I once heard a preacher rant against the historic teaching that God is ‘without passions’. He portrayed a God without fluctuating emotions as a distant monster. A God who couldn’t suffer was deemed indifferent to suffering. ‘Do you want a God like that?’ he asked.
That is a dangerous question. We must serve God as he is: fashioning a God to our inclination is idolatry. We are not called to worship the God of our emotional needs or intellectual fancies, but the God who is and has revealed himself in Holy Scripture.
A few years back I discovered that I lacked biblical clarity on God’s nature. Influenced by the groupthink of more modern commentaries, I had drifted from historic biblical teaching. I needed to adjust my understanding of the Triune God. I came to appreciate neglected attributes like impassibility, replacing 21st century Western categories with biblical ones.
It is superficially attractive to claim our emotions exist because we are made in the image of God who has emotions. But being made in God’s image means that we are analogies, reflections of God. We don’t have arms because God has an arm! God is not like us but bigger. In his being, he is altogether different. Love is a divine attribute, not an emotion that God experiences.
As finite human beings we naturally find God’s communicable attributes (those we reflect faintly) easier to grasp than the incommunicable attributes (those we do not share at all). Since we can be loving, gracious, and merciful we readily consider how God is perfectly loving, gracious, and merciful. We find the incommunicable attributes harder to grasp and best express them by what God is not.
Malachi 3:6 states, ‘I the LORD do not change’ – he is unchangeable or immutable. Therefore, God cannot undergo emotional change – neither by his own choice nor as a response to his creatures. He is impassible: without human emotion, fluctuation, or suffering.