Does God feel your pain? For many of us the question is a bit odd, like asking ‘Is God good?’ or ‘Does God love?’ We turn to John 11 and its description of Jesus being moved at Mary’s weeping, and his own weeping at the site of Lazarus’ grave. It is common to use this as proof that God is affected by our suffering, mourning, and death: that he shares it and does not stand aloof from it. “Don’t blame God,” we implicitly say, “He’s going through the same pain and suffering you experience. He cares.”
The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann wrote in The Crucified God:
“…a God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So he is also a loveless being.”1
If you are immune to suffering, then you cannot be involved with people and you cannot love; therefore, only a God who suffers is a God who loves, so obviously God feels our pain. What it means for us to love is the definition of love, and so must apply to God as well. In this, something profoundly true of our experience becomes the norm and criteria for God as well.
Those of us with a high view of Scripture do not generally agree with this kind of theological argument in other areas. We don’t ground theology on human experiences and project them onto God, but remember that there are radical differences between him and us. For example, we forgive one another without any need for a sacrifice but, even though God is the model for our forgiveness, he could only forgive us on the basis of Christ’s shed blood (Heb 9:22, in the context of Christ’s high priestly ministry in 9:23-28). There is something very different about how God freely forgives in Christ which is missed if we assume our experience of forgiving is the norm for God as well. God is not a human being and, though God uses human words to reveal himself, we cannot just import human concepts into our knowledge of God. God is not like us.
So is it an ‘obvious truth’ that God feels our pain, and joins in our emotions?
The God of all comfort
Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians begins by reminding his readers of the great comfort in store for believers.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)
God comforts us in our affliction in order that we may comfort those afflicted after us. We comfort them with the same comfort we ourselves received.
Here Paul alludes to a truth of human experience: suffering does not equip us to help others who experience suffering. It is the experience of suffering and being comforted that gives us the resources to comfort others. The person who has not suffered has not been comforted, and so cannot help other sufferers. Likewise, the person who suffers and has not been comforted also has no comfort to offer. It is not our sufferings that equip us to comfort others, but the comfort we receive from God when we suffer. God is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort—an inexhaustible supply that meets our need and on which we draw to comfort others.
But what does it mean to say that God is the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort? Why is God like this? There are two schools of thought.
The first is sometimes called a ‘relational’ or ‘personalist’ view of God, occasionally ‘the biblical position’, and in its extreme form an ‘open’ view of God. The idea is that God is the source of all comfort because he has experienced all affliction. God suffers. He experiences suffering from being rejected by humanity, grief from seeing our terrible fate, and empathic affliction because he does not stand aloof from our afflictions but shares them. God has suffered, and continues to suffer the pain that arises from this fallen creation; even before the incarnation he is the ‘man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ (Isa 53:3) in a way that no human could match. From this view, suffering is absolutely necessary to be able to offer comfort. God can only comfort us because he has suffered; he can offer mercy because he has experienced weakness and need. He gives to us what he first experienced.
Paul’s point that suffering does not produce comfort is not addressed here. Being comforted is the thing that equips us to comfort. If God can only comfort us for the same reasons that we can comfort each other, then a suffering God is no more able to comfort us than an unsuffering God. Only a God who suffers and has been comforted can offer comfort if God is like us at this point. But who has ever been God’s counsellor (Rom 11:34)? Who has ever been God’s comforter?
The other view is generally called ‘classical theism’, the idea that God is impassible, meaning (in the words of Article I of the Thirty Nine Articles, and Chapter Two of the Westminster Confession) ‘without passions’. Here, the idea is that God does not experience suffering. God is not affected by anything outside of himself. Instead, God’s qualities of mercy and comfort are simply part of who God is—what God always has been and always will be. In the same way that God simply is love, is truth, and is good, so too God simply is mercy and comfort. God did not acquire these traits through hard-won experience as we humans have to, but simply is them and always has been. And precisely because God does not suffer and has never been comforted, and because he does not grow in his ability to comfort from the experience of suffering, he is able to be an inexhaustible source of comfort to a suffering human race. His difference from us is the answer to our need. Unlike the first view—which implies that God had to wait for creation to exist and for the fall to occur before he was able to offer comfort, because he had to experience suffering himself first—this view claims that God simply is who he is and always has been, that he has been left unchanged by creation and the fall.
