“I am the Lord, I change not” -- Malachi 3:6
“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” -- Hebrews 13:8
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” -- James 1:17
“Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes” -- Song of Songs 4:9
In what follows we shall engage in a meditation upon Divine Impassibility, Divine Love, and God’s relation to creation. We shall be seeking, in what follows, to reconcile these doctrines together by looking at the Trinity, the witness of scripture, and the testimony of the fathers of the church. As an introduction we shall define Impassibility as “the doctrine that God does not experience emotional change whatsoever; that God does not suffer”, we shall closely correlate this to Immutability which is defined as “the doctrine that God is unchanging in His essence; His very being is constant and without any process of ‘becoming’”. We shall contemplate the ways in which God is emotionally without change, and essentially invariable, yet fully capable to say to His creation “you have ravished my heart, my sister my spouse!”.
The God of Christian scripture and tradition, the Triune God, is the infinite and boundless ocean of communion between the persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son and Spirit share in an economy of love--of Divine gift, Divine reception, and Divine joy/ecstasy--and this very love is not an ephemeral or temporal interval of time in God, but is always fully and infinitely sufficient to itself. In other words, God has always possessed the fulness of all potential goodness, truth, beauty and love in His communion with the Son in the Holy Spirit. St. John’s statement “God is love” means that this very economy of radiant love, rooted in the Father’s gift of all He has, and is, to the Son in their Spirit, is not something that “happens” to or in God in a sequence or interval of time, but is constitutive of His very being. The infinite nature shared by the three persons means that the Gift has neither beginning or ending, the reception of the gift has neither beginning nor ending, and the joy of this exchange has neither beginning nor ending. The Father gives, the Son receives, the Spirit is the joy of that love.
Yet, we must also then see that this economy “dances” around in their infinite love--having received (past tense here only is used to indicate logical priority not chronology or passage of time) the Gift of the Father, the Son responds with Joy in the Spirit. This is, in itself, a gift of gratitude from the Son to the Father, an eternal act of ravishing love and adoration. The whole economy could be rewritten from this point to say “The Son gives, the Father receives, and the Spirit is the joy of their Love’. This formula is again subject to the Divine Dance of Wonder. For truly we can say it is the Spirit who is, at this point, giving the gift of the Father to the Son, and the Son to the Father. Here it could be said in a different formulation: The Spirit gives, the Son receives, the Father is the joy of love, or The Spirit gives, the Father receives, the Son is the joy of love. The Father is always the initiator of the Divine Economy of love (being that He ‘begets and the Son is begotten’ or ‘He breathes and the Spirit is breathed’), but this economy, being Infinite and Divine, is always in a perpetual state of fullness, abundance and overflowing--having always returned at precisely the same “time” as it was given, and this in infinite variation.
“There never was a time when the Son was not” was an ancient way, in the Church, of saying that there is no interval of time that passes in God’s own community of Love; the Son has always and eternally been the smiling face of joy the Father has poured His Spirit of pleasure upon. The gift of love is received, delighted in, and returned “before” it was ever given. This is what Met. John Zizoulas means when he says: “The substance of God, “God“, has no ontological content, no true being, apart from communion”. God is not a One who becomes a Trinity in the passage of time, He is a Tri-Unity eternally, fully and sufficiently--this is an utterly confounding mystery and wonder. God has no lack, no need of time, nor anything that ‘is’ to assist in His “becoming” who or what He is. He possesses in Himself the infinite abundance and fulfillment of all things. He is the One who says: “I AM that I AM”.
Scripture is always giving us glimpses of this Divine Communion opening up history and time to the abundant opulence of eternity. In the Theophany, the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism, we are opened up, in a moment of time, to the eternal reality of God: “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him. And lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17). God is this delight, this pleasure, this Word of affirmation and identity, this rest and repose… God IS love. Here we see the Divine Dance (perichoresis) of love which is God. Commenting on this revelation Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart says: “If this Theophany reveals God as perichoresis, it also shows Him to be the God whose life of reciprocal “giving away” and “containing“ is also a kind of “dancing“, and the God who is Dance, delighting in the Dance”. He is not simply a God who dances, He is the dance itself. This ‘dance’ is the one thing that God is; unchanging and without ‘variableness’.
