closer to me than that.

Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing – as Job saw.
The Bible also shows he is a God of love.
God loves his people,
he is hurt when we reject him.
He feels sorrow when we suffer.  [4]


Moltmann: The Crucified God

Let me tell you how a German soldier discovered this.
Jürgen Moltmann fought in World War II.  [5]
He was 19 years old when the city of Hamburg was bombed in 1943.
It was horrible.
80,000 people died in one week.
A bomb landed where he was and killed his friend.
He cried out why?  Why did he die and I live?  What’s the meaning?
His family wasn’t religious.
Now for the first time he asked, “Where is God?

When Germany lost the war he was captured.
He was in a British prisoner of war camp for three years.
He wasn’t happy, and then it got worse:
He saw photos of Auschwitz – the terrible things his country had done.
He felt sick, depressed.
So much suffering, and so much evil
He had no hope for himself or for humanity.[6]

In the prison camp, someone gave him a Bible.
The Psalms brought him some comfort.
And then he read about Jesus.
And he found a verse that changed his life.

Let’s read it now.

At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Matthew 27:46

To abandon someone is to leave them all alone.

Remember what Job saw:
God is the master of the universe, the all-powerful creator.
And here is God, in a man on a cross,
crying out the same questions we cry in our pain,
“Why have you left me alone?  Where are you God?”  [7]

“Why have you abandoned me?”
This question on the cross hit Moltmann like a thunderbolt.
It answered his question, “where is God?”
Where is God when Europe is tearing itself apart in war,
And a bomb killed my friends,
And Jews are dying in Auschwitz?

God is not just up there in heaven somewhere.
He is down here, suffering with us.

crucified-godAfter the war, Moltmann become a great theologian.
He said all his thinking started from this verse, this question on the cross.
His most famous book is “The Crucified God.”

Jesus said:

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
John 14:9

We learn who God is when we look at Jesus, especially on the cross.
There we see that our God knows about suffering. [8]

Are you in physical pain?
Jesus had nails through his hands.
Are you facing death?  Jesus did too.

Are you hurting inside, lonely and rejected?
In Jesus, God the Son felt rejected by his father.

Have you watched someone you love suffer and die?
God the Father saw his only son hanging on the cross.

A song puts it like this.

Hands that flung stars into space,
To cruel nails surrendered.  (Graham Kendrick)


Gethsemane: Alone in the Garden

I’ve never had that kind of physical pain.
But I’ve been lonely and unhappy, worried and afraid.

At times like that, what comforts me most is the night before Jesus died.
Let’s turn back 2 pages and read about it.
We are on a hill with olive trees just outside Jerusalem.
Jesus comes to the garden at night with his closest friends.

36 Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.” 37 He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. 38 He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
40 Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? 41 Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”
42 Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.” 43 When he returned to them again, he found them sleeping, for they couldn’t keep their eyes open.
44 So he went to pray a third time, saying the same things again. 45 Then he came to the disciples and said, “Go ahead and sleep. Have your rest. But look—the time has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Matthew 26:36-45

“Anguished and distressed” means very upset and unhappy.
“Crushed with grief” means weighed with down a heavy load of sorrow and suffering.
When he needed them most, Jesus’ friends just fell asleep.

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Have you ever felt like that?
Alone in the night, full of fear.

“Please God, can’t you take this suffering, this pain, this hardship away?”
Have you ever prayed like that?

When I am lonely and afraid,
I remember that Jesus was too.
My God knows what it’s like.

Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested…  Jesus understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do.  Hebrews 2:18, 4:15 [9]

Isn’t that good?
There is a beautiful old song where Jesus says:

I felt every tear drop, when in darkness you cried.
And I strove to remind you, that for those tears I died.

I don’t normally hear God’s voice clearly.
Maybe the nearest I’ve come was one night as a teenager.
I was very unhappy.
Then a verse popped into my mind:

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
(Hebrews 13:5, Deuteronomy 31:6).

