This writing was instigated by a discussion regarding the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility. I found myself at odds with my reformed brethren, who hold steadfastly to various previously affirmed doctrines, of which this is but one. Whereas they are zealous to affirm the various doctrines which comprise the foundations of their faith, I, on the other hand, am more inclined to simply argue in accordance with my own personal experience, and with what God has taught me about Himself over the years. A brush-stroke overview of the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility can be found here:
Following are my thoughts on the matter…
God's emotions are central to the mystery of God's very character. The doctrine of impassibility, insofar as it asserts that God experiences no emotion, is but an attempt by the mind of man to frame the divine attributes of God in a way that brings coherence to man's conception. It is an attempt to solve perhaps the greatest paradox of logic presented to us. For we know from direct scriptural inquiry that God is love. This being established, the question then becomes, "What is love?"
1 Corinthians 13:4-:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
So right out of the gate, we have a conundrum: Love is patient... So, is God patient? I think so. Does God wait?
And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him.
We know God is sovereign, and that His will shall be done, on His timetable, in accordance with His plan. Nonetheless, He waits. How can this be? It is a mystery.
And it repented Jehovah that he had made man upon the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.
Clearly God is not emotionless, as we see from the underlying meaning of that verse, no matter how we might try to lexically dissect it. I am not saying that God changes His course or His plan due to the actions of others. He is sovereign, almighty, omnipotent, omniscient. But not emotionless. This is a mystery.
KJV: And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.
Holman: So the LORD relented concerning the disaster He said He would bring on His people.
NASB: So the LORD changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people.
Obviously, the task of grappling with this and reconciling it with what we know to be true regarding God's immutability and unchanging character is left up to us. Clearly God has given us a paradox, a mystery for us to ponder and sort out. Also clearly, God is unchanging, no respecter of men, and has emotions.
The theologians, I believe, sometimes cross a line that God Himself has drawn.
KJV: When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:) Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.
Holman: When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the activity that is done on the earth (even though one’s eyes do not close in sleep day or night), I observed all the work of God and concluded that man is unable to discover the work that is done under the sun. Even though a man labors hard to explore it, he cannot find it; even if the wise man claims to know it, he is unable to discover it.
NCV: I tried to understand all that happens on earth. I saw how busy people are, working day and night and hardly ever sleeping. I also saw all that God has done. Nobody can understand what God does here on earth. No matter how hard people try to understand it, they cannot. Even if wise people say they understand, they cannot; no one can really understand it.
KJV: Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
HCSB: Do you not know? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never grows faint or weary; there is no limit to His understanding.
One thing we know about our understanding is that it has limits. In the final analysis, it is only pride which prevents us from resigning to the mysteries of God and admitting, "We cannot know whether God is or is not impassible, for we do not have conclusive knowledge adequate to make a determination."
One thing we do know, however, is this: that God is perfect, all-knowing, all-wise, full of grace, a man of war, Righteous Judge, Redeemer of mankind, and if He is not impassible—if He ever changes course due to our actions—then He somehow does so in keeping with His perfect character. It seems impossible to us, but then again, many of God's ways are ways of impossibility. Therefore, the idea that God might be moved shouldn't be any more surprising to us than are our actions surprising to Him. But of course, whereas we do not surprise God, He surprises us almost daily. I would dare to say that if God doesn't surprise you from time to time, then perhaps you're not learning anything about Him.
This, then, points to perhaps the greatest down-side of theological study: The more we learn, the less we are surprised. This wouldn't be a bad thing if our learning were to stay within its proper bounds. That is, if our learning of God is centered around, and derives from, our personal relationship with Him, then it comes by means of intimacy with God, and it is a very good thing. But if our learning begins to center mainly around objective study of the things others have said about God; if we let our knowledge of God morph into the shape of objective external analysis, neglecting our spiritual connection with Himself, then we will miss the opportunities to really, really learn who God is. We may know more about God than any other man, but there will be many who know Him better than we.
As I argue (in the friendliest sense of the word) with my fellow theologians, I often find myself thinking, "Obviously this person has studied more than I have on this, but I wonder if he knows God the way I know God…" I don't voice this musing, because I know how arrogant it sounds. I am nonetheless often reminded of how entirely possible it is to seek and acquire spiritual knowledge in the strength of our flesh, and how easy it is for any of us to fall into that trap.
I am reminded of The Lord's words to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:
I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. You also possess endurance and have tolerated many things because of My name and have not grown weary. But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first.
—Revelation 2:2-4 HCSB
Sometimes—not always—but sometimes when I'm speaking with an individual who is so able to distinguish right from wrong doctrine, good from bad theology, I find myself wondering, "Has he forgotten his first love?" This happens when I find myself tempted to jump on his bandwagon and join him in his zeal for that which is right.
At other times I am persuaded the other way. I've attended services at a church where it is clear that everybody there really loves The Lord, but they seem to have no concern for the validity of whatever wind of doctrine is blowing through the house. Whereas the scriptures instruct us to pray to The Father in the Spirit, these people (in my assessment) pray to the Spirit in the flesh. Though it grieves my heart to watch this, I observe that they do, in fact, love the Lord.
As I observe their willingness to hear a word of prophecy from anyone claiming to offer one, I wonder if I am not in the midst of the church at Thyatira, to whom Jesus says,
"But I have this against you: You tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and teaches and deceives My slaves to commit sexual immorality and to eat meat sacrificed to idols...
"I say to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who haven’t known the deep things of Satan — as they say — I do not put any other burden on you."
—Revelation 2:20, 24 HCSB
This thought comes to my mind because it is clear that, though their leaders might well be culpable, many of the people in this place simply don't realize what's actually going on. They just love the Lord, and want to be led by the Holy Spirit. They don't realize that the whole house has been infiltrated by demons.
Thus I come the conclusion: It is amazing, what God tolerates and puts up with—and in his own house, no less! On one end of the spectrum we have demons coming in, impersonating the Holy Spirit, offering God's people a wonderful "spiritual" experience (which is unwittingly enjoyed in the flesh!), and on the other hand (in another church), we have a rigid adherence to the outward appearance of godliness through subscription to sound doctrine, accomplished by living according to high moral standards and ardent study—all accomplished in the flesh!
Of course, however, within the ranks of both of these camps, God knows those who are His own. And there are many amongst them, in all denominations, who look eagerly forward to Christ's return. What we do know, apart from all our doctrine or lack thereof, is that these are the ones for whom He's coming, to take them to their home which He is preparing.