Many in recent years have debated the ancient axiom that God, if he is truly God, must be impassible. That is, serene, calm, unperturbed by anything outside himself – including the suffering of his creatures and creation. After all, that’s what it means to be God, at least in the West. Perfection requires changelessness for change implies imperfection or lack of fulfillment. And God has no imperfections or lacks. Therefore he cannot change or be moved by anything. God is therefore impassible, or changeless. If he is, he is not God.
This view of God as changeless has, perhaps more than any other belief except maybe a deterministic view of election (and the two are related), gutted Christian faith of its vitality. A God who not only does not respond to his creatures need and distress, indeed, who cannot so respond, is not a God who can be loved. Or love. Prayer becomes simply another therapeutic technique for the one who prays. It does nothing to or for God. It is no accident that mainstream western views of God look more like Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover than the Bible’s God.
Many have contested this view in the last couple of decades. That God might in some way be open to change has struck many with the force of a revelation. A liberating revelation! Yet, had we but been more alert, such a view had been forcefully propounded in the first half of the last century by its greatest theologian, the Swiss reformed thinker Karl Barth.
In a magnificent passage in vol.2, part 1 of his Church Dogmatics, Barth writes the following.
“. . . the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible. He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power. But this does not mean that He is not capable of moving Himself. No, God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in His own free power, in His innermost being: moved and touched by Himself, i.e., open, ready, inclined . . . to compassion to another’s suffering and therefore to assistance, impelled to take the initiative to relieve this distress. It can only be a question of compassion, free sympathy, with another’s suffering. God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so. But it is, in fact, a question of sympathy with the suffering of another in the full scope of God’s own personal freedom. This is the essential point if we are really thinking of the God attested by Scripture and speaking only of Him. Everything that God is and does is determined and characterized by the fact that there is rooted in Him, that He Himself is, the original free powerful compassion, that from the outset He is open and ready and inclined to the need and distress and torment of another, that His compassionate words and deeds are not grounded in a subsequent change . . . but are rooted in His heart, in His very life and being as God. (370)
Had we but listened more carefully to Barth we might not have consigned subsequent generations to a view of God that can only alienate and disturb us, and leave us without that nurturing relation to the compassionate God made known to us in Jesus Christ, who alone can evoke and sustain the life of servanthood to which we are called and for which we were created!