She was stabbed to death on a sunny, Saturday morning in a suburb near Austin, Texas. It was April 18th 2014.
Having sold some shares he owned in a company, her husband had just returned from Chicago with a hundred thousand dollars in cash. Allegedly, he wanted to escape somewhere after “the deed.” That morning, he had breakfast with his family, which included his wife and his wife’s sister, who was barely fourteen. Their two little kids were present, probably frolicking around in excitement in the presence of daddy. His wife sat across a dining room table, eating pancakes, while repeatedly stroking her pregnant abdomen. Everything seemed fine. His wife was busy sharing her morning with her friends on social media, putting on display a family committed to an ideal: “those who eat together, stay together.” The world must have thought everything was fine.
The husband, without a sign of disturbance, suggested to his wife, kids, and sister-in-law that they head to a park. You know, “for a morning stroll.” And so, the park it was.
In a matter of minutes, after he placed his two kids in their brand new Lexus, he returned to the house to find his wife alone. (The sister-in-law was probably in a nearby room preparing for the stroll.) Without skipping a beat, he grabbed a kitchen knife, put his pregnant wife in a headlock, and shoved the large knife into her throat. Surprised by this behavior, the wife didn’t seem to fight back.
A small commotion must have disturbed the sister-in-law, since she promptly returned to the dining room only to find her sister covered in blood, being stabbed repeatedly to death by her own husband.
In a state of utter dismay, she called the police.
He didn’t even bother to pull the knife out. He just left it standing there, stuck in her womb, an erect witness to the crime he had just committed.
Calmly, the husband got back into the car and went to the park with his kids.
But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it hasn’t even begun.
Before Rachel ever married Matthew, she was in love with his cousin, Tim. After things didn’t work out with Tim, she had begun dating Matthew with the hopes that she could get Tim back by the sheer force of jealousy. Things didn’t turn out that way, and so, she ended up marrying Matthew.
Several kids later, Rachel found herself stuck in a marriage she did not want. Oh, her husband loved her—one merely needed to see the large diamond she wore on her ring finger—but it was a love she did not return. The inevitable was to rise to the surface in due time: Rachel was having an affair with Tim.
Now Matthew was not entirely an idiot. He had attended a prestigious university and had graduated with honors. It didn’t take long for him to suspect that his beloved wife (whom he’d casually beat during sex every once in a while) was cheating on him. When his wife announced that she was pregnant, Matthew, in his heart of hearts, refused to believe the child was his.
Incidentally, the cheating became less tacit. Rachel had a tattoo inked on her skin, just under her left breast, saying something that could be interpreted along the lines of Matthew’s suspicions. She became addicted to alcohol, drinking one too many glasses of wine with dinner. The baby growing in her bosom only fueled Matthew’s imagination: there was no way in hell the child was his. His wife wasn’t happy with him. He knew it; she knew it, and she no longer tried to hide it.
“The deed” committed, then, was a crime of passion. It was premeditated, conceived in the most intelligent of minds; being acted out by a man who knew what he was doing and why.
After the funeral, friends of Matthew, who were still enraged by his deed, visited him in prison. In his prison clothes, surrounded by fellow thieves and murderers, Matthew expressed no remorse or regret; he only wished he had done it sooner.
With Rachel murdered and buried, and her husband facing life in prison, the two kids were returned to her parents. Maybe they still had a future.
Rachel’s fourteen-year-old sister was no longer herself. She was a witness to a crime no one should have witnessed at that tender age. The psychiatrists placed her on large doses of antidepressants, anxiolytics, and hypnotics. Maybe she, too, had a future, however demented and guilt-ridden it would be.
For most of the surviving members of the family—be it the friends, the relatives, or the church members—the questions haunted them: where was God in all of this? Could God not have intervened? What purpose did it serve to have had a little girl witness such brutality? Was there really any “good” that could come about from the experiencing of such a violent scene? What about the children? Who’s going to raise them? And when Rachel’s daughter grows into a woman, what sort of stories will she tell on first dates regarding her father? Will she tell the guys how “Daddy just flipped out and stabbed mom to death”? Or will she invent something more readily digestible? (I assume one would invent some fanciful tale about one’s origins which one could psychologically deal with.) The question I wish to pursue is relatively simple: How does one live in a world of suffering, a world God allegedly claims as His own?