It’s a wonderful promise.
To forsake someone means to abandon them, to leave them all alone.
In the garden and the cross,
I see how much it cost God to keep that promise.
On the cross, Jesus felt forsaken and abandoned by God.
So that I will never be alone.

Where is God when it hurts?
When life falls apart, when we cry out in pain?

Some Christmas songs call Jesus “Immanuel.”  (Matthew 1:23)
That’s the answer.
Immanuel means “God with us”.
In Jesus, God is with us.
He will never leave us,
Even in our suffering and darkness and death. [10]


Suffering Birth: the Joy of New Life

That answers the question “where is God?”
But we’ve still got “why?”

Jesus was totally innocent.
He did nothing wrong.
Good Friday was the most unfair suffering in history.
Why did God let it happen?
Why didn’t God answer Jesus’ prayer?
Why didn’t Jesus run away?

Here’s an answer:

“Because of the joy awaiting him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  Hebrews 12:2

Jesus endured, he put up with the pain,
because he knew it would bring something better.
Joy means great and lasting happiness.

Resurrection by Matthias Grünwald

Resurrection by Matthias Grünwald

The Easter story did not end on Good Friday when Jesus died.
God was still in control, as Job saw.
God is all-powerful.
Jesus experienced death, in order to destroy it.

Joy came on Easter Sunday when God raised Jesus to life.

Joy comes whenever people meet Jesus
and are set free to live a new life.[11]

Final everlasting joy will come when Jesus returns.
And God puts everything right that is wrong.
He has promised to raise all of creation
the way he raised Jesus at Easter (Tom Wright, Romans 8)
Here’s the final answer to the question, “how long?”
On that day,

God will wipe every tear from our eyes,
and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.
(Revelation 21:4)

When Jesus died on that first Good Friday, his friends didn’t know this.
They were afraid and confused and hurting.
All their hope was gone.

To help them understand, before he died
Jesus gave them a picture.  He said:

You will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me…  You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy. It will be like a woman suffering the pains of labour. When her child is born, her anguish gives way to joy because she has brought a new baby into the world.
John 16:20-22

I have to admit, I haven’t experienced this myself.
I haven’t had a baby yet.

But I’m told it’s the most painful thing.
I have also heard
When a mother holds her new baby for the first time, and looks into his little face.
She is so full of love and joy,
all the pain is worth it.

That’s a picture of what Easter meant for Jesus.
More pain than any of us can imagine.
But it was worth it, “for the joy awaiting him.”[12]

And Easter was like that for Jesus’ friends.
The pain of losing Jesus, but great new joy on Sunday. [13]

This gives me hope when I’m hurting.
God turned the greatest evil, the most unfair suffering,
the death of his only Son, into the greatest good.

He can do the same for me.
And bring new life out of my little pain.


Paul: Dying and Rising with Christ

Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Let’s meet another man, who wrote a lot of letters about this.

Paul had a hard life.
Many people hated him because he told them about Jesus.
They beat him up and threw him in prison and tried to kill him.
In the end, they did

What gave Paul strength?
He was persecuted for years.
How did he keep going?
By finding meaning in his suffering.

He understood that in a small way
he was sharing the pain of Jesus on Easter Friday.
And if he was joined to Jesus in his death,
one day he would share in Easter Sunday.

Let’s see what he wrote:

Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies…  We know that God, who raised the Lord Jesus, will also raise us with Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:10, 17) [14]

What we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.  (Romans 8:18)

Like Jesus, Paul knew his suffering was the way to something much better. [15]
It was drawing him closer to Jesus.
So he could say:

I want to know Christ …  I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead!    Philippians 3:8-11

That challenges me: do I love Jesus that much?

As well as his other problems,
Paul had a particular pain in his life.
He calls it his thorn: something sharp and spiky that hurt.
We don’t know what it was:
Maybe bad headaches or eye problems or other disease,
maybe his enemies, maybe a certain temptation.

Whatever it was, it made his life hard, and he hated it.
He wrote:

Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away.  Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” …  That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, … and troubles that I suffer for Christ.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:8-10.

Paul learnt that sometimes God allows suffering, because
his power works best in our weakness.
God’s strength works through our pain.

