Theology Lessons from Brandi Huerta
Impassibility comes from the Latin root pati, meaning to suffer, endure, or undergo (a patient is someone who undergoes treatment from a doctor). One implication of impassibility is that He does not change His emotional state in response to His creatures because He doesn’t undergo anything from our hands. The Westminster Confession says that God has all blessedness in Himself; the London Baptist Confession says He is “without passions.”
To say that He had sadness as an attribute of His nature would imply a privation or lack of blessedness. When you think about it that way, it’s easier to see that the very idea of sadness implies imperfection in the Lord. On the other hand, for Him to become sad in response to something would be for Him to be vulnerable—capable of being affected (moved from one state of being to another) by His creatures. He cannot suffer. (Christ did suffer with respect to His human nature; that’s another facet of this conversation altogether.)
God perfectly loves what is lovely, namely Himself and whatever reflects Him. Christians have the perfection of Christ credited to us so that we are the recipients of God’s perfect love, which can never diminish at all because Christ will never diminish, and He will never leave us! Conversely, when there is a lack in the creature, it experiences the lack of God’s love, or His perfect “hatred,” as it were.
Wherefore, as when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in Him, but ought rather to consider the mode of speech accommodated to our sense, God appearing to us like one inflamed and irritated whenever He exercises Judgment, so we ought not to imagine anything more under the term repentance than a change of action, men being wont to testify their dissatisfaction by such a change. – John Calvin
What we experience as God’s anger is, more properly speaking, the effect of His perfect justice: He gives to every person exactly what they deserve. When a person moves from bearing God’s image in a higher sense to displaying a privation or lack of God’s image (sinning), it is not God but the creature that has changed, even though the person’s experience of God has changed.
Theologians have often said that when God is described in the language of human emotion, these are expressions of effect, not affect. In other words, we are reading about the effects God causes us to experience of Himself, not effects that we have caused God to experience in Himself. If we read of them in the same way that we experience human passions and affections, we diminish God, making Him only a greater version of ourselves. – James Renihan
As I mentioned in lesson one, we want to maintain a strict Creator/creature distinction; we must resist our impulse to drag God down to our level in our thinking. He is wholly other than we are. You are already used to, and you probably already accept, various figures of speech that the Bible uses to describe God. He is spirit, without body, and so you understand that when the Word talks about His mighty right hand, it is saying something true about Him without being true, properly speaking.
It describes His power in terms we understand. This is called anthropomorphism: attributing a human physical characteristic to God improperly as a teaching tool. Applying human emotional language to God is similar, except it’s called anthropopathism. (Incidentally, using animal language with respect to God, as we see in Psalm 91:4, is called zoomorphism.) You must take a serious look, not only at the biblical language that seems to suggest God can be moved but also at the language that says He cannot.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
In 1 Samuel 15:11, God regretted (changed His mind) that He made Saul king. A few verses later, in 1 Samuel 15:29, we read that God is not a man that He should change His mind. It should be apparent that one verse is saying something improper about God to teach us something, while the other is speaking of God as He actually is.
Previous to the 19th century, the word “emotion” was not used in the sense it is today. The timing of the rise to the popularity of emotional language, as it is currently understood, coincided with the French Revolution and its effects when philosophy and religion were losing public interest in favor of more humanistic and naturalistic thought. Before that, biblically-thinking Christians had for nearly two millennia spoken more in terms of passions and affections, not emotions.
The concept of passions carried the idea of being carried away by something—being moved by it—whereas affections were seen as deliberate action flowing from correct thinking. To be passionate was to be easily swayed, unstable, and lacking in self-control. It had a decidedly negative connotation, even when used to describe people. So when people object to the use of the term “impassible,” they frequently are—unknowingly, in most cases—calling people back to psychological rather than biblical language.
Up until very recently in history, it would not have upset anyone to say that God is impassible. On the contrary, it would have been scandalous to say He had some equivalent of human emotions. And yet, with the church’s current fixation on empathy, the suggestion that God is not empathetic often causes folks to gasp in shock, quite literally. You can deny almost any essential Christian doctrine today but not God’s supposed empathy.
