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Impassibility – God Doesn’t Change or Suffer

Impassibility – God Doesn’t Change or Suffer
31st January 2021

Impassibility – God Doesn’t Change or Suffer

Passage: 1 Samuel 15:29

1 Samuel 15:29
Impassibility – God Doesn’t Suffer or Change 

Can God suffer?

Can God suffer?
I don’t know whether that’s a question you’ve thought about much. Or whether you imagine it matters much.

But do you think a God who suffers, with us when we’re suffering, is better than a God who doesn’t suffer?
Or the related questions,
“Does God have emotions?”
“Does God feel sad when bad things happen to us?”
“Does God ever change his mind?”
“Can you be sure that what God wanted in the days of the Bible is still what God wants now?
Throughout the history of the church, Christians have always said, “No, God does not suffer,
God is incapable of suffering,
God doesn’t change.”
But if that sounds surprising, even shocking to some of us, it might show how far modern Christian thinking has shifted, from its biblical and historical roots.
And so this evening, we’re thinking about a topic, that probably few of us have ever given much thought to at all.
We’re considering God’s impassibility; the Bible’s teaching that God cannot suffer and cannot experience emotional changes of state.

1. God doesn’t change his mind

So come back with me to 1 Samuel 15:29.

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie, or change his mind;
for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
These words were spoken by the prophet Samuel, about a thousand years BC.

Saul, Israel’s king, had turned away from God, so God rejected him as king.
Understandably Saul gets upset, and desperate to get God to change his mind, grabs at Samuel’s clothes and tears them, pleading with everything he’s got.
But Samuel replies with those words He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind;
for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
Even Saul’s anger, sadness, tearing Samuel’s robe, none of that, backs God into a corner, where he changes his mind.

He’s not convinced to reverse the just judgement he’s passed on Saul.
Which is good news, isn’t it?

God isn’t swayed by outside pressure in the way that you or I might be.
God never acts in a way that is out of character, at odds with the rest of his being.

I do. Sometimes I act in a loving way towards my children. Other times I’m angry at them, with no love evident at all!
See, it’s not that God has justice, and God has love, and God seeks the good of his people, and at different times different ones of them are in control.

God always acts consistently with all of his nature.
He is, the Glory of Israel, not a human being.

Human beings change their minds, God does not.
And since this is who God is, it’s right though the Bible;

James says in the New Testament that God does not change like shifting shadows.1:17
Or Numbers 23:19; God is not human, that he should lie,
not a human being, that he should change his mind.
Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change.” Says God.
And so the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, begin, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions.”

The Westminster Confession and other historical statements of faith say the same thing.
God doesn’t have “passions”, emotions that sweep over him and cause him to react.
But our word “emotions” can also include what are called “affections” affections with an “A”;
Ordered, deliberate, controlled activities of the mind and heart.
Since God cannot experience emotional changes of state.

God doesn’t have passions, being made to feel something by what someone else does,
But he does have affections.
We’ll think about that a bit more in a moment.

2. But is it really true that God cannot suffer?

But is it really true that God cannot suffer?
Is that what the Bible teaches?
Well, suffering requires change, doesn’t it?
Suffering is when an outside force impacts on us in negative ways.
To suffer is to be restricted.
To suffer is to be passive;, on the receiving end of something else.

It’s being forced to accommodate or change, by someone else.
But God is never forced to accommodate or change.

Remember, I the Lord do not change.
And if God, who is perfect, were to accommodate and change, it could only be for the worse!
When you’re perfect, any change is downhill!
But the horrors of the 20th Century led to many Christians dis-believing this.
Eli Wiesel’s massively influential book, “Night” records his experience as a prisoner in the Monowitz Concentration Camp, Auschwitz III.

He tells the story of a boy being hanged by the SS, and dying slowly because he was not heavy enough for the noose to have its effect.
When he eventually died , Weisel says, “Behind me, I heard, a man asking: Where is God now?”

Then he says, “And I heard a voice within me answer him:, Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows.”
And as the world grappled with the Holocaust, this idea of God, suffering with his people, hurting as his people hurt, struck a chord and was embraced, becoming, the default Christian explanation for suffering.

“When you suffer, God suffers.”
And it sounds comforting.

