God can’t feel your pain

Posted: October 29, 2013 by J in Bible, Church, Pastoral issues, Theology

Can God feel anything?

We’re currently preaching through Exodus at our church, and we’ve come up against a problem in our doctrine of God. Maybe you can give me some advice about this.

We’ve title the series: LEARNING the NAME of GOD. We’re saying, here’s where Israel first gets to know who the god of their fathers is. He reveals his name to them: I AM WHO I AM, and he reveals himself to them through his actions.

Now here’s the problem: the first thing we hear about God in Exodus, once the story gets going, is,

The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. Exodus 2

Four similar verbs: God heard, God remembered, God looked and God knew. A chain of actions all pointing to one thing: this god’s close identification with the sufferings of his people. The last verb is the most suggestive: the same term used for sexual intercourse, amongst other things. It suggests God entering in to the experience of the Israelite slaves.

Next Moses encounters Yahweh for the first time, and God introduces himself to Moses with these words:

I have looked on the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings,  8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh…   Exodus 3

So much repetition. Notice what this god hammers away at in his introduction to Moses? How deeply moved he has been by the Hebrews’ sufferings – that’s what. Literally moved: he has come down, because he knows their sufferings.

So this is Moses’ first impression of Yahweh, this is how God presents himself up front: the god whose heart feels the pains of his children. The god of compassion.

Perhaps you can sense my dilemma.

1500 years of Christian tradition has taught us about God with a capital G, God the proper noun. We all know who we mean when we say capital G God. And that God, is impassible. He does not, cannot feel pain, he is ‘without… passions’ (Westminster Confession). “Sorrow and pain, therefore, of their very nature cannot be found in God” (Aquinas). “Wherefore,  when we hear that God is angry, we ought not to imagine that there is any emotion in him…” (Calvin Institutes)

Capital G God doesn’t feel our sufferings.

And yet here is this unknown god in Exodus, nobody knows yet who he is. But the first thing they learn about him is how strongly his heart is affected with compassion, i.e. with sharing the pains of his people. And this is the Exodus: the seminal moment in the life of Israel the nation. Whatever happens at this moment is definitive. This character trait, compassion, defines Yahweh from this moment on. He is the god whose heart is moved.

So which should I teach my people? The church’s doctrine of capital G God, whose heart cannot suffer? Or the god of Exodus, who wants the people to know that his heart does suffer with them?

This is not a rhetorical question. It’s true that I find impassibility shocking and incomprehensible. But I have heaps of respect for the tradition and teaching of the church through the ages. And when there has been widespread agreement, as there was for so long on impassibility, I am loath to dismiss the teaching. And yet I can’t see how to hold on to it and teach Exodus faithfully.

Can anyone help me here? Does our god feel anything?

  1. Seumas says:

    The poverty of our emotional vocabulary doesn’t help us. Because impassibility doesn’t mean emotionless. This is why it’s always worth talking about passions and affections. God doesn’t endure our sufferings or exist at the mercy of them, his com-passion in Exodus consists precisely in his active, willed choice to identify and enter the experience of his people, while at the same time being subject over it, not subject to it.

  2. J says:

    Thanks for your comment, Seumas. In so far as I understand it, I like your version of impassibility. However I don’t really get the bit about ‘subject over it, not to it.’

    But I’m not sure Augustine, Aquinas or Calvin would have recognised your definition. In fact, modern impassibility advocates seem to me to give a lot of ground to ‘suffering of God’ arguments, while hanging on to the traditional term.

    That’s not a criticism, there may be good reasons to retain the term. But it does add to the confusion you allude to, if the term doesn’t have an agreed meaning across time.

    • Seumas says:

      Well, ’emotion’ is not a term they would have used, in any case, so it’s no wonder my definition wouldn’t make sense. I think my understanding of the term is in line with classical theism, perhaps with some J. Edwards thrown in for good measure. Modern understandings of impassiblity have shifted the meaning, but mainly through a lack of education, not a conscious decision to redefine the term. Most objections to impassibility are really failures to understand it well.

      Gavrilyuk’s “The Suffering of the Impassible God” and Weinandy’s “Does God Suffer?” are the best recent works on impassibility.

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