But dancing is in itself an act of movement, variance, newness and spontaneity. God’s unchangingness is this kenotic outpouring of love from Father to Son and Spirit, but this faithful and unchanging gift is capable of an inexhaustible variety of manifestations and formulations; always bringing, not only us, but even Himself to marvel and wonder. God is surprised with Himself! Always being ravished by the inexhaustible variety of Divine beauty, communion, and family. As Fr. Dumitru Staniloae says “The Holy Trinity remains eternally unchangeable in it’s love, but it’s love is fullness of life and therefore is an inexhaustible potential for variation in it’s manifestation in action”. God’s immutability is not that of a statue, or of a dead idol--God is the one the psalmist longs for saying ‘my soul thirsts for the Living God’--He is unchanging in His abundance and life, possessing in His communion the fulness of all variation, diversity and love.
God has always and will always, with unchanging faithfulness, pour out His Spirit on the Son. “The flesh of Christ is the scene of an unending Pentecost”, as Olivier Clement says. Therefore, since all of creation is fully present in the Son, and “in Him all things consist’--God can be counted on with unchanging faithfulness to shower goodness down upon us like the Spirit descending upon Christ in His baptism. Not mechanical immutability, but personal faithfulness, and unchanging love, infinitely diverse in its potential manifestations, always already realized to God.
We can thus see that God calls out to mankind from His eternity, not as a God who needs His creatures to respond in order for Him to be who He is, but because God already possesses in His eternal love a perfect and unwavering knowledge of creation in His Mind. St Maximus the Confessor says, “God does not know things according to their nature, but He recognizes them as the realizations of His own will”, and Zizoulas follows by saying “[God’s] knowledge is nothing other than His love. If He ceases to love what exists, nothing will be. Being depends on love”. He does not call to us so that we might glorify Him--this would violate His eternity, for the Father has not His Son so that the Son may serve Him, but because ‘the Father loves the Son’--He calls us so that we may receive His gift, the gift that makes us whole, glorifies us, and adopts us into the Divine life. God does not appear to Abram saying “Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee” so that Abram will live out some pre-ordained plan of God that must be perfectly enacted out like a movie script, as might be the case in the theology of Calvin or others like him. Rather, God calls to Abram saying “I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed”. God does not need us to bless Him, God calls to Abram so that Abram might “be blessed”. And, in a later encounter Yahweh says to Abram “I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward”-- God is not in relationship with mankind to get a reward from us, but to be a reward to us.
[God] does not call to us so that we might glorify Him--this would violate His eternity, for the Father has not His Son so that the Son may serve Him, but because ‘the Father loves the Son’--He calls us so that we may receive His gift, the gift that makes us whole, glorifies us, and adopts us into the Divine life.
Herein lies the beauty of the doctrine of Divine “Apatheia” or “Impassibility”; God is not in need of the cosmos to be the God He is and thus He is free to love it on His own terms, free from ‘pathos’ or passion and even the very ‘temptation of evil’. He is without emotional change, or instability. He never feels the urge to coerce us or infringe upon our freedom in order to fulfill some abstract plan or justice; He is truly capable of loving something other than Himself. St Maximus says to us “You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their character”, he can say this because he has discerned in God a love that is not contingent or swayed by the character of man. He also says “If you are offended by anything, whether intended or unintended, you do not know the way of peace which through love brings the lovers of Divine knowledge to the knowledge of God”, this of course can only be true of us if it is true of God. God is thus not offended by anything; His infinite love having always already “superabounded”, to use St Paul’s word in Romans 5, over our sinfulness. Impassibility does not mean that God has no emotions, or variation, but that He is incapable of being caused to sin by our sinfulness. The Apostle says it best “If we are faithless, He remains faithful. If we deny Him, He cannot deny Himself”, thus God “loved us while we were sinners”; unoffended, and unmoved by our failure, He loves and can do no other.