God not just with us as we saw last week, but suffering with us.
One influential theologian went so far as to say, “to speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon.”
And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor imprisoned by the Nazis, scratched down on a piece of paper in his prison cell, “Only the suffering God can help.”
It sounds authentic, and compassionate,
A suffering God sounds like a caring God.
But if God has to suffer, in order to be able to show compassion and offer comfort, then it would mean that God becomes more comforting, more compassionate, for a time,
Then when the suffering stops, he goes back to being less comforting, and less compassionate.
It would also have to mean God starts out as less than perfect, gets a bit better, more compassionate, then returns to being less than perfect.
But God is perfect, and he doesn’t change.
God doesn’t become more compassionate because our suffering is impacting upon him.

God isn’t like a human, that he needs to suffer in order to learn how to be compassionate.

We generally do.
But God is comforting,
God is compassionate.
Never more so or less so depending on our circumstances.
And God fills all of creation, again, last week, even dwelling in his people and so he knows and understands our suffering intimately.
And if suffering is what enables God to be compassionate, then as the timeline of human history goes on, as God enters into the suffering of each new year, then overall God must be getting more and more compassionate!
And yet we know that’s not true!

God doesn’t suffer, that would be to accommodate and change, and he doesn’t need to suffer in order to be compassionate!

          Jesus suffered on the cross, but God did not

But didn’t Jesus suffer on the cross?

And the answer is yes!

And yet, as strange as it may be to our ears, it can’t be said that God suffered on the cross.
The Bible teaches that Jesus had both a human nature and a divine nature, and in the same way that Jesus was thirsty on the cross, or that Jesus died on the cross, we can’t automatically say that what was true of his human nature is true of his divine nature.
And yes, this is complicated, and careful language matters!
We can say “Jesus, who is God, died for us”,
But we can’t say “God died” without qualification!
John Calvin, the church Reformer, writes:

“(The Scriptures) sometimes attribute to him qualities which should be referred specially to his humanity, and sometimes qualities applicable peculiarly to his divinity,
and sometimes qualities which embrace both natures, and do not apply specially to either.”
Things may be true of the person of Christ, but not necessarily true of either nature.
It’s true that Jesus was hungry,
That Jesus got tired,
And that Jesus slept,
But it’s not true that God got hungry,
That God got tired,
That God slept.
It’s a fine distinction, but it’s an important one.
Not everything that Jesus did or experienced is true of his divine nature.

And if God could suffer, in his divine nature, why did there have to be an incarnation?
Why did God enter his world as a human?
Hebrews 2 tells us that the eternal Son of God became like us, specifically in order to suffer and die for us.

10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered
Make perfect
doesn’t mean he needed some improvement, but that he had to become a suitable substitute, which the author of Hebrews goes on to say is to have flesh and blood, verse 14.
If God could suffer with us and for us, he didn’t need to become human.

This is the mystery and wonder of the incarnation;, God became like us, so as a human, he could suffer for us.

A God who doesn’t suffer is a better God

And so the Bible’s teaching is that a God who doesn’t suffer, is a better help to us when we suffer.
Imagine that you’ve been admitted to hospital with COVID-19.

You’re struggling to breathe,
What kind of doctor do you hope turns up to help you?
The doctor who’s overcome with emotion?,
Swept up in the moment,
Not doing what deep down he knows is best?
Or the doctor who tragically herself is sick with COVID, suffering exactly as you are? Can’t speak, struggling for breath, who needs to sort herself out before she can help you?

Or a doctor who says, “I’m going to deliberately catch COVID so I can really experience what this person’s going through, and until I do that I can’t help them.”
Or do you want the doctor, who isn’t suffering,
Who isn’t being carried along emotionally,
The doctor who acts according to his or her training and commitment,
Calming approaching your bed, in exactly the same manner as they’ve approached the beds of all the other people whose lives they’ve saved today.
Don’t you want that one?
That’s the compassionate one!

That’s the one who serves you best!

That’s the one you need.
Friends it is a myth that God needs to suffer with us, in order to be able to care for us in the midst of our suffering.
If God is suffering because we are suffering, then he needs us to be rescued from our suffering so that he can be freed from his!
God, needing something from us, in order to be free!

