An Emotionless God?
February 15, 2018
By Mike Ivaska
"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." - Ephesians 4:29-32 NIV
One of the things I am learning as the parent of a three-year-old is that kids can really make you angry. And it's not always righteous indignation! Just this morning, as I was taking our daughter to the sitters' for the day, some of our little girl's sass came out in a way that really bothered me. And like the human being that I am, I became irritated with her. Mind you, it's not that I was displeased with behavior that may not serve her well in the long run. It's not that I was concerned about her character development. I was annoyed. And I acted like it. Eventually, however, I caught myself. I realized that my reaction to her behavior had damaged any chance, in this moment at least, of using her sassiness as a teaching moment. I just had to get over myself and move on. So I started a driving game instead of attempting to lecture a three-year-old. The rest of the drive was redeemed.
In a famous Christian description of God, the Westminster Confession of Faith describes God as (among other things) "without parts or passions." An updated version of the Confession reads, "without bodily parts or human emotions." Apart from the obvious fact that this description is an attempt to describe God apart from the incarnation of Jesus (where God could truly be described as having body parts and human emotions), this definition stands behind a long tradition of thought about God, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. And it's not entirely wrong. What the authors, and the long tradition behind them, were trying to say was that God is, in some important ways, not like us (and he's not like the ancient gods and goddesses of Greek myth, either). God is spirit. God is transcendent. God is not a victim of his emotions and physical urges the way we frail humans are. But does this mean that God does not have any emotions at all?
Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament will immediately realize that one thing about the God of the Bible is that he is emotional. God has strong feelings. God gets angry. God grieves. God loves. God is even, so to speak, romantic. Most Christian thought for the past two-thousand years has treated all of this language as "anthropomorphic" language, as language that uses human imagery to describe something not human (such as talking about your dog or a tree as though it has thoughts and feelings similar to your own). Jewish thought, on the other hand, has tended to take the emotional picture of God that we see in the Bible more literally. The Jewish God is a God of strong emotions. The Christian God has, sometimes, been portrayed as almost just a pure Idea. Obviously we Christians need to learn something from our Jewish friends.
But is everything about the idea of a God "without parts and passions" so totally wrong? Obviously, apart from the incarnation of Jesus Christ, any language the Bible uses about God having arms, hands, and wings(!) should probably be taken as poetic in nature. But what are we to make of the idea of a God "without passions"? Well, it helps to remember that the root word of "passion" is the Latin passio, "to suffer." The idea here, perhaps, is not that God has no feelings whatsoever. Nor even should it be argued that God doesn't suffer (since, as quoted above, the book of Ephesians tells us our sins can grieve the Holy Spirit). Maybe the idea here is that God is never the victim of his own emotions. God has control over his emotions. When God is angry, its not because he's lost control but because anger is the right emotion in this situation. When God mourns our sin and its consequences, it's not because God is emotionally helpless but because God desires life and wholeness for his creation. In some sense, God grieves because he chooses to.
When I think back on my own emotions with my daughter this morning, there was a wrong way to express them. There was a wrong way to be "passionate." That wrong way was to let my emotions decide for me how I was going to feel or react. When I finally caught myself and gained a clearer perspective on the situation, I was able to curb my feelings and choose behavior that (at first) did not match my emotions. My decisions led and my feelings followed, and my daughter and I were able to have a lot of fun as we drove to the sitters' house. In that I think I was able to reflect, very poorly and imperfectly and only for a moment perhaps, our perfect heavenly Father. This Father is deeply passionate, but he is never the victim of his own emotions. May we reflect our Father more and more every day, as we rely on his Spirit and choose to imitate his Son, to the glory of his name. Amen.