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A long-standing and beloved tradition of church life is a potluck or fellowship meal. Food abounds, and everyone enjoys the bountiful feast. When you walk by the food and desserts with your plate, you choose certain items and pass others by. Why is that? Why do you choose some but not others? The truth is that each of the foods or desserts that you see before you is operating on you, exerting an influence on you, and affecting you. How so? You perceive each item as good or bad, and then you are drawn to the good and repulsed by the bad. When you move to take the good and move away from taking the bad, you have been changed, moved, and affected by those foods and your perception of them. This is the life of a passible creature.
To be passible means that you are capable of being acted on by an outside influence. You are capable of being the patient of an agent. The words patient and passible come from the same root, pati-, meaning “to suffer or undergo.” A patient is one who suffers or undergoes the action of an agent. So to be passible is to be able to be or capable of being the patient of an agent.
As you pass through the potluck line and put certain things on your plate while avoiding others, you are undergoing changes, motions, and movements toward what you perceive as good and away from what you perceive as bad. The foods are agents moving you, their patient, by their goodness or badness (as you perceive them).
These motions toward good and away from bad, these “undergoings,” are passions. We give these passions names such as love and hate, joy and sadness, confidence and fear, mercy and vengeance. As Paul said in Ephesians 2:3, “We all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.”
Passions are the carrying out of the desires of the body and soul of man. They are motions toward what we perceive as good or away from what we perceive as bad. Paul commands Christians in Colossians 3:2 to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Older translations said, “Set your affections [that is, passions] on things which are above,” meaning “Be drawn to the good as defined by God and be repulsed by the bad as defined by God, not as defined by fallen man and his sinful nature.”
The life of passible creatures, the experience of passions, is a constant shifting flow of movements and motions, ups and downs, changes brought about by all kinds of outward forces. A green light makes us happy one moment; then a red light changes our mood entirely. A point scored by our favorite sports team gives us great contentment and confidence; then a point scored by the opposing team provokes frustration and fear.
Now that we understand what it means to be passible, we can rejoice and worship our God who is impassible. Impassibility is a negation. So when we say that God is “without passions” or that God is impassible, we deny that the passions that we have described above are in God. God is never the patient of an agent. God is never moved by something that would provoke a change in Him. The creature does not exert a force on the Creator that changes Him and causes Him to move toward a perceived good or away from a perceived bad.
Rather, God is “blessed forever” (Rom. 1:25; 2 Cor. 11:31), and our righteousness or wickedness does not change God (Job 35:5–8). This is wonderful news, because it means that God’s love and mercy, for example, are not passions as they are in creatures but perfections. What we mean is that God is not moved to love or moved to mercy but rather loves and shows mercy from the infinite fullness of His own goodness. God is not moved to love; “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And because God’s love is not a passion, He can no more cease to be love than He can cease to be.
If God’s love were a passion like ours, it would change constantly based on our goodness and badness. Our changes would cause changes in God. In fact, all creation would be a constant cause of change in an omniscient and omnipresent God. But God relates to creation and loves His people with an everlasting love precisely because God loves us from His own infinite fullness and not based on perceived goodness in us. Indeed, “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Let the people of God proclaim, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1).
Similarly, God is not moved to mercy by something He perceives in us. Our mercy depends on feeling our heartstrings pulled toward someone or something. A great deal of charitable giving depends on moving people to mercy. While there may be corruption in such systems, we must confess to our shame that we disregard the genuine suffering of many. We do this because we must be moved to mercy. But God’s mercy is not a passion. God helps the helpless from the infinite fullness of His own goodness, not from sincere movement or emotional manipulation. Therefore, the helpless can always call on God, knowing that He is not merciful but mercy itself. God is not moved to mercy; He is mercy. Let us worship and adore our God and say, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:22–23).
Because impassibility is a negation, it is more easily understood in contrast to human passibility. Our passions are motions of the body and mind, changes brought about as we become the patients of agents of all kinds. But God’s love and mercy, and more, are not passions or motions, changes or states of being. Rather, they are God Himself, perfect, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, pouring out His goodness on His creatures. Praise God, for “the Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your saints shall bless you!” (Ps. 145:9–10).