What some of us mean (and don’t mean) when we say that God is impassible

You, Lord God, lover of souls, show a compassion far purer and freer of mixed motives than ours; for no suffering injures you. – St. Augustine

I have not been a lifelong advocate for the doctrine of divine impassibility. I came across this divine attribute almost by accident and did some further investigating probably to satisfy my curiosity more than anything else. As is the case for many (or is it just some?), I found the essential claim of impassibility—that God neither experiences emotional change nor does he suffer—counterintuitive and easy to dismiss. But the inumerable & insurmountable objections I expected to find were far fewer and smaller on closer inspection. And now, several years later, I find myself disagreeing with the likes of N. T. Wright when he claims that God laments with us. I also discovered that some (or is it many?) of you now disagree with me.

As I move further up and further in, I don’t discover an impassible God to be distant and “above it all.” Far from it. What impassibility offers is a God more loving and compassionate than I can imagine because God can never become more (or less) than what he already and always is. My experience of God’s nature varies by time, place, and degree not because he changes but because I do. In the best of my fleeting moments these thoughts stoke wonder and worship.

Because I find impassibility so compelling, I offer here a sampling of quotes from Thomas Weinandy’s book Does God Suffer?.¹ Maybe these statements will shed some light on a strange doctrine and you’ll come to understand why some of us believe as we do. Maybe some of you will find a strange doctrine strangely compelling, too.

“God is impassible in the sense that he cannot experience emotional changes of state due to his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order.” (38)

“The traditional defense for God’s impassibility is simply to argue that the Bible in such passages [i.e. Judges 2:18; Psa 78:40; Hos 11:4, 8-9, etc] is using anthropomorphic language, and so cannot be taken literally. Therefore, it is argued, God does not actually ‘groan’ or ‘suffer,’ nor does his heart ‘grow warm.’ Undoubtedly, the Bible is using anthropomorphic language, but it, nonetheless, is attempting to say something that is actually true about God. Many contemporary theologians emphasize the latter, and so argue that God must be passible if his groaning, suffering, and love are to be actual and genuine. What both sides of the debate miss in the interpretation of these passages is that the one who is so filled with passion is the Wholly Other. It is Yahweh, ‘the Holy One in your midst.’ The very superlative, extravagant, and even excessive, expression of the love, the compassion, the forgiveness and, indeed, the anger, accentuates that the one who displays all of this intense passion is someone who transcends what is beyond the merely customary and human. . . Therefore, there is a legitimate literalness to what is being said, but it is a literalness that must be interpreted from within the complete otherness of God, for this is the manner in which this passion is expressed.” (59)

“Thus there is no passion in God, not in the sense that he does not love, but because, being pure act, there is no need for an arousal of his will to love the good and so to come to desire the good and rejoice in it. God’s arousal to the good as loved, and so rejoicing and delighting in it, is eternally and perfectly in act. . . . God is impassible precisely because he is supremely passionate and cannot become any more passionate. God simply loves himself and all things in himself in the one act which he himself is.” (126-27)

“Actually, since God does not suffer, his love becomes absolutely free in its expression and supremely pure in its purpose. If God did suffer, it would mean that God would need not only to alleviate the suffering of others, but also his own suffering, and thus there would be an inbuilt self-interest in God’s love and consolation. However, since God does not suffer, his care for those who do suffer is freely given and not evoked by some need on his part. His love is freely expressed entirely for the sake of those he loves.” (160-61)

“While compassion is defined as ‘suffering with,’ the heart of compassion is the love expressed within the suffering and not the suffering itself. Thus, God is perfectly compassionate not because he ‘suffers with’ those who suffer, but because his love fully and freely embraces those who suffer. What human beings cry out for in their suffering is not a God who suffers, but a God who loves wholly and completely, something a suffering God could not do.” (164)

“God truly grieves over sin and actually is sorrowful over injustice not because he has lost some good (which would imply a self-centered grief and sorrow) and so suffers, but rather because, in his love, he knows that the one he loves is suffering due to the absence of some good. Sadness and grief do not spring from or manifest suffering within God, but rather they spring from, manifest, and express the fulness of his completely alltruistc, all-consumming and perfect love for his creatures.” (164-65)

“Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love.” (169)

“Even if one did allow the Son of God to suffer in his divine nature, this would negate the very thng one wanted to preserve and cultivate. For if the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, he would no longer be experiencing human suffering in an authentic and genuine human manner, but instead he would be experiencing ‘human suffering’ in a divine manner which would then be neither genuinely nor authentically human. If the Son of God experienced suffering in his divine nature, then it would be God suffering as God in a man.” (204)

“Strange as it may seem, but not paradoxically, one must maintain the unchangeable impassibility of the Son of God as God in order to guarantee that it is actually the divine Son of God, one in being with the Father, who truly suffers as a man. As man the divine Son of God was deprived, as we are, of human goods which did cause him, like us, to suffer.” (205)

“This is the marvelous truth of the Incarnation. God from all eternity may have known, within his divine knowledge, what it is like for human beings to suffer and die, and he may have known this perfectly and comprehensively. But until the Son of God actually became man and existed as a man, God, who is impassible in himself, never experienced and knew suffering and death as man in a human manner. In an unqualified manner one can say that, as man, the Son of God had experiences he never had before because he never existed as man before – not the least of which are suffering and death. This is what humankind is crying out to hear, not that God experiences, in a divine manner, our anguish and suffering in the midst of a sinful and depraved world, but tht he actually experienced and knew first hand, as one of us—as a man—human anguish and suffering within a sinful and depraved world.” (206)


¹Weinandy’s book is a great survey of the doctrine (see his article by the same name listed below). Although I don’t provide the quotes in this post, he covers all if the essentials: God’s revelation in Scripture, church fathers & Greek philosophy, redemption, our suffering in the light of Christ, etc.

