In April’s ET, we saw that the doctrine of God’s impassibility — his immunity to suffering and human-like emotions — has had a rough ride in recent years, particularly following the great anguish of two world wars and much more suffering besides, during the last century.
It has often been thought that the best way to bring hope to those suffering is to posit that God suffers with them. We saw last month, however, that this approach casts aside the virtually unanimous witness of theologians through the ages.
Now we turn more positively to what the Bible actually teaches, and why it’s actually wonderful news that God doesn’t hurt with us in our suffering.
Two sets of data
No one part of Scripture lays out for us an easy, 1-2-3 guide to the doctrine of impassibility. The Reformed understanding is arrived at by bringing numerous passages into synthesis.
Broadly speaking, God’s Word contains two sets of data: texts which speak of God’s ‘invulnerability’ — his transcendence over all that is in the world; and texts which speak of his ‘emotions’ — love, joy, anger, etc. Our forebears wrestled with the need to understand the two sets of data together, and the doctrine of impassibility is what resulted.
As modern-day defender of impassibility, Rob Lister says, ‘Scripture … leads us to the conclusion that God is both invulnerable to involuntarily precipitated emotional vicissitude and supremely passionate about his creatures’ practice of obedience and rebellion, as well as their experience of joy and affliction’ (God is impassible and impassioned: toward a theology of divine emotion, Crossway; p.175).
Once you’ve digested the phrase ‘involuntarily precipitated emotional vicissitude’, consider this: God must be supremely unlike us in this whole area, because we are vulnerable to precisely that!
Phillip Johnson tells the story of a minister who hated the doctrine of divine impassibility and posted on a theological web forum, ‘The God of the Bible is much more emotional than we are, not less so!’ To which he received back the ironic comment a few hours later, ‘Really? Does your god have even bigger mood swings than my mother-in-law?’
Johnson comments, ‘The point was clear, even if made indelicately. It is a serious mistake to impute any kind of thoughts to God that are cast in the same mould as human passions — as if God possessed a temper subject to involuntary oscillation’ (www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/impassib.htm).
That word ‘involuntary’ again. It’s what the Reformed tradition has consistently held to: that the word ‘passions’ should be used to refer not to passionate feeling, but, crucially, to the sorts of emotions that sweep over and threaten to control you. We are used to them. But they would be unworthy of a sovereign God.
J. I. Packer writes: ‘God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced upon him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are’ (‘What do you mean when you say God?’, Christianity Today, September 1986; p.31).
This is good news for us. If outside influences could force an involuntary change in God’s disposition, what assurance would we have that his love for us will remain constant, if he’s not actually in control of how he feels? Thankfully, the Bible teaches the constancy of God’s love.
The point is that no creature can affect God against his will or wring from him some response that he did not already plan, from within the boundless stores of his eternal intra-Trinitarian blessedness.
Thomas Weinandy says, ‘The persons of the Trinity … could not possibly become more dynamic or active in their self-giving [to one another]’ (Does God suffer? Notre Dame Press; p.119). God does not fluctuate in any aspect of his existence, including his emotional life.
This is not because he is stern and immovable, but because he is constantly engaged in the richest and most glorious possible expression of every dimension of his triune character.
He cannot become more passionate! He is always fully what he is. A human being may express courage or love, for the duration of a defined period — a man who plunges into icy water to save a drowning child, for example. But God is different. ‘In God these dispositions are never latent, for there is no “slack” in God, but he is utterly engaged’ (Paul Helm, www.rpcbmt.org/DivineImpassibility.html).
Thus God’s emotional life is real, but categorically different to ours. The Bible does use language drawn from human experience to describe it, but the similarity only goes so far. He is still the sovereign Creator; we the changeable creatures.
So God really is ‘distressed in all our distress’, as Isaiah 63:9 says. He really does love the world and grieve over sin. But those ‘emotions’ are not human emotions. Why not? Because they are the sovereignly ordained expressions of his constantly engaged character; not a sudden response incited by whatever unforeseen circumstances happen to have come about.
God’s affections are far beyond ours in their depth, greatness and power; but they are also planned. Maybe it’s hard to maintain in your mind that being planned, being utterly rich and magnificent, and being genuinely responsive, can all be equally true of God’s affections — but we must reckon with the holy God of the Bible.
All this should leave us relieved and encouraged when facing the problem of suffering. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once famously said that ‘only the suffering God can help’. In fact, helping is the very thing a suffering God cannot do.
If God is destabilised by the pain of his creatures, if he is caused genuinely to suffer in a manner that replicates their distress, that leaves us with all kinds of sticky theological problems. Suddenly you have a miserable God, who, by sharing in the suffering of his creatures, has a cumulative misery which is unmatched by any of them.
‘In fact’, as Kevin DeYoung so helpfully points out, ‘he then needs to be freed from our suffering, so that he can be free from his … [he is] so enmeshed in our world that … his effort to rescue us is an effort to rescue himself’ (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/files/2010/04/T4G-2010-KDY-v_2.pdf). That kind of a god is a million miles from the awesome Sovereign of Scripture.
No — Praise his name! — ‘We have an unchanging God who is not in the same mess we are in’ (Ibid.). When my wife was in labour a year ago, I was only able to help her because I was not in the same paroxysms of agony she was experiencing. The same is true for God.
I am deeply glad that when I, with a sinful heart and fallen flesh, find myself wrestling and weeping over the darkness of my own soul and this tired old world, my Father in heaven is not suffering with me in the same way. And, because of that, he is able to help me.
‘The biblical appeal to God’s presence with us in suffering finds comfort precisely in the knowledge that God is not being victimised against his will and that he is strong to deliver at the point which he has chosen. Though we may be overtaken or overwhelmed in the face of our suffering, God is not. And that is good news’ (Lister, pp. 249, 251).
The heart of this glorious good news is found in the cross and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. But what I must emphasise is that unless you uphold the impassibility of God, you deny the need for the incarnation.
If God suffers in his being as God (and that is how he heals our suffering and somehow deals with our sin), then why did he become a man? Why did he need to go to the cross? Why did he not just carry on suffering in heaven ‘along with us’ as he always had done?
The tragic irony of recasting God in our own emotional image is that you do away with the need for and the tremendous accomplishment of Golgotha.
Christ saved us by doing the impossible — taking human flesh and suffering in our place. There was no other way. God could not die as God. He could not suffer the penalty for sin as God. And so he became a man. And the rest is mystery.
The author is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Halifax