Prayer and the Impassible God

Continuing with Steven D. Boyer’s and Christopher A. Hall’s The Mystery of God their chapter titled “Mystery and the Life of Prayer” is both refreshing and challenging. In asking the question “Why pray?” they outline two stumbling blocks that any thoughtful person might encounter during their experience of prayer. One a theological concern and the other a practical one.

On the theological front, they opine that many challenges in the life of prayer “stem from our distorted views of God” (p. 179), and then focus their sights on the impassibility of God. This attribute is philosophically rich and has immense implications on how we pray. From the work of Paul Gavrilyuk they note that “we moderns have unnecessarily confused ourselves on this matter by failing to distinguish ontological and psychological descriptions of God….Divine impassibility, as conceived by patristic writers, is not a psychological quality that refers to an absence of emotional response to human sufferings, petitions, and so on” (p. 188). Instead, impassibility is a way of “distinguishing God’s transcendent love from common, ordinary human love” (p. 188). Fraught with imperfections and swayed heavily by other emotions that make it unstable, human love is consistently subject to inconsistencies. Not so with God’s impassible love. It is steady, dependable, solid, and sure. Thus, “impassibility means not that God is inactive or uninterested, not that He surveys existence with Epicurean impassivity from the shelter of a metaphysical insulation, but that His will is determined from within instead of being swayed from without” (quoting G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought).  Since “divine impassibility guarantees the consistency of all God’s attitudes and actions toward humanity” (p. 189), then “God’s love is impassible, it is richer, deeper, broader, higher than all we could ever hope for from another human person. Indeed, God’s love is this unimaginable plentitude, not although it is impassible, but because it is impassible. God is always greater than our brightest, highest hopes: he is never less” (p. 191).

Consequently, our prayers are grounded in and supported by the sure and steady love of God, which is greater, better, and richer than we could ever imagine. God’s care for his children is immovable and that should give us tremendous confidence when we approach God with our petitions!

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