Suffering: pastoral and dogmatic dimensions
The Revd Dr Matthias Grebe (Ry. 2009–12) is Lecturer and Tutor in Theology at St Mellitus College, London, and Associate Vicar at St Edward King and Martyr, Cambridge.
In an episode of the GodPod podcast in 2022, I said that suffering, evil and sin represent a pastoral question. In everyday life, theodicy is never a theoretical question but a deeply practical one. These issues cannot be explained away; there is no rational “explanation” we can give a grieving parent who has just lost a child that will ever alleviate the pain. And it is clear that the question “Why do I suffer?” always trumps the philosophical trilemma of “Why is there suffering in the world if God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent?”
One pastoral response to personal suffering that we can find in the Bible is lament, a practice that I argue the Church needs to rediscover afresh for every generation. Nevertheless, there is still a time and place for the dogmatic approach, which considers the rational justification for belief in a loving God in light of the suffering and evil in the world. Whereas the implications of lament for our spiritual walk with God are more obvious, and might include surrender and relenting to God’s wisdom, the second approach shapes our understanding of who God is. We therefore shouldn’t conceptualise the dogmatic approach to suffering as any less “spiritual” or caring than the call to lament — it’s about who this God really is, and how he responds to our pain.
My current research focuses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the “suffering God”. It asks whether it is possible to talk meaningfully and coherently about suffering within God (kenosis, self-limitation and self-giving) and anchor suffering within the Trinity without eternalising suffering.
If we take seriously that in Jesus Christ God has revealed himself most fully — “he who has seen me has seen the Father” — then we get a glimpse of who God is by looking at Jesus’ Passion. There is just no way around the cross! In Jesus, the Suffering Servant, we are confronted with a God who not only deals with our sin and suffering in a final sense, but who knows personally what it is to suffer. This is no far-off, academic, theoretical God; he not only provides an eternal end to suffering, but as the Emmanuel is with us in our own experience of it. Still, how do we make sense of this suffering God?
The T&T Clark Handbook of Suffering and the Problem of Evil offers some useful resources for scholars, laity and clergy to dig deeper into these questions. With 80 contributions, it is the most comprehensive title published on the topic, with chapters on biblical perspectives, historical figures, dogmatic themes, philosophical and ethical issues, and interreligious and interdisciplinary approaches by leading academics from around the world.
The T&T Clark Handbook of Suffering and the Problem of Evil is edited by Matthias Grebe and Johannes Grössl and is due to be published by Bloomsbury in July 2023.