This is not contingently true either, God did not create the world and then ‘find out’ He was that kind of God. God has always in His eternal essence been abundantly full of freedom, love, difference, spontaneity, and sovereignty. David Bentley Hart succinctly states this Mystery marvelously here, saying: “The absence of creation, the theater of the Trinity’s economy, would in no way alter how God is God; as Athanasius insists, with or without the world the Father has His Son. One might even say – as alarming as it may sound – that God does not even need us to be “our” God; all we are, all we can ever become, is already infinitely and fully present in the inexhaustible beauty, liveliness, and “virtue“ of the Logos, where — as the infinitely perfect reflection of the Divine essence that flows forth from the Father, fully enjoyed in the light of the Spirit – it is present already as responsiveness and communion; thus God indeed loved us when we were not, and that he then called us to be and to participate in the being he pours into us is an act of generosity holy fitting to, but in no way determinative of, his goodness. Indeed, one should even say that all that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the son of God was and is in the super eminent, timeless eternity of his act of being, and would have been and would be with or without a world.”
This clarifies scriptural language of “eternal punishment”, not as a punishment necessarily of a quantity of infinite duration but of the quality of God’s infinite eternity, of communion. Eternal torment and eternal life are not quantitative descriptors of an infinite duration of “time”, rather they are descriptors of the qualitative content of God’s own being. Human sinfulness, however, and refusal to repent, will be exposed and stripped naked before God’s all consuming fire of love. Judgement cannot be escaped. “God will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34), justice must be fulfilled. But justice requires the removal of evil, not simply it’s punishment or exile. Final judgement is not, because God is impassible, a change of moods for God. He will not transition from a merciful emotional state into a just one--God forbid the two should be opposed--rather God shall fill the “whole earth with His glory as the water covers the sea” or “God will be all in all”, and it is in this that all those who reject the gospel will be subject to eternal punishment. Literally, eternity (God’s triune sharing of selfless love) will be all there is, and those whose attachments are in this world, whose “self’ is all they love, and whose hearts are made bitter with hate will weep and gnash their teeth at God’s glorious beauty. Jesus says to us, “on that day… “depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness, for I never knew You” (Matthew 7:21-23), because God in His eternity does not know us according to our fallenness, His knowledge of us is of who He made us to be. His knowledge is impassible, and immutable, remaining unchanged even in our changing. If we arrive to that Day without our ‘wedding garment’ of righteousness, we will be consumed like chaff in the Fire of God. Hell, therefore, is not God’s absence, for there is no such place, but the relation of the fallen world and fallen people to God’s presence. “As long as there is a sinner in hell” says St Sophrony “Christ will be there with Him”. This is the terror of the sinner’s mind who is always asking “where can I flee from Your Presence” (Psalm 139)--since God does not change in essence or disposition--the answer is always found to be “even if i made my bed in Sheol, behold! You are there”.
We have thus demonstrated how God is unchanging and impassible. God does not “suffer”, He is not bogged down with passions. God suffers, in Christ’s life and death on a cross, alongside mankind, but as a manifestation of His own Image and Will, not from selfish passion or the desire to coerce. God grieves our sin, not because He is suffering but because we are, and love cannot tolerate to see the suffering of its beloved. In this infinite act of loving, God does not change. Even pouring out Himself to the point of death on the cross admits no change in the Triune Life of God--He has always poured Himself out, in this way, eternally in infinite bliss and humility. Thus, He is impassible, completely unmoved by our sinfulness, or tempted to be other than what He is. He never feels what Nietzsche called ‘the will to power’, the inner compulsion to dominate or seize control for one’s own selfish gain. Instead God accomplishes all He wills (Ephesians 1:11) through a boundless outpouring of selfless love, possessed in Himself from all eternity, drawing all things to Himself in Christ who ‘loved us and gave Himself for us’.
We shall now attempt, if time permits, to contemplate this glorious beauty of apatheia, or impassibility, in God, and how He is able to say to us “you have ravished my heart, my sister, my spouse; you ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes”.
Scripture declares to us that God is His Word, that this Divine Word created all things, and ‘in Him all things consist’. The incarnation of this Word (“the Word became flesh”) in Jesus of Nazareth is thus not only the perfect revelation of God, but of creation. Jesus, the Beloved Son, is the Truth (John 14:6) of all creation. A Truth that transcends time and history is revealed to us only here in this moment in time and history, this perfect life of love, suffering, death and resurrection. History is caught up in Christ’s life and transmuted into eternity. We are told by the Apostle Paul that God has therefore recapitulated, or summed up, in Him the whole of creation saying, God became man so that He might “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in Him”. Jesus of Nazareth is thus the Image to which all creation must look to see Eternity, to see God.
