- Momento Mori, Momento Domini! Ash Wednesday Meditation (with a bit of help from Barth) - February 28, 2020
- Psalms 23: Robert Alter’s Brilliant Translation - May 21, 2019
- Read Schleiermacher, for Barth’s Sake! - April 6, 2019
In my book, Where Was God? (which you can get right now for free), I explore the idea of God’s impassability (His inability to suffer) in the face of human suffering. If God has suffered and died on the cross, why do we say that God cannot suffer? The answer, which I discovered in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, was simple. God can suffer, and in fact He does suffer. God is not impassable in the sense that He is unaffected or unmoved by the suffering of mankind. But quite radically, we must say that since the crucified Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and that this is what God is like, then God can and does suffer with mankind. And furthermore, as Moltmann concluded, we must place suffer and death itself in the very Triune life of God. God intimately knows suffering and death in Himself, He experiences our suffering when we suffer and He joins us in our death through Jesus’ death.
Learning this revolutionized my understanding of God and the way I think about the gospel. Since Jesus has truly suffered as a man, God deeply understands mankind. We do not find an abstract God void of emotion in the gospel, we find a personal, relatable, intimate God who suffers with mankind. What a beautiful picture this is!
But as I read Jürgen Moltmann’s latest book, The Living God and the Fullness of Life (which I recommend!), I was once again challenged in my understanding of God. Traditionally God is called the “Almighty”, and the scriptures affirm this. But what does that actually mean?
Is God Almighty?
For most, this is an abstract term about God’s ultimate dominance. As Moltmann writes, “If we see the Deity as the all-determining summit of universal monarchy, then it must be ‘all-determining reality.'” 1 The logical conclusion we make about an abstractly “Almighty” God is that such a God must determine all history, and in fact all existence.
But is this what is means to be Almighty? Is God the determining cause of everything that happens in creation?
On one hand this is an appealing claim to us, because we tend to relate such absolute power with freedom. We believe we are free when we can accomplish something or determine the outcome of an event. So the ultimate, highest understanding of this must be a completely free God who determines all things. But is that really freedom in itself? Is an Almighty God that must be all-determining really free?
According to Moltmann, no. He writes, “Is the Almighty free? No, for God has to be ‘the all-determining reality.’ For God there is no alternative to rule over the world. In this way God is tied down to this almighty role. Is the Almighty a subject? Yes, but a fixed subject. Is the Almighty a God in relationship? Yes, but only in a single relationship of determining everything. Has the Almighty power over Godself? No, God can do nothing other than rule over everything. So, in fact, the Almighty is powerless and a prisoner of the universe.” 2
The Almighty is a prisoner, because the Almighty is responsible for everything. Which means the Almighty is accused of the theodicy question. Which makes sense. If God is all determining, why doesn’t God end suffering and death? But in this line of thinking an “almighty” God, as the all-determining God, is nothing short of a monster-God, because such a God causes and wills all suffering, corruption, injustice, and death in the world. But is this what God is like? And is such a God really free? No. Because an all-determining God cannot “withdraw into Godself”, as Moltmann puts it. Such a God cannot choose not to be “Almighty”.
So how then should we re-understand the “almighty-ness” of God?
To be Almighty Means the Freedom to be Weak
A God who is Almighty, in the Christian sense, cannot be an “all-determining” God. Because such a God is not free to withdraw, and to have power over Godself. Such a God is a slave to the reality being determined, and therefore unfree to choose not to determine that reality.
So what then? Am I saying that God is not almighty?
Certainly not. The “Almighty” label for God is found all throughout the scriptures, especially in the Old Testament. So instead of dropping that title, what I’m proposing is we rethink what God as the Almighty actually means.
An Almighty God is not an “all-determining” God. Rather, God is free in Godself. God is free to withdraw from history, to determine Godself. In other worlds, God is not required in Gods almighty-ness to determine all things. This is an act of self-limitation. God certainly could determine all things, but since God is free God does not have to. As Moltmann continues to say, “The limitation of God’s unending power is an act of God’s power over Godself. Only God can limit God.” 3 The Almighty God is free to limit Godself. This is what it means to be Almighty, in the Christian sense: the limitless God is free to be self-limited.
And God has chosen to do exactly that.
God has chosen not to be counted among the “mighty”, but among the weak. God has chosen solidarity with the broken, the outcasts, the lost, and the forgotten. God has chosen to be weak with the weak, poor with the poor, and to suffer with those who suffer. This is apparent especially in the life of Jesus, who commonly ate with sinners, and fellowshipped with the so-called outsiders of society. It often was a mark against Him according to the religious rulers of the day, and still is today in stark contrast against the way we tend to understand God. But if this is who Jesus is, we must say this is what God is like, because it is what God has revealed about Himself.
The God of Jesus Christ is the God of outcasts, the God of the weak, of the helpless, and of the needy.
God is free and in freedom God has decided to limit Godself. This is how God is “Almighty”. It is not because God is all-determinating, but because God in freedom has chosen weakness, helplessness, suffering, and even death for Himself that God is Almighty.
As Moltmann writes, “God is not on the side of the mighty as ‘the Almighty’—God is on the side of the weak, as the liberator who is in solidarity with them. The living God chooses the weak in the world and rejects the mighty.” 4
This is the almighty-weakness of God! Not that God is lacking, but that God in His majesty and love has chosen to be our God, to be the God of those who suffer, who die, who weep, and who are weak. He radically chooses solidarity with mankind, and rejects even His own might for our sakes.