A Biblical Picture of God: A Passionate Deity
“I have been hurt by their adulterous hearts which turned away from Me, and by their eyes which played the harlot after idols.” – Yahweh (Ezek 6:9)
“This [Thomistic] concept of God, I believe, does have serious problems and requires modification. My own study has indicated those points where alterations could be made. Pure actuality, impassibility, and simplicity could be eliminated, …” Ronald H. Nash, The Concept of God: An Exploration of Contemporary Difficulties with the Attributes of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983), 114. “In light of the nuanced understanding of divine immutability, it is necessary to reject divine impassibility. The king who cares experiences real emotions; he sympathizes with our pains and can rejoice over our joys.” John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001), 277.
J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1993), 29.
For example, there are no passages that say, “God’s heart is not moved,” or “For I am the Lord, and nothing can harm me or excite my heart to pain,” or any such passages that would force us to question whether God experiences true emotions in the way an affirmation that God is a spirit forces us to conclude that God does not have body parts.
This analogy between the way we think of God’s thoughts and the way we think of his emotions came to me when I realized that just as one’s search for truth is an attempt to attain God’s thoughts (or think God’s thoughts after him), so our desire should be to feel the way God feels about everything we perceive. “So, we learn to pursue God’s pursuits after him, to act God’s acts, feel God’s feelings, love God’s loves, hate God’s hates, desire God’s desires. … No, we will never be all-knowing, or all-powerful, or all-present. But yes, we will be wise and loving, true and joyous. We will weep with those who weep.” David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing Company, 2003), 10.
Just as human wrath burns from “within” the human heart (Est 1:12, cf. Ex 32:19, Jd 9:30, 14:19, 1 Sam 20:30, 2 Sam 12:5, Job 32:3), so God’s “anger burned” against Israel and those who sinned (Num 32:10, 13). Just as humans are said to have fierce wrath (Gen 49:7), the same language is used to describe God’s wrath (Dt 29:28; 1 Sam 28:18; 2 Kgs 23:26). Even rage is found in God (Ezek 5:15). Human jealousy so closely corresponds with God’s, it is said to be the same as God’s jealousy (Num 25:11). His rejoicing over his people is compared to a bridegroom rejoicing over the bride (Is 62:5, cf. Zeph 3:17). This compassion is surely to be thought of as an emotion, for his compassion is described as being “just as” the humanly compassion of a father for his son (Ps 103:13, cf. Jonah 4:10-11) and they are described as the stirrings of his heart (Is 63:15). Matthew Elliot appropriately affirms, “God’s love is like a parent’s love for their child,” and asks: “Is there any stronger emotion?” Matthew A. Elliot, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Academic & Professional, 2006), 106.
For a discussion on how God’s sovereignty is the foundation of his unshakable happiness, see “The Happiness of God” in John Piper’s Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Publishers, 2003), 31-50.
“Set in the context of eschatological salvation, the NT macarisms have great emotional force. Often there is a contrast with false happiness.” F. Hauck, “makarios” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged Version, eds. Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003 Reprint), 549. Although makarios can have a broader meaning than just “happiness,” and may convey something more like “favored,” the emotive term “happy” is still inherent in the meaning, and thus translating makarios as “happy” is a good way to convey the cash value of the idea of “favor.” The concept of being favored or fortunate fundamentally depends on the concept of being happy. Who would want to be blessed if it amounted to pure misery? Being blessed only has its ultimate attraction in the happiness that necessarily coexists with it. Language of favor and blessing plays to our God-given desires for happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.
Although I will argue later in this post series that there is no legitimate reason to deny that love (or any other emotional term in the Bible) is an emotion, for a detailed examination of the various words translated “love” and the common anti-emotion bias which seeks to suppress the emotive content these words, see Elliot, Faithful Feelings, 135-164.
Emotions, Starting with God’s
Exploring Some Stumbling Blocks
It is often said that Christianity is not about emotions. Even if one is willing to admit that emotions should not be altogether ignored (for such advice would seem impossible to human nature), we are warned by pastors and Christian teachers that they are not to become our main concern. We are told: “We must avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” “When we describe someone as ‘an emotional type,’ we do not intend to give a compliment.” It would seem that our emotions lead us into all sorts of trouble, and in lieu of such trouble it might seem like the best plan of action is to suppress them altogether and seek rather to be guided by our reason, or some other virtuous aspect of our nature. After all, does not the Bible itself teach that being “enslaved by all kinds of passions” is characteristic of the pagan lifestyle at odds with the new creation (Tit 3:3)?
These problems are the most immediate because they relate to God himself.
A.A. Hodge quoted by Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications, 2005), 26. Italics are added by Culver.
Perhaps the popularity of the writings of Anselm is just as much to blame for the popularity of this pesky doctrine as the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Anselm wrote:
But how are You at once both merciful and impassible? For if You are impassible You do not have any compassion; and if You have no compassion Your heart is not sorrowful from compassion with the sorrowful, which is what being merciful is. But if You are not merciful whence comes so much consolation for the sorrowful? How, then, are You merciful and not merciful, O Lord, unless it be that You are merciful in relation to us and not in relation to Yourself? In fact, You are [merciful] according to our way of looking at things and not according to Your way. For when You look upon us in our misery it is we who feel the effect of Your mercy, but You do not experience the feeling [emphasis mine]. Therefore You are both merciful because You save the sorrowful and pardon sinners against You; and You are not merciful because You do not experience any feeling of compassion for misery.
Anselm of Canterbury, Anselm of Canterbury: The Major Works, ed. Brian Davies and G. R. Evans (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 91.