God and the Power of Vulnerability

Terence E. Fretheim

It is not enough to say that you believe in God. What is important finally is the kind of God in whom you believe. Metaphors matter. The images you use to speak of God will not only shape how you think about God, but will also shape your life.

The images often used to speak of God tend toward one ditch or another. On the one hand, God is an uninvolved overseer, sitting on the front porch of heaven watching the world go by. Or God is an absentee landlord, and you know how it is with absentee landlords: your calls are seldom returned and nothing much gets done. On the other hand, God is an absolute monarch or a corporate CEO, in total control of things, micromanaging the world. If so, given how unruly we all are, would we not have to score God a crashing management failure?

Another set of ditches in speaking of God is common among Christians. On the one hand, God is radically transcendent, so above and beyond the world that, say, every prayer is a roaming cell phone call that cuts in and out. On the other hand, God is buddy-buddy, takes no critical stance, speaks no prophetic word, and is never “in your face.” Never is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day. We will sing only praise songs in our worship services!

Still another set of images is often heard. On the one hand, God is superman (rarely superwoman), who hears of trouble and, faster than a speeding bullet, is able to accomplish anything and everything. With such a God no constraints or restraints are in view, and the only issue falls back on the sincerity or faith of those involved. On the other hand, God is like the king or queen of England, not much power there, but a sympathetic presence and an ability now and again to sponsor some elegant liturgical occasions.

Somehow we must find our way between these all too common ditches in our imaging of God. Biblical texts should be our most basic resource for this task. I suggest that relatedness is the “root metaphor” for biblical speaking of God. The word “covenant” pushes us in this direction, yet covenant has formal and legal dimensions that overly restrict our thinking about the relationship between God and world.

We are helped more by the considerable fund of concrete metaphors for God the Bible offers. Its metaphors for God have relatedness at their very core, having been drawn from the spheres of family (e.g., husband, parent), social/political realms (e.g., friend, king), and human roles (e.g., teacher, potter, seamstress). Even non-personal metaphors are understood in relational terms (e.g., Exod 19:4, “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself”; see Deut 32:18; Ps 31:2-3). To characterize these metaphors generally: they are relational, usually personal, ordinary rather than extraordinary, concrete rather than abstract, everyday rather than dramatic, earthly rather than “heavenly,” and secular rather than religious. This pervasive earthy type of language for God, drawn from human experience, relates God closely to the world and its everyday affairs. These kinds of images for God were believed to be most revealing of a God who had entered deeply into the life of the world and was present and active in the common life of individuals and communities.

So what is new? An examination of much biblical preaching and teaching would show how commonly this language is used in ways that make the relationship only formal or legal or logical—less than fully real. As a result, our talk of relationship may not connect very well with the usual understanding that people have regarding the way they relate to other people. The upshot may be that, when used of God, the word “relationship” becomes meaningless or incoherent for those who hear it.

What if we took the word “relationship” seriously? What if we spoke of the God-human relationship as real and genuine? What if we understood our relationship with God to be a relationship of integrity, presumably the only kind of relationship God can have? At the least, our God-talk may need to be cleaned up so that genuine relatedness is integral to our talk about God and God’s interaction with the world.

If we did this, what are the implications of such an understanding of the God-human relationship? Remembering that this is an asymmetrical relationship, that God is God and we are not, what might genuine relationship entail? Among other divine commitments, the following seem especially pertinent (recall what it takes for a genuine inter-human relationship such as a marriage to thrive).

  1. God so enters into relationships that God is not the only one who has something important to say. Exodus 32:7-14, for example, shows that God so values Moses’ verbal input that God reverses a decision made. More generally, prayer is God’s gift for the sake of a healthy relationship; what we have to say counts with God.
  2. God so enters into relationships that God is not the only one who has something important to do and the power with which to do it. Within the very creative process itself, God chooses to share power with the creatures, both nonhuman (e.g., Gen 1:11-13, 20, 22, 24) and human (Gen 1:28) and a commitment to such power-sharing is ongoing for God (Psalm 8).
  3. God so enters into relationships that God is genuinely affected by what happens to the relationship. For example, the flood is introduced by a grieving God (Gen 6:6-7) and God is provoked to anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness (Ps 78).
  4. God so enters into relationships that the human can stand over against the will of God (e.g., Isa 30:1; Zech 1:15). The divine will is resistible; God does not always get God’s will done in the world. If this were not the case, then the divine anger would be directed only against the divine self.
  5. God so enters into relationships that the future is not all blocked out (e.g., Jer 22:1-5 speaks of two possible futures for Israel, depending on how they treat the disadvantaged among them). Human beings, through the powers they have been given, are capable of shaping the future in various ways, indeed the future of God. The future is not simply in God’s hands.

