After I gave a lecture on the Old Testament, one of my students came up to me and asked, “Do you think it was more than a test of Abraham’s faith?”
We had been discussing the story of God calling Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. “Maybe,” he continued, “if God knew he was going to give up his own son, Jesus, later on, then ... what if he wanted to see how Abraham would react to this difficult plan?” I don’t remember how I responded that day, but what stuck with me is the notion that seeing a member of your family suffer, especially your own child, is absolutely crushing. I had never before thought about God having an “emotional” reaction to the Cross.
Perhaps a year later, when we were discussing the passion narratives in the Gospels, another student question caught me by surprise: “Wasn’t giving up his son easy for God? If God the Father knew Jesus would just rise from the dead, then why was it such a big deal? If he knew the end of the story, it wasn’t such a big sacrifice after all.” I mustered up some sort of textbook theological answer at the time. Little did I know fate would give me a more personal response soon enough.
The next year, my youngest daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was just a year old. My family went through two awful years of chemotherapy treatments, bone marrow biopsies, numerous infections, and many sleepless nights. The good news is that she is alive and well, cancer free since 2014. My wife and I have the happy ending that all parents of kids with cancer dream about. But there is another part of our lives that our doctors didn’t warn us about. Even though cancer treatment is over, and I am happy that she is healthy, my heart broken by cancer cannot be fixed.
Any time I hear about family medical problems, especially involving children, I start weeping, almost autonomically. I am suddenly back there again. Call it trauma, call it sympathy, but it is as if I have a torn heart that can’t be mended. Post-2014, I should be all smiles and sunshine, but I now know there is no going back. The heart is happy but not whole. It has done battle with death and lives with the scars.
This has given me a new frame for reading the Bible, an emotional lens. Scholars sometimes talk about doctrines like “divine aseity” and “divine impassibility,” which affirm that God does not change and is independently self-existing, and thus cannot act in an emotionally responsive way to the actions or feelings of others. I think what theologians want to protect is the God-ness of God; but we must be careful not to sacrifice the person-ness of God. If God is personal, as Christians have always believed, then he relates, feels, and responds. If we confess “God is love” (1 John 4:8), we have signed up to worship a God of emotion.
Throughout the Bible we find a God who is capable of being hurt emotionally by his creatures, grieving because of them and for them. Genesis tells us when the Lord saw the utter wickedness of a rebellious creation, he was full of regret and his heart was broken (Gen. 6:5–6). Later on, the Lord feels the sting of betrayal when he is rejected by his child Israel as their true King (1 Sam. 8:7). These are the risks of being a parent.
We might imagine, then, this same God who smiled upon his beloved Son when Jesus was baptized (Matt. 3:17), the Father who winced when Jesus said, “May this cup be taken from me,” but beamed with pride when Jesus boldly proclaimed in the same breath, “Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39).
What we can say confidently is that Jesus’ suffering is unique, atoning, because of his person (Son of God) and mission (Messiah). Aside from, perhaps, his perfect love, his physical suffering did not have inherent divine qualities to it, as if he could endure longer because he was God. On the contrary, until the resurrection, no one thought he was God, because his suffering and death seemed so “normal."
I remember terrible things from those chemotherapy days. I had a daily routine of putting rubber gloves and a mask on as I crushed her chemo pills. The pill container had a biohazard symbol on it, warning me not inhale or touch the powder. Then I took this cell-poison, mixed it with apple juice, and squirted it right into the mouth of my one-year-old, starting the whole process again if she spit it out. It felt barbaric. Never did I imagine that parenthood would involve me harming my child. It felt wrong, even though I knew it was the right course of action. Anytime I see a pill or needle, or a child with a cancer diagnosis, that past has a way of becoming present again.
I can likewise imagine that the more God loved and loves his Son, the more that his heart breaks over and over for all the pain and tears shed in the world. We might theologically refer to his sacrifice as “once for all” (Heb. 7:27), but we also have to believe God lives with the eternal memory of the hurts and sorrows.
I watched my daughter suffer with a treatment that would hopefully save her life. But the Father let his son die—the ultimate testimony to his eternal love. How was this love? In Christ, God does not “give up” his Son, but the Father abides with the Son and thus gives himself too. This is the mystery and power of Trinitarian love.
Of course, the Good News wins out in the end, redemption will prevail, the Son will reign over all, and love is the final word. But Good Friday and Easter came at a cost. These holidays point to God’s eternal love, but now I know it wasn’t easy because he is God, it was difficult because he is Father.
Nijay K. Gupta is associate professor of New Testament at Portland Seminary.
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