Crossing the Ocean of Suffering: A Medical Perspective on Divine Impassability

By Jonathan Kopel

This article discusses the implications of divine impassability within the medical profession in the context of relational/open theology.

The emotional life of God has always been a prominent theme in Scripture. Being made in God’s image, our emotional life reflects many aspects of our divine Creator. The Bible repeatedly speaks of a wide range of God’s emotion from anger to sadness, to profound joy and jubilation. Yet theologians have argued extensively as to whether God remains unchanged in an emotional state, or if God truly experiences pain or pleasure as we do. This doctrine, known as divine impassability, argues that God does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of other beings within creation. For if God is truly independent from creation, then the divine being remains unchanged. This theological debate unearths deep-seated questions of our faith, for example: How can God be perfect, complete, and full apart from creation? Would not this imply that God needs us in order to be God? As we consider the question of the passibility and impassibility of God, we consider (in part) what it means for God to be “God.” Many well-informed and intelligent people have tackled these questions and come to different conclusions.

However, such questions inevitably touch upon our personal relationships and journey with God. A journey that resembles a checkered path of deep joys and pains. As a physician-scientist in training, this discussion on divine impassability permeates my profession, which seeks to heal the sick and comfort the dying. There are few professions in which an individual reveals their whole being, physically and spiritually, to a complete stranger. As a young man, I have come to experience the full spectrum of life through my patients. From the joys of giving birth to a new child, fighting chronic illness, or dealing with the end of life. Despite their struggles, my patients have always been open and willing to share their experience, their hopes, their fears, and their appreciation for being a part of my training to become a physician and healer. It is a trust and gift that is both deeply moving and inspiring. Their journey is something we share together. As a ship sailing into the sea of the unknown, we tread towards a future of the unknown struggling against the ebbs and flows of disease and healing. Where it leads, we often do not know. But it is journey we share together, helping each other in ways we don’t often perceive. It is these interactions that often remind me that even Christ spent an enormous amount of energy healing the sick and dying throughout his ministry. His disciples would follow a similar model of discipleship after his death and resurrection through their ministry across the Roman Empire. Though his ministry was short, Jesus spent a majority of his time healing the sick and poor. On several occasions, Christ was deeply moved by the trust of humans in his ability to heal their loved ones. It is this same path that I tread as a physician-scientist in training.

In medicine, pain and suffering is something that we see throughout our training and career. As a Christian, it was a topic that was difficult to approach—for we all want to avoid pain as much as possible. We prescribe medications to avoid the sensation of pain. But spiritually and emotionally, we all wonder about the purpose of pain. As with Job, senseless pain is the agony that tears at the heart of the human spirit. And if our theology describes God as impassible, we can easily become overwhelmed by the pains of this world. That is because God becomes a callous observer of our pain, unmoved by our struggles. Assuming a trinitarian perspective of God’s nature, it is through the suffering of Christ and his journey on this earth that the Trinity gained a personal understanding of suffering. However, if God truly is passable and moved by our suffering, then God becomes a participant of our pain and struggles. God feels my pain as I feel it. And, more deeply, understands it. From a theological perspective, this itself changes the whole dynamic of life with God. For God shows himself to be courageous and willing to be vulnerable by experiencing life with us. God opens himself to our pains and joins us on our journey. We do not feel alone or abandoned by God. As the mystic Thomas Merton eloquently wrote:

Suffering, therefore, must make sense to us not as a vague universal necessity, but as something demanded by our own personal destiny. When I see my trials not as the collision of my life with a blind machine called fate, but as the sacramental gift of Christ’s love, given to me by God the Father along with my identity and my very name, then I can consecrate them and myself with them to God. For then I realize that my suffering is not my own. It is the Passion of Christ, stretching out its tendrils into my life in order to bear rich clusters of grapes, making my soul dizzy with the wine of Christ’s love, and pouring that wine as strong as fire upon the whole world.1

Following Merton, suffering is part of how God’s love and mercy for our fragile bodies and souls can truly shine. We are so tiny in this world. In all truth, it would be easy for us to get swallowed by the tides of this universe. Yet God holds us in his loving hands and guides us. As children of God, he takes the whole package of our lives with him. God takes our yolk and walks with us, hand in hand. When we are downtrodden and ready to give up, God carries us and heals our souls through the love he places in others as well as through the imperceptible union of our souls. God uses suffering and our struggles to draw our souls in the Divine’s loving embrace. For patients, knowing that God experiences their suffering can draw them closer to God. We see God’s love as strong enough to experience our pain to provide meaning to move forward and thrive despite our physical ailments. God doesn’t take a vacation; God pulls us and binds to us at the hip. It is a union that God bound himself through his death and suffering on the cross. As such, God has already faced the worst pains of this universe. And God did so, to be in full union and communion with our souls no matter the struggles we face in this world. Through this trinitarian lens, God is truly full of love brimming at the seams while experiencing our suffering with us.

Rather than portraying God as impassable, a God of love is more than willing to become vulnerable to participate and aid us in our pains. As a physician-scientist in training, this perspective helps me model my interactions as spiritual encounters with hurt souls. However, divine passibility can only help the sufferer if they choose to embrace that perspective; not all Christians do. This model of God as passable provides patients a comfort that reflects the deep love of God. A love that was so deep God died so that he may be fully in our heart, soul, and mind. Rather than a private affair, suffering becomes a participation between our soul and God. An experience that often deepens and grows our soul to model the love that God wishes to share with all of creation. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer eloquently summarized:

I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.2

Question: How does divine impassability affect our theology and perspective of healing and suffering?

Jonathan Kopel is an M.D. and a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

1 Merton T. No Man is an Island. Boston, Massachusetts: Mariner Books, 2002, 86.

2 Bonhoeffer D. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York, New York: Touchstone, 1971, 486.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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