“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more they were called, the more they went away from me. They sacrificed to the Baals and they burned incense to images. It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realise it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them … How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?” Hosea 11.1-4, 8.
Can God feel the pain of rejection? Is he really in a perpetual state of anguish because of his unrequited love for the human race? And, if so, why on earth wouldn’t he do something about it if he is all-powerful? These are the kind of questions that I think a lady who has just finished reading my book “Too Bad To Be True” must have been asking herself when she decided to write to me. After a number of very positive comments, she concludes: “Unfortunately, my final impression of God was of a figure desperate for appreciation, like a lover crying out for attention … Maybe I’m misreading what you’ve written as I know your concept of a God is of a Being who is almighty and powerful.”
The question whether God has feelings has always been a bone of contention among theologians. The Westminster Confession of Faith asserts that: “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute …”
Without passions. What does that mean? That he cannot really feel pain?
On the face of it, that is what the doctrine of divine impassibility is stating. It seems to argue that, for God to be God, he must be absolutely independent of any other being, and that that independence would be fatally compromised if he could be affected by the behaviour of the likes of you and me. If my refusal to love him were able to cause him real grief, then (so it is said) I would have breached “divine aseity” – the absolute independence of God.
That, however, is (I believe) to misunderstand the doctrine. God is impassible, yes – but that means only that he is not subject to the fits and starts of moods and passions. It does not mean that he is impassive – without emotion, unmoved, incapable of suffering. Dr J. I. Packer gets it right, I’m sure, when he describes the doctrine of impassibility as meaning …”not that God is impassive and unfeeling (a frequent misunderstanding), but that no created beings can inflict pain, suffering and distress on him at their own will [my italics]. In so far as God enters into suffering and grief (which Scripture’s many anthropopathisms, plus the fact of the cross, show that he does), it is by his own deliberate decision; he is never his creatures’ hapless victim.”
And that, I think, brings us to the (awesome) heart of things. God suffers the anguish of unrequited love because it is his sovereign will that his creatures should love him freely or not at all, and he has deliberately chosen to suffer the heart-break of any refusal on their part to do so.
If I am reading my correspondent’s sub-text correctly, she is suggesting that the image I hold up frequently in my book – that painted for us by Jesus in Luke 15 of God as a grief-stricken father who spends his days gazing down the road in the hope of seeing his wayward son returning to him – is a weak image. That it makes God seem a bit pathetic; like some woman who has let herself go and is still bursting into tears all the time over a husband who died a decade ago. “Why doesn’t he pull himself together and get a grip? Hasn’t he got a universe to run?” But God’s children are not dead, they are only lost; and the lost may yet be found. There is nothing pathetic about the McCanns as they continue to grieve and search for their daughter Madeleine who disappeared on the evening of Thursday, 3 May 2007.
And let’s remember too that anguish is not the only feeling that God has chosen to experience. He has also chosen to experience joy. The second image of God in the parable of the prodigal son is a joy-filled father throwing the biggest party in the land as he welcomes home his once-lost son. Just as joy and sorrow can mingle in the hearts of human beings like ourselves, so they mingle in the heart of God. He rejoices over the found at the same time as he grieves over the lost.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel?
He cannot and he will not. When he created us, it was so that we could join that circle of love that is the Trinity; but love is not love if it is coerced, nor is it worth a candle if there is no joy at it being freely given and no anguish at it being spurned. So, in an exercise of sovereign will, God not only gives us the freedom to reciprocate his love or to reject it, but also opens himself up to the full emotional impact of whichever choice each one of us might make.