For further reading:

Books
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God
 (Matthew Barrett)

Online Articles
Does God Suffer? (Thomas Weinandy)
Credo Magazine (vol 9, issue 1): The Impassibility of God (various authors)
On Divine Impassibility: Carl Trueman Talks with Father Thomas Weinandy (Trueman & Weinandy)
The God Who Hears Our Laments (Derek Rishmawy)
Undying Love: In Our Suffering, We Find Comfort in God’s Impassibility (J. Todd Billings)
Tis Mystery All, the Immortal Dies: Why the Gospel of Christ’s Suffering is More Glorious Because God Does Not Suffer (Kevin DeYoung)
Is Jesus Weeping for Us in Heaven? (Kevin DeYoung)

A hot take on that N. T. Wright article

N. T. Wright’s recently published article on the Christian response to the Coronavirus is generally good counsel built on bad theology.

After diagnosing our present situation as “a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow,” Wright advises we learn to lament rather than search for an explanation for our sorrow:

No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?

So far, so good. I would be a little more charitable to the “usual suspects,” allowing them to fall along a spectrum from silly to sage; and I wouldn’t label every attempted explanation as a “knee-jerk would-be” Christian reaction. But I take his point. In a time like this, the better part of wisdom is to admit that we don’t know why this is happening.

Wright goes on to cite the psalms of lament as models of an appropriate Christian response:

At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).

No argument here. We might also consider some of the laments we find in our own hymnbooks.¹

The trouble comes when Wright explains the part God plays in our lament:

The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.

Now that’s problematic on two fronts. First, Wright essentially denies that God is omniscient, sovereign, and immune to suffering. Better we have a frustrated Lamenter-in-Chief than an incomprehensible, transcendent God who is nevertheless near to the brokenhearted. Second, Wright claims only “some” Christians view God as omniscient, sovereign, and impassible when, in fact, this is how most Christians have understood God for almost 2,000 years.²

Following N. T. Wright, some Christians will like to think of God as one of us, but the effects of that doctrinal distancing may be felt long after COVID-19.


¹ see A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Abide with Me, Be Still My Soul, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, He Will Hold Me Fast, I Will Wait for You (Psalm 130), It Is Well with My Soul, etc. etc.

² For a helpful introduction to some of the neglected and/or misunderstood divine attributes in “classical theism,” see Matthew Barrett’s recent book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God

A reflection on God’s goodness & mercy

It gives us occasion to admire the wonderful patience and mercy of God. How many millions of practical atheists breathe every day in his air, and live upon his bounty who deserve to be inhabitants in hell, rather than possessors of the earth! An infinite holiness is offended, an infinite justice is provoked; yet an infinite patience forebears the punishment, and an infinite goodness relieves our wants: the more we had merited his justice and forfeited his favor, the more is his affection enhanced, which makes his hand so liberal to us. At the first invasion of his rights, he mitigates the terror of the threatening which was set to defend his law, with the grace of a promise to relieve and recover his rebellious creature. Who would have looked for anything but tearing thunders, sweeping judgments, to raze up the foundations of the apostate world. But oh, how great [is his compassion] to aspiring competitors! Have we not experimented his [works] for our good, though we have refused him for our happiness? Has he not opened his arms, when we spurned with our feet; held out his alluring mercy, when we have brandished against him a rebellious sword? Has he not entreated us while we have invaded him, as if he were unwilling to lose us, who are ambitious to destroy ourselves? Has he yet denied us the care of his providence, while we have denied him the rights of his honor, and would appropriate them to ourselves? Has the sun forborne shining on us, though we have shot arrows against him? Have not our beings been supported by his goodness, while we have endeavored to climb up to his throne; and his mercies continued to charm us, while we have used them as weapons to injure him? Our own necessities might excite us to own him as our happiness, but he adds his invitations to the voice of our wants. Has he not promised a kingdom to those who would strip him of his crown, and proclaimed pardon upon repentance to those who would take away his glory? and hath so twisted together his own end, which is his honor, and man’s true end, which is his salvation, that a man cannot truly mind himself and his own salvation, but he must mind God’s glory; and cannot be intent upon God’s honor, but by the same act he promotes himself and his own happiness? . . . All those wonders of his mercy are enhanced by the heinousness of our atheism; a multitude of gracious thoughts from him above the multitude of contempts from us.

–Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God