What is the doctrine of ‘impassibility’ and how does it help my anxiety?
The doctrine of ‘impassibility’ is *not* that God is non-relational, unresponsive, or doesn’t bear our pain. After all, God IS love. It certainly does *not* mean that God is beyond empathy! The Incarnation (especially the Cross) IS the empathy of God, the Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, who unites himself to the human condition in order to heal it.
The doctrine of ‘impassibility’ *is* that God lives and loves and responds from the truth of his being (infinite love) rather than being subject to external forces, reactivity, or volatility.
God’s ‘stasis’ is not ‘static’ as in the ‘unmoved mover’ of the philosopher Aristotle but as the ‘constancy’ of the faithful One who never turns away or withdraws divine mercy.
In other words, the Truth of God’s being (unfailing love) is the Way of God’s being.
To illustrate, the love of God is like a waterfall, ever-flowing, regardless of the orientation of those beneath it. While how we live has a dramatic impact on our life experience, nothing we do (for good or ill) dams up the waterfall from flowing.
The great saints of history emulate divine impassibility when they learn to live from the truth of their being (indwelling love that spilled out of their hearts) rather than being jerked around on the roller-coaster of our never-ending dramas.
This didn’t make them less caring. Indeed, it expanded their capacity because their orientation toward love was unhindered by obstacles, trials, or even persecution. How? They lived from the inside out, from their heart convictions rather than their reactive impulses, from knowing the truth of their belovedness rather than desperately groping for it ‘out there.’
As we are being transfigured into the image of Christ, we may also grow in the peace of an impassible nature, seeing where others are coming from without becoming codependent. Instead, like Christ, we unite with them in empathy and bear their burdens and their grief with them to the Cross, rather than drowning in our own need (and incapacity) to rescue or fix.
All that to say, ‘impassibility’ is a historic doctrine of the faith that has been misunderstood to make God seem uncaring or non-relational. Some of the fixes to this imaginary problem have created new errors, conceiving a god who cannot be relational without also being fickle, changing his mind about us, even turning toward or away from us to prove he is love. And, no doubt, a literalist reading of the Old Testament can get you there, but at what cost?
I’m grateful for the epistle of James to the Hebrew diaspora. Chapter 1 is heavily laced with the doctrine and practice of impassibility. In the face of intense trials, James begins by contrasting two ways of living: instability (passibility) of those swept around by circumstances versus the perseverance of those whose stability is found in God:
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. 5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. 7 That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. 8 Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
James sees how this instability makes us vulnerable to temptation, and how we might even be tempted to blame God when life-storms rock our boat:
12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.13 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Again, you see the contrast of instability and perseverance in the context of stressful circumstances. But we cannot generate this impassibility in ourselves, nor does it spontaneously appear. Impassible endurance is a quality that becomes stronger (matures) in the forge of trials as we come to trust in the consistent and constant love of our Father:
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 18 He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
The conviction that God is impassible and immutable is not an intrusion of Greek philosophy that compromised some imagined pristine Hebrew theology in the early church. While some Greeks saw this too, James (a Jew writing to Jews) says it best: “the Father of the heavenly lights…does not change like shifting shadows.” And another Jew, writing to Jews (in Hebrews 13:8) assures us, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Why “assures”? Because humanity is deeply insecure and suffers from collective separation anxiety. We NEED to hear, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
Literally, he says, “I will never, will not leave you, nor never, not forsake you.” In English, double negatives cancel each other out. In Greek, they double up and intensify. In this verse, the author stacks up five negatives to counter our deepest worries. These days, we might say it this way: “Look in my eyes. I’m. Not. Leaving. NOT. EVER. NO, NEVER. Full stop. No buts. Got it?”
When you know that the Father’s love is that secure, then you know that YOU are that secure. And “because the Lord is at my right hand, I will not be shaken!” (Act 2:25). Unshakeable faith in unchanging love. That’s the foundation for a godly and secure impassibility that leads us to a deep peace.
I share this because I have not arrived. I seem to catch a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye. And so this post is a reminder to me of the truth I want to embrace and experience. I suppose I’ve just prayed it again. Father, root me in your unchanging love.
P.S. “He chose to give us birth through/by the word/Word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
The Word of Truth is Jesus Christ, who created all things and through whom we have been born from above. I find it encouraging that those who have been born from above are the firstfruits (the initial harvest) that sprouts as a forecast and guarantee of the rebirth of all creation.