God’s Emotional Life

My father was a man of his times. He lived in an age when dads were not expected to be “engaged” with their children. In the 1950s, fathers weren’t in the delivery room coaching their wives as their children were being born. Not those fathers. They were all in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes. Parenting in that era was far more detached than it is today.

Like most children, I was happy to see my father when he returned home from work. But I knew he expected to be left alone. He sat in his favorite chair and read the Detroit News before dinner. After dinner, he returned to his chair and slept through George Pierrot Presents, as the show’s white-haired and gravel-voiced host interacted with his guests who showed 16 mm films of their various travels. When we tried to change the channel to some more child-friendly program, he awoke immediately. “I was watching that,” he said.

God & Feeling

I mention my father because it is his image that first comes to mind whenever I hear the word impassible used in connection with God. Impassibility is the word theologians sometimes use when they speak of God’s emotional nature. Actually, in theology, the term’s meaning is narrower. Theologian J. I. Packer explains that the theological doctrine of divine impassibility does not have anything to do with God’s emotional detachment but with God’s relationship to suffering. To say that God is impassible means that God’s capacity to enter into the suffering of His creatures is voluntary. As Packer so vividly puts it, “he is never his creatures’ hapless victim.”

That God does have feelings is the inevitable conclusion for anyone who takes divine self-revelation seriously. The Bible often speaks of God’s emotions. It does so in such human terms that we are sometimes disturbed by the thought. This is especially true of the three primary emotions which the Bible seems to mention in connection with God: love, anger, and jealousy. The problem is not that we can’t relate to such references but the opposite. We are all too familiar with these kinds of feelings and believe that God should rise above them.

Well, perhaps not love. We like the biblical thought that “God is love.” It is the other negative emotions that make us uncomfortable. We can accept that God might feel a measure of irritation at times, as any superior being might with an inferior. But the notion of wrath seems too uncontrolled, especially when it is attended by flames, plagues, stinging serpents, and the earth opening up to swallow the unfortunate objects of God’s wrath. We comfort ourselves with the thought that they probably deserved it. But deep inside, there is a lurking uncertainty about the whole thing. It all feels just a little too out of control. We feel just as awkward about those passages which describe God as having the kind of emotions we usually associate with vulnerability. How is it possible for God who is eternally blessed to experience sorrow or jealousy?

What are We to Make of God’s Grief?

When I was young, I did something that made my mother cry. To be honest, I don’t remember what it was. I only recall the dismay I felt that I had hurt her so badly. It was a kind of horror to realize that this was even a possibility. Of course, I knew that it was theoretically possible. But to see the reality and to know that something I had said or done had sparked it was too much to bear. I felt the same way as I watched my father spiral down into despair in the months after my mother died. Sometimes I sat with him late into the evening as he spoke to me of the grief and anger he felt at being left behind. I was a new believer at the time and thought I should have a remedy for his pain. But I could think of nothing to say to make him feel better. It shook me to discover how helpless he felt. I must confess to feeling a measure of anger at being placed in such a position. It was not the anger of bitterness but the anger of impotence. I had no remedy for his grief because I had no remedy for my own. I could only hold his hand and weep.

If we feel so disconcerted over something as commonplace as human grief, what then are we to make of God’s grief? And let us make no mistake about the fact that God does indeed experience sorrow. The sorrow of God is spoken of in both Testaments. Even if we had doubts about whether such a thing was possible, Jesus placed the answer beyond doubt when He shed tears over Jerusalem and wept at the tomb of Lazarus. “How do we tend to the sorrow of God?” Thomas Troeger asks. “How do we answer the sorrowing God who asks: ‘Is there no balm in Gilead’?”

My most truthful reply to Troeger’s question is that I have no answer. How often must the child tend to the father? How can the child even begin to do so, when the Father is God Himself? If God cannot manage His own grief, what can I possibly do for Him? But this instinctive response misunderstands Troeger’s question just as it so often misinterprets God’s emotional life. Troeger is not asking me to manage God’s grief. He is not calling me to fix it. He is urging me to take note of it and respond in kind.