Before Rachel was ever murdered, before there was such a thing as her cheating and her husband’s rage, there was a concept of God and a concept of how the world ran that infiltrated every aspect of reality. The questions her family members ask, and the questions her little sister will ask as she matures, are undoubtedly asked from a particular vantage point. And what is that vantage point? In the following pages, I wish to articulate a view of God and His relation to the world that may help explain some of the suffering human beings experience.
For many people, the idea that God exists in a world of suffering poses problems. In the classical framing of the issue either (a) God is omnipotent and does not wish to eliminate suffering (hence making God malevolent) or (b) God is benevolent but cannot eliminate suffering (hence making God impotent) or (c) God does not exist. In any of the cases, God is certainly a major subject. It is to this noun “God” that I now turn.
Who or what is God? What does it mean for something to be “god”? The Bible presents us with a strange God. In the Old Testament, for example, YHWH suffers a great deal. In the New Testament, God also suffers—this time on a cross. In both Testaments, God functions as a Being who experiences suffering. In Psalm 78:40, it is said of God: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” In many ways, according to the Old Testament, God grieved due to relational issues. He grieved due to “forsakenness (Isa. 54:6); mourning (2 Sam. 19:3); distress and anger (Gen. 45:5); [and] injury (Ps. 56:6).” In addition to these remarkably human emotions, the Old Testament relates how God suffers within the context of metaphors. For example, God’s relationship with Israel is seen within the context of a marital metaphor: God is the husband and Israel is the wife. The feelings God verbalizes are romantic:
“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jer. 2:2).
In such romantic, marital recollections, what is being relayed is, according to Terence E. Fretheim, “a picture of the pain and anguish of God.” In what seems like a hopeless romantic’s last-ditch-effort, God comes to Israel begging helplessly for attention.
“I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me…” (Isa. 65:1).
The metaphors do not stop there. God is a mother (Hos. 11:3-4; Isa. 66:13; Ps. 131:2; Luke 13:34), a father (Isa. 1:2-3), a shepherd (Ps. 23), etc. In all these cases, God is relating to humans. It is the relationship that is at the center of the anguish and the pain of a suffering God. The image of God as a hopeless romantic may not be one that many of us would be familiar with—especially a suffering romantic at that! Our images of God, like the idols of old, are detrimental to theology.
The OT tells us that the people of God were often guilty of worshipping idols, of making up their own god, of creating gods, or even Yahweh, in a certain image. We oversimplify this matter if we think of such images solely in terms of wood or stone; the plastic image conveyed a particular way of understanding these gods or Yahweh. And, we have learned over the years that idolatries do not need the plastic form to qualify as such. One can move directly to mental images which construct a false image of God and have the power of wreaking havoc in people’s faith and life. Metaphors matter.
And what is our image—our mental construct, our “idol”—of God today? In the words of Douglas J. Hall, we like the image of God as warrior-king:
The language of our religion had been so consistently informed by the spirit of might, winning, success, and related concepts that it is difficult to use any of the scriptural nomenclature of glory and triumph without conjuring up the whole ideology of empire.
Citing C. S. Song, he writes, “[W]e have been handed a ‘high-voltage God’ and a ‘high-voltage theology’ by our tradition.” The idea that God actually suffers too—that we are like God, having been made in His image—is as foreign to our ears as the oft-repeated phrase imago dei. We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve forgotten what it all means. The words are hidden from our eyes, “hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity” (§129), wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein. Our God, instead, is no longer the God in whose image we have been made. It is a God who is “high-voltage,” like the narcissistic dictators some of us—who are clearly deranged—dream of.
“The Judeo-Christian tradition does not deny the power of God, but neither does it magnify this attribute; moreover, and more to the point, it does not abstract the divine power from the divine-human relationship. The relationship qualifies—radically—the nature and deployment of power on God’s part.”
