Bargaining with a Suffering God

Spring Sunset c. J. P. Mahon, 2012

During our first week of Lenten Bible study on the prophets, Walter  Bruggemann’s question “Can we bargain with God?”  was very controversial. The programmed Canned response was, “No,” God is all-knowing, all-powerful; therefore, God is above us and you cannot bargain with an unequal.”

Be careful here. When we make God all that we are not, are we creating an idol god? We must begin with the fact that God is beyond all description. Muslims realize that even the 99 names for God do not exhaust the richness of God. We can know God only as darkness that is light! When we enter the abyss of darkness in our angst for God (see Merton below), we find hope amid despair, and light amid darkness.

As I re-study existentialism, I have discovered why Merton still has appeal today. He is the existential monk of the 20th century. The turmoil, chance, randomness, messiness, and barbarity of 20th century life drove the existential philosophers in one of two directions as their anxiety became angst—despair or hope. We have a choice. Pascal’s Wager says we have choice. The Bible says choose life or death. We opt for God or no-god. Merton opts for hope, seeks solitude, finds the God of hope, and become a prophetic voice. Merton opined:

That I should have been born in 1915, that I should be the contemporary of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Viet Nam and the Watts riots, are things about which I was not first consulted. Yet they are also events in which, whether I like it or not, I am deeply and personally involved. The “world” is not just a physical space traversed by jet planes and full of people running in all directions. It is a complex of responsibilities and options made out of the love, the hates, the fears, the joys, the hopes, the greed, the cruelty, the kindness, the faith, the trust, the suspicion of all. In the last analysis, if there is war because nobody trusts anybody, this is in part because I myself am defensive, suspicious, untrusting, and intent on making other people conform themselves to my particular brand of death wish. (Contemplation in a World of Action, 161).

Yet the biblical story says that we can bargain with God–Abraham, Moses, and Jacob all bargained with God. Jesus bargained with God in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus in the story of the widow and the judge encouraged us to bargain with God. Maybe bargaining is another word for prayer of petition but we must remember that Jesus also told us not to multiply words, words, words. The life-giving, existential paradoxes we must embrace when we embrace the Christ.

After pondering Burggemann’s statement for several weeks, I remembered the work of Rabbi Abraham Heschel who spoke of the pathos of God–God with deep feelings, suffering with God’s people. See

I want to discuss two of Heschel’s most original and important concepts, divine pathos and prophetic sympathy. Divine pathos refers to Heschel’s daring suggestion that God Himself is capable of emotion, is in fact more emotionally sensitive than human beings. In Heschel’s words, “He is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly.” Prophetic sympathy, in Heschel’s technical sense, is a sharing in the emotions of God, as exemplified preeminently by the prophets of Israel. “The prophet,” he says, “is guided not by what he feels, but by what God feels.” These two correlative terms are central to Heschel’s religious thought.

. . .

To sum up: Heschel has shown what the consequences are if we take seriously the biblical affirmation that God has a heart.  [This is part of our story, our myth. Myth is not something that is not true. Myth is a story that leads us to deeper meaning; therefore, we need to ask ourselves what is the pathos of God—what is the meaning of the poetry?] By following where that clue leads, he was able to illumine three areas of theological controversy, and to suggest biblical solutions. First, the dilemma of faith versus reason could be overcome by the development of thinking that would be faithful to the Bible, and at the same time rigorously rational: a philosophy based upon the concept of a living God, the God who cares. Second, the choice between mystical self-annihilation, on the one hand, and the emotional hunger of moralism, on the other, would be superseded by the notion that, for the Bible, religious experience consists in sharing the emotions of God himself. Third, as to the problem of motivation, good deeds would no longer be seen as obedience to arbitrary imperatives, but as opportunities to defuse hostility and nurture mutual esteem, thereby fulfilling oneself, one’s neighbor, and however unexpectedly, even God as well.


If such conclusions are optimistic, they also entail a negative side, a warning. Heschel frequently reminds his readers that in abandoning the God who cares, humanity would become heartless. For him, “heartless” was synonymous with “pagan.”

Thomas Merton spoke of the agonia of God as Jesus the Christ emptied himself for us. God with us, living and suffering as we live and grow and fail and suffer:

Life and death are at war within us. As soon as we are born, we begin at the same time to live and die. Even though we may not be even slightly aware of it, this battle of life and death goes on in us inexorably and without mercy. If by chance we become fully conscious of it, not only in our flesh and in our emotions but above all in our spirit, we find ourselves involved in a terrible wrestling, an agonia not of questions and answers, but of being and nothingness, spirit and void. In this most terrible of all wars, fought on the brink of infinite despair, we come gradually to realize that life is more than the reward for him who correctly guesses a secret and spiritual “answer” to which he smilingly remains committed.

. . .

The Christian hope that is “not seen” is a communion in the agony of Christ. It is the identification of our own agonia with the agonia of the God Who has emptied Himself and become obedient unto death. It is the acceptance of life in the midst of death, not because we have courage, or light, or wisdom to accept, but because by some miracle the God of Life Himself accepts to live, in us, at the very moment when we descend into death. (See review of Merton’s The New Man at


Hmm. An intriguing concept to think of God in terms of human feeling and pathos/agonia, struggling with us as we become what we are capable of becoming. Walking in our shoes as we strive to become more than we are. We can petition God–bargain with God–as we struggle to become divine. Jesus became human so that we might become divine is part to the Eastern Church theology.

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