The two views read Paul’s description of God as the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort quite differently. The first view sees this as qualities God has that were gotten through experience and which (arguably) will continue to develop as long as God suffers when relating to creation; God is the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort in the sense that he has these qualities more than anyone else. The impassible view sees this as a description of who God is, his fundamental nature. God is the God of all comfort and the Father of mercy in the sense that he and these qualities are identical. He isn’t just an example of the qualities, but the source from which these qualities appear in human life. In one, God is the superlative example of human suffering and comfort; in the other God is completely different and that difference is the reason why he is the source of every comfort we receive and extend to one another.
Heresies, now and then
The two views have experienced very different fortunes over the last two thousand years. At present, it is difficult to find voices in support of impassibility. Among theologians who are not evangelical and yet are not liberal either, the idea that God is passible—that he is affected by us, that he suffers, and even that he is capable of dying—is almost an article of faith. Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Jürgen Moltmann are merely the more famous examples from a wide swathe of figures who claim that the Christian God is a suffering God. Among evangelicals, the idea holds strong support in all but the most classical theist of reformed circles, with paradigmatic figures like John Stott and D.A. Carson clear and strong in their advocacy of the idea that God suffers and is affected by his relationship with us.
Yet until relatively recently such a notion was considered not just wrong but heresy. The early church rejected the idea that on the cross Christ suffered and died in his divine nature as theopaschism, and the idea that the Father suffered and died as patripassianism. (It hardly needs pointing out that if it was heresy to say that God suffered on the cross then the early believers certainly rejected the idea of God suffering in any other context.) As believers came to grips with the teaching of Scripture, they concluded that God is immortal so it is impossible for him to die, whether in the incarnation or outside it. A God who dies on the cross is not, in any sense of the word, immortal. He is simply a mortal that (at least in the case of the Father and the Holy Spirit) has avoided dying to this point. Almost two millennia of believers concluded that not only has God managed to avoid dying, but that he cannot die, and that’s what it means for God to be God, for God to be the only one who has life in himself, who is life itself, and so is able to give life to whoever he chooses. Similar reasoning followed for suffering (suffering and death are linked, suffering being a foretaste of death); if life cannot die, and God cannot die because he is life, then suffering is also inconceivable for God. In the same way that God’s goodness makes evil and sin impossible for him, the fact that God is life means that suffering and death are impossible for God. A suffering God was, for almost two thousand years, a contradiction in terms, an attempt to make God after our image.
The impossibility of impassibility in the modern world
Why the turn around? There are a number of factors. Firstly, the Holocaust has had a profound effect on theology over the last sixty years, reframing it in light of the massive suffering that occurred. Secondly, there is an optimism about humanity that, with the odd interruption, has been building for almost two centuries. This has led Christians to favour views that place our relationship with God on a more equal footing (so the idea that we can make God happy becomes attractive). Our instincts are to see our intuitions and experiences as also normal for God. Thirdly, the way we think about emotions has changed profoundly since words like ‘impassible’ and ‘passions’ were first used. We see ‘God is without passions’, read it as ‘God is without emotions’, and think that such nonsense can be repudiated by pointing to any of the many places in Scripture where God is spoken of as having emotions and acting emotionally.
But ‘passions’ are not ‘emotions’. ‘The passion of Christ’ does not mean ‘the emotion of Christ’ but ‘the death of Christ’. For us emotions are more or less detached from reason—in Christian circles we often speak of ‘head’ versus ‘heart’. Emotions are a single category that includes love, joy, grief, hate, lust, and anger. But for earlier eras there were two categories. One was ‘passions’, things we experience because we are affected by things external to us: death, suffering, romantic obsession, a fit of rage, lust, greed, jealous hatred of a rival and the like. Such things appear without our choice and, in the case of things like rage, lust and greed, need to be held in check by our self-control. Christians throughout the ages have been clear that such things are incompatible with God’s nature. Things outside him do not affect God like that; he never finds himself in the grip of emotions that spring unbidden. He never suffers, and cannot die. God is impassible, without passions such as these.
