When God Hides in Suffering

“Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Is 45:15). This theme of divine concealing is prevalent throughout Scripture. Proverbs 25:2 ties the hiddenness of God to his glory. The book of Job drives home this point as it opens up a world of divine mystery to the reader and ensures you walk away convinced that you know less about God then when you began. It is a paradox for God to reveal to us that he is hidden. In essence he says, “I want you to know that there is so much of me that you cannot know.”

God alone has an exhaustive knowledge of God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit hold the exclusive rights and ability to fully comprehend one another (Lk 10:22, 1 Cor 2:10-11, Rom 8:27). There is splendor in his infinite and incomprehensible nature, majesty in a God who can never be totally understood. And yet, God discloses himself to us. He chooses to pull back the veil and let us know him.

Luther loved to talk about the dynamic of the hidden and revealed God. In his Heidelberg Disputation, he states, “A theology of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is. This is clear: He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering (absconditum in passionibus).”[1]

For Luther, a theology of the cross shoots it straight. God is known through Christ; you can’t pretend to know or speak about God apart from him.[2] But to know Christ, you must find him swaddled in the crib or dying on the cross. In other words, you will always find God hidden in suffering. God does not show up where you would think, he is consistently present in the most unexpected places.

We see this premise at work when God hides himself in the hungry, naked, sick, thirsty and imprisoned (Matt 25:31-46),[3] the suffering church (Acts 9:4), the weak and foolish (1 Cor 1:20-25), and the broken and lowly (Is 57:15). God is indeed hidden in suffering.

What are the implications of this theological paradox? First, suffering does not necessarily equate to the absence of God. If God hides in suffering, one may be shocked to find that their experience of him deepens, their understanding of him broadens, and their hearts expand for him in that unlikely place. The New Testament frames this as a “fellowship of suffering” (Phil 3:10),[4] an unanticipated communion for the broken-hearted and hurting (Ps 34:18, 51:17). Our suffering may be a painfully unexpected occasion to encounter an unexpected God.

Second, what I just said runs the risk of over-spiritualizing suffering and doing more damage than good if not qualified. To go back to Luther, the theology of the cross “calls a thing what it actually is,” it is always brutally honest and grounded in reality.[5] The anguish of the cross cannot be minimized by the reality of the fellowship that existed between the Triune community. Communion and harsh suffering co-existed in that space without cancelling each other. In one breath, Christ expressed forsakenness and trust, intimacy and abandonment (Matt 27:46). This is how it “actually is” when it comes to journeying with God in suffering, when we embrace this tension, we live the paradox.[6]

[1]Forde, On Being a Theologian of the Cross, 31, 71.

[2]Dennis Ngien, “Ultimate Reality and Meaning in Luther’s Theology of the Cross: No Other God, but the Incarnate Human God,” Andrews University Seminary Studies, 42.2 (2004), 383. “Whoever wants to find God must shun the Majestic God, God in his naked immediacy, and assume the way of the Divine from below, i.e., from the Incarnate Son. God is to be found where he wills to be found, that is, ‘through and in this humanity.’ A true theology, which he calls “theology of the cross” (Theologia Crucis), must observe this rule: grasp God in the way Scripture teaches us-cling to the God at his mother’s breasts, and to the God who hung on the cross and was raised from the tomb. Any attempt to execute an opposite movement will either end in utter ignorance of God or dash us against the terror of the hidden and naked God’s majesty. Thus, Luther declares: ‘Outside of Christ there is no God.’”

[3]Jesus uses “the least of these” to describe this group of suffering individuals. There are profound dimensions to Matthew 25, one of which is the fact that we may be among the least at certain points in our journey. Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2005): 63-65. In his book, Vanier quotes Carl Jung’s intriguing take on Matthew 25. “I admire Christians, because when you see someone who is hungry or thirsty, you see Jesus. When you welcome a stranger, someone who is “strange,” you welcome Jesus. When you clothe someone who is naked, you clothe Jesus. What I do not understand, however, is that Christians never seem to recognize Jesus in their own poverty. You always want to do good to the poor outside you and at the same time you deny the poor person living inside you. Why can’t you see Jesus in your own poverty, in your own hunger and thirst’? In all that is ‘strange’ inside you: in the violence and the anguish that are beyond your control! You are called to welcome all this, not to deny its existence, but to accept that it is there and to meet Jesus there.” Vanier puts these truths in his own words, “Jesus calls us not only to welcome the weak and the rejected…but also the weak and the broken person within us and to discover the presence of Jesus within us…In order for us to be men and women who give life to others we have to live in the truth of who we are; we have to find an inner wholeness, no longer to deny or ignore our wounds but to welcome them and to discover the presence of God in these very places of our own weakness.”

[4]Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “The Usefulness of the Cross,” The Westminster Theological Journal, 41:2 (Spring 1979), 237-238. Gaffin rightly challenges a narrow view of the sufferings of Christ pertaining only to persecution. “But the ‘sufferings of Christ’ are much broader. They are the Christian’s involvement in the ‘sufferings of the present time,’ as the time of comprehensive subjection of the entire creation to futility and frustration, to decay and pervasive, enervating weakness. They are the believer’s participation in what was also, according to the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms (LC, A.48; SC, A.27) a fundamental dimension of Christ’s humiliation: ‘Undergoing the miseries of this life,’ exposure to ‘the indignities of the world,’ ‘the infirmities of his flesh,’ ‘the temptations of Satan.’”

[5]Timothy J. Wengert, ““Peace, Peace…Cross, Cross” Reflections on How Martin Luther Relates the Theology of the Cross to Suffering,” Theology Today, 59 (2002), 190, 196, 200. “Does a theology of the cross bless suffering? Final answer: No…the cross reveals human suffering for what it truly is—a curse—and thereby opens us up to receive God’s own, proper work and blessing in the resurrection…the link between suffering and cross for the theologian of the cross must be the experience of reality, not a fantasy of feelings.”

[6]Gaffin, “The Usefulness of the Cross,” 236. “For this period, for as long as we are in the mortal flesh and the sentence of death is written into our existence, resurrection-eschatology is eschatology of the cross, and the theology of the cross is the key signature of all theology that would be truly ‘practical’ theology.”