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