‘‘… For he (God) said, surely they are my people, children that will not lie: so he was their Saviour. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old” (Isa. 63:8-9).
Can God suffer? How is it possible to understand the above scripture and contextualise in our specific situation? How do we talk about the concept of ‘God’s affliction’ without necessarily distorting His Divine attribute and associating it to a human and physical experience? Let us begin from the past. History tells us that Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, once wrote a letter to Polycarp who was the leader of the Church at Smyrna, the suffering church (Rev. 2:8-11). In his letter, he said to the person who was about to receive a crown of martyrdom, ‘‘Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes, impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible (capable of suffering) on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes.’’ Polycarp was personally discipled by the Apostle John, and he probably was the first recorded martyr in the post-New Testament era. At the age of eighty six, the Roman officials sought to arrest him, and he decided to wait for them at home. However, Christians around him were terrified and pleaded with him to escape, and he agreed to flee to a small village next to the town of Smyrna (Izmir, modern Turkey) in order to calm the people around him. While he was praying, he saw a vision and he told his friends that he would have burned alive. His friends urged him to run away, but Polycarp’s response was ‘God’s will be done.’ The Roman soldiers eventually discovered his location and came to get him. When he stood before the governor, he was asked to deny Christ so as his life would have been spared. Polycarp replied, “Fourscore and six years have I served him, and he has never done me injury; how then can I now blaspheme my King and savior?” Then, he was burned alive. As flames were rising around him and his body was glowing like gold, the soldiers took a sword and executed him.
Since the time in the Book of Acts 7 when the first martyr Stephen stoned to death, the body of Christ, i.e. the church has gone through a series of sufferings. According to legend, Peter was crucified upside down in Rome during the time of Emperor Nero. His Brother Andrew was scourged, and then tied rather than nailed to a cross, so that he would suffer for a longer time before dying. He stayed for two days on the cross and he preached to the people who were walking on that road. Paul was also beheaded with a sword in Rome. In Acts 12, James was also beheaded by the order of King Agrippa. His brother John suffered persecution and finally died peacefully in Patmos at his older age. Philip was crucified in Egypt. Bartholomew was skinned alive and then beheaded. Thomas was killed with a spear in India. Mathew, the tax collector, was also killed by a sword in Ethiopia. Simon the zealot was crucified in England. In all these agonies, grief and suffering, we can boldly say that God was there to take part in their affliction. When Israel was going through trouble, God spoke, ‘‘my bowels are troubled for him’’ (Jer. 31:20). I once read a statement that says, “No power in the universe can make God vulnerable, but a victim’s suffering breaks the heart of God” and there is a significant truth in it. The wound of God was exposed on the cross. God’s pain resolved human pain; through the pain of his own flesh, he healed human wounds. In fact, without understanding the cross of Jesus Christ we cannot understand the heart of God.
God’s impassibility is one of the core doctrines of the Bible that depicts God as incapable of feeling physical pain or injury, for such feeling implies imperfection. God’s affliction is an anthropomorphic expression referring to the love and kindness of God, and His reaction to human condition. The sympathy of God mainly indicates the Lord’s concern and care to His people who pass through difficulties and infirmities. It further shows that He is and was on every cross of the broken, of the persecuted, of the unjustly brutalised, of the racially victimised, of the multitude fellow Africans who suffered poverty, and of the six million Jews who were killed in the holocaust.
There are significant facts to pay attention to when we go through the history of church persecution and suffering. Primarily, it marks the extraordinary love between those who suffer for the sake of the Lord and Christ who suffer for the persecuted. However the Love of Jesus shown on Calvary cannot be compared to human’s affection for God. In addition to this, our suffering now is incomparable with the glory to come; ‘‘I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us’’ (Romans 8:18). Secondly, the stories of the martyrs help us to assess and to raise our commitment to the Lord. Finally, we should be aware of the fact that all people who claim to suffer for Christ may not be true disciples. The scripture says, ‘‘the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,”” (2 Tim. 2:19).
 Roberts, Alexander (2007:94) The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 1: The Apostolic fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Cosimos: New York).
Contributor: Pastor Fitsum Kebede recently moved from London to Los Angeles for his MA study in theology at Claremont School in California. He was formerly an Instructor at the Bible College in Addis Ababa.
Collected by Brother Ahadu Lakew from ACI Greater Los Angeles Area.