Undying Love

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.

God’s affections are always in accord with his holy and gracious character. They are perfect, self-derived expressions of his faithful covenant love. While our emotional responses are often manipulated by others, or caused by circumstances that make us act “not like ourselves,” God is never less than true to himself. Thus, the fundamental difference between God’s affections and our own is rooted in the reality that God is God and we are not.

 

The cry of lament in Psalm 102 exposed a raw wound: “My days pass away like smoke and my bones burn like a furnace.” I had been diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, which had already burned away bone from inside my skull, an arm, and a hip. Thinking of my children (ages one and three), I found that the psalm expressed my most intimate, desperate prayer: “Do not take me away at the midpoint of my life, you whose years endure throughout all generations.”

Within a week of my diagnosis, I began a regimen of chemotherapy and steroids, five months of preparation for a stem-cell transplant. “Transplant” is a misnomer; the treatment is a lethal dose of chemotherapy followed by a rescue plan. After stem cells were withdrawn from my blood and frozen, I received high doses of a chemotherapy derived from mustard gas. Then the stem cells were infused back into my body, in the hope that they would start regenerating my immune system. The procedure requires a month in the hospital and three months in quarantine.

There were times I was grateful for God’s many gifts. Thanks be to God, my stem-cell transplant lowered my cancer levels, and my immune system eventually reactivated. Yet the good news had a surprising impact. My grieving worsened. Psalm 102 described me well: “I lie awake; I am like a lonely bird on the housetop.”

I lay on my bed in a cancer lodge for quarantined patients, crying aloud, when the thought came to mind: My life would never be the same. There will be “maintenance” chemo treatments for as long as my remission lasts, because the cancer is expected to return. When it comes back, I will need more-intensive treatment using different toxins (relapsed cancer is harder to treat). As I anticipated returning to normal life, I felt more alienated than ever. How was I to respond to ordinary questions like “How are you?” and “How have you been?” How was I to look with hope toward the future—for my family, for my vocation? I feared for my children. Would they lose their father midcourse in their childhood?

During my treatment, two friends with cancer reached the end of the line, moving from experimental chemotherapy to palliative care, to dying, to death. It all happened so quickly. I was in remission, but for what? To wait around for this to happen to me, just as it had happened to my friends? At certain moments, while other people’s lives were moving ahead at full speed, mine seemed to be spinning in the direction of my dying and dead friends. Rather than reentering into my previous, purposeful life, joyous at my recovery, I felt  “forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave” (Ps. 88:5).

The sharp leg pain and intense nausea from earlier stages of my treatment waned, and my immune system was slowly coming alive again. I received notes and calls from friends who rejoiced at the news of my progress. I rejoiced with them, but I was grieving inside. My news was good—why was I grieving? It didn’t seem fitting that I would mourn at this point in the process, just when it looked like I’d passed through the valley of death and returned to regular life. Sometimes suffering feels like a free fall rather than a swing down to the valley on a rope that will bring us back up to safety.

“During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb. 5:7). These words were a consolation to me. My own “fervent cries and tears” were not blazing new trails into grief; I was not a pioneer in the darkness. An existential fear at the prospect of death had gripped me, but there was also a Spirit-enabled sharing in the One who has plunged even deeper into the darkness.

When Christ on the cross laments with the Psalmist, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” his desolation means that when we pray this ourselves, we are not in a free fall, even when it feels that way. We can utter a cry of unspeakable anguish and yet maintain a profound hope, because, in Christ, God himself has taken on our human suffering, including our alienation and dread. As the Heidelberg Catechism testifies, Christ’s suffering and lament “assure me during attacks of deepest dread and temptation that Christ my Lord, by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, on the cross but also earlier, has delivered me from hellish anguish and torment.” In the words of Ambrose, “Even as His death made an end of death, and His stripes healed our scars, so also His sorrow took away our sorrow.”

As I look back, I can see I received comfort, support, and reassurance in Christ’s suffering, but not in the way suggested by trends in recent academic theology and popular Christian piety. We’ve all heard messages like these: Since God is relational and loving, God is “suffering with me.” Or, God is in such solidarity with sufferers that he simply identifies with us in our calamities. Or, Christ’s suffering expressed something called “divine suffering,” an essential part of God’s identity.

This way of thinking about God and suffering was not good news during my ordeal. In the midst of my daily shots, sharp headaches, and heavy fatigue, these reflections on God and suffering didn’t console me. They troubled me. They didn’t encourage hope that I was not in a free fall. If Christ’s suffering does not triumph over death’s claim to have the final say over life, then I might as well give up. If the suffering of Christ is not, finally, a revelation of the triune God’s faithful, impassible love, then the cross could no longer be my solace in the midst of my physical agony and existential despair.

As strange as it may sound, I found myself clinging to a different sense of God’s saving solidarity with us: the doctrine of divine impassibility. As I felt my life drained by the cancer, I took profound comfort in this doctrine that God’s power of life suffers no limits. As the Letter of James puts it: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” The doctrine of impassibility affirms God’s steady, indomitable love. He has the backbone to take on our terror and overcome it in Christ.

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.

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