Does God suffer? The Comfort of Divine Beatitude
Last week, the new issue of Credo Magazine arrived: The Impassibility of God. The following is an excerpt from Paul Smalley’s featured article, Does God suffer? The Comfort of Divine Beatitude. Paul M. Smalley (ThM, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) is faculty teaching assistant to Joel Beeke at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the co-author of John Bunyan and the Grace of Fearing God, Prepared by Grace, for Grace: The Puritans on God’s Ordinary Way of Leading Sinners to Christ, and Reformed Systematic Theology, Volume 1: Revelation and God.
It has been said that for suffering people, “Only the suffering God will help.” Does God suffer? The answer “Yes!” has become the “new orthodoxy” in recent times. One theologian went so far as to say, “Were God incapable of suffering… then he would also be incapable of love.” However, for most of the history of Christianity, theologians of almost all varieties said, “No! God cannot suffer.” What does God’s Word say on this question?
Why is God so happy?
The Holy Scriptures teach that God is happy and has no sorrows. Paul preaches “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (1 Tim. 1:11). The word translated “blessed” (makarios) tells us that God possesses all that is necessary for true happiness or “beatitude.” This enriches our appreciation of the gospel. Fred Sanders writes, “For Paul to call God blessed in the context of the gospel is to point to the sheer gratuity of his self-giving: moved by neither need nor greed, lacking nothing and unimprovably happy, God gives graciously from his abundance.”
Why is God so happy? He is “the blessed [makarios] and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:15–16).
First, God is happy because he is sovereign. He is the sovereign “King” and supreme “Lord” whose will cannot be frustrated (Deut. 10:17; Dan. 4:35). He never fears the future, for no evil can come that he has not ordained for his good purposes (Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11).
Second, God is invulnerable. He “alone has immortality,” that is, “deathlessness” (athanasia). Angels and men live forever by God’s power, but he alone is “indestructible” by nature (Heb. 7:16). “Corruption” (phthora) brings sorrow into the world (Rom. 8:21–22), but God is incorruptible (aphthartos, 1 Tim. 1:17), not subject to decay or damage.
Third, God is glorious. He “dwells in unapproachable light,” such majesty that even the angels cannot gaze directly upon his holiness (Isa. 6:1–3). To him belongs an infinite wealth of power, glory, majesty, goodness, life, and strength. In fact, if anyone has any of those things, it is by his gift (Acts 17:24–25; Rom. 11:35–36; 1 Chron. 29:11–12). In his presence are “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Wilhelmus à Brakel said, “He has no need of anything. No one can add to or subtract anything from His being, neither can anyone increase or decrease His felicity.”
Does God’s happiness change?
One might still think his happiness changes based on whether people love him. However, the Scriptures say that God does not gain from our righteousness (Job 22:2–3). Our sin does not hurt God, nor does our righteousness give anything to him:
Look at the heavens, and see; and behold the clouds, which are higher than you. If you have sinned, what do you accomplish against him? And if your transgressions are multiplied, what do you do to him? If you are righteous, what do you give to him? Or what does he receive from your hand? (Job 35:5–7)
God does have pleasure in his people and their good works, but he is pleased with what he works in them by the grace of Christ (Heb. 13:20–21). In other words, God’s pleasure in us does not come from anything we add to him, but what he adds to us.
Therefore, God dwells in perfect happiness. He is “the fountain of living waters” (Jer. 2:13). Dwelling in his love, faithfulness, righteousness, and justice beyond measure, God is a feast of life and a river of joy (Ps. 36:5–9). Hugh Martin exclaimed,
The blessedness of God! It is a great deep, it is a dazzling bright abyss. We can look into it only as with shaded eyes…. The blessedness of God! It is the result of His possession of all perfections…. Inviolable repose [absolutely secure rest] and unhindered activity… In him is no dark, no gloom, no shadow.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Works, Volume 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009), 479.
 Ronald G. Goetz, “The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy,” The Christian Century 103, no. 13 (April 16, 1986): 385–89.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 40th anniversary ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015), 337.
 Fred Sanders, “The Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God,” Reformation21, January 2015, http://www.reformation21.org/articles/the-gospel-of-the-glory-of-the-blessed-god.php.
 Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1992), 1:90.
 Hugh Martin, “God’s Blessedness and His Statutes,” appendix in The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of Our Lord (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1870), 283–84.