In both the Old and New Testaments, there are numerous references to God as a Comforter of His people (Ps. 119:50; Isa. 40:1; 51:3; 61:1; Matt. 5:4; 2 Cor. 1:4). In this world of sin, suffering, and sorrow, there is a great need for each of us, at varying times and in varying circumstances in our lives, to experience the comfort of God personally. When humans do not grieve real losses and experience comfort, they stay emotionally stuck and have difficulty moving into the joy and freedom that is our heritage as Christian believers.1 Biblically speaking, it is not difficult to build the case for the human need for God’s comfort. But could it also be true that God is blessed by our human desire to minister to His pain?
Does God suffer? I would suggest an affirmative response for the following reasons. First, we were created in God’s image, which implies that He not only has thoughts (Isa. 55:8; Jer. 29:11) but also has emotions.2 Second, when God expresses His emotions in the Scriptures, they are strong (Hos. 11:8, 9). Third, the Scriptures teach that we, as human beings, have the capacity to hurt God (Ps. 78:40, 41). Fourth, God is a God of compassion. John Peckham states, “The biblical language of compassion explicitly depicts ‘suffering along with,’ akin to sympathy/ empathy, that is, responsive feeling of emotion along with and for the object of compassion (compare Is 49:15; Jer 31:20).”3
Building on this concept of compassion, God feels our pain in addition to His own. “In all their suffering he also suffered, and he personally rescued them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them. He lifted them up and carried them through all the years” (Isa. 63:9).4 “Through all our trials we have a never-failing Helper. He does not leave us alone to struggle with temptation, to battle with evil, and be finally crushed with burdens and sorrow. Though now He is hidden from mortal sight, the ear of faith can hear His voice saying, Fear not; I am with you. ‘I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore.’ Revelation 1:18. I have endured your sorrows, experienced your struggles, encountered your temptations. I know your tears; I also have wept. The griefs that lie too deep to be breathed into any human ear, I know. Think not that you are desolate and forsaken. Though your pain touch no responsive chord in any heart on earth, look unto Me, and live.”5 To summarize, God suffers deeply, allows Himself to be hurt by human beings, and at the same time compassionately feels pain when we are hurt.
Is God’s pain the same as ours? Perhaps yes and no. It is true that Jesus wept (John 11:35), was angry (Mark 3:5), and groaned in His spirit (John 11:33), but did He feel these feelings only as a man or also as God? When we behold the sufferings of Jesus, it is in His suffering that we are healed (Isa. 53:5). It is in the Cross of Jesus, His rejection, abandonment, and physical and emotional abuse, that we are healed. By His taking our sufferings, our guilt, and our shame into His sufferings, we find comfort and healing. This is a real challenge for some. Paul Coneff writes, “For some reason, some people like to separate Jesus’ dying for our suffering from His dying for our sins. But the truth is, unless we are comfortable with ignoring scriptures like Isaiah 53, Hebrews 2:10, Hebrews 2:17–18, and Hebrews 4:14–15, Revelation 13:8—and all the New Testament verses stating that part of Jesus’ mission and plan of salvation was to suffer—we can’t ignore the fact that, on the cross, Jesus embraced not just our sin but our suffering, too.”6 By looking at Jesus’ victory over the temptation to use His own power on His own behalf and to medicate His own pain, we find strength in His victory over these temptations to overcome our own temptations.