Not only should you not see God as emotionally movable, but you also should not be, either, at least not in the way you may be used to thinking about your emotions. God calls you to reflect Himself. You can’t be just like Him, but you can look like Him in an analogical (not one-to-one) way. It is possible (by the Spirit) for you to love your enemies with an unchanging love and not be moved by them.
Ideally, your affection toward them and your sense of well-being should never change, granting you supreme freedom to act (not react—again, more affectionate than passionate or emotional). If a three-year-old dropped his ice cream and the dog ate it, what would happen if you entered into the child’s emotional state and suffered with him? Would it help him if you cried and screamed and kicked right next to him on the floor? I hope you said no.
If, on the other hand, you reflected the blessedness of God in the child’s presence, you would teach him steadfastness and immovability in the face of life’s challenges. You would be giving him the gift of resilience rather than teaching him to be a victim. Your steadfast love and concern for him would be an extremely powerful example to a young mind that will inevitably map his experience of you over his perception of God. Children are immature and movable. It’s in their nature to react passionately, even to the most minor trials. It’s your job to help them mature, grow, and change, just like your Father does for you.
We don’t need a God who suffers with us. We need a God who genuinely loves us and has the power to do something about our plight. He is steadfast and immovable, and so may we be in Him (although not in the exact same way He is, of course). His impassibility is some of the best news ever.
Your spouse, children, friends, and the people you disciple need to see you becoming what you behold in the impassible God by His mighty Spirit so that they, too, might find wholeness and blessedness rather than chaos or dysfunction. We are to weep with those who weep; please don’t hear me saying that we’re not. But we don’t grieve as those who have no hope. Even in our momentary grief, we can be joyful if we are grounded in the Lord’s nature.
Again, it’s okay to cry out to God and grieve; a lot of the Psalms are examples of just that. But when we grieve, we still stand on the foundation of God’s goodness and steadfastness, knowing He loves us and will never let go. We go to Him knowing He will set our thinking right and help us endure, not that He will jump into the proverbial quicksand and drown with us.
Whatever happens to us comes from our Father’s hand and is for our good, so in that sense, He loves even the hardship that comes to us, and He loves us, even as He hates the sin (privation of His image) in the sinning person who hurts us. When a person is going through hell on earth, sometimes they are all alone, feeling like no one understands and no one hurts with them. The thought that the very God of the universe may be suffering with you is understandably comforting. That would be the ultimate validation.
I implore you not to go there in your mind, though; the God of the universe is better than that. Abuse counselors will go to passages like Proverbs 6:16-19 and tell folks that they are right to hate their abusers because they are just hating what God hates. God is on their side, they say. In this way, suffering folks become enslaved again, which is heartbreaking—this time, they are imprisoned by their sinful anger, which puts them at odds with God (James 4:6) and can lead to a hard heart and a noisy soul.
They have the privation of God’s character that I was talking about before, leading to discipline for the believer or judgment for the unbeliever. This is a key reason you see so many of the internet’s shrill, angry, and hurting Christian women. They believe falsely that they are modeling God’s character as they lash out at everything and everyone around them. When I was involved in the abuse movement, how the leaders talked about God bothered me, but it took me a while to see that all the “unhealed” women in their wake were suffering for their anger more than what had happened to them.
Because God is immovable, He won’t let any sin go. Not one. Every sin will be paid for, either by the sinner or by the sinless Son of God. If you’ve been hurt, you can rest in knowing that the Lord will set everything right. If you are His, His love for you will never change. He will discipline you when you stray, but this is out of love for you, knowing that your greatest good is to be like Him. There you will find your joy and peace. It doesn’t exist anywhere else.
Thank you to John, Camelia, Rachel, and others for the great forum conversation about impassibility. Your input helped shape the thoughts that went into this article.
Brandi Huerta is the wife of Matthew and the mother of Chelsee, Rachel, and Josiah. She lives on the plains of Colorado, where she is active in the women’s, children’s, and counseling ministries at Grace Bible Church in Brush. Brandi received her training through LifeOverCoffee.com Mastermind Program.