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Does God Really Feel?

Does God Have Emotions?

Yes, God does have emotions.

Unpacking that truth, however, can be tricky. The discussion touches on an important point of theology: God’s impassibility. If you are familiar with that doctrine, you know the theology can get technical and hard to follow pretty quickly. And, complicating matters, theologians don’t all agree. For those of you new to the subject, impassibility is the doctrine that God is not able to suffer or be changed by involuntary passions.

The basic concern here is an important one: the Bible is clear that God is not dependent on his creation in any way (i.e., he is truly transcendent), and therefore he cannot be at its mercy, involuntarily affected by it, reeling in reaction to what he has made, and thus on some level controlled by it. In other words, what he has created cannot afflict him with suffering or make him feel anything.

Untangling Emotions

J. Alasdair Groves, Winston T. Smith

This book sets forth a holistic view of emotions rooted in the Bible, offering a practical approach to engaging with both positive and negative emotions in a God-honoring way.

Right off the bat you might think that it actually sounds like God doesn’t have emotions. If God is unaffected by his creation, then—well—he can’t feel anything about it good or bad. But that isn’t what the doctrine of impassibility is getting at. The issue isn’t really whether or not God has emotions but what they are like. Does God experience emotions the way we do? Some theologians argue that he does and that this is basic to his ability to empathize with us. Other theologians argue that he does not experience emotions as we do at all. If he did, his emotions would make him as willy-nilly as we are, and we could no longer consider him reliably stable (i.e., immutable).

Does It Really Matter?

This can sound a bit abstract and philosophical already, and you might be wondering, does impassibility really matter? It does. It really matters both that God has emotions and that they are different from ours in important ways.

God Really Understands and Cares for Us

For most of us it matters a great deal that God has emotions for very personal reasons. At stake is whether or not God really understands and cares about our experiences, especially our suffering. To say that God is impassible seems to suggest that perhaps he doesn’t. Since he can’t suffer, how could he possibly understand? And if he doesn’t understand, how could he care? We want to know that God relates to us emotionally without having the problems that our emotions create for us.

So let us be clear: God does understand, and he does care.

Hopefully we’ve made it clear all along that Jesus provides the clearest understanding of both our emotions and God’s. In particular, Jesus’s role as High Priest demonstrates God’s commitment to relating with us emotionally. Hebrews 4 says:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet was without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb. 4:15–16)

God’s empathy is rooted in Christ’s work. Jesus is our foundation for understanding how God relates to us emotionally.

God cared enough about understanding us that God the Son stepped into our shoes by taking on a human nature. Jesus’s flesh and bone are proof that God has established a deep connection to our emotional experience and he wants us to know about it. In fact, he demonstrates his solidarity with us, in particular, through Jesus’s suffering. Jesus’s trials and temptations validate the bond he has with us as our Priest, the One who can truly represent us to God in our misery. Jesus really suffered as a flesh-and-blood human being. He really gets it, so when he tells us that he cares, we can know that he means it. And because he really gets it and experienced suffering without sin, God the Son can faithfully communicate that experience to his Father.

God’s Emotions Are Different

But impassibility matters for other reasons as well. Some important attributes of God are at stake. In particular, whatever similarity exists between God’s emotions and ours ought not undermine God’s unchanging character (immutability), which undergirds his faithfulness and ability to save us.

So in what sense does God have emotions? Traditionally theologians have made a distinction between passions and affections. Historically passions described the more physical aspect of emotions, which, as we explained earlier, means that to some extent our bodies are always shaping our emotions. We don’t want to say that about God, though, because God doesn’t have a body, and God doesn’t get cranky when his blood sugar drops. The church fathers used the term passions to describe what God doesn’t have in order to defend against heresies which taught that the Father suffered on the cross1 or that God compromised his divine nature2 in order to accomplish salvation. In this sense, we ought to deny that God has passions. He is impassible, meaning that the creation or his creatures cannot push him around emotionally.

God’s impassibility is actually the grounding hope of our ability to know and trust his emotions.