And it is here that we’ve come to the crux of the issue. God suffers—and that is alright. But what if His suffering is predominantly contingent upon a relationship? If so, is God’s nature, then, somehow qualified by the relationship? The Bible suggests that this may indeed be the case: God cannot do anything willy-nilly—He is bound to the promises made to human beings.
If God makes a promise to a person, is He not limited by it? That is, if God says that He would do something no matter what, is He free to not do what He said He’d do? It appears that the idea of God being totally all-powerful is wrong. Not wrong in the sense of “God is omnipotent” but wrong in the sense of “God’s power is of such a case that He can do anything and everything no matter what.” Our conceptions of “power” are inherently tied to our conceptions of dictators, kings, and nuclear-capable nations. But is that really power? Is it really “powerful” to bomb another nation? Is it really powerful when you lock someone up in order to prevent them from doing what they so desire? “Who, through power tactics, can eliminate the self-destroying habits of a son or daughter who has fallen prey to hard drugs?” In Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, the protagonist, Antonio, makes the following remarks regarding his sister’s suffering, who was dying from a bone disease:
When Miriam’s bones were breaking…if I could have pushed a button that would have stopped not her pain but the pain of her in me, I would not have pushed the button because, to put it quite simply, my pain was because I loved her, and to have wished my pain away would have been somehow to wish my love away as well.
To wish away relational pain, a pain watered by love, is to wish away the love also. And to wish away love…well, what else does one live for anyway?
We live in a world in which we want to wish away many things. All too often we deny the reality of suffering by failing to accept it as such. We want to reject suffering. We want to reject the pain we feel when a loved one is sick or dying. We want to reject a suffering God—for a suffering God has little to offer humans who have rejected the very nature of the God they claim to worship. And yet, this God is caught up in the cobwebs of intimate relations. This God does not live in a vacuum, detached from human freedom. Humans have the freedom to do all kinds of things. They can build or they can destroy; they can create life or they can take it. Somewhere in the mess of things, God finds Himself—from the biblical perspective—merely involved. God is not, to use colloquial expressions, “in control.”
In the words of the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne, “A world in which God perpetually intervened in this magical way would also not be a creation that was allowed freely to be itself.” He continues: “[S]uffering and evil of the world are not due to weakness, oversight, or callousness on God’s part, but, rather, they are the inescapable cost of creation allowed to be other than God, released from tight divine control and permitted to be itself.”
According to Polkinghorne, the freedom that we have to exist is necessary for us to be able to truly be ourselves. Without it, we’d just be God on a different day.
But separation from God is not the only thing one could discuss. Separation is necessary for freedom. But what about all of God’s pain? What about all of our pain? This pain comes from involvement, from entanglement. Even reality itself is “built up from relationships.” For example, the EPR experiment in physics shows us that once two photons interact with one another—and begin sharing a single wave function—and are later separated, they will continue to share the same wave function no matter the distance between them. In addition, if anything is done to photon X (let’s say it is measured by a tool which places it into a spin-up state) then photon Y, however far away, will be put into a spin-down state. If mere photons have such “quantum entanglement,” how much are human beings entangled in the world and God? It is a deeply frightening question. Are we so entangled in God’s world that any action we take has virtually eternal and limitless repercussions? If this is, indeed, the case, this puts human beings in a very serious situation: the responsibility that falls on our shoulders may then be likened to Paul’s “weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17).
There is a “togetherness in separation” in the quantum world. How much more is there “togetherness in separation” in the real world! Returning to some of our initial thoughts, I do not think God is infinitely removed from reality. If God exists, it would certainly be a God who is a hopeless romantic “entangled” in us. On the flip side, our relations with God and neighbor, with wife and brother, are also gravely important. And what we do shapes and changes history. We have the freedom to love and the freedom to kill. But in any case we are, as it were, infinitely entangled.
If Rachel’s little sister were to ask a theologian about God, and God’s relation to the world, what would he or she say? In light of our brief discussion, mostly centered on the issue of relationships and pain, what does one say? I don’t have the answer—but I think we have a number of answers we could ruminate on.
