Only the Suffering God Can Help - By Jürgen Moltmann

I found the following article by the great German theologian Jürgen Moltmann amongst my saved articles today and feel it is rather appropriate in the context of the death of a good friend and fellow cyclist, Mel Vasey, during one of our club runs (Birkenhead North End Cycling Club) last Sunday (see article in The Independent 20/01/07 ). Mel is on the far right in this photo taken before the Wild Wales Challenge at Bala, N. Wales in 2001.



This originally appeared in The Cry: The Advocacy Journal of Word Made Flesh vol. 7, no. 4 (Winter 2001)

This was the saving experience of my life. It was 1944, at the end of World War II. As a boy of 18 years, I was drafted into the German army. In February 1945, I was taken prisoner of war and spent more than three years behind barbed wire in Belgium, Scotland and England. April 1948, I was repatriated.

At the beginning of my imprisonment, I felt completely Godforsaken. I lost all hope; all interest in life faded away. The dark night of the soul came upon me and I felt that last temptation of all who are imprisoned, to give myself up--to die the death of the soul first, and then to the death of the body.

My turn from this sickness unto death to new hope and new life came about through two things: first through the Bible, and then through the kindness of the Scottish workers and their families towards the prisoners, their former enemies. At the end of 1945, a well-meaning British army chaplain visited our camp and distributed Bibles to the prisoners. Because I came from a secular family in Hamburg, this was the first Bible in my life. Some of us wondered and would rather have had a few cigarettes. I started reading without much interest until I stumbled on the Psalms of lament. Psalm 39 held me spellbound:
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace and my sorrow was stirred. I have to eat up my suffering within myself. My lifetime is as nothing in Thy sight. I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

They were words of my own heart and they called my soul to God. Later I read the Gospel of Mark. When I came to the story of the passion and read Jesus' death cry, "My God, why have you forsaken me," I knew with certainty, "This is the One who understands you." I began to understand the assailed Jesus because I felt that He understood me in my God-forsakenness; He is the divine Brother in distress, who takes the prisoners with Him on the way to resurrection and life. I began to summon up the courage to live again, seized by a great hope. This early fellowship with Jesus, the Brother in suffering and the Redeemer from guilt, has never left me since. I am sure that there and then, in the dark pit of my soul, He found me. Jesus' Godforsakenness on the cross showed me where God is in my forsakenness, where He had been in my life before, and would be in the future. The suffering God saved me in my sufferings.

The encounter with the suffering God in Christ is a great consolation in our personal life when we are losing beloved ones and have to mourn at their graves. The pain of grief lies in the feeling of losing someone and of being lost oneself. The consolation therefore lies in the experience of indestructible community with God. This is, however, only possible when the Godhead is not an unfeeling, indifferent heavenly power named "fate," but rather the eternal love who feels and suffers with us. That makes it possible for us to experience in our sorrow, also God's sorrow and in the pain of our love, God's pain present. God loves with those who love, God weeps with those who weep, God sorrows with the sorrowful. When the only son of the famous mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead died in a car accident at the age of 21 he wrote in his very abstract book, Process and Reality, the very concrete and personal sentence, "God is the fellow-sufferer who understands." With a beautiful English hymn we sing,

And when the human hearts are breaking
Under sorrow's iron rod,
Then we find the self-aching
Deep within the heart of God.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian of the German resistance-movement against Hitler, was imprisoned by the Gestapo in Berlin, he had a similar encounter with God. He wrote in a letter, "Only the suffering God can help." In their religions, men in their distress are searching for divine power, but the Bible brings us to the powerlessness and the suffering of God, because "through His wounds we are healed." A few months later Bonhoffer was brought to the gallows in the concentration camp of Flossenbürg and died with the words, "This is the end, for me the beginning of life." For Bonhoeffer the suffering God was not only a consolation in his own suffering. He also discovered that we are called "to share in the suffering of God in the world. Christians stand with God in God's suffering."

When the Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Arnulfo Romero met God at the grave of a murdered priest, he experienced his second conversion. From that time on, he discovered the eyes of the "crucified God" in the eyes of the poor and homeless children of his crucified people. In the poor, the homeless, the naked, the imprisoned Christ, Son of Man and World Judge is already present among us and is expecting us, our fellowship and our justice.
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