God is unable to suffer (Impassibility)


Dogma of the Redemption by John Singer Sargent in the Boston Public Library.

The doctrine of divine impassibility (impassio from the Latin for “unable to suffer, unable to undergo”) is probably one of the most challenging doctrines of God to hold. Some find it offensive, taking it to mean God is cold, distant, and uncaring. If God can’t suffer, then how could He possibly understand our sin and death-ridden human experience? Is God apathetic towards His creatures? Properly understood, the doctrine that the God Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is impassible presses us into mystery and awe and worship. Because it’s true. But this is where we have to remember that all theology, all true talk of God, must be held together. Impassibility cannot stand on its own. The doctrine of the Trinity, eternality, immutability, impassibility, Two-natures of Christ, etc. all come together to form a mysterious and glorious tapestry of the God Who has acted to redeem the world in Jesus Christ. This one will take a little extra space to explore, but I hope you find it life-giving as I have; a source of awe and encouragement for a life of faith.

It’s important to first clarify that impassibility does not mean uncaringWhat it does mean is that God is unable to be moved or affected by something outside Himself. Humans experience sympathy and compassion when we see someone in pain or distress. This situation is outside of us and, quite literally, moves us. This is why we say things like, “It was a moving performance,” or “her kindness was moving.” We are moved in the direction of the emotion/passion, entering into it with the other. We were not “in” it, then we were moved into it by the passion (literally we ‘undergo’ a change from an experience or something outside us). We were in a position of uncaring, then we are affected by something which moved us into the position of caring. There is a process of ‘undergoing.’ 

That’s how humans typically experience passion or emotion. But with God, it’s something a little more complex and different (this seems obvious since God is God and we are not). There’s room for a fair amount of discussion and debate here, but to put it simply: God cannot suffer, or be moved into a state of emotion from outside Himself, because He already always cares for us fully and completely; God cannot care for us more than He already does. He does not love and care for us 99.99% and just needs a little nudge to fully sympathize with us and get that last .01%, as if that’s the reason for the Son taking on human flesh. So technically (I use this word in a very particular sense), God is apatheticbut in a way only God can be. He does not experience suffering in Himself, does not experience the process of being moved into suffering by anything outside of Himself.

(Nerdy caveat: Karl Barth thinks God voluntarily allows Himself to be moved into suffering, but that’s some of the area of the debate I mentioned. I don’t think we can too easily dismiss the work of early Christians in their development of the Chalecdonian formulation of Christ’s Two Natures. Jesus is 100% human and 100% God, mysteriously joined so that God, through the human nature taken to Himself by the Son in the Spirit, does in fact know suffering. How that exactly works is beyond me).

After World War II, theology changed drastically. No longer could we believe in some distant God who was cold and uncaring. God must be right in the thick of things. But this sort of swing happens throughout the history of theology. We swing one way responding to some issues, then a couple generations later we swing the other way responding to some issues. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because issues matter and we must address them. But we must keep ourselves rooted in the whole catholic (“according to the whole”) faith once delivered to the saints. An eye to the whole of the Christian tradition of theology is needed to keep us from swinging too far in various directions.

So what? So what if God is impassible? A God who cannot suffer doesn’t sound like a God I can relate to, especially right now during coronavirus. Yet let’s remember to bring the various pieces of the tapestry together so we can see the larger picture and the mysterious splendor of it. Because God is impassible, He is actually more caring and compassionate than we can ever be. He does not need some external force to push Him closer to us. The God who is impassible becomes passible in the human nature of the Son, the God-Man, in the power of the Spirit. This action of the Triune God in history in the sending of the Son and the Spirit points to God Himself, the One who seeks us out and has acted to rescue His creation. When we meet the One who makes a Way to Himself, empowering us in the Spirit to be His people of the Kingdom, we realize we’ve been in a prison. Cold, alone, afraid, and full of anxiety, a Man meets us there. And we realize this Man is truly “the Son of God,” for who else could show us the way out of the prison except God Himself? And yet, here He is among us, God with us. The eternal, unchanging, impassible One, the God of Israel, now fully revealed in His Son by the Spirit, calls His people out of darkness and into light. He cares for you, He sees you, and He has the keys to the prison door held in the hands of the One who was Crucified and is Risen. 

Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine Majesty to worship the Unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father; who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen(Preface to Trinity Sunday, Book of Common Prayer 2019 ACNA, p. 615)


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