God’s glory shows most in broken people;
his light shines through the cracks.


Questions of Suffering

Three times in the garden Jesus cried, “Father is there no other way?”
Three times in his pain Paul cried.  “Lord, please take this away!”
Three times God answered no.

In the end, both Jesus and Paul said,
“Lord, I don’t like it.  But I want your will to be done, not mine.”

Jesus wrestled for over an hour that night.
I wonder how long it took Paul to come to acceptance.
Days, months, years?

Crying Woman by Picasso

Crying Woman by Picasso

What about you?
Do you have a thorn like Paul?
Something that makes life hard or hurts you badly?

Maybe you’ve been asking for years but God has not taken it away.
Maybe you are asking those questions.

Where is God when I’m hurting?
Today we’ve learnt that He is with me.
Immanuel.
Sharing my pain and suffering, as he did on Good Friday.

How long will this last?
One day, God will renew and restore everything that is wrong.
It will not last for ever, although it could last all my life.

Why has this happened?
Why did God make be like this?
I often don’t know.

But in my times of hurting.
as I’ve thought and prayed and sometimes cried,
I’ve come to realise something.

The questions that really matter are not the questions I ask God.
But the questions that God is asking me.[16]

The real question is not why did this happen?
But how will I respond or react?

Will it make me angry and ugly and bitter?
Or will it make me better and more beautiful?

When I’m unhappy and life seems out of control,
Jesus asks,
“Will you trust me?”

“Even though all you see is darkness and you don’t understand.
Will you trust that I am good, and my plans for you are good,
and in the end, in my time, this path of pain will lead to joy?”

It may take a while before I can say “your will, not mine be done.”
But as he holds out his hands, I can see they have scars.

I may not know the answer Why,
but I know that if I trust him,
my pain will have a purpose, and he will use it for good.[17]

And then I hear the deepest question.
The question Jesus asked Peter in his failure and shame.
The only question that matters in the end,
“David, son of John, do you love me?”

“My son, my daughter, in all your pain,
do you still love me?”

When Jesus died on the cross,
there was a robber on either side of him.  (Luke 23:32-43)
They too were suffering and dying.
In his pain, one man was angry and bitter and yelled at Jesus.

The other man said, “Jesus, remember me” (Luke 23:42)
In his pain, he looked to Jesus.
He loved and trusted him.

That’s the choice for you and me.
How you choose to respond to pain
may be the biggest spiritual decision of your life.

Survivors of places like Auschwitz say that
When people are treated like animals, two things can happen:
they become animals themselves,
or they become angels.

When life hurts, which one will we be?


Easter Spring

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Down here in New Zealand, Easter comes in autumn.
I think that’s appropriate for Easter Friday.

The day of loss that led to beauty.
Like trees losing their lovely blood-red leaves.

Most of your countries are in the north.
In Korea and Japan and some of China, there is a long cold winter.
The trees seem to be dead.
Then comes spring, like Easter Sunday.

Jesus burst out of the grave with new life.
The cherry trees are covered in pink blossoms.
Baby birds start to sing.

That is the promise of Easter for our times of pain.

If we suffer and die with Jesus, as Paul found,
One day we will rise with him.
Winter will become spring.

God will bring joy out of our pain.
New hope when all seems lost.
Everlasting life out of death.

Because Jesus died on the cross,
In our deepest suffering and darkness and even when we die,
whenever we cry “why is this happening?  Where are you God?”
God still says to us,

“I will never forsake you or leave you alone.”


Questions for discussion

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

Photo Credit: David Ohmer

What suffering have you experienced?

Did it make you ask questions about life, or about God?

What did Job learn when God spoke to him?

What can we learn from Jesus in the garden and on the cross?

How did Paul understand his own suffering?

How have you responded to suffering?
How do you answer God’s questions:
“Will you trust me?”   “Do you love me?”

If this message was helpful, you may like my earlier sermon on suffering:
Broken Images: Santa, Suffering Love & the Wounded Healer


I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross…  In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?  I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.  But each time after a while I have had to turn away.  And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness.  That is the God for me!  He laid aside his immunity to pain.  He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.  He suffered for us.  Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.  There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.