Looking at this Man is like looking in a mirror for the first time. Life in this fallen world, after all, has caused us to forget who we are. We assume, then, that to be human simply means to be enslaved to the passions, wrath, malice, lust, greed and sinfulness, separated from God. But “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might through Him become the righteousness of God, in Christ”--in other words God has united Himself to man, and in dying united Himself even to those who were dead, so by becoming what we are He has made a way that we might become what He is. The Father’s of the Church sing in great chorus to this glorification (theosis) that is gifted to us in Christ’s flesh: St Ephrem the Syrian says “[in the incarnation] Godhead sealed itself upon Manhood, that so with the Godhead’s stamp Manhood might be adorned”, and St Ireneaus of Lyons said “the Son of God became the Son of Man, so that the sons of men might become the sons of God”, and St Athanasius famously says “God became Man, so that man might become God”, and St. John Scotus Eriugena writes “the Father burns, the Son burns, and the Holy Spirit burns (for together they consume our sins and convert us, as a burnt offering, by the action of θέωσις or deification, into the Unity which is Theirs”. God then, in Christ’s flesh, opens mankind up the Eternal Life, inviting Him to participate in that Divine Dance of Love; being saved and caught ablaze by the Whole and Undivided Trinity. This reality descends to us in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and through a prayerfulness that stems from the faith that we already are, by Christ’s finished work, in God and God in us.
This is surely what Jesus means when He says that if we will believe in His name, or eat His flesh and blood, we will not perish but have “eternal life”-- that is to say trusting in God’s promise, receiving the Gift of God’s loving call, causes us to share in the Eternity of God-- being baptized into His life, love and glory, being assured that “the gifts and callings of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29). God doesn't give gifts and then change His mind, He is impassible, He is patient and kind.
St Macarius of Egypt revels in this patience “He is pitiful and long-suffering, waiting for our conversion; when we sin, he holds out his hand, in expectation of our repentance; and when we fall, he is not ashamed to take us back”. He is not ashamed because He is impassible, and incapable of a proud look towards sinners. No matter how slow our conversion into God’s life is, He patiently takes our hands and walks us from time into eternity. Staniloae says “[Our] gradual and slow movement in response to God is equivalent to time. And God is always ready to help us to grow towards the eternity of complete and immediate response to the love He offers us. As we journey towards eternity, God Himself lives with us in time, sharing our expectation on the way, through the operation of His energies and through His relationships with us. This is so because in offering His love He voluntarily accepts and lives limitation; we can see this in the whole history of salvation as it is gradually realized in time. God lives His eternity fully in His own Trinitarian relationships, and at the same time He lives that same eternity in coming out to meet us in time. This is kenosis, the descent of God into time and space, willingly accepted by Him for the sake of His creation and lived simultaneously with the eternity of His Trinitarian life”. “This is Life Eternal” says The Lord “that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3), in knowing and loving God by faith in Christ we are welcomed as guests and family into the Trinity’s own life, and are “partakers of the Divine Nature”.
And so, God has opened a door into His own inner-life and welcomed us to come in and feast upon the radiant effulgence of infinite and unchanging Divine Love.