As the unique God-man, we would conclude that Jesus suffered both as God and as man following the line of reasoning above. If this is so, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane fully felt the pain of sin and the results of sin for all humankind. It is no wonder that He “became anguished and distressed” and said, “ ‘My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death’ ” (Matt. 26:37, 38). He desired human compassion, but did not receive it, and an angel came to strengthen Him. He was in such agony that His sweat was like great drops of blood (Luke 22:43, 44). I would like to suggest that because God suffered for all of humankind (John 3:16; Heb. 2:9), His suffering was greater than ours in volume. “Jesus reassures His disciples of God’s sympathy for them in their needs and weaknesses. Not a sigh is breathed, not a pain felt, not a grief pierces the soul, but the throb vibrates to the Father’s heart.”7
When we are hurt as humans, we do our best to protect ourselves from pain using our defense mechanisms. In doing so, we close ourselves off from those who have hurt us. It is reasonable to conclude that after the fall of humankind, God allowed defense mechanisms and coping strategies so that when pain occurred, humans would survive it. Imagine Adam and Eve’s profound grief after the loss of both of their sons, Abel and Cain (Gen. 4:8–15). When these coping mechanisms do not work well, mental illness often is the result.8 Attempts to self-medicate pain often lead to various addictions that become self-destructive. However, God never used or now uses His own power on His own behalf. In other words, God feels our pain fully in all of its rawness without any anesthetic. Therefore, when we suffer, God feels our pain more than we do. In all of our suffering, He also suffers to the fullest extent possible. It is important to note that God is able to bear suffering in a way that far exceeds our own. He is not crippled by suffering in the way that we are, yet He does not feel it any less!
Likewise, Jesus in His sufferings did not use His divine power to protect Himself from pain. I would also suggest that Jesus did not use the human defense mechanisms that were available to Him. Rather, He kept his heart open to those who hurt Him so that, if possible, He might win them for the kingdom. If this is so, then not only the volume of Jesus’ suffering was greater than ours but also the depth of His suffering. Therefore, His need for comfort is also greater.
In looking further at God’s suffering in the Old Testament, Jeremiah 8:18–9:2 are most often attributed to Jeremiah himself. He is called the “weeping prophet.” However, when read in context, these verses appear to be the words of God Himself. After God speaks in Jeremiah 8:17, the text continues into verse 18: “My grief is beyond healing; my heart is broken. Listen to the weeping of my people; it can be heard all across the land. ‘Has the Lord abandoned Jerusalem?’ the people ask. ‘Is her King no longer there?’ ‘Oh, why have they provoked my anger with their carved idols and their worthless foreign gods?’ says the Lord. . . . I hurt with the hurt of my people. I mourn and am overcome with grief. Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people? If only my head were a pool of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for all my people who have been slaughtered.” Can you picture this as God’s heart toward His people and His suffering for them? When we consider the suffering that we have put and continue to put God through, do not our hearts yearn to bring even a bit of comfort to the One we have injured?
But some rightly ask, Does God need anything from humans? Is the all-sufficient Creator God in need of anything from His creatures? Perhaps not, but perhaps this is the wrong question. The relationally perfect Persons of the Trinity loved and risked everything on Their love for the human beings made in Their image. It is bold love that risks the possibility of hurt and pain connected to freedom. But relationship, by definition, can never be unidirectional. In godly love, there is both giving and receiving. Yes, there can be unrequited love, and God often complains about that toward His people (Isa. 5:1–4). However, God’s ideal for Himself and His people is a mutuality of relational love. He describes Himself as the Bridegroom and His people as the bride. God longs for His people. He wants their affections, their praise and thanksgiving. So perhaps it is less about God needing comfort and more about His longings and desires to receive it from His people.
John Peckham, in his canonical exposition of God’s love, seems to agree. He states the following: “My investigation of the canonical data concludes that divine love in relation to the world is ideally reciprocal, yet asymmetrical. That is, God desires reciprocal love relationship with every person but enters into and enjoys a particular, intimate relationship with only those who freely reciprocate his love.”9 Applying this to the suffering of God, it would further help us to understand that God would be blessed by the comfort offered by His people. A desire to comfort God flows from intimate knowledge of God. Peckham, along with many other biblical scholars, describes God’s emotional passibility; that is, that God can be affected by the actions of His creatures. When God laments, “‘Oh, how can I give you up, Israel? / How can I let you go? /... My heart is torn within me, / and my compassion overflows’” (Hos. 11:8), God is demonstrating passionate passible emotion.10
Some well-known Christian songs speak to God’s desire to receive the worship of humans. Consider Laurie Klein’s 1996 recording of “I Love You Lord.” “I love You Lord, / And I lift my voice / To worship You, / Oh, my soul rejoice. / Take joy my King, / In what you hear. / Let it be a sweet, / Sweet sound in Your ear.”11 These hymns capture the heart of God so well! The hymn writers understood God and His longing for our praise. These songs connect our heart with God’s heart. By singing them from our hearts, we bring Him joy and comfort in the process.
