It has been said that for suffering people, “Only the suffering God will help.”[1] Does God suffer? The answer “Yes!” has become the “new orthodoxy” in recent times.[2] One theologian went so far as to say, “Were God incapable of suffering… then he would also be incapable of love.”[3] However, for most of the history of Christianity, theologians of almost all varieties said, “No! God cannot suffer.” What does God’s Word say on this question?

Why is God so happy?

The Holy Scriptures teach that God is happy and has no sorrows. Paul preaches “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). The word translated “blessed” (makarios) tells us that God possesses all that is necessary for true happiness or “beatitude.” This enriches our appreciation of the gospel. Fred Sanders writes, “For Paul to call God blessed in the context of the gospel is to point to the sheer gratuity of his self-giving: moved by neither need nor greed, lacking nothing and unimprovably happy, God gives graciously from his abundance.”[4]

Why is God so happy? He is “the blessed [makarios] and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:15–16).

First, God is happy because he is sovereign. He is the sovereign “King” and supreme “Lord” whose will cannot be frustrated (Deut. 10:17; Dan. 4:35). He never fears the future, for no evil can come that he has not ordained for his good purposes (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).

Second, God is invulnerable. He “alone has immortality,” that is, “deathlessness” (athanasia). Angels and men live forever by God’s power, but he alone is “indestructible” by nature (Heb. 7:16). “Corruption” (phthora) brings sorrow into the world (Rom. 8:21–22), but God is incorruptible (aphthartos, 1 Tim. 1:17), not subject to decay or damage.

Third, God is glorious. He “dwells in unapproachable light,” such majesty that even the angels cannot gaze directly upon his holiness (Isa. 6:1–3). To him belongs an infinite wealth of power, glory, majesty, goodness, life, and strength. In fact, if anyone has any of those things, it is by his gift (Acts 17:24–25; Rom. 11:35–36; 1 Chron. 29:11–12). In his presence are “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “He has no need of anything. No one can add to or subtract anything from His being, neither can anyone increase or decrease His felicity.”[5]

Does God’s happiness change?

One might still think his happiness changes based on whether people love him. However, the Scriptures say that God does not gain from our righteousness (Job 22:2–3). Our sin does not hurt God, nor does our righteousness give anything to him:

Look at the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? ​If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Or what does he receive from your hand? (Job 35:5–7)

God does have pleasure in his people and their good works, but he is pleased with what he works in them by the grace of Christ (Heb. 13:20–21). In other words, God’s pleasure in us does not come from anything we add to him, but what he adds to us.

Therefore, God dwells in perfect happiness. He is “the fountain of living waters” (Jer. 2:13). Dwelling in his love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice beyond measure, God is a feast of life and a river of joy (Ps. 36:5–9). Hugh Martin exclaimed,

The blessedness of God! It is a great deep, it is a dazzling bright abyss. We can look into it only as with shaded eyes…. The blessedness of God! It is the result of His possession of all perfections…. Inviolable repose [absolutely secure rest] and unhindered activity… In him is no dark, no gloom, no shadow.[6]

Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “He has no need of anything. No one can add to or subtract anything from His being, neither can anyone increase or decrease His felicity.” Click To Tweet

Does God grieve?

At this point, however, we must deal with two objections against God’s absolute beatitude: God’s wrath against sinners and compassion on the suffering. For the first, it is said that God grieves over sin, for when the Lord saw the wickedness of mankind, “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 6:6).

In reply, when we read in Psalm 2 that the nations rage and plot against the Lord, we do not find God in misery over it. Instead, “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury” (Ps. 2:4–5). Therefore, when we read that God “regretted” making mankind, we should not take it as if God felt bad because he thought he had made a mistake. No, God does not change, nor do his plans (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29). Rather, it means that God’s relationships and course of action changed from blessing mankind to destroying them—except for righteous Noah and his family (Gen. 6:7–9). We interpret “grieved” (‘astab) as it fits God, not men, indicating that he was angry and displeased with sin (cf. 34:7; 45:5; 1 Sam. 20:34), but not that he felt the emotion of sorrow, as Martin Luther commented.[7] God hates sin, but he need not feel sad over sin, because he ordained it for a far greater good, which he loves (Gen. 50:20).

Does God suffer when we suffer?