If we think that’s what God is like we’ve reduced him to being dependent on us!
Next time you have to fill in one of those government forms;, “how many dependents have you got?”
Even if you have no kids you can say “One. God!”
It is not only ridiculous, it’s blasphemous!
Or consider the promise in Revelation 21 of God making an end to suffering, and wiping away tears.
If God suffers, he’d need to wipe tears from his own eyes.

Our salvation would be as much for God’s benefit as it is ours.

Our redemption through the cross is no longer a free gift of God to us, but something God needs to do for himself.
God’s impassibility matters!
God cannot suffer and cannot experience emotional changes of state.

3. God is impassible but not un-emotional

But, third thing to say, while it’s true that God is impassible, that’s not to say that God is, un-emotional
Impassibility doesn’t mean God has no emotional life, but that God is entirely sovereign over his emotional life.
Remember that distinction between “passions” and “affections”?

Those historic statements of faith like the Westminster Confession assure us that God doesn’t have passions, but they absolutely reflect the Bible’s teaching that God has affections.
He has an emotional life.
The very first statement about God in the Westminster Confession, is the one that says God is without passions, but in the very same sentence, it goes on to describe God as “loving,” “merciful,” “gracious,” “hating sin”, and lots more.
The Bible is very clear on this.

God is impassible but not un-emotional.
– The Scriptures tell us that God gets distressed, Isaiah 63:9,
– He speaks to Judah, saying, as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you

Isaiah 62:5
– God is kind Ephesians 2:7, and God can be grieved Ephesians 4, verse 30,
– God is compassionate, Psalm 103, verse 13.
– God is gracious, abounding in love and faithfulness. Exodus 34:6

– And God has anger that burns against the wicked. Exodus 32:10
And there’s plenty more like that!

There’s no way at all that we could call this God indifferent to what’s happening to his creatures!
So how do we bring these ideas together? 1 Samuel and all these other places saying God doesn’t change, that he’s not like a human being,
And all these examples of very human-sounding emotional language being applied to God!
Sometimes people say it’s just metaphorical.
And I wanted to avoid doing this but we’re going to have to use a big word;, anthropopathism.

This means to attribute human emotions to something that’s not human, in this case, God.
And the argument is, that when the Bible uses emotional language, love, anger, jealousy, compassion, to describe God, it doesn’t really mean he’s like that, it’s just metaphorical, it’s an anthropopathism.
So we saw last week how God’s right hand is said to have defeated the army of Egypt.

But a ginormous hand didn’t reach down from heaven and start swatting at the Egyptian soldiers and chariots, did it?
Especially as we also saw last week, that God is incorporeal, he doesn’t have a body, let alone a right hand!

So the authors of the Bible use the language we understand, in order to communicate something about God.
But is that’s what’s going on when the Bible describes God as having these emotions?
Well, if we say these instances of “affection” language are purely anthropopathism, it’s just image and metaphor, that God’s not really like that,
That will have a terrible impact on our understanding of God!
John 3:16 says that God so loved the world, that he sent his Son, but if God doesn’t have affections, or emotions, and this is just a figure of speech, what was God’s motivation for sending his Son into the world?! A metaphor!
If God doesn’t have any emotional capability, then to speak of God’s love is meaningless.
Or think of the Apostle Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, which looked at on the 6:30 Weekend Away, exactly a year ago this week!
Ephesians 4:17 – 19 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, that doesn’t really exist, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the, love of Christ, which doesn’t really exist, 19 and to know this love, which doesn’t really exist that surpasses knowledge!
Or think about God’s anger.

If God’s anger is just a, figure of speech, but God doesn’t really have a personal hatred of evil, and demands that it be punished, then what’s left?
If God doesn’t hate sin then he’s tolerant of sin.

And if he’s tolerant of sin he’s no longer holy.
Clearly we can’t say the emotional language of God is just imagery, “God just using that language because that’s something we can understand.”

God’s affections are entirely appropriate for an eternal, infinite being.

No, God deliberately intends to reveal himself in Scripture as having these affections, but he has them, in his own way, not a human way
Think of what God says in Isaiah 55: 8 & 9

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

It’s the same category of things on view in each case;, God’s thoughts, human thoughts,
God’s ways, human ways,
But they’re vastly different, of completely different order.

