A Shrink Thinks

God’s emotions

God’s emotions
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Alan Thomas
Alan Thomas Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.
27 September, 2023 8 min read

Soon after I was brought to know the Lord Jesus at medical school, I was surprised to read books telling me that God didn’t have emotions. And major Reformed confessions seemed to say the same thing. Both the 1689 and Westminster Confessions, for example, state: God is without passion (2.1). Theologians state: he is impassible. Yet when I read the Bible, it seemed clear God was telling us he does have a complex range of emotions. Perhaps there were subtleties in the semantics or grammar I was missing? No. I found there were not.

In Genesis 6:6 we read of God being grieved to his heart. The commentators point out the word here is used for a powerful, raging, painful emotion. It is used of the feelings felt by Dinah’s brothers in Genesis 34 after she had been raped; of David’s deep wretchedness after Absalom’s death (2 Samuel 18); of the emotional pain experienced by a wife abandoned by her husband (Isaiah 54:6). And God is said to experience such feelings elsewhere, in Psalm 78:40 and Isaiah 63:10.

Relatedly there are many passages teaching us about God’s wrath, his righteous anger at sin, which again show him to be able to experience such negative feelings. There is no escaping the fact God tells us he himself experiences the deepest, strongest, negative emotions humans can know.

But God also teaches us he experiences positive emotions too. He rejoices like a bridegroom over his bride (Isaiah 62:5), he delights in people when we fear him (Psalm 147:11), and is joyful when sinners repent (Luke 15:7). He tells us that God is love.

Love is not primarily a feeling, but to say someone loves without any associated emotions would be to make nonsense of the word. As our pastor said, if a man told his wife he loved her but she needed to be clear that this didn’t include any feelings for her at all, she would not be impressed!

Love includes the warm feeling of happy, quiet, stable devotion to the object of one’s love or it isn’t love at all. Such we see in the famous words of the Lord to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7: ‘The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”’

In these and many other texts God is said to be merciful, to be compassionate, to show love, to be angry and so on. And these are emotion-laden words aren’t they? When we hear that someone showed mercy, we don’t picture some flat, unfeeling transaction, do we? When we hear that someone was compassionate to another person, we don’t think of some kind of emotionless interaction in which help was given without any feelings, do we?

Mercy and compassion, like love, are words which include the ideas of the associated feelings. To evacuate such words of emotion is to wreak havoc on how we read and understand the Bible. We cannot simply assign novel meanings to words in the Bible because we are uncomfortable with their plain, regular meaning. 

Our personal God

So again and again the God of the Bible is shown to be a God who has a range of positive and negative emotions. But then, this is hardly surprising, is it? As a psychiatrist, I find the claim that God doesn’t have emotions especially unconvincing because it is central to the Bible’s revelation about God that he is personal. He is three persons eternally relating one to another. To be a person is to be a being who experiences emotions.

A weakness with my argument above about the language of emotion used for God in the Bible is that it may give the impression that emotions are things that are added and taken away again, like sticking a hat on a Lego figure and then removing it again. The ground state is supposedly one of no feelings, like the hatless figure. So God is normally free of feelings, but then becomes happy, and then he goes back to an emotionless state again.

But emotions are not like that. We have feelings all the time, they are integral to who we are as humans. They are constantly changing as we think, learn, act, and interact in the world, and especially as we engage with other people. To be a person is to be in relationships, and such relationships always generate feelings. So since God is personal and eternally in relationships within the Godhead then feelings must be integral to who he is. This inference is confirmed by the many statements about his emotions. 

Our impassible God

What then are we to make of the confessional statements and the claims that God is impassible? Such statements were made to guard us against thinking of God’s emotions as being exactly the same as ours. For he is the eternal and unchangeable God (Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6), and yet emotions (at least as we experience them) involve change.

We can say briefly that the confessional and similar statements should be understood as meaning that God is not unstable and erratic. He is not passionate in the sense of losing control and acting unpredictably like pagan gods did.

In his Systematic Theology Louis Berkhof wrote: ‘God does not change in his being, perfections, purposes and promises.’ So to say God is unchangeable does not mean there is no sense in which (from our human perspective, at least) God doesn’t change.

To try and make further progress, we need to reflect further on the fact God is personal as well as unchangeable. Too often God’s unchangeability seems to be thought of as God being rock-like. He is a rock, and therefore he is fixed and inflexible and so can’t have emotions, because these involve change.

But God is personal, and this should be central to how we try to understand how God can be both unchangeable and experience emotions.