However, there was another category of emotions: the affections. These were, in our terms, ‘rational emotions’—love for another person, hatred for evil, grief at another’s suffering, joy arising from something genuinely good. These did not simply happen to a person but were an expression of their settled character and values, and so were naturally partnered with reason and with the fixed qualities of goodness and truth. ‘Emotions’ such as these are what the Bible is referring to when it speaks of God’s anger, love, pity, grief and the like. They are not changes in his inner world forced upon him by what happens to us, they are constant and fixed expressions of his stance towards good and evil, life and death, the human race that he loves and the enemies ranged against us.
A human father can be angry at his child because he is incensed at what his child has done, and simply finds himself in a rage. That’s a passion, and the emotion is primarily to do with what is happening inside the father. A human father can also be angry at his child because he is completely opposed to anything that threatens to blight his child’s life and character, and so stands against the child for the child’s own sake and long-term good. That’s an affection, and here the emotion is primarily to do with what is happening in the relationship between parent and child, and how the child experiences their father’s love, rather than on change inside the father.
These two approaches treat the Bible’s language of God’s anger, joy, and grief in response to human actions very differently. Passibility focuses our attention on God’s inner world and claims: ‘God feels what we feel, and experiences emotions just like us. What we do changes him on the inside.’ God’s emotional world is in constant flux as it is acted upon by what is happening in every part of creation.
Impassibility directs our attention to our relationship with God, understanding that only a subset of our emotions are anything like his. In our experience of God, God relates to us in a fully emotional way, genuinely grounded in his own nature, even though, strictly speaking, we are never given a window into God’s own inner world to know him as he knows himself. As we change, we experience God differently, and our relationship with him is characterized by his joy, anger, grief, and pity as our actions align us either for or against him and his goodness and light. But this is all fundamentally an expression of his unchanging stance towards us and the things that promote or blight our lives. The divine emotions primarily move from God to us, not, as in the case of a passible God, from us to God as we change his emotional state by our actions.
The good news of impassibility
There are many reasons why God’s impassibility—his immunity to suffering and his inability to be affected by what is outside of him—is good news. We’ll consider just two.
The God who creates, commands and saves out of love and grace
Firstly, it preserves the Bible’s teaching that God acts towards us out of love and in grace. When we look at God’s relationship with creation, does God act simply and only to do good to us, or is it give-and-take where God seeks his own good as well? Does God act only out of love and grace?
If God is affected by his relationship with his world, then his experience of life has been profoundly enriched by the act of creation. Over many centuries, God has been affected by his relationship with an uncountable multitude of human beings, experiencing things that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. God is much better off for having created the world.
Or take God’s role as the law-giver for humanity. God determines how human beings should live, and the criteria upon which he will judge our lives and actions. Chief among his commands is the requirement that we love, serve and glorify him. If we affect God, then he is hurt when a human being fails to do this, and is enriched when someone discharges this obligation. The quality of God’s experience of life depends upon us glorifying him.
Under such a view, it is difficult to argue that God had only our interests at stake when he made us, and that his concern for his own glory is motivated purely by love for us. It might still be argued that because God is God he (alone) can act selfishly and still be good, creating human beings so that they are designed to worship and glorify him. However, this falls far short of what Christians have historically claimed: that God was not merely good in creating and commanding us to glorify him (although true and important), but that the Bible also teaches that God is love and grace, and so all of God’s actions seek our benefit rather than his. A passible God seeks good for himself.
Consider God as the one who saves, who will, in the end, save his people completely from sin’s presence and effects:
He will wipe away every tear from their 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)
What would this passage mean if God experiences suffering and grief from being in a relationship with a sin-ridden world? We suffer because we live under sin’s dominion. If God is affected by us then he also suffers, because he enters into our sinful suffering experiences. Like us he weeps, feels pain, and longs for the coming redemption that will free him from this current bondage. When he finally puts death away and wipes every tear from his people’s eyes, he will also be saving himself, wiping every tear from his own eye, delivering himself from a literally unimaginable amount of suffering and grief. His salvation is still profoundly good, but it is no longer, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “for us men and for our salvation”. On this view, God acts for himself as much as for us when he saves us. Salvation is no longer a free act but something necessary, an act God had to do for his own sake.