God’s emotional life is as distinct from ours, as the heavens are above the earth!
It’s 93 million miles to the sun!

That’s quite some difference!
God has affections, an emotional life, that are entirely appropriate for an eternal, infinite, impassible being.
And God reveals his emotional life in ways that are carefully planned, and entirely consistent with all of his being. Remember, not love sometimes, and anger other times.
Robert Lewis Dabney was an American theologian and pastor, and interestingly a chaplain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War! But he wrote an article in 1878, in which he says:

However anthropopathic, metaphor, may be the statements made concerning God’s repentings, wrath, pity, pleasure, love, jealousy, hatred, in the Scriptures, we should do violence to them if we denied that he here meant to ascribe to himself active affections in some mode suitable to his nature.
Yeah, God is, using language we can understand, to describe something vast and complicated.

But he chooses this language, and so much of it in the Bible, there must be some reality that the language captures, even if it’s not identical to our experience of these emotions.
God deliberately describes himself as having love, pleasure, hatred, of which our experience of those emotions is some kind of reflection.

Not perfect, not entirely the same.

God has those affections in a way appropriate to an eternal, unchanging God.
He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
God loves, not in a way identical to our love, since our love is stained by sin;, tainted by self-interest,
Corrupted by jealousy,
Marked by inconsistency,
But God still loves!
When the apostle John says in 1 John 4 that God is love, and that in sending Jesus God showed his love among us, he doesn’t mean that God fell in love with us,
That God’s life would be empty and unsatisfied without us.
Not at all, and yet as Don Carson points out in his book, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” to listen to lots of Christians speak about God’s love for us, you’d likely conclude that “dear old God is pretty vulnerable, finding himself in a dreadful state unless we say yes.”
See this is where we want to affirm impassibility. God hasn’t fallen head over heels in love with us like some giddy teenager!
God loves us, not because something about us has swept him off his feet.

Nothing about us, has caused God to be loving towards us.
God is angered, but not in the same way that we get angry,
Our anger is often mixed with embarrassment at being caught out,
Or polluted by our pride.
God’s anger doesn’t just flare up when he sees some sin. It’s his constant, settled, determined opposition to sin and evil.
There was a Christian scholar named Lactantius around the turn of the 3rd century.
He said God doesn’t have unjust anger, because that would mean someone’s behaviour has caused God to react inappropriately, and impassibility assures us that is never the case.
But there is a righteous anger, he argues, and God must have this kind of anger, otherwise wickedness goes unpunished.

(On the Wrath of God, 17)
God has affections, that are entirely appropriate for an eternal, infinite, impassible being.
We noted already that our passions, make us inconsistent.
– In my anger, I can stop being loving.
– If I’m concerned for you, because of how someone’s treating you, I’m likely to treat that other person poorly,
But in being loving, God never stops being just.

In demanding justice and repentance, God still longs to bless his people.
God has affections, that are entirely appropriate for an eternal, infinite, impassible being.
We shouldn’t shy away from speaking about God’s emotional life, in the way that Bible does.

4. God, whose nature and purposes do not change, changes his behaviour in order to be true to his nature and purposes.

But what about those occasions in the Bible, when God does seem to change his mind?
And one of the clearest examples of this comes in the very same narrative of God dealing with King Saul in 1 Samuel 15.
So back up in verses 10 & 11, we read this:, 10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret, that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.”
But then just a few lines down, those words we’ve already thought about;, He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
So here in the space of just a few lines, God changes his mind, God doesn’t change of mind.
This isn’t accidental!

The author’s not going to contradict himself on the essence of God in the space of just a few lines!
God doesn’t change.

On the other hand, God doesn’t act and relate to his creation in exactly the same way all the time!
Genesis 2 verse 2 tells us that God finished his work of creation, and then rested on the 7th day. That’s a change in what God does.
God is unchangeable in his nature, but he does change what he does.

And in fact it’s because of his unchangeable nature, that God actions do change.
What’s the problem in 1 Samuel? Saul has turned away from God. Saul has changed.

But God hasn’t changed.

