[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which [God] can be with us and help us.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)
As we enter the postmodern world, the age-old omnipotent God is slowly dying in the human imagination. For many, this supernatural being is already dead. The image of a God who acts with power and might in the natural world and in human society is becoming increasingly incredible.
Yet, there is another image of God, an alternative way of envisioning God, in the Bible. We have no idea who wrote the treatise that we now refer to as the first epistle or first letter of John in the New Testament. Some authorities claim that this writer is the same author who wrote the gospel of John, but without much evidence other than tradition to back that up. Although the writing style is different, the author of “First John” seems to have some familiarity with ideas expressed in the gospel of John and may have come from the same community as the gospel writer. Whoever he was, the author of this letter developed an extraordinary theology sometime around the end of the first century.
Here is what he wrote:
God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:16)
To think of God as love is radically different than the ancient image of an all-powerful being dwelling on a throne in the heavens. In regards to power, the chief characteristic of God as love is weakness. Love can only act in the world through the relative weakness of human beings.
If God is love, then the converse is also true: love is God. When we say that love is God, the divine is no longer a transcendent reality somewhere outside of the known universe (supernatural theism), nor is God an immanent creative reality woven through the fabric of the cosmos (pantheism and panentheism), but instead God becomes an incarnate reality within our hearts, within our minds, within our relationships, and in our actions. Love is a reality that animates us, empowers us, and transforms us from self-centered and selfish individuals to selfless and self-giving people. Without an omnipotent cosmic God dwelling somewhere out there, we have only human love, intelligence, and compassion to save us. Singly, each of us can do little. United, we can accomplish much if selfless love, compassion, and justice is our collective guide.
Yet, for many, thinking of God as the embodiment of weak human love is a poor substitute for the old supernatural image. Without a powerful cosmic God to fulfill our psychological needs for safety and security, we have to rely on one another to give us comfort and shelter. Without an omnipotent God who can answer our prayers, we must each pray for the strength, intelligence, and courage to change the world ourselves. Because, in reality, we are the answer we pray for. That answer, as Jesus said, is to love one another, to care for one another, and to forgive one another. These actions are the manifestation of the God of love in our world.
Love is often defined as an emotion—a strong affection, a feeling of devotion, an attraction based on sexual desire, a deep feeling of passion, or an ecstatic enjoyment. But love is far more than our emotions, which are fleeting and exist only at the surface of our being. Someone has said that “love is not a feeling; love is a verb.”
Love at its deepest level is an action, an activity, a commitment. True love is a self-giving and self-denying concern for another. One working definition is that love is “a choice to do what is best for another person.” Love in a family involves caring for those we love—feeding, clothing, sheltering, and educating them. It means providing them with the means of life and growth. If God is human love in action, then the purpose of this divine love is to nurture human life and growth, healing and wholeness, change and transformation. The presence of divine love within us calls us to become fully-human agents of love in the life of the world.
The English phrase “God is love” is written in the Greek New Testament as theos ein agapē (THEY-ohs ayn ag-AH-pay). Agapē (ag-AH-pay) is one of four different Greek words which we translate into English as love. Philia (fil-EE-ah) refers to loyal friendship or a brotherly love, eros (ERR-ohs) is used to describe passionate erotic or romantic love, and storgē (STOR-gay) is used in relation to the natural affection of family love, like the love of a parent for a child. Most usages of the word agapē in ancient Greek literature come from the writings of the New Testament where it implies a self-giving love, often an unconditional love. This is the kind of love people saw in Jesus. But the love that Jesus modeled was not a sweet love, a tender love, or a gentle love—much as the Sunday School portraits would have us believe. The love expressed in his life was a dangerous love. It was a radical love of one’s enemies; a call to nonviolent resistance toward evil; an unending forgiveness toward those who have harmed us; an expansive generosity with those in need; an inviting inclusiveness with marginal and despised people; and a fundamental rejection of reciprocation of any kind—both good and evil. The excessive love of Jesus is an uncompromising love that moves us toward lives of reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, and justice in a hostile world.
What we need is a much more powerful understanding and experience of a love that reorients our lives and transforms us into fully-human beings, fully-human agents of the selfless love we call God. If we allow it to be unleashed, the divine love within us will not let us remain the same. The radical love we see in Jesus pulls at us; it pushes and prods us out of our insular shells. It forces us to become more than we are, more than we are comfortable with, and ultimately all we are meant to be.
In the Hebrew Bible, God is proclaimed as a protector of the poor, especially widows and orphans who had no other male protector in society, and immigrants (resident aliens) who had no social kinship network during pressing situations. In a domination system, the rich and powerful don’t need God’s protection. They are in charge. The system serves them and benefits them. The Bible says that God chooses sides—the weak over the powerful—and ultimately moves into the margins of society in solidarity with the poor. You will find the presence of God among those who suffer, grieve, and hunger. Jesus said that the kingdom of God promises to reverse the social conditions of those in the margins.
God is more likely to be found in the lives of people at the bottom of the ladder where life is messy, than at the top where life is comfortable and secure. These hurting places are the arenas where Jesus lived, worked, and taught, and this is the arena to which his followers are called. After all, Jesus was a marginal person. He was born a peasant in a landless family who were members of the working poor. He spent his life working to create a just and caring community among his fellow peasants—a weak and powerless people.