The Problem of God’s Emotions

It is easier to accept the fact that the Bible speaks of God having an emotional dimension to His nature than it is for us to understand it. Using the emotional life of Christ as his Rosetta stone, theologian B. B. Warfield underscored the two primary temptations we face when it comes to the question of God and emotions in his essay entitled “The Emotional Life of Our Lord.” At the one extreme, there are those who tend to minimize Christ’s emotions. At the other, there are those who magnify them unduly. “The one tendency may run some risk of giving us a somewhat cold and remote Jesus, whom we can scarcely believe to be able to sympathize with us in all our infirmities,” Warfield writes. “The other may possibly be in danger of offering us a Jesus so crassly human as scarcely to command our highest reverence.” Yet those who attempt to follow the middle path between these two extremes may find that they stumble as well. Warfield warns, “Between the two, the figure of Jesus is liable to take on a certain vagueness of outline, and come to lack definiteness in our thought.” The result is a Christ that is neither godlike enough to inspire our devotion nor human enough to enable us to identify with Him.

Perhaps the key to understanding the emotional life of God is to move in the same direction that C. S. Lewis does when he attempts to imagine the nature of heaven. In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes a heaven where all the analogous delights of earth are infinitely heightened. As Lewis puts it, heaven is “a larger space” and even “a larger sort of space” that would give the untransformed visitor “a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger.” The features of its landscape are like those of earth but also substantially different. The flowers and the grass are diamond hard. The realities of heaven as Lewis imagines them are so substantial that all that is of earth becomes mere shadow and ghostly imitation by comparison. Likewise, Lewis imagines a hell which is so diminished by the heavenly that it is smaller than one pebble of the earthly world and smaller even than one atom of the “real” heavenly world. Might not a similar dynamic be true when it comes to the affective nature of God?

This would mean that, instead of viewing God’s emotions as mirrors of our own, we would see our emotions as signposts which point us toward something in God that is infinitely higher, purer, and more solid. In this view, the line that connects our emotional nature with God’s moves from the lesser to the greater. We are like God, but He is not like us. His love and His joy are immeasurable in their scope and substance. Our experience of love or joy are only a faint echo of His, but in them, we may sometimes catch the fragrance of the undiscovered country.

The Way God “Feels”

What is true of love and joy must also be true of God’s wrath and His grief. Not only are they untainted by sin or self-interest, but they are also likewise immeasurable in scope and substance. God’s anger is not like the petty wrath of the pagan gods. He is not selfish or petulant. If the flash of justified human anger in a parent, spouse, or employer is enough to make us shiver, we cannot begin to imagine what it will be like to cower under the withering gaze of Christ on the day of judgment. No wonder the biblical writers described God as a consuming fire and warned, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).

To “tend to the sorrow of God” is not to manage it. If God’s sorrow is like His joy, we cannot begin to comprehend it, let alone stanch it. We might just as well attempt to quiet Niagara by capturing its rushing waters in a thimble. We can only glimpse God’s sorrow from a great distance. But He fully comprehends ours. Scripture tells us that He voluntarily entered into them through Jesus Christ, “the man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3).

Finally, the biblical language of God’s emotions should be interpreted through the lens of the divine attribute of immutability. This attribute is simply articulated by the Psalmist when he compares God to the variableness of all that God has created: “They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded. But you remain the same, and your years will never end” (Psalm 102:27-28). The author of Hebrews makes a similar affirmation: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God does not have a variable emotional disposition like ours. He does not fly into a rage and then regret it. He does not get “bummed out.” He is not given to whims or to uncertainty. He “does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17). The emotive language which the Bible often uses when speaking of God describes the various ways in which God relates to us. The old lines from a children’s hymn which celebrates the incarnation of Christ are also in some measure true of God in general: “He feeleth for our sadness, and He shareth in our gladness.”

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available from Amazon.com. Order your copy today.