We Will Never Break God’s Heart

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Suffering is often the crucible in which our hopes and fears rise to the surface, the clarity of pain serving to purify the double-mindedness that too often plagues our existence. For better or for worse, to suffer can bring a certain perspicuity in its wake, for good or for ill, being a maker of saints and a breaker of sinners, often simultaneously.

In the midst of duress of any kind, man has always searched for some type of reason, a meaning to attach to a seemingly pointless state of events. Why, after all, must we suffer? Is the sheer fact of suffering not in and of itself a counter argument to the presumption of the rationality of the universe?

Some find comfort plunging deeper into that dismeaning, as if the meaninglessness of the experience could somehow provide a salve for the ailment. The divine is alternatively invoked, either for assistance or escape; perhaps even for a scapegoat.

Regardless of what sense we might make (or not make) of suffering and pain, we desperately want to avoid it at all costs. We will expend massive resources to delay its approach or get out of its way, even if our efforts are ultimately in vain. But generally more than anything our suffering carries a longing for compassion, to have another being who will come alongside and suffer with us, to effectively experience vicariously in empathy the anguish we carry existentially.

If our wont is to turn towards the divine in time of need, we want to feel (or at least believe) that our pain matters in some way, that our suffering can stir the thought or attention or compassion of the one who holds our existence together. In the ancient world, compassion- as it was- was often thought to be up for sale, provoked by the right sacrifice here or invocation there. The favor of deity was a fickle beast to be sure, but humans are excellent at reducing the sublime to the formulaic, so there are surely ways into their good graces.

And let’s be honest- in our hurts and our pains we really want God to feel sorry for us, to feel bad that we feel bad, to want to get up off the celestial throne and do something about the crap we have to suffer. In our pious moments we might not mouth such indiscretions, but they exist deep down nevertheless.

Of course, it doesn’t help that in much of our theologizing we tend to speak very badly about God by supposing that we are speaking very well about him. A common bromide that is as vacuous as it is obnoxious is that when we suffer ‘God’s heart breaks for us.’ We are supposed to imagine that God tears up at the wounding we bear, and cannot help but be moved by compassion to do something, like a child wanting to comfort the puppy who got into the thorn bush.

If we can have such compassion for the brutes, might we not suppose that God’s heart breaks even more for us his children?

If we gave more than a few moments’ reflection to this we would find that the usual saccharine nonsense we apply towards the divine being is rubbish unfit for that selfsame puppy’s crate, but in our misguided attempts to assuage our pain or offer meaningless comfort to others we not only do theology very poorly but end up offering a vision of God that is as emptied of meaning as the platitudes we mouth so breathlessly.

In classical theology such a notion of God would have been (and still is) completely incomprehensible. For within classical theology God is understood as impassible, and thus incapable suffering. The roots of the term itself has its origins in the Greek apatheia (without pathos), which is an unfortunate (and likely to be misunderstood) origin for the modern term ‘apathy,’

The difficulty is that apatheia and apathy are completely different things. To be without passion, in the ancient philosophical mind, was not a pejorative notion; on the contrary, to be without passion did not signify a lack of passion per se but rather signaled a fullness in the possessor of apatheia, a perfection that left no room, so to speak, for lack.

For passion is, after all, a privation of blessedness or happiness. This happiness is not the modern watered down notion of ultimately getting what you want when you want it, but is instead to be perfect and complete in one’s nature, to lack nothing good insofar as it relates to one’s being.

The problem for finite being is that it is by nature not full. To be a contingent creature implies at the very least a lack of self-existence, and the further one goes down the ladder of being the more one is found to not possess. Passion, thus, is the result of privation that marks contingent being. We as finite beings can be more in our parts or less, but we will never be more than the sum of them, for simply adding more upon more will never get close to infinity, let alone reach it.

God’s impassibility thus seems an inevitable consequence of God’s simplicity, itself the inescapable consequence of the existence of contingent being.