The second objection against God’s perfect happiness arises from God’s compassion, in which he is said to commiserate with his suffering people (Isa. 63:9). Judges 10:16 says, “They put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel.” Literally, “his soul became short [qatsar],” an expression for being vexed with sorrow (16:16). Does God suffer when we suffer?

In reply, we note that Micah 2:7 says, “Has the Lord grown impatient?” Literally, “Has the Lord’s spirit become short [qatsar]?” an almost identical idiom that refers to vexing sorrow (Job 21:4). When one Scripture denies what another affirms, it teaches us that we can apply such language to the Lord only by analogy. God’s compassion means that he has a special affection of mercy for suffering people, especially those repenting of their sins. It does not mean that God is suffering too. God has no delight in human suffering (Lam. 3:33), but he ordained their suffering (vv. 37–38) and will lovingly use it for their good (vv. 22–27).

If God suffers with every sin that demons or men commit and hurts with every sorrow that people endure, then God would experience more pain than anyone else in the world. Such a deity would more likely evoke our pity than our praise. On the contrary, God overflows with strength and satisfaction for his worshipers (Ps. 63:1–8; 65:4; 73:25–26; 84:1–4, 10–12). If God suffers with every sin that demons or men commit and hurts with every sorrow that people endure, then God would experience more pain than anyone else in the world. Such a deity would more likely evoke our pity than our praise. Click To Tweet

Can God really understand our trials?

If that is the case, though, how can God really understand us and help us in our trials? God the Son took to himself a human body and soul, becoming like us in every way except sin so that he could suffer and die for our sins (Heb. 2:14–18). Irenaeus said, “He took up man into Himself, the invisible becoming visible, the incomprehensible being made comprehensible, the impassible becoming capable of suffering.”[8] The Lord Jesus is now raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand, but he is still our Brother. Whenever we approach the throne of grace, Christ remembers his own pain, understands what we need, and pours out grace (4:14–16).

A never-setting sun of blessedness

Our glad conclusion is that God is entirely happy. The Lord is a bottomless ocean of joy, a never-setting sun of blessedness. God is infinitely merciful, and Christ is full of sympathy for us in his human nature, but the triune God has not a speck of sadness in himself. He is God.

How does the doctrine of divine beatitude apply to our lives? Consider some lessons from the context in 1 Timothy:

  • First, let us unashamedly preach the gospel, for it is, literally, “the good news of the glory of the blessed God” (1:11). God is happy and invites us to join him!
  • Second, be confident that God has overflowing grace for the worst of sinners, if they will trust in him (vv. 12–16). He is a bottomless well of life and love.
  • Third, let us be content to be rich in godliness instead of craving riches (6:6–10). Communion with the blessed God is enough to make anyone happy.
  • Fourth, fight the good fight of the faith and never give up, because in the end you will enjoy eternal life with the King of joy (vv. 11–14).
  • Fifth, enjoy God’s gifts to you, both his temporal gifts and his gifts of saving grace that allow you to enjoy God himself (v. 17). The more you rejoice in God, the more you are like God.
  • Sixth, don’t be proud of earthly riches or trust in them; instead hope in God and do good works to gain his eternal reward (vv. 17–19). That will be true happiness.
  • Seventh, worship the blessed God (vv. 15–16). We don’t often admire miserable people, but the Supreme Being is supremely happy. He is worthy of our praise![9]

Endnotes

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Works, Volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 479.

[2] Ronald G. Goetz, “The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy,” The Christian Century 103, no. 13 (April 16, 1986): 385–89.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 40th anniversary ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 337.

[4] Fred Sanders, “The Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God,” Reformation21, January 2015, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/the-gospel-of-the-glory-of-the-blessed-god.php.

[5] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 1:90.

[6] Hugh Martin, “God’s Blessedness and His Statutes,” appendix in The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of Our Lord (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1870), 283–84.

[7] Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis, in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Helmut T. Lehmann, Christopher Boyd Brown, and Benjamin T. G. Mayes, 79 vols. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, and Philadephia: Muhlenberg Press, 1958–2016), 2:49. Cf. Luther, Lectures on Isaiah, in Luther’s Works, 17:358.

[8] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.16.6, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, rev.  A. Cleveland Coxe, 9 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918), 1:443.

[9] For more on God’s beatitude, wrath, compassion, and other affections, see Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, 4 vols. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019–2022), 1:829–875 (chaps. 43–44).