Impassivity – Does God experience pain and suffering?

The only clear statement I know of of the doctrine of “impassivity” in the Bible is in the book of Job, and it is spoken by Elihu, one of Job’s comforters:

Job 35:8  Your wickedness affects only a man like yourself, and your righteousness only the sons of men.

This seems to make this idea doubtful.

And if God is not affected by our suffering, it makes suffering more difficult to bear. But actually, our suffering is sharing in a portion of God’s suffering (2 Cor. 1:5, 1 Peter 4:13, Col. 1:24, Phil. 3:10, Is. 63:9), God does suffer, and Calvary is certainly the greatest portrait of this.

 He in the days of feeble flesh

Poured out his cries and tears,

And in his measure feels afresh

What every member bears.

– Isaac Watts

“Whatever my distresses are in number or degree, they are all known, even to the least circumstance, by Christ my head: he looks down from heaven upon all my afflictions, and understands them more fully than I that feel them. ‘Lord, all my desire is before thee; and my groaning is not hid from thee’ (Psalm 38:9). He not only knows them, but feels them: ‘We have not a high-priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities’ (Hebrews 4:15). In all your afflictions he is afflicted; tender sympathy cannot but flow from such intimate union; therefore, in Matthew 25:35, he saith, I was a hungered, I was athirst, I was naked.”

– John Flavel

“It is no answer to espouse a form of impassibility 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. The price is too heavy. You may 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.”

“… at its best impassibility is trying to avoid a picture of a God who is changeable, given over to mood swings, dependent upon his creatures.”

– D.A. Carson, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God”

“But what about impassibility? Again, confusion arises from a failure to see how this term has functioned in the history of theology. True enough, the language of impassibility is deeply embedded in patristic theology going back to Ignatius of Antioch. But, as G. L. Prestige has shown, apatheia as a divine attribute was understood by the early fathers to undergird God’s indefectible stability (Barth uses the word ‘constancy’) and perfect moral freedom. ‘It is clear that impassibility means not that God is inactive or uninterested, not that he surveys existence with Epicurean impassivity from the shelter of a metaphysical insulation, but that His will is determined from within instead of being swayed from without.’ Understood in this sense, divine impassibility is no barrier to God’s self-giving love, but rather a guarantee that the God of the Bible is not like the fallible, mutable, passion-driven deities of the ancient world. Thus the Alexandrian school of Christology could say, in the language of paradox, ‘he suffered impassibly,’ and Gregory of Nazianzus, long before Luther, could speak of ‘a God hanging on a cross.’ As Geoffrey Wainwright has noted, ‘Modern theologians with deistic or unitarian tendencies will obviously be unhappy’ with such language, but it is the language of both Catholic liturgy and evangelical piety (‘And can it be that thou my God shouldst die for me?’—Charles Wesley).”

“Now apatheia is not a biblical word and it may well be that, given the meaning this term has assumed in a post-Cartesian world, we should no longer apply it to God. But that is a different move than the radical revisioning of the doctrine of God attempted by process and openist thinkers. The God Augustine describes in his Confessions—creating, loving, supporting, filling, protecting, nurturing—is ‘impassible’ in the historic sense but not unresponsive or ‘unaffected’ by the world He has made. Rather, He is ‘unchangeable, yet changing all things, never new, never old, making all things new, yet bringing old age upon the proud, and they know it not; always working, ever at rest; gathering, yet needing nothing.’ Only by denying this ‘yet . . . never . . . ever . . . yet’ aspect do we get the caricatured deity of deism against which open theism (rightly) reacts with disdain.”

– Timothy George

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