He’s still holy,
He still demands obedience,
He’s still committed to the well-being of his people,
Still wants a godly leader,
God is still just,
Still fulfilling his promises to Abraham,
Still committed to the covenant he made with his people,
God hasn’t changed at all!!
But Saul has changed, and so because God’s nature and purposes haven’t changed one bit, God responds with a change of action.

In order to be true to his unchanging nature, God changes his behaviour and relationship with Saul.
Can you see the distinction?
And like with the emotions, we don’t want to say this is metaphor, picture language to help us understand.

This is a genuine change of action.

If it’s just an image, would we have to do with statements like, the Word became flesh? John 1:14

If change or development in God’s action is purely metaphorical, then the Word, didn’t really become flesh!
God acts in his world in different ways, in order to be true to his unchanging nature.
From our perspective, it looks like we’ve caused God to react, because it seems like we’ve made God do something, but in fact it’s God’s unchanging nature and purposes, that are the reason his actions change.
It’s God’s impassibility that means he can change how relates to us, even though God doesn’t change.

God’s impassibility is good for us.

God’s impassibility is good for us.
Let me recap some of the implications of this, and we’ll see a couple more.
A God who suffers, is clearly less of a God than one who doesn’t.

A God who is swept up in emotions;, one day loving, the next day angry, is unpredictable, inconsistent, and frightening!
And it’s simply not true, that for God to be compassionate, he must suffer with us.
But what else might we say?
Well, actually the most compassionate thing that God can do is what? To bring an end to the cause our suffering, which he does, in the death Jesus for our sin!
And so when we suffer, our comfort doesn’t come from a God who suffers with us, but the assurance that he is an eternal, impassible God,
Who understands and knows our sufferings because he’s with us always and fills creation,
Who entered into them in the person of Jesus Christ,
And has overcome sin and suffering.
The fact that God’s not involved in our suffering, but reaches in regardless, in Christ, makes the demonstration of God’s love at the cross all the more amazing!
Imagine two swimmers swept out to sea and in trouble.
It one thing for them to help each other out;, trying to stay afloat, keep pointing each other towards land.

But when someone who is safe on shore, rushes into the water to help them, that’s the greater demonstration of care, isn’t?

For someone not involved in the suffering, to get involved in the rescue.
God doesn’t bring an end to our suffering so that he can be free.

Secondly, let’s not diminish God by wanting a God who suffers.

How could anything created and finite, impose suffering on God?
You might know the story of the tiny town of (BERRICK) Berwick on Tweed in the far north of England, supposedly being at war with Russia for 114 years.
Apparently Berwick was listed among Queen Victoria’s dominions in the declaration of the Crimean War, but because of a typo in the peace agreement at the end of the war, Berwick was left off, and this state of war supposedly persisted.
And we wonder, how did millions of Russian sleep at night for 114 years, knowing they were at war with a tiny market town in Northumberland?!
Well, even if the legend is true, Russia is so far and away greater and more powerful than the little town of Berwick that it was impossible for them to make the Russians to suffer.
Don’t reduce God, and put him at the mercy of Berwick on Tweed!

By which I mean, don’t imagine God to be less than he is!

Vulnerable and at risk!
And finally, celebrate the assurance that God’s impassibility gives us.

He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”
We won’t do a show of hands, but who of us have been let down, by someone else, not keeping their word, or breaking a promise.
Who of us have been let down by the people we came to church with tonight, or who are watching with us right now! Again, no hands, just keep looking forwards!
But actually it’s all of us!

We have all been let down by others, just as we’ve gone back on our word to them.
And yet God, doesn’t change.

His word and promises are dependable.

When he says a right relationship with him comes through trusting in Jesus’ death in our place,
That’s not going to change!
When he says, “here’s the pattern by which life works best”, that’s not going to change.

God’s commitment to you, demonstrated at the cross of Christ, isn’t going to change.
What God has revealed of himself in his Son, and promised in his Word, still stands.

Father we thank you that you don’t change.

That because of your unchanging nature and character you are entirely dependant and trustworthy.
We thank you that in Jesus taking on our human nature, he suffered for us, taking our place.

Though he was not involved in our suffering, he entered into it, so we might be freed from it.

And we thank you that you are compassionate, comforting, hating sin, kind, and you rejoice over us.

We give you thanks and praise. Amen.