Q: You’ve said that God ‘laments’ with us during the pandemic. But I thought God was ‘impassable’. Does it make sense to say that God is also suffering with us in this?
God’s ‘impassibility’ means that God doesn’t experience emotions the way humans do. It comes from the Latin ‘passio’, which is about suffering. Suffering can be seen either in terms of ‘this is very painful’, or in a more technical way – the idea that something is being done to me. In other words, where I am the passive partner. The problem in the early Church was that people believed God must always be the active one. The idea that God could be passive, and suffer himself, seemed like a contradiction in terms.
However, into that classical view of a God who couldn’t possibly be affected by emotion, came the figure of Jesus. The Jesus who wept in Gethsemane and at the tomb of his friend. The Jesus who shouted out on the cross just before dying: “My God, why did you abandon me?” (Matthew 27:46, quoting Psalm 22).
So how do you combine this Jesus, who clearly experienced emotions, with an ‘impassable’ God? This has been a huge topic of theological debate over the last generation, particularly associated with the German scholar Jürgen Moltmann, who was a prisoner of war and therefore acquainted with suffering in a very particular way.
Many people find the idea of a distant, impassable God simply doesn’t connect with them. Whereas the idea of a God who, in the person of Jesus, says: “I am with you in trouble. I am taking it upon myself. I’m going to bring you through this,” sounds more like the gospel.
Romans 8, where it says: “the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (v22), helps us to grasp the mystery. Paul says that we “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (v23). But then where is God? God the Spirit is groaning within us with “wordless groans” (v26). So, within a Trinitarian view of God, like Paul, we have to say: “God, the Spirit is groaning inarticulately within us about the pain of the world.”
Then it says: “And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (v27). That is an extraordinary picture of the unity of God, holding together the pain of the world. Paul then says God shapes us into “the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (v29).
You can talk about the ultimate sovereignty and ‘impassibility’ of God if you want, but you must never break the link between the Father and the Spirit shaping us according to the pattern of the Son. The Son who cried out: “My God, why did you abandon me?”
In John’s Gospel, the Word (which was God – John 1:1) wept at the tomb of his friend (John 11:35). Jesus didn’t do the weeping insofar as he was human. John would say he did the weeping insofar as he was God. So, let’s rethink and re-pray our vision of God accordingly.