What was the meaning of Rachel’s death? Could God have done something about it without changing Rachel’s life-story? I don’t think so. In a sense, Rachel was the architect of her life. (And I am not in any way denying influences such as genes, family, friends, etc.) She chose this man—and she committed her share of sins. There is no need to deny the responsibilities that fell on Rachel, her lover Tim, and her husband. All three figures played their cards in this thing called life. None were “without blood,” so to speak. Could God have intervened? I don’t think so. To limit Rachel’s freedom—or what little freedom she had—would have meant to eliminate Rachel’s existence itself. The suffering of God was not, even in God’s own case, eliminated. To hearken back to my mention of Buechner’s work, God did not “push the button.” Like a parent watching a child die slowly from the consumption of illegal drugs, so does God watch—in the most pathetic of manners—the death of His beloveds. In freedom, in letting God be God and humans be humans, there is also the possibility of love and hate, of intimacy and loneliness, of life and of death. “Morally honest joy must be joy had while our eyes remain open to evil,” wrote the philosophical theologian William Greenway. To experience love in all of its grandeur and in all of its tombstone-glory, one must keep one’s eyes open to evil. The beloved remains—always remains—one final exhalation away from death. To deny this is to deny the wholeness of love. To deny the pain that is and the pain that is to come is to deny what is central to love: a pain that aches secondary to, and in proportion to, a love that burns.
Where was God in all of this? Was He distantly removed, somewhere safe in the environs of His Ivory Tower. Or was He deeply immersed in the suffering of Rachel, in the rage of Matthew, in the tears of friends and family? The biblical portrait of God—whether it is the YHWH of the Old Testament or the Jesus of the New—is one: God suffers with. The suffering is not always suffering “for”; sometimes it is simply a suffering “with.” Returning to our earlier analogy of God as hopeless romantic within the metaphor of marital love, God may have simply been present. There is a reason why couples that say their traditional vows invoke the possibility of evil and suffering. It is because it is a very real possibility—and sometimes all one needs is a partner in suffering. “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” The relationship brings with it the promise—and I do think it is a promise—that you two will suffer. The suffering may be caused by none other than that arch-villain itself, Love. You may lose someone you deeply love in a car accident. You may worry if your spouse is ever late. You may care endlessly about your spouse’s wellbeing. All in all, there will be some level of heartache involved—if one has a soul, that is.
Maybe C. S. Lewis was right:
To love anything is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
If one wants to avoid tragedy in general, or the loss of a spouse in particular, one must simply choose not to engage in any loving endeavors at all. Where there is no such love; where there is no such freedom to love (or not to love); where there is no possibility of intimate relations, there you will find a god who does not cry. But here we are on earth, in the most earthly of manners, infinitely entangled in the arms of a God who cries…
Written by: Moses Y. Mikheyev
Dedicated to Terrence E. Fretheim—for all of the outbursts in class and for our conversations regarding God & suffering…
 Terence E. Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, Overtures to Biblical Theology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 111.
 Ibid., 115.
 Also cited in Fretheim, The Suffering of God, 118.
 Ibid., 2.
 Douglas John Hall, God and Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 106.
 Ibid., 96.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, trans. and eds. G. E. M. Anscombe, P. M. S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, rev. 4th ed. (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 57.
 Hall, God and Human Suffering, 97. Italics original.
 Ibid., 98.
 Cited in Hall, God and Human Suffering, 99.
 I use the word “merely” here quite loosely. That is, I am setting this vision of God in contradistinction to a vision in which God functions as a warrior-king that rules by might.
 John Polkinghorne, Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity: Questions to Science and Religion, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2005), 60.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 75.
 Ibid., 70-2.
 Ibid., 70.
 I use the term “answer” here very loosely. I sympathize with Ivan Karamazov in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. That is, I don’t think I’d accept God’s invitation to go to the theater in which God provided “an explanation” of suffering. I’m pretty sure I’d turn down the offer. No, I’m certain I would.
 William Greenway, The Challenge of Evil: Grace and the Problem of Suffering (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 31.
 C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988), 121.