At the same time, this does not mean that God lacks affections, which we today might call “feelings.” Traditionally, the word affections has described an emotion rooted in a moral value. Pastor and theologian Kevin DeYoung explains:

If we are equating emotions with the old sense of passions, then God doesn’t have emotions. But if we are talking about affections, he does. God’s emotions are cognitive affections involving his construal of a situation. Most of what we call emotion in God is his evaluation of what is happening with his creation.3

DeYoung goes on to capture the core beauty of God’s impassibility by saying that God “is love to the maximum at every moment. He cannot change because he cannot possibly be any more loving, or any more just, or any more good. God cares for us, but it is not a care subject to spasms or fluctuations of intensity.”4 Thus, while it might appear at first that the doctrine of God’s impassibility will leave us with a cold, distant, and disconnected deity, instead the exact opposite is true: the glorious fact that God cannot and does not change means we can completely rely on his heart bursting with love, compassion, pity, tenderness, and anger at injustice; we can delight in his works, knowing he will always do them with these attributes without tiring. God’s impassibility is actually the grounding hope of our ability to know and trust his emotions.

Isaiah 49:15 says:

Can a woman forget her nursing child,
that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.

Rob Lister applies this passage to God’s emotional life:

When we argue that God is impassible in the sense of being insusceptible to involuntary emotional manipulation, we mean that he is impassible not because he is affectively weak, but rather because he is affectively strong and full. God is more passionate than we are about the things that matter most.5

In other words, God doesn’t have passions in that he is not jerked around by creation. God doesn’t have “good” days and “bad” days. The early fathers were not arguing that God is dispassionate but rather speaking in a philosophically credible way about how God is different from creatures. But these impassibility formulations should not compel us to say that God is in no way like us emotionally. We are passible and God is impassible. God is not like us in some important ways, and he is like us in important ways. God is energetically enthused and emotionally invested in creation by his own free and consistent choice, but God’s emotional life does not compromise his character or change his essence.

The Mystery of Faith

All Christian doctrine is at some point an expression of mystery. God is not just a different version of us; he is distinct from us as the Creator. Whether you’re talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, the incarnation, or the problem of evil, everything is going to have a mystery at its bedrock. The goal of this appendix is not to say everything that can be said, but merely to point out that in order for us to know God as God, we must admit that we are knowing someone who transcends our complete understanding. While we affirm that what can be said about God can be said truly and accurately in so far as God has revealed himself to us, we must draw the line of mystery where God stops speaking.6

A Simple and Certain Hope

Let’s return to the issue at stake for most readers: When you’re suffering, does God care? Of course God cares if you’re suffering. Not only does he care; he cares that you know he understands. Because Jesus is our High Priest, Jesus in his human nature understands suffering existentially and physically. Because of both Jesus’s purity and his human passion, God is uniquely qualified to empathize with you in Christ.

In order to keep a balanced view of God’s emotional life, always return to the Trinity as the picture of the divine emotional life. The Father sympathizes with you and sends Christ to take an active role in your life. The Son empathizes with you directly through his human nature. And the Holy Spirit empathizes imminently through his indwelling in you (Rom. 8:26).

Notes:

  1. Patripassianism is an error of modalism, the belief that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are simply three “modes” of one being, rather than distinct persons; and so God the Father actually suffered on the cross.
  2. Monophysitism is the heresy that Christ has only one nature instead of two, human and divine. Monophysitism would imply that Jesus suffered in his divine nature, making the divine contingent on the creation.
  3. Kevin DeYoung, “’Tis Mystery All, the Immortal Dies: Why the Gospel of Christ’s Suffering Is More Glorious because God Does Not Suffer” (edited transcript of a presentation at the T4G conference of 2010), 11, www.google.com/search?ei=1fl5W8jTNdGO5wL FiqLwBg&q=T4G-2010-KDY-v_2.pdf. DeYoung provides a more technical but very accessible discussion of impassibility.
  4. DeYoung, “’Tis Mystery All,” 9.
  5. Rob Lister, God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 215.
  6. Incomprehensibility is the doctrine that God cannot be known exhaustively (see, e.g., Deut. 29:29).

This article is adapted from Untangling Emotions by J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith.



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