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The emotions of God

David Campbell
05 October 2023 20:47

The emotions of God

God has been described as a being with “a profound emotional life”, and the Scriptures – particularly the Old Testament – certainly bear that out. We ourselves are emotional creatures. We know what it is to have love, joy, peace in our hearts. We have felt anger, jealousy, grief, pity, disgust, hatred, compassion. We are familiar with a whole range of feelings. God is portrayed in the Bible as familiar with the same range of feelings:

Love: “This is my Son whom I love”. Joy: “As a bridegroom rejoices over her bride so will your God rejoice over you”. Peace: “the peace of God that transcends all understanding”. Anger: “The LORD’s anger burned against Moses”. Grief: “And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and he was grieved in his heart”. Pity: “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him”. Disgust: “For 40 years I was grieved with that generation” – literally, “disgusted”. Jealousy: “I, the LORD, am a jealous God”. Hatred: “You hate all who do wrong”. Compassion: “The LORD is gracious and full of compassion”.

In filling out the picture the following points are relevant:

  1. We do not know what God feels like when he feels anger, joy, disgust, delight etc. We have no grounds for saying that God’s emotions are exactly like ours. But there is resemblance. Likeness. We feel, because that is how God made us. And he in whose image we have been made feels too.
  2. All of God’s emotions are sinless emotions. His anger is holy anger; his jealousy, holy jealousy; his love, holy love. Nothing of the fallenness that taints our emotions remotely taints his. He is holy in all his ways, all his deeds, all his feelings.
  3. There are emotions to which God is necessarily a stranger. He has no anxieties. He has no neuroses. He is never subject to depression. Emotions that are ours because we have a body and because we are sinners can have no place in the divine heart. He never feels overwhelmed, he never loses control, he is never other than profoundly happy in himself and in the richness of Trinitarian life.
  4. The Bible shows no disposition to treat the emotions of God as figurative. The ascription of bodily parts to God is clearly an analogical tool to teach us about the power, vision, hearing, and speaking of a God who is pure spirit and present everywhere – including the hearts of believers. Bodily parts are incompatible with the spirituality of God. Not so emotions. They are illuminative of his spirituality. They show us God’s heart. There is no need therefore to employ a complex hermeneutic that makes emotions or emotional responses non-literal. The Bible’s insights into the heart of God are exceedingly plain (though fathomless like everything else that is said of God) and are intended to be so. Like the ascription of eyes and hands and mouth, they speak intelligibly to even a child.
  5. Since God is portrayed as responding to what happens in the world and clearly affected by what happens it is important to set all events within the framework of an over-arching and all-embracing sovereignty. God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass – including the sin that grieves him. No suffering is ever forced on God. He is never an involuntary victim – wishing to avoid something but unable.

That is what makes the whole picture so humbling. God has foreordained a set of circumstances that by their very nature would affect him. He is the holy God who cannot but be angry at sin; the compassionate God who cannot but be moved by the sufferings of his beloved people; the loving and jealous God who cannot but be grieved and provoked by the adulteries of his people. Things do affect him – but only because he has chosen to arrange them in such a way that they would.

It is because he is sovereign and always in control, working out all things in accordance with his will, that things external to him do not affect his blessedness. He is never frustrated, nervous about the outcome, fearful that Satan will get the better of him, or troubled lest his eternal goals should in any way fall short of full realization.

  1. None of this emotional activity in the heart of God in the least affects his changelessness. He is ever the same – most holy, infinitely wise, unalterably righteous, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal etc. Rather, it is precisely because he is unchanging that he always rejoices over the penitent, feels compassion for his afflicted people, is angry with the wicked, burns with jealousy at our idolatries, and loves with everlasting love. God’s emotional responses are simply to be grouped with his other responses. We find God reacting to events (like man’s wickedness) with words and with actions. So too with feelings.

Once more, it is his changelessness that guarantees the uninterruptedness of his blessedness. His triuneness will never lead to internal division, he will never age, his eye will never grow dim, his arm will never grow weak. None of the emotions inseparable from the ageing and weakening of humans have any place in his experience.

  1. Nor does God’s eternalness rule out his emotional activity. The Bible depicts God as being from everlasting to everlasting. It speaks of him as acting before the creation of the world and continuing to act when human history as we know it is over. And it portrays him as immanent in time, present with us from moment to moment, ever in complete control, and responding in a way consistent with his character to all that is taking place under his supreme government. It is improper to allow philosophical theories of the relationship between eternity and time to distort this picture.
  2. As with everything else that is revealed about God, the depiction of his emotional life is intended to have a practical impact on our conduct. We are not to grieve the Spirit of God. We may enjoy his peace in our hearts. We are to be comforted by the thought of his compassion. We are to tremble at his wrath. We are to give thanks for his love. We are to eagerly look forward to the time when he will rejoice over us with singing.