In His unchanging divine nature, God does not and cannot suffer. Does that mean He’s unable to love us or to empathize with our pain? Today, Barry Cooper explains why the doctrine of divine impassibility is wonderful news for sufferers and sinners.

Transcript

In another episode, we talked about the immutability of God, meaning that God’s character, His will, and His promises never change.

In this episode, I’d like to talk about a theme that is a close relative of God’s immutability—namely, God’s impassibility. That sounds a bit like me saying the word impossibility in a bad American accent—which, by the way, is the only kind of American accent I can do—but it’s not that. Impassibility is the notion that God does not suffer and cannot be acted upon or moved by any other source. This is because, as the Westminster Confession puts it, God is “a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions.”

If you think about it, God’s impassibility flows inevitably from the fact that God is unchangeable. An unchanging God cannot, by definition, have passions, which in the technical language of theology are emotional states that can be affected or changed by external forces.

Because He cannot be affected or changed by external forces, God cannot experience suffering.

Now instinctively, that idea makes many of us recoil. If someone cannot feel pain, then we think there’s something wrong with them. And many of us live in cultures which greatly prize demonstrations of sentiment or feeling. So we consider it a strike against someone’s character if their feelings do not undergo change.

In fact, many consider it highly desirable if we are able to “empathize” with others, meaning that as and when other people feel pain, we ought to feel pain with them.

For these and other reasons, some have resisted the idea of divine impassibility, particularly in the last hundred years or so. Surely, they say, for God to be truly loving, He must suffer. If God doesn’t feel pain when He sees the pain that exists in the world, then He can’t truly love the world, can He? And if Jesus Christ really is divine, and impassibility means that God cannot suffer, then are we saying that Jesus didn’t suffer on the cross? Or, if He did suffer, are we saying that He isn’t truly divine?

Well, since the time of the early church, theologians have firmly believed that the eternal God must be unchangeable, and therefore impassible—and that this is actually very good news indeed. Let me try and explain why.

Firstly, if God does not suffer, it means that we can be sure His love for us is not motivated by any kind of neediness or deficiency in God. He doesn’t need to love us because without us, He’d feel lonely or lost or lacking in some way. No, He chooses to love us, freely, because of His nature. He is love. And His love for us is all the more loving precisely because He does not need to give it.

Secondly, it’s important to realize that just because God doesn’t experience emotional change, it therefore means that He lacks affection or real relationships with His creatures. Affections, in theological parlance, refer to dispositions and relations that originate within God Himself and extend to His creatures. He doesn’t have an “interior life,” to speak in a human way, that is changeable by His creatures. Instead, He has a disposition that actively changes them.

This fact of God’s impassibility is wonderful news. It means that God’s disposition towards us is always maximally loving, maximally just, maximally good, and so forth. The reason there’s no room for change is because God is always and everywhere maximally perfect in all His affections.

Thirdly, because of what I’ve just said, God’s impassibility means that we never have to worry that we might catch God on a bad day, when He’s a little bit lacking in love or goodness towards us. It’s a very good thing that His affections don’t change in the way that ours often do.

Fourthly, the fact that God cannot suffer or be swept away by changing passions means that He is able to rescue us.

Imagine you’ve fallen into a raging river which is sweeping you rapidly toward a five-hundred-foot-high waterfall. You see a rescuer arrive on the riverbank and you’re filled with relief. Now what you don’t need in that moment is for that person to jump into the churning water, throw their arms around you and say: “It’s OK, I’m here now, and I very much feel your pain. Because I too will now be swept to my death, I’m able to fully identify with what you’re going through. And I hope that’ll be of some comfort to you in our remaining seconds together.”

You couldn’t fault that person’s desire to empathize. Full marks for empathy. Where it comes to empathy, that person is all in. However, where it comes to actually life-saving, they get an F-minus.

What we need is a rescuer who, in the process of rescuing us, does not lose himself, thus losing us both in the process.

And that is the kind of rescuer we have, in Jesus Christ. In the process of rescuing us, it was necessary that God became flesh. He became a man, with all the suffering that that entails. In Christ, God—as it were—jumped into the river with us. The second-century theologian Irenaeus put it like this: “The impassible became passible in Christ.”

However, in order to rescue us, Christ could not—in putting on humanity—put off His divinity. If He had done so, His death would have been like the man who jumped into the river and went over the waterfall with us. Nothing more than a token gesture, and rather a pathetic and absurd one.

But to our eternal benefit, when the second person of the Trinity became truly human, He never for a second lost His divinity. It is a tremendous relief to know that His divine nature was truly unchanged, that it remained impassible. Because as a result, Jesus Christ was truly able to rescue us from sin, death, and the devil.

Because of divine impassibility, we can say this with confidence: When Christ died, He was doing far more than merely identifying with our suffering as a man. When Christ died, He was actually triumphing over our suffering as God.