The Cross of Christ, John Stott, 1986

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Edward Shillito, “Jesus of the Scars” [18]


[1] German theologian Helmut Thielecke once said the greatest lack among American Christians was “an inadequate view of suffering”
[2] The philosopher Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
[3] A Japanese writer said there are two types of people in the world: those who experience pain, but don’t understand it, and those who think they understand it, but haven’t experienced it.  (Kitamori)
[4] God’s heart is filled with pain when he sees the mess we make of the world (Genesis 6:6).  God hurts like a father when his children reject him, or a husband when his wife leaves him, and asks “why?” himself – Jeremiah 2:31, 8:5, 8:19, and “how long?” – Jeremiah 4:14, 13:27, Hosea 8:5
God suffers with his people: “in all their affliction, he was afflicted.”  Isaiah 63:9.  In fact, the love and pain of God seem to grow more passionate and personal the further you go through the Old Testament
[5] Kazoh Kitamori lived through the Second World War.  He saw the suffering of Japan.  In 1946, he published the first book of Japanese theology to be translated into English: Theology of the Pain of God. He was reading the Bible, and a verse hit him.
“Is not Israel still my son, my darling child?” says the Lord.
“I often have to punish him, but I still love him.
That’s why I long for him and surely will have mercy on him.”
Jeremiah 31:20
In other translations of the Hebrew word, like his Japanese version, God says “My heart is pained”, or “my heart is broken” or “my heart moans”, or is in “tumolt” or “turmoil” (152)
Kitamori said, “ever since this strange word struck me, I’ve meditated on it night and day”.  In the end, “the heart of the gospel was revealed to me as ‘love rooted in the pain of God’”
He says that classical Japanese tragedy comes very close to the gospel in its most moving sense of tsurasa, the sort of pain that is “experienced when one dies or sacrifices his beloved son in order to save another’s life” (135-138).  But there is a difference.  “Even Japanese tragedy does not know the pain which is experienced by loving the unworthy, the unlovable, and even the enemy.”  (138)
[6] When he went to the army, Moltmann took two books with him, by Goethe and Nietzsche, the greatest of German writers and philosophers – like Confucius for the Chinese.  But he found these could not help.
[7] “anyone who cries out to God in this suffering echoes the death cry of the dying Christ, the son of God” Moltmann
[8] For Moltmann, all our suffering is included in the cross: Jesus’ cry contained “the whole uproar of history”, the protest-cry of all creation.  Another German theologian wrote from prison: “Only the Suffering God can help.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer .  “All of history is virtually an enigma without a concept of an agonising God”, Schelling, in Kitamori, 1958, 26.
[9] While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death… Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.   Hebrews 5:7-8
[10] The third member of the Trinity is also with us: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness… intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26)
[11] “he suffered death for us… to bring many children into glory… into their salvation… Only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death… and set free all who lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying.”  (Hebrews 2:9-10, 14-15)
[12] Jesus also said his death was like a grain of wheat falling into the ground and dying, in order to produce many seeds (John 12:23-24).  “The greatest single secret of evangelistic or missionary effectiveness is the willingness to suffer and die… the servant must suffer if he is to bring light to the nations, and the seed must die if it is to multiply.”  (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p 322)
[13] In fact, the Bible says that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”  But one day, “it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay” (Romans 8:21-22)
[14] We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9)
My old self has been crucified with Christ.  (Galatians 2:20)
Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was.  (Romans 6:5)
[15] We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance.  And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.  Romans 5:3-4
[16] As Philip Yancey put it, the Bible changes the question about suffering from a backward looking “why?” to a forward-looking “to what end?”, shifting the focus from the cause to our response.  And the question “where is God when it hurts?” becomes “where is the church?”
[17] When suffering comes, yes, we will mourn, but we “will not grieve like people who have no hope.”  (1 Thessalonians 4:13)
[18] Read the full poem, or hear it read aloud.

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