This line of reasoning, of course, has come under intense scrutiny in the last century or so, so much so that the doctrine of God’s impassibility has often been supplanted by other ways of understanding God in other terms. We have little use for a God who is apathetic, which, even if we parse our etymologies correctly, is exactly what impassibility sounds like to modern ears. We want a God who loves us and cares for us, and that’s fine. But I wonder if we often stop long enough to wonder what kind of love and compassion we are looking for.

The classical conception of impassibility is often caricatured as implying that God is cold and emotionless, a metaphysical fossil locked in amber, a perfection exhibited in stasis. But the truth of the perfection of being in Being itself could hardly be farther from this. In classical theology God is full and complete in himself to be sure, unchanging and unmoved. The reason for this, however, is not because he lacks something, but rather harkens back to the inescapable metaphysical conclusion of God’s simplicity. If God truly is Being itself, truly is infinite and eternal, then there is nothing that God lacks. In fact, it might be better (if not accurate) to say that God only ‘lacks’ the ability to lack.

Nothing can be added to God because there is not anything that exists that God does not possess. We often get muddy in our theology and imagine God as a being among other beings, as if the other beings somehow stand outside of and alongside God. But the truth (which classical theism recognizes and incorporates) is that all contingent being only exists insofar as it participates in God’s being. As such, there is nothing that any contingent being possesses that is not a participation in God’s being.

The upshot of this is that pathos– contingent being’s ‘ability’ to suffer and change- is not something we ‘have’ that God does not, but is rather upside down; pathos is a ‘lack’ of blessedness and perfection that contingent being ‘has’ that God does not.

This may seem a distinction without meaning, but the metaphysical implications are dramatic. While we are not privation throughout, pathos does characterize (so to speak) our being. That means that our notions of love and compassion- as well as the acts themselves- arise out of and are influenced by that same privation. As such, our love and compassion (and the notions thereof) are ultimately not characterized by a fullness but rather by a lack.

A moment’s reflection demonstrates this to be true. Our limited nature entails that we can only focus our thoughts and love and compassion to a limited extent. Our desire to love and care to an infinite degree is forever hamstrung by the contingency and finitude of our being.

Yet rarely do our desires even strain towards those heights. We are also emotional creatures, fickle in what we desire and fickler still in all that we will. Too often compassion must be wrung or manipulated out of us, if for no other reason than we can love at the drop of the hat or not care as the result of a bad burrito the night before. And even when our hearts are broken by a situation or an appeal, we can rarely sustain that feeling or desire for long, both because we are capricious by nature but also because of the metaphysical trappings of our pathos.

As such, all finite compassion and love and concern and the like are ultimately bound within the subjectivity, and thus subject to its whims and vagaries. Hardly- it would seem- firm ground upon which to ground the kind of care and love we might want from the divine.

With this in mind, it is almost incomprehensible that we would want God to love or feel compassion in anything even remotely similar to the way we do. We too often conflate the sensitive aspect of our being with the rational, and thus love and compassion become far too intermingled with emotion. This can cause us to see God as cold and uncaring in his impassibility, when in reality God’s love is infinitely solid and infinitely trustworthy (unlike our own), precisely because it is not predicated on pathos.

The impassibility of God thus entails that God’s love is always willed, not simply felt nor compelled because a situation or emotion warrants it. This same impassibility also implies God’s ‘lack of lack,’ which ensures that his love is always the fulness of love itself, is never commingled with competing desires or halfhearted affection. Far from being locked in stasis, the unchanging character of God’s being means that God enjoys happiness in itself since his being is identical with that happiness, the corollary being that we who participate in God’s happiness have the promise of perfection insofar as we are united in love to him and with him.

This seemingly esoteric exercise has a very nuts and bolts practicality, since all these metaphysical premises entail that we really can rely on God, that he is always faithful and always loving, and that his will for us is always for good. We do not have to compel God’s love or somehow coerce or manipulate him into caring; the sheer contingency of our being (and the fact that we are in existence at all) a priori demonstrates that God really and truly loves all that he has made and always will, since that love is not predicated on anything but God’s own being.

