“But someone objects, ‘If God suffers then He is unhappy, if He is unhappy He is imperfect, and if He is imperfect He isn’t God.’ But this is based on a misunderstanding. The law of happiness in this universe seems to be this: The happiest people in the world are the people who deliberately take on themselves sorrow and pain in behalf of others. Their hearts sing in the midst of the suffering-- sing with a strange, quiet joy. On the other hand the most miserable people of the world are the people who think of nothing and do nothing except for themselves. They are the center of misery-- automatically. A God who would sit in awful isolation, apart from the tragedy of pain and sin in the world, and contemplate HIs own perfection would be a miserable, unhappy God. But the God of the cross-- the God who deliberately takes on Himself man’s sin and sorrow at deep cost to Himself-- would be a God of infinite joy, the joy of saving others at cost to Himself-- the deepest joy this universe knows.”
--E. Stanley Jones, The Word Became Flesh (Tuesday, Week 16)
Reading this stirred a faint memory from my student days. (Was it Dr. Chun’s theology class?) We M.Div.-students could not understand what was so controversial about the claim that God suffers, that God is moved by human suffering and suffers with us. The professor countered with the concept of immutability, that God is unchanging, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow in order to teach us about the history of theological arguments.
As late twentieth-century Americans, we did not associate compassion with mutability, and for that reason saw no conflict between the belief that God is the same and the belief that the cross is evidence of God’s compassion. (Does this mark a difference between our cultural context and its attitude toward emotions and that of the theologians who thought of God as a stoic?)
If I remember correctly the classroom conversation then turned to the unchanging nature of the Bible. Interesting, that instead of trying to define for ourselves the meaning of Malachi 3:6, “I the LORD do not change,” we started debating biblical hermeneutics.
Wesley’s commentary on Malachi 3:6 defines God’s immutability as both an “unchangable hatred to sin” and God’s long-suffering patience with sinful humanity.
Since the Notes on the Old Testament are not part of the doctrinal standards of the UMC, I checked the standards to see if immutability gets a comment. The closest I’ve found thus far is the Jude 1:6 Note where the divine unchanging nature is taken to mean that God “invariably loveth righteousness, and hateth iniquity.”
Hate, long-suffering, love. Sounds like immutability and emotion go together for Wesley.
Is it emotionality that some find objectionable? Any suggestion that God has mood swings, is that what they find heretical? If so, what happens when we take changes of mood out of the picture? God suffers with us just like the divine has always suffered with us. God felt compassion yesterday and every day past. God feels compassion today. God will feel compassion tomorrow. There has never been a moment, not even for a second, when God stopped feeling this way about us and all of the Creation.
This implies that creating and suffering are concomitant. Intriguing, but I don’t feel like building on that idea right now.
Jones appears to have been confronted with a different kind of critic, one who could not relate unhappiness with perfection. The problem wasn’t with emotions in general, just the feeling of unhappiness. For the critic, suffering leads to unhappiness which is a sign of imperfection. For Jones, relieving another of a burden by personally taking it on makes one happy in the midst of the sacrifice. So in the case of the cross, suffering led to happiness.
Notice that this argument does not challenge the assumption that unhappiness is a sign of imperfection. Currently, this is not one of the burning theological conundrums debated here in Nebraska. Is “unhappiness as a sign of imperfection” under discussion where you live? I suspect that the history of theological arguments has moved on since Jones’ time. Maybe one day biblical hermeneutics will be a footnote in the history of theological debate that future students struggle to comprehend.