Christ and His Suffering: Impassibility?

On October 15 I began my discussion of the last chapter of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.

In that post I quoted Stott regarding human suffering: “The fact of suffering constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith….Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair.  Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love” [Stott, 303].

Since October 15, Stott has explored the idea of patient endurance, maturity through suffering, suffering service, the hope of glory and the suffering of God’s servant Job.* 

Now we come to the last and “most sublime” manner in which the suffering of Christ relates to human suffering.  God suffers right along with us.  Our pain is His.  We are totally connected to God in our suffering and He is totally connected to us.

I find it interesting that Stott begins the discussion of his “most sublime” connection with the theological idea of impassibility.  Stott has taught me so much as I have plowed through his book but here is a new term and a new discussion in his last chapter.  Impassibility means that some theologians do not relate human suffering to Divine suffering at all.  God is indifferent to human pain.  “We picture Him lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck chair, while the hungry millions starve to death.  We think of Him as an armchair spectator, almost gloating over the world’s suffering, and enjoying His own insulation from it” [320]. 

How could they think this?  What reasoning has led to this conclusion?  Stott says it goes back to ancient church fathers who wished to safeguard the truth that God is perfect, nothing can add to or subtract from Him.  He cannot be influenced from the outside or the inside, meaning that He is the Creator of this world and “is never ‘passive’ in the sense of having things happen to Him except with His consent; also He is constant, and free from gusts of feeling carrying Him this way and that.”**  In accordance with these ideas, their view is that God is “impassible” or incapable of suffering.  The very idea that God could suffer along with man somehow diminishes the Divine nature of God.

Stott admits that human suffering is not is short supply.  One merely needs to turn to the daily news and see that suffering rains down on believer and unbeliever alike, but He needs a couple of particular examples that catch attention.  He picks hunger and poverty on a global scale and the Nazi holocaust [the murder of six million Jews].

I have “seen” poverty in my lifetime but I have never experienced it firsthand.  My parents gave me a good home, nice clothing and plenty of good food to eat but I have driven through pockets of poverty in my community.  I have been in impoverished homes and I have seen large-scale poverty in Colombia South America.   I have seen the hillside slums of Bogota known as Ciudad Bolivar where 700,000 people live in the city’s highest density of poverty.  When I visited Bogota, my host would not drive in that part of the city, either from shame or fear of harm.

What I am saying is that I cannot relate to the concept of poverty but if I was impoverished, I would wonder why God allowed such conditions to exist.  Can God relate to poverty?  Stott tells the story of a poor man who climbs from the slums of Rio which are called favelas.  Like in Bogota, these slums are on the hillside overlooking Rio.  A difference is the ninety-eight foot tall statue of Christ the Redeemer with His arms stretched out ninety-two feet.  He is overlooking the Rio favelas.  The poor man climbs 2,310 feet up to the statue and speaks: “I have climbed up to you, Christ, from the filthy, confined quarters down there, to put before you, most respectfully, these considerations:  there are 900,000 of us down there in the slums of this splendid city….And you, Christ, …do you remain here at Corcovado surrounded by Divine glory?….Don’t stay away from us; live among us and give us new faith in you and in the Father.”***

What would Christ say in response to such a request?  Stott writes that Christ would say, “I did come down to live among you, and I live among you still” [324].

What about the Holocaust, the horrific extermination of six million Jews, God’s own people?  For many (Stott writes) after the Holocaust, they found it impossible to believe in God.  I can’t imagine the suffering of concentration camps: Stott uses words like bestiality.  I have seen the pictures of stacked, emaciated corpses of men, women and children.  I have watched “Schindler’s List” but there is mental distancing that occurs; I can’t really understand the situation because I was not there.  I don’t really want to understand because it was too horrible.  I know I could not bear it.  I can only imagine the fervent prayers that God’s Chosen People prayed from those camps and time after time those prayers seemed to remain unanswered.   Elie Wiesel was cited as an example of a Jew who entered a camp as a Jew and left the camp as a Christian.  He witnessed a young boy who was tortured by guards and then they hanged him for all to see.  Thousands of prisoners were ordered to march by the child; in death he had a beautiful and “refined” face.   Wiesel heard a fellow prisoner whisper “Where is God?  Where is He?”  After viewing the boy, that same prisoner changed his comment: “Here He is—He is hanging here on the gallows.”

Stott says that there is ample Biblical evidence that God suffers right along with His people.  As we are entering the Advent season, it is appropriate that we consider the complete and serious meaning of Emmanuel [God with us]. 

God’s sympathy is not limited to the suffering of His Covenant people.  He says when we give food to the hungry and thirsty, clothe the naked, tend to the sick and minster to the prisoners we are ministering to Him.

Stott cites theologian H. Wheeler Robinson who says the best way to confront the notion of impassibility is to ask “what meaning there can be in love which is not costly to the lover.”  Jurgen Moltmann writes “were God incapable of suffering…, then He would also be incapable of love,” whereas “the one who is capable of love is also capable of suffering which is involved in love.”  Deitrich Bonhoeffer [who died at the hands of the Nazis] writes that “only the Suffering God can help.”

Impassibility is a new concept for me, but I (like Stott) don’t feel it describes my God.

Let me close this post with Stott’s words about His God.  “ I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness.  That is God for me!  He laid aside His immunity to pain.  He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.  He suffered for us.  Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of His.****

*Discussion of all these ideas occur on St. John Studies October 20, October 29, November 5, November 12 and November 19.

**from William Temple, Christus Veritas.

***from Walbert Buhlmann, The Coming of the Third Church.

****underlining mine.

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