Feelings and Faith: Studying the Character of God
- Tuesday, June 09, 2009
CHAPTER ONE: THE CHARACTER OF GOD
The child, the philosopher, and the religionist have all one question: “What is God like?” At the outset I must acknowledge that this question cannot be answered except to say that God is not like anything; that is, He is not exactly like anything or anybody. -- A. W. Tozer1
We begin our biblical-theological foundation with the starting point of all true theology—God. The theology that does not begin with God will end in error. God is the beginning, middle, and end of all things (Rom. 11:36). In the Bible God displays a variety of emotions. We could even say that emotions are part of his divine nature or person. Matthew Elliott straightforwardly asserts, “It is clear that the Old Testament presents Yahweh as an emotional God. . . . God’s emotions play a key role in many texts, as God feels with intensity.”2 This is an important yet neglected area of the doctrine of God. It is, as Pastor Greg Nichols says, “uncharted water.”
The unambiguous biblical portrayal of God is that he has absolute capacity to feel and has perfectly holy emotions. In the history of systematic theology, the mind and will of God have often been the focus. But the Bible speaks of God’s heart, his emotions and feelings. Some circles deny that God actually has emotions. This is called the doctrine of divine impassibility.3 However, the sheer weight of biblical evidence demands that we see God as a being who has real emotions and feels intensely. Nichols defines God’s emotional capacity:
God’s emotivity is His supreme capacity to act responsively and sensationally; to feel pure and principled affections of love and hate, joy and grief, pleasure and anger, and peace; in accord with His supreme, spiritual, and simple Being and impeccable virtue.4
Immediately we must qualify our statements on God’s emotions for the simple reason that we cannot experientially relate to this dimension of God because we are so different. The real danger is to impose our emotional experiences on God and thus be guilty of the indictment of Psalm 50:21, “You thought I was just like you” (HCSB). We must keep in mind that God’s emotional capacities are both invulnerable and perfect. His emotions are not dependent on anything outside of himself. Although he responds to and is moved by human events, he is never emotionally vulnerable, never surprised by an event or overcome with emotion. His feelings are not subject to sinfulness, since he is holy. His emotions are perfectly righteous in their essence and exhibition. Elliott again notes, “God’s emotions are always in line with His holiness and moral character. God’s emotions are always correct, righteous and moral because He is always correct, righteous and moral.”5
The legendary Princeton theologian Benjamin B. Warfield has captured the importance of recognizing God’s emotions: “A God without an emotional life would be a God without all that lends its highest dignity to personal spirit, whose very being is movement; and that is as much as to say no God at all.”6
Throughout the whole Bible, we see a God who has and expresses perfect emotions. We cannot cover all of them, but we will expound some of them and, hopefully, in the process see God more clearly in the light of his Word.
God Loves and Delights in His Son
The emotions God has for his Son are experienced by us in small, reflective ways when we have children of our own. There is that innate sense of joy we have as we look at or hold that little one. There is a real delight that wells up within us as we watch their achievements, whether those be in sports, school, music, or the arts. There is a pride that can fill our hearts when we see our children do the right thing, treat someone kindly, or make a sacrifice for the greater good. All of these emotions, and infinitely more, are in God as he explicitly and perfectly loves and delights in his own Son.
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