This week we explore the most controversial of God’s incommunicable attributes (characteristics of God that we don’t share) and the most commonly misunderstood: his impassibility. Impassibility is really the natural outworking of three attributes we’ve already considered – simplicity, aseity and immutability. It refers to God’s immunity to suffering, or to put it another way, God’s incapacity for being overwhelmed by suffering.
Here ‘suffering’ refers to the undergoing of hardship, pain or distress. This does not mean that God never experiences suffering, but in the same way that an invincible army can still be attacked, so God can experience suffering but is never overcome by it. We see this in Exodus when God says, ‘I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings’ (Ex 3:7). Here God is empathising with his people, he understands their pain and suffering, yet his plan for his people and their salvation remains the same. To understand the importance of this idea let’s look at the two extremes that impassibility helps us navigate between.
On the one hand, impassibility does not mean that God is untouched or unmoved by creaturely suffering. Often impassibility has been interpreted to mean that God is passionless or that he doesn’t care for the creation that he has made. Actually, the opposite of this is true. Humanity is the unresponsive partner in the relationship – we are the ones who do not care for our creator, we are the ones who have turned our back on him.
Yet, as Paul writes in Ephesians, ‘But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ’ (Eph 2:4,5a). We see clearly here that God is not passionless, he is rich in mercy and great in love, characteristics he does not lose sight of even when he is experiencing righteous anger. He is not overcome by anger (he sent his Son to die for us) or by love (we will still face judgement for our sins).
On the other hand, impassibility does not mean that God is a passive victim or dependent on this world. As Jesus says, ‘No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from my Father’ (John 10:18). God is not ever taken by surprise and he is never dependant on humanity to act. Every act is a gift freely given, especially the laying down of his life for us. When Jesus submitted to suffering and death on the cross, he was not overwhelmed by it either, instead conquering both suffering and even more amazingly, death.
The great truth of this is that we have a God who, ‘will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away’ (Rev 21:4). We can have absolute confidence that our God can wipe away our tears on that day, because he cannot be overwhelmed by suffering. Come Lord Jesus come!