The Incarnation itself renders meaningless any potential passibility in God, since the orthodox formulation holds that each nature retained what was proper to it, with the corollary that the Word in and of himself did not suffer. Yet in that mystical union the impassible God truly demonstrates com-passion for humanity by suffering in the body along with us. In the passion of Christ our pathos and all its lack is somehow taken into the divine union and purified; as the ancient Christians maintained: God became man so that man might become God. The answer to our lack of fulness is not to pile more onto our being, but rather to have our being brought into union with the one from whom we all derive being. Our suffering- when joined to Christ’s suffering- thus becomes the gateway from passibility into participation in impassibility, which is ultimately blessedness itself, which at bottom is none other than to possess God himself.

We will never break God’s heart, and that’s not a bad thing.

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  • One can argue that “impassibility” is not a construct found in the Bible (the strongest argument for it is probably in Mal. 3:6, but that is rather about his his nature and specifically his grace than his “emotions”), but rather brought in from Greco-Roman philosophy. The Bible is full of “anthropomorphic” sayings about God that would suggest that God feels for us. For example, God’s anger lasts for a moment, but his favour for a life time (Ps. 30:5; Isa 54:8 – in first person). God is compassionate (Ex. 33:19). He is grieved by his own judgment (1 Chron. 21:15 – this speaks specifically of him being grieved by the calamity).

  • JR- thanks for the comment- I appreciate it!

    While it could certainly be argued that impassibility is a Hellenistic philosophical construct brought to bear (in one way or another) upon the scriptural understanding of God, I suppose to even get at that question one would need to qualify what aspect of which form of Hellenistic philosophy one is speaking of. While there may some broad strokes that might be characteristic of Hellenistic philosophy, it is also by no means a monolith, and thus this sort of generic critique fails (in my opinion at least) for lack of specificity. Another difficulty that this sort of generic critique suffers from is not delineating how much of any particular category or construct early Christian thinkers might have appropriated. As an example, there are aspects of Neo-Platonic philosophy that would most likely be irreconcilable with the theological understanding (and thus possibility of) the Incarnation, yet early Christian theologians (who are often criticized for being too Neo-Platonic) clearly did not embrace all aspects of any particular Hellenistic philosophy (the notion of creatio ex nihilo is another prominent example), which indicates that for this particular critique to have legs it would need to be more specific. (Granted, I certainly don’t expect that out of a comment on a blog post; I merely offer that as indicating the position from which I am coming.)

    Another important distinction that might be made- and one that I argue would be a crucial one- is whether the use of any particular philosophical construct or category need be necessarily discounted as not biblical. “Impassibility” in its Hellenistic formulation- that is, as normally described in its particular philosophical nomenclature- doesn’t show up in the bible, to be sure, but that is not the same as saying that the biblical description of God is antithetical to to understanding of God as without passion. While the passage in Malachi is certainly a traditionally strong proof text for God’s unchangeableness, it is not necessarily the go-to verse for much of early Christian theologizing and philosophizing on the relation of God to change. The passage in Exodus where God describes himself as “I Am who I Am” powerfully noted for early Christians that the substance of God is eternal and unchanging irrespective of temporal change or spatial extension, which form the ground of pathos. For them, impassibility provided the philosophical language for both what was revealed in the scriptures and what was an inescapable philosophical principle predicated on God’s oneness, God’s simplicity, God’s eternity, and the contingent nature of created beings.

    Of course, one difficulty with conceiving of God as being passible is that- as I mentioned in my post- pathos/change/etc., are characteristic of contingent being (i.e., characterized by lack), and thus to ascribe them to God would seem to create a creature writ large, rather than the God is eternally the source of his own being and the fullness thereof. Our language of God can only ever be analogical, and as such the anthropomorphisms attributed to God are the result of positive theology’s characteristic failing in that we can only speak of that which we are capable of conceiving.

    Anyway, this reply is probably far too long, but thanks again for the comment and the discussion!

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Jason Watson

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