Can God sympathise with me in my pain? Is God sitting up there watching us “from a distance” like Bette Midler talks about. These questions are answered in the incarnation and ultimately the cross. For in the incarnation and the cross we see God becoming man and suffering. But this brings up the question of Impassibility. Impassibility states that God cannot suffer that he is without ‘passions’. What our church fathers sought to do in affirming the impassibility of God is to make sure that God is not just a souped up human who is affected like us by the trials of life. They sought to affirm that God doesn’t need us that he is not dependant on him and that we cannot change God’s nature by how we relate to him. I think as a reformed evangelical I want to affirm all these things. The Bible presents a picture of God who is wholly other, who doesn’t need us to survive.
Well then it seems that if we subscribe to Impassibility (which I want to do) we now have a God who is unlike us and who cannot sympathise with us. But here we need to hear Carson’s words:
It is no answer to espouse a form of impassibility [Here Defined as: Primarily means that God is incapable of suffering, however, can mean to not experience any emotion of desire, or any emotions, period] that denies that God has an emotional life and that insists that all of the biblical evidence to the contrary is nothing more than anthropopathism [Here Defined as: to ascribe human feelings and passions to God]. The price is too heavy. You can then rest in God’s sovereignty, but you can no longer rejoice in his love. You may rejoice only in a linguistic expression that is an accommodation of some reality of which we cannot conceive, couched in the anthropopathism of love. Give me a break. Paul did not pray that his readers might be able to grasp the height and depth and length and breadth of an anthropopathism and know this anthropopathism that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:14-15). D.A Carson The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God pg.60
Carson’s words ring true we must make sure that we don’t craft a doctrine in such a way that doesn’t negate things that are obvious in the Bible. So therefore we need a rightly crafted doctrine of impassibility. We need to show that God has emotions but they are unlike ours. I think Robert Reymond has nailed it:
“Thus whenever divine impassibility is interpreted to mean that God is impervious to human pain or incapable of empathizing with human grief it must be roundly denounced and rejected. When the Confession of Faith declares that God is “without…passions” it should be understood to mean that God has no bodily passions such as hunger or the human drive for sexual fulfillment…”
“We do, however, affirm that the creature cannot inflict suffering, pain, or any sort of distress upon him against his will. In this sense God is impassible.” Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith pg. 179
So God can feel and he does experience pain. But he does this because he chooses to suffer. It is not like we have hurt God. No, God has come down as a man to experience our pain and our suffering in the cross. It was his choice to suffer and it is his choice to love. As Carson states:
“If God loves, it is because he chooses to love, if he suffers, it is because he chooses to suffer. God is impassible in the sense that he sustains no ‘passion,’ no emotion, that makes him vulnerable from the outside, over which he has no control, or which he has not foreseen.” (Love of God, 60)
The comfort I receive when I consider the cross is that God came and experienced our pain even though he didn’t need to. Therefore, in a real and complete way he knows and understands my pain of seeing my dad battle terminal cancer. He knows my dad’s pain in suffering. Therefore I can pray to God knowing he sympathizes with me. I can be angry at sin and ask God to change this world which is wracked by sin, knowing that he has let sin impact him. I can ask him to heal my dad of his pain because he has felt real physical pain.
This is the God I serve, this is the God who reveals himself in the cross. This is the God I take comfort in.