Centuries ago, Christian theologians wrestled with many doctrinal issues. One of them was whether God had feelings the way we do. We sorrow when our children suffer. We weep when they are hurt. It might seem obvious that the God of love would be similarly compassionate.
But there seemed to be a fly in that ointment. If God suffered as a result of our decisions and disappointments, then we would have power over Him. And, it seemed, He would be a pretty vulnerable and fragile God.
Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith, an influential statement of doctrine created by Presbyterians, declared that God is without body, parts, or passions. As one scholar of Christian history observed, “St. Anselm stated what for centuries to come would be axiomatic of God, namely that he is ‘not afflicted with any feeling of compassion for sorrow’” (Paulsen, 2006, p. 56).
So, for many centuries, God was portrayed as indifferent to our condition. He was seen as sitting in heaven quite untouched by our pains. His character was depicted as powerful, yet impassible—without passions. His tenderness was sacrificed to emphasize His strength.
The Problems with that Tradition
While we are glad to know that God is powerful, it is hard to believe that the God of love is indifferent to our struggles. As Charles Hartshorne observed:
Using the word “love”, [the theologians] emptied it of its most essential kernel, the element of sympathy, of the feeling of others’ feelings. It became merely beneficence, totally unmoved (to use their own word) by the sufferings or joys of the creatures. Who wants a friend who loves only in that sense? (p. 29)
Imagine the ordinary disciples of some centuries past. They may have been glad to know that God had great power. But it must have blocked faith and intimacy to see him as coolly indifferent to their struggles, hunger, poverty, and losses.
Let’s bring impassibility a little closer to home. Imagine a parent who felt absolutely nothing while observing a beloved child being hurt, assaulted, beat up and tortured. It is hard to believe that that is a parent who cares. It is hard to believe that God is that kind of parent. Many Christians may have found it difficult to worship and love such a remote, unavailable God. Had theologians paid too high a price to honor God’s power?
What the Restoration Revealed
God saved the Christian world from floating in a boat without a rudder, at the mercy of historical theologians. As part of the glorious Restoration, He delivered additional scripture that clarified His personality and role in our lives.
In a magnificent passage of scripture, Alma teaches us that Jesus bore not only our sins but even our smallest pains so that His compassion would be fully informed (Alma 7:11-12). He paid a terrible price so that we can never rightly say to Him that He does not understand how we feel. He does understand! He has been touched by personally experiencing our sufferings and frailties (See Hebrews 4:15). Because of His infinite compassion, we can “come boldly unto the throne of grace, [and] obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
The Restoration revealed God’s amazing tenderness. In one of the greatest revelations ever given to mankind, God sits with Enoch and observes the suffering of the wicked. Enoch is shocked to find God weeping: “And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity?” (Moses 7:29). In other words, “Why would you be pained by the deserved suffering of your wicked children?”
Here is the great surprise. God is more compassionate than any of us! To Enoch’s query, God replied: “But behold, their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:37). God is profoundly pained to see His children suffer—even deservedly.
When Enoch understood God’s compassion, it had a powerful effect on him: “And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41).
In their remarkable book The God Who Weeps, Terryl and Fiona Givens write: “In the vision of Enoch, we find ourselves drawn to a God who prevents all the pain He can, assumes all the suffering He can, and weeps over the misery He can neither prevent nor assume” (p. 25). God is a tender parent.
We may judge how close we are to God by the level of compassion we have for perishing souls (See TPJS, p. 241) The more we are like God, the more tender and loving we are.
What a blessing it is to know that God weeps with us in our suffering! He also rejoices in our triumphs. We have a God and Father who is intimately connected to our well-being.
A Mighty Change
In the modern era, most of the Christian world has found the doctrine of impassibility—the belief that our feelings and pains do not impact God—unacceptable and has abandoned the historical view of God as indifferent and lacking in compassion. In fact, Paulsen has said that, in this doctrine, the Christian world is in the midst of “a theological shift unparalleled in its history” (2006, p. 57).
The Latter-day Saints have never subscribed to the doctrine of impassibility. We have always believed in a God who is a tender Father. The Prophet Joseph taught that “the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard” (TPJS, p. 218).
The Givenses observe: “God does set His heart upon us. And is so doing, God chooses to love us. And if love means responsibility, sacrifice, vulnerability, then God’s decision to love us is the most stupendously sublime moment in the history of time. He chooses to love even at, necessarily at, the price of vulnerability” (p. 24, emphasis in original).
The Restoration testifies that God is supremely powerful AND personally tender at the same time. God’s profound love for us is some of the greatest news of the Restoration!
Givens, T., & Givens, F. (2012). The God who weeps. Ensign Peak.
Hartshorne, C. (1984). Omnipotence and other theological mistakes. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Paulsen, D. L. (2006). Are Christians Mormon? BYU Studies, 45(1), 35-128.