The doctrine of divine impassibility is best illustrated by considering the problem of human passibility. This past Sunday, we looked at Acts 14. The first missionary journey included a stop in Lystra where the people thought Paul and Barnabas were gods after they witnessed the healing of a man crippled from birth. The people were prepared to offer sacrifices to Zeus (Paul) and Hermes (Barnabas) when the apostles tore their garments and declared, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you…” It would also be accurate to replace “nature” with “passions” or “emotions” or “feelings”. Paul and Barnabas were acknowledging the inconsistency of their nature as humans. Their affections were just as fickle as the people of Lystra. Their passions could be easily manipulated. They experienced the ebbs and flows of emotional turmoil just like everyone else. As James warns, it is this nature, these passions, which lead to sin (James 4:1).
By implication, Paul and Barnabas were also suggesting that God does not have the same nature or passions or emotions or feelings as men. The doctrine of divine impassibility can be easily misunderstood, because it seems to imply that God is stoic and unsympathetic towards us. But in reality, this doctrine is the very foundation of our comfort and hope. God’s affections towards you are not dependent upon your faithfulness, but His impassibility.
Octavius Winslow captures this well,
“Oh, it is a truth as replete with comfort as with wonder, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.’ Beloved, cling to this Unchanging One! No ebb in the tide of your affection, nor trembling in the needle of your faith, has created, or can create, the slightest variation in His love or faithfulness. Your waywardness has not chilled it, your fickleness has not affected it, your sinfulness has not forfeited it, because He is essentially, immutably, and eternally the same. ‘Though we believe not, yet He abideth faithful; He cannot deny Himself.'”
Defining Divine Impassibility
Here’s how Todd Billings defines the doctrine of divine impassibility:
The doctrine of divine impassibility is the belief that God has no “passions”—that is, no disordered affections that could make his love ebb and flow. He delights in the goodness of creation and in obedience, has compassion for the suffering and hears their cry, grieves over the creation’s self-destructive sin, and is angry at evil, injustice, and wickedness. But the Lord who freely enters into covenantal relationships with creatures is never blindsided or manipulated by them. Instead, God loves in fullness. In this way, the doctrine of impassibility holds together two truths at once: While it is true and right to say that God loves, delights, grieves, and is jealous, there is also a fundamental difference and distinction between God’s affections and our own creaturely ones. Unlike our own emotional lives, God’s affections are never distorted through sinful, disordered passions, nor are they controlled by greater powers…
Comfort From Divine Impassibility
And here’s the practical benefits of believing and understanding this doctrine. Billings enjoyed tremendous comfort from the impassible love of God in the midst of receiving chemotherapy.
In the hospital, I didn’t need just solidarity in my suffering. I needed to know that God’s covenant love is so steady and powerful that, in Christ, suffering and death lose their dominion over my life. This God does not need suffering and death in order to be God; instead, in the love that accords perfectly with his covenantal promises, God becomes incarnate as the Pioneer, our Brother, the great High Priest who in his humanity is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). This is not “a deep division in God himself.” This is steadfast, trustworthy love.
In the dark time of my cancer treatment and recovery, I rediscovered the importance of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians: that we “may have the power to comprehend” the “breadth and length and height and depth” (3:18) of Christ’s love. God’s love is not as frail as our love. It “surpasses knowledge.” God’s is a covenant love that the Psalmist trusts in the midst of his anxiety, joy, anger, and misery. It is the steadiness of God’s love that allows us to approach him amid the unsteadiness of our anguish and frailty.
Be sure to read the whole article, Undying Love by Todd Billings.