Eternal and unchangeable

Yet he is God and not man, and so we need to be careful to avoid thinking of God’s emotions as exactly the same as ours. He is similar, because he created us in his image to be personal creatures who therefore reflect his personal attributes, including emotions. But he is utterly different from us as our exalted Creator who is eternal and unchangeable.

God doesn’t have emotions in the same way we do. One way to help explain this is to say God’s emotions are anthropomorphic. But this is the wrong way around, isn’t it? Anthropomorphic means God is like us. But he created us in his image, and so we are like him: we are theomorphic, and so are our emotions.

He is love, he is compassionate and merciful –  these original emotions are therefore in God, and our feelings of love and compassion and mercy are finite copies of his true emotions. Our theomorphic emotions reflect his true emotions. They are genuinely like his, but they are also different.

As we’ve seen, one of the ways in which God’s original perfect emotions are different from our copies is that he is unchangeable. Since his emotions are the attributes of a person, their unchangeability should be thought of in personal terms, too.

Let me illustrate. If a little girl draws a picture at school and brings it home and shows it to her mother, then her mother expresses pleasure. She happily praises her daughter. But if the following day the same girl draws another picture and comes home and shows it to her mother, then her mother might be distracted or tired, and not respond with the same feeling of pleasure, and just say ‘yes, yes, very good’ in a matter-of-fact way. She is changeable. Her responses and associated emotions are fickle.

But God is unchangeable. In personal terms, he is faithful and true. He is consistent and reliable. His is the unchangeable reliability of a person, not the inflexibility of a rock. Every time you resist sin and obey God, he is pleased and pleased in the same way. You come day after day with the same obedience and day after day he is just as pleased. He is not subject to distractions or fatigue like that mother. He is unchangeably the same. And so are his emotions. His unchangeability is that of a personal God, not a rock-like object.

Emotions inherently fluctuate

A point of confusion in this sensitive area is that our emotions change. Indeed, they are constantly changing as we interact with others, experience the world around us, and inwardly think about different matters.

Is this true also of God? A difficult question to answer. From our human perspective, he certainly appears to have such emotional change, doesn’t he? Last time we considered the Bible’s teaching about God being deeply pained or grieved, but also rejoicing. So his emotional state from our point of view in history has changed. But this doesn’t mean he has changed in himself.

Let us think this through by considering another attribute of God which is less controversial: God’s knowledge. God is omniscient, all-knowing. God knows everything, not only about creation but also about himself. His knowledge is completely comprehensive; there are no gaps.

But this doesn’t just mean that God’s knowledge is bigger than ours. And it doesn’t just mean that God’s knowledge is perfect – it has no mistakes, no errors. God’s knowledge is different from ours in its quality, because God never learns anything. His knowledge has always been the same, always larger and perfect and complete.

We learn. We study. We acquire knowledge. By our daily experiences, we increase in knowledge. But none of this is true of God’s knowledge. It is a different kind of knowledge. It has a different quality from ours, being eternally unchangeable. And so it is with his emotions. This is hard to understand, isn’t it? God is utterly different in these ways from us.

In Genesis 6 when God looks and sees the wickedness of mankind, he doesn’t learn something new, does he? And when he is deeply grieved in his heart by this experience, he is also not having a new emotion, is he? He hasn’t changed in his knowledge or his emotions. When we read the passage (at least for the first time), we learn something new and we (should) feel something of the angry grief of God.

These are new to us, new knowledge with an associated new emotion. But God already knew it, for he planned it in eternity. He therefore has a knowledge which is similar to ours (the grim fact about the spread of human wickedness over the planet), but different from ours. God’s emotion is not a response to something he didn’t know. Ours is. We learn and react to this new knowledge. But God doesn’t learn, he already knew it in eternity.

So in the same sort of way in which God already knew it in eternity, he already experienced it in eternity. When the event happened in time there was no change in God’s knowledge and no change in God’s emotion. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck illustrated this by stating: ‘an artist does not undergo a change when he gives expression to his conception by means of dissertation or song.’

Or think of a woman who is getting married. She looks forward to the wedding day and as she reflects on it she feels joy. On her wedding day she re-experiences this joy as she actually experiences the event itself. It is the same joy. She hasn’t changed. Of course, her ability to experience and enjoy the event ahead of time is limited, and it may all turn out differently.

But God has no such limitations, and what he plans and knows from eternity works out exactly as planned in time. And so his eternal emotions work out exactly the same, unchanged in time. This is hard to understand. Probably impossible. But even though we cannot grasp it fully, it is important to keep these two components in balance: God has emotions, but he does not change.

Alan Thomas
Professor and Consultant in Psychiatry. Elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.
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