Generally speaking, then, God has taken the initiative and freely entered into relationships, both in creation and in covenant with Israel. But, having done so, God—who is other than world—has irrevocably committed the divine self to be in a certain kind of relationship. Because God is faithful to commitments made, God will exercise constraint and restraint for the sake of the relationship and will not suspend these commitments for shorter or longer periods of time. The Incarnation could be said to be on this relational trajectory, being the supreme exemplification of this kind of divine relatedness and its irrevocability.

By establishing such a relationship with the world, God becomes vulnerable. God can be hurt by deeds done and by words spoken—words that reject God’s word and presume upon the relationship. Anyone who is in a relationship becomes more vulnerable the more they collapse the distance between them, the more they share of themselves. For example, the giving of your name to others enables a closer relationship, but it also makes you vulnerable to the misuse of your name. That God has given us the divine name makes for a comparable divine vulnerability. But this is a risk that God wills to take for the sake of closeness with those whom God loves. The lament of Jesus over Jerusalem captures this vulnerable way of God’s being in relationship (Matt 23:37).

Such divine vulnerability manifests itself in the OT in at least three different ways (see T. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective [Fortress, 1984]). In thinking through these dimensions of divine suffering, it is important to note that they do differ from human suffering in several respects. God does not become bitter, callous, or incapacitated in finding a way into the future. God’s suffering is not passivity, for (as sometimes happens with human beings) God is able to use the suffering to bring direction and energy to transform the situation for good. In suffering, God’s saving will does not waver; God’s steadfast love endures forever; God’s faithfulness to promises made will not be compromised.

  1. God experiences the breakdown of a close relationship with humankind and suffers because of that. Many texts reveal that God does not remain coolly unaffected by human rejection and infidelity (Gen 6:6; Ps 78:40; Jer 3:19-20). God’s response is not simply formal or legal; God is deeply touched by what has happened to the relationship, and that is manifested in both anger and grief (as comparably in an intimate human relationship). The Bible has chosen to share with its readers not only God’s thoughts, but God’s deep feelings.
  2. God enters into the suffering experience of creatures. Such divine empathy is evident not only with respect to Israel (e.g., Exod 3:7; Jer 31:20), but also for the non-Israelite (Jer 48:30-36) and for the creation as a whole (Jer 9:10, NIV). God is not indifferent to our suffering, nor does he approach it with a detached objectivity. God is not like a mechanic fixing a car from without, but enters into our suffering and makes it God’s own. And that suffering from within means that suffering will not have the last word.
  3. God’s suffers for those who are in need. God assumes the burden of human sin (Isa 43:23-24) and, in so doing, so gives of self that a new future is made possible. God chooses to take the brunt of human infidelity into the divine heart (Hos 11:8-9), choosing to use the kind of power that is finally most effective for good over the long haul, namely, self-expending power.

What does suffering mean for God? In some sense it means the expending of the divine life for the sake of the relationship with the people and their future life together. In the especially striking Isa 42:14 (“I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant”), God acts on behalf of a barren people who are unable to bring their own future into being. God engages in such a giving of self that only one of the sharpest pains known can adequately portray what is involved for God in bringing to birth a new creation of Israel beyond exile. For this kind of God, the cross is no stranger.

God did not suffer for the first time in the Christ event; even more, God did not suffer for the sins of the world for the first time on the cross. The NT witness to the finality and universality of Jesus’ suffering and death is certainly an advance on OT understandings. But it is an advance on an already-existing trajectory of reflection about a God who suffers. And beyond the cross, suffering continues to be the most basic way in which God chooses to be powerful in the world (see 2 Cor 12:9).

Posted Nov 01, 2002