Having been adopted into God’s life, we are being deified and glorified by God’s own Spirit. The eternal gifts discussed in the opening paragraphs, the Divine Dance, are now expanded out and shared with us. We become now not only recipients, but givers, and furthermore having been made “one spirit with Him” (1 Corinthians 6:17) so that we contribute to the Divine Joy. Our acts of praise and adoration, our delight in Divine Love, our “joy in the Lord” is caught up by the Spirit and made Divine by Him. The power to make God marvel. The power to move His heart; to ravish Him with love, is given to us as a gift. A gift that will never be taken away. We are invited by God to hear His invitation, His adoration of us, and to speak back. In this act of speaking back, of “treasuring His Word in our heart”, we ravish God’s heart. He says to us “you are beautiful my love”, and we blush in His presence. Our blushing, our glance in His direction, is caught up in Christ and deified by His Spirit-- it becomes a Divine blush, a Holy glance-- and in seeing it God outbursts “You have ravished my heart! My sister, My spouse!”. This action and reaction is not an interval of changing moods in God or an anthropomorphic misreading of the scriptures, rather it is an overflow of the infinite beauty, radiant splendor and shared gaze of love eternally and unchangingly found in God’s own self-sufficient life. This boundless delight is fully realized in God’s self. St. Diadochus of Photike says “Man transforms himself into what he is not (Divine) when his soul, by devoting its attention to true delight, unites itself to God”. This attention to true delight is faith, and when we trust this way in God’s revelation in Christ, we are “made righteous” by God--we are aligned perfectly with God’s eternal knowledge of us, not as fallen but as glorified in Him. “Abram believed God, and God counted it to Him as righteousness”, not of himself but “as a gift from God” (Ephesians 2:8), for “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23), and “the gift of God is without repentance” (Romans 11:29).
This unchanging and shadowless gift is given to us all and only awaits our awakening to it, our reception of it. In so doing we are brought to share in the freedom of God. As St Ambrose of Milan said “since captive breasts certainly could not receive him, the Lord first led captivity captive, that our affections being set free, He might pour forth the gift of divine grace”. The whole economy of salvation is nothing other than the economy of the Eternal Trinity humbling itself into our time for no other purpose than to give us gifts, or a Gift rather, the Gift of God’s own self.
To receive Him is to be embraced by our Beloved in a marriage utterly and ineffably glorious, healing and restoring the soul, raising it up into the dazzling heights of Divine romance. St Gertrude of Helfta tells of when “The Lord said” to a friend of Gertrude “go and tell my beloved [Gertrude] that she pleases me because she is beautiful within, because of the splendor of my purity and my immutable divinity shining in her soul with an incomparable luster. Again, she pleases me with the special charm of her virtues, because the joyous springtime of my deified humanity flourishes with incorruptible vigor in everything she does”. Her virtues are both hers, and His. The two have become one flesh in the holy union of the incarnation, a marriage now accomplished by faith and love. In another encounter Gertrude says “In an instant I knew what it was that I was being offered and what it was that I received, as it were, into the heart of my soul: a tender newborn babe. In him was hidden the supreme gift of perfection, truly the very best of gifts. And while I held him within my soul suddenly I saw myself entirely transformed into the color of the heavenly babe—If it is possible to describe as color that which cannot be compared with any visible form. Then I received in my soul intelligence the sweetest and most ineffable words: “God shall be all at all”. I rejoiced that I was not denied the welcome presents and delightful caresses of my Spouse. With insatiable avidity therefore, I drink in, like deep draughts from a cup of nectar, divinely inspired words such as these: “as I am the figure of the substance of the Father through my divine nature, in the same way you shall be the figure of my substance through my human nature, receiving in your deified soul the brightness of my divinity as the air receives the sun’s rays and, penetrated to the very marrow by this unifying light, you will become capable of an ever closer union with me”. Having received the best gift, the gift of Christ, she has become a gift offered up by Christ and His Spirit to the Father--”diffusing the fragrance of His knowledge in every place” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
In conclusion: God is impassible, but this impassibility is not the lifeless movement of a machine, but rather an infinite sharing of love, poured out, received and delighted in, in inexhaustible variation. We take the form of this variation by faith in Christ and are absorbed into the Trinity, by receiving His gift of grace with trusting hearts. As the prologue to John’s gospel says “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name” (John 1:12).
We are permeated by this eucharistic grace, baptized in it, and caught up into the Divine Life. Our glances of love, our prayers, our whispers of adoration are made Divine by the Spirit and given the power to ravish God’s heart. “Prayer alone” says Tertullian “is that which vanquishes God”, and it is that which I find marvelous. God is ravished, and impassible. Amen.
“ I am overwhelmed at the majesty of the sacrifice…
At the immeasurable love that is revealed in it,
At the death that deified us,
At the power of God,
At the miracle! Oh Lord Jesus Christ!
You are here, whole and entire!
We see you,
we touch you,
we feel you’re here!”
-- Father John of Kronstadt
“God loved us before he made us;
and his love has never diminished
and never shall.”
-- St. Julian of Norwich