Impassibility, as much as it cuts against our cultural instincts, is an expression of the conviction that God creates, commands, and saves “for us men and for our salvation”. He acts for our sake alone, not his good as well; it is purely an act of grace and love. Ephesians 1:3-14 is a good example of this, where God’s saving actions are enumerated at length and are all declared to be “in love” (v.4b). But this passage is just the tip of an enormous iceberg; God’s love, grace and salvation are characteristically linked. God does not save us to deliver himself from sin’s effects.
The same thing can be seen with God’s command that we glorify him. God commands us to serve, but he gets nothing out of our service:
“Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” (Rom 11:35)
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25)
God is not served by human hands. He needs nothing from us, because he is the one who gives everything we have. The relationship is in one direction only—God affects us in his inexhaustible goodness. He is never affected by us, nor receives a gift from us. And if we never affect God positively it is strange to claim that we affect him negatively, taking away something from God by our refusal to glorify him. God has no need of anything; he is the giver who made the world and everything in it. God’s role as creator shows he is not the beneficiary of our service, and (implicitly) that creation itself was a free act of grace, not something done because he stood in any need.
This means that God’s command to love, serve and glorify him is for our sakes, not his. God seeks his own glory, not because he misses out if his name is not hallowed, but because we do. To serve God is to walk in his light, and those who walk in the light are delivered from darkness, illuminated by the light, and receive life itself. God’s command that we glorify him is an expression of his great love towards us precisely because he is impassible: always the giver, never the receiver. His glory is not at odds with his love for the world.
The cross is a game-changer
Secondly, impassibility upholds the idea that the cross changes everything, and is not the revelation of something that was already true. Those who promote a passible God point to the cross and remind us that it is the revelation of God. From this they deduce that the cross reveals God as someone who can be affected by what is outside him, who can and does suffer. They profess impatience with approaches distinguishing between Christ’s human and divine natures, which attribute certain things only to one nature or the other. If Christ died, they argue, then he died as God as well as man. And if he died as God, then God is fundamentally mortal: capable of dying.
Such a view empties the cross of its uniqueness. Fundamental to the Bible’s presentation of the cross is that it has profoundly altered things; that everything is different now that it has occurred. It is a unique moment. But from the passible view there is very little unique about it. There is nothing unusual about Christ’s suffering, or even his death, because the cross only reveals to us what is true about God even apart from it—that God suffers and can die.
Recognition of God’s impassibility makes far better sense of how Scripture links the incarnation and Christ’s suffering and death in passages such as this one in Hebrews.
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Heb 2:9-10)
Here we see Jesus was briefly made lower than the angels—a reference to the incarnation and his earthly life. This occurred so he could die for everyone, and to be perfected through his sufferings. But if God is capable of dying and suffers unimaginably anyway, it is difficult to see why it was necessary for Jesus to be made lower than the angels at all. Perfection through suffering and death for all was possible without the incarnation.
Something similar can be seen in how the issue is treated in verses 14-15, where Christ is said to have shared in flesh and blood in order to be able to deliver us through dying, and verse 17 where Jesus can offer propitiation for sins because he has been made like us in every way. All of these passages presume that the incarnation created a profound change, so that things that were not possible for God’s glorious Son, such as suffering and death, became possible when Jesus took on our flesh and blood. To be saved from our sins we did not need a suffering God. We needed the glorious Son of God to become man and as a consequence be made the perfect Saviour through his sufferings and death for us. The cross as a unique act of redemption, and not just the revelation of what is true anyway, is grounded on God’s impassible nature and the ensuing wonder of the incarnation.
Impassibility is the ugly duckling in theology today, attacked as a philosophically driven rejection of the Bible’s emotional language to describe God. In an era where ‘to feel is human’ is almost our slogan, any hint of weakening emotions in God is met with staunch resistance. But God’s impassibility is not the extinguishing of genuine emotion from God, merely the disciplining of how Christians read Scripture, and then think and speak about God on this topic. It drags our interest back from God’s inner world, which he has never invited us to interrogate, and focuses squarely on how God is in his relationship with us. It does this with the assurance that how God relates to us is grounded in his own nature and essence. The divine emotions that Scripture testifies to and that we experience are real, even though they are not changes in God’s mental state forced on him by our actions. Even more, impassibility upholds two of the most important biblical truths: that God acts in love and grace when he creates, commands, and saves; and that the cross is not merely the revelation of things that were true anyway, but fundamentally changed matters by redeeming us.
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, SCM Press, London, 1974, p.22. ↩