Consequently, Jesus lived and ministered in the margins of his peasant society among despised and rejected people: prostitutes, tax collectors, and lepers. It was among those considered immoral and impure that the message of the kingdom of God would be gratefully welcomed. It was here that the kingdom was desperately needed.
a theology of weakness
In recent years, the term “weak theology” has been put forth to contrast the “strong theology” of the ancient creeds and orthodox Christian doctrine. A strong theology represents the character of a strong God, envisioned as an all-powerful creator and supernatural interventionist in history. In contrast, a weak theology describes a God with limited or weak power. Strong theology argues that the reason that God does not intervene to save the weak and oppressed is because God chooses to withhold power, often in the name of free will. In the same way, strong theology contends that the crucified Jesus chose to withhold his divine power in order to fulfill God’s plan for human salvation. But some theologians now see the suffering of Jesus on the cross and God’s inaction to save him as evidence that both Jesus and God were powerless to act in a supernatural manner. A weak theology contends that God and Jesus exhibit a weak kind of power in the world—weak forces like love and forgiveness.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor who was imprisoned and executed for resisting Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, came to regard God not as omnipotent, but as weak and powerless. In Jesus—as an image and icon of the invisible God—he saw weakness and suffering as the way God operates in the world. He reasoned that if Jesus is the decisive revelation of God’s nature, then the weakness and suffering of Jesus on the cross can be viewed as an image of God’s weakness in the world. In one of his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer said:
[God] is weak and powerless in the world, and that is the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us . . . Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world; he uses God as a Deus ex machina. The Bible however directs him to the powerlessness and suffering of God; only a suffering God can help. (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers, 360–361)
The Latin phrase deus ex machina (DAY-us eks MACK-in-ah), meaning “god out of the machine,” refers to situations in ancient Greek theater in which a crane was used to lower an actor playing the part of a god onto the stage. Bonhoeffer uses the term to refer to the religious hope that God will miraculously step in to resolve a hopeless situation like a comic book action hero. Bonhoeffer believed that God does not step in and does not intervene in history to save us; God has not, does not, and will not. Bonhoeffer’s view of history from the first half of the twentieth century—two world wars, the holocaust, and a global economic depression—was evidence enough that God does not act in this way.
In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus cries out to God in agony from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus receives no answer other than the silence of God, the apparent absence of God, a seemingly complete abandonment by God. God did not step in to miraculously rescue Jesus, nor should we expect God to rescue any of us from suffering and oppression.
Just like millions of innocent victims of disease, hunger, and violence, God does not alter the tragic situations of their lives. God did not save the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. God did not save the 160 million people who perished in the many wars of the twentieth century. Even today, God does not miraculously feed the 800 million people in our world who do not have enough nutrition to lead healthy, productive lives. Nor does God save the seven million hungry people—including three million children under the age of five—who die every year due to malnutrition.
Theologian Peter Rollins (b. 1973) believes that the crucifixion experience of Jesus is the trauma we all personally experience when we feel the absence of God in our lives. Ultimately, it calls us to give up the most treasured images of a God who will rescue us in times of need.
What is lost here is a way of relating to God as deus ex machina, as some being “out there” who ensures life makes sense. On the cross, Christ becomes the absolute outsider. Everything that has supported him thus far is stripped away. The religious system of the day sought his execution, the political system happily provided it, and his social circle quickly abandoned him. All that would ground him had been fundamentally shaken apart. There is no support here for Christ. On the cross, he is left naked, alone, dying. (Rollins, Insurrection, 27)
For Rollins, to participate in Christ’s death is to personally experience the radical doubt, suffering, and the sense of divine forsakenness that Jesus experienced on the cross. But let us be clear, the God we are speaking of, who abandons us to suffering, is the ancient supernatural theistic God of the human imagination, the all-powerful transcendent God that dwells “out there.” On the other hand, the incarnate God of love is neither dead nor absent, but is found among us in the form of a friend, a neighbor, or even an enemy. The crucifixion is the profound experience that brings an end to a traditional way of thinking about God and opens up new possibilities of theological reasoning.
If God does not act to save us, or if God is incapable of acting to save us, what then does God do? Where is God in our hour of need? Bonhoeffer, who saw God’s presence in Jesus, believed that God is found most definitively in the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Bonhoeffer believed that although God will not rescue us from distress, God is present and suffers with us. “Our God is a suffering God,” he said.
Love is a suffering God, because only the power of love can sustain us in suffering. The omnipotent God of traditional theology does not and will not save us, but an incarnate God of love within humanity powerfully draws us into compassion for and solidarity with the people who experience pain, hunger, violence, and oppression. Love rouses us to action on behalf of those innocents who suffer unjustly. Love calls us to create a more just society that will put an end to the grief, misery, and distress that we encounter daily.
Commenting on the writings by John Caputo (b. 1940) in The Weakness of God (2006), professor and blogger Richard Beck (b. 1967) concludes:
You add all that up and what you have is a radically different view of God’s power. God does not exercise top-down power and control from on high. God doesn’t “lord over” the world. The power of God works in the opposite direction, from the bottom-up. God’s power is the power of the cross, the power of weakness and powerlessness, the power of loving servanthood and self-giving. This is why we must become like little children—become weak, lowly and despised as those described in 1 Corinthians—if we are to enter the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not characterized by top-down power but by being the one in the “last place.” And when we step into this loving and powerless way of living we become born of God, we come to know God, and God comes to live in us. (Richard Beck, “The Weakness of God,” Experimental Theology blog)
Our concluding thought comes from writer and theologian Henri Nouwen (1932–1996):
Surrounded by so much power, it is very difficult to avoid surrendering to the temptation to seek power like everyone else. But the mystery of our ministry is that we are called to serve not with our power but with our powerlessness. It is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding, and sustaining mercy of God . . . As followers of Christ, we are sent into the world naked, vulnerable, and weak, and thus we can reach our fellow human beings in their pain and agony and reveal to them the power of God’s love and empower them with the power of God’s Spirit. (Nouwen, The Selfless Way of Christ, 62–64)