Confession and repentance
Another way that humans comfort God is through confession and repentance. When we sin, we deeply wound God. However, when we admit our sin, allow our hearts to be broken by this realization, and resolutely turn away from sin, God experiences joy and comfort. In Luke 15:4–7, Jesus told the story of the lost sheep. When the shepherd searches for and finds the one lost sheep, Jesus extends the analogy by saying “‘In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away’” (v. 7). Likewise, in the parable of the lost coin, Jesus concludes the story by saying, “‘In the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels when even one sinner repents’” (v. 10). It would appear that God expresses His unbridled joy in the presence of the angels in the heavenly courts above. The repentance of His children must surely be an immense source of comfort to God.
We also comfort God by comforting others. Second Corinthians 1:4 instructs us to comfort others with the comfort that we’ve experienced. When we bear one another’s burdens, attentively listen to the painful stories of others, offer prayers of comfort and hope, or give tangibly to persons in need, we are comforting God because He said, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’” (Matt. 25:40). Lessening the suffering of others, it would seem, also lessens the suffering of God. In John 15, Jesus spoke about the intimacy between Himself and His followers using the analogy of the vine and the branches. John 17 speaks of this unity even more explicitly: “‘I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be one in us so that the world will believe you sent me’” (v. 21). Building on this idea, Paul states that “we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13), and Ephesians 5:23 identifies Christ as the head of the body, the church. This sampling of New Testament scriptures identifies the intimacy between Christ and His people. Based on this oneness, what affects one of us also has an impact on all of the others including our Head, Brother, Father, and Savior, Jesus. This understanding gives us both the right and the responsibility to bring comfort to God.
Finally, we comfort God by entering into His experience empathically. When we “get God” the way David did, we become men and women after God’s own heart. David “developed a heart after God’s because he had a heart that had room for others.”12 David’s heart resonated with God’s heart. When commenting on David’s sin with Bathsheba, Curt Thompson says, “David’s heart—his emotion—even in his guilt and shame, appears to be fully engaged with God’s heart—God’s emotion. ... In effect, the prophet (Nathan) is saying, ‘God gets you. And he gets that you get him.’”13 With God’s heart resonating within us, we can tell God from the depths of our hearts how sorry we are that He had to suffer. We will express sorrow not only for how our sins have hurt Him but for how He’s been hurt by the sin of others as well. In this, we become intercessors on God’s behalf. We develop hearts after God, and we believe that our prayers of empathy genuinely touch God’s heart. Is God comforted by our ministry to others, by our empathy, by our repentance, and by our heartfelt singing? The Word of God indicates that He is, and I fully agree!
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1.David and Beverly Sedlacek, Cleansing the Sanctuary of the Heart: Tools for Emotional Healing, 2nd ed. (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2014), 76–80.
2.Chantal J. Klingbeil and Gerald A. Klingbeil, “ ‘My Heart Falters, Fear Makes Me Tremble’ (Isaiah 21:4, NIV): Emotions and Prophetic Writings in the Bible,” Ministry (October 2016), 10–13.
3.John C. Peckham, The Love of God: A Canonical Model (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015), 178.
4.Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations have been taken from the New Living Translation.
5.Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1970), 483.
6.Paul Coneff and Lindsey Gendke, The Hidden Half of the Gospel: How His Suffering Can Heal Yours (Minneapolis, MN: Two Harbors Press, 2014), 32.
7.White, The Desire of Ages, 356.
8.David R. Williams, “Scientific Research on the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Mental Health: Lessons, Positive Affirmations, and Disquieting Question,” in, A Christian Worldview and Mental Health: A Seventh-day Adventist Perspective, ed. Carlos Fayard et al. (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2011), 196.
9.Peckham, The Love of God, 219.
10.Ibid., 16 2.
11.Laurie B. Klein, “I Love You Lord” (Santa Monica: Universal Music Publishing Group).
12.Reggie McNeal, A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2011),30.
13.Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul: Surprising Connections Between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2010), 102.