Thomas Weinandy on the Suffering of God

In the course of arguing for the classical divine attribute of impassibility, Weinandy suggests there is a sense in which suffering can be attributed to God. I think it is helpful to keep this in mind, as one of the reasons the doctrine sometimes fails to persuade is the intuitive sense that such a view obviously contradicts biblical portrayals of God. However, if the classical doctrine is understood in its fullness, it does not simply reject depictions of God as suffering; it only notes that the sense in which God, as uncreated Creator, “suffers” must be sui generis.

Sorrow and grief are attributed to God not by way of predicating a passible emotional change within him, but rather by way of denoting that he is all-loving and good. Because he is perfectly loving and good, he finds sin and evil repugnant, and so he can be said to sorrow and grieve in the light of their presence. God does not grieve or sorrow because he himself experiences some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been affected, within his inner being, by some evil outside cause, but rather he grieves or sorrows only in the sense that he knows that human persons experience some injury or the loss of some good, and so embraces them in love. This sorrow and grief ascribed to God could contain the note of suffering only if we mean that, as all-loving, he is intensely concerned with the reality of sin and evil, and the suffering that ensues from them. To ascribe suffering to God is not to denote a positive passible emotional state as if such a state were distinct from a variety of other emotional states within God, but solely to specify the truth that God, as all-loving and good, is opposed to and finds abhorrent all that is not loving and good. To ascribe suffering to God does not then imply that God experiences inner emotional anguish or distress because he has experienced some injury or the loss of some good, nor that he has been adversely affected by some evil outside cause, but rather it accentuates the truth that God’s perfectly actualized goodness is wholly adverse to all that is contrary to his goodness, and that in his perfectly actualized love he embraces those who suffer because of sin and evil. ‘Suffering’ would then be attributed to God metaphorically since it has been purged of the passible and emotional connotations found within human suffering, but it would retain and might intensify the authentic truth that God, in his goodness, abhors evil and so repudiates it, and in his love, embraces the sufferer. The innocent who suffer injustice know then that God, in his goodness, is adverse to the injustice suffered, and experience God’s love as a love that is deeply concerned and consoling. As a way of expressing God’s repudiation of evil and as a way of accentuating his loving care for the sufferer God could then be said ‘to suffer in love,’ but God could not be said ‘to suffer in love’ in the sense that he himself experiences some form of inner anguish or distress due to some personal injury or the loss of some good. [Does God Suffer?, 169]

It’s worth considering, too, what it would mean if biblical depictions of God suffering were taken literally without any qualification. Weinandy explains:

Eternally God is immutably and impassibly adapted to every situation and circumstance, not because his love is indifferent and unresponsive, but because his love, with all its facets, is fully in act, and so he is supremely and utterly responsive to every situation and circumstance. God is unconditionally adaptable in his dynamic and passionate love because his love is immutably and impassibly in act. If God needed, sequentially in a potency/act manner, to adapt and re-adapt and re-adapt himself again to every personal situation in every momentary instance, he would be conceived as an infinite mega-computer … continuously and simultaneously processing trillions of conflicting bits of emotional data. He would then be seen to be perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig. [162-163]

And being perpetually entangled in an unending internal emotional whirligig is a far cry from biblical descriptions of God as the makarios theos: “—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see.”