Feelings and Faith: Studying the Character of God
- 2009 9 Jun
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.
In Isaiah 42:1, Yahweh says, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” In this first Servant Song from Isaiah,7 the Father identifies the Messiah as his servant and his chosen. He is the one who is in subjection to the will of the Father and the one who will fulfill the purpose of the Father. Then the Father says that his soul delights in this chosen servant. The Hebrew word (ratzah) denotes a sense of being pleased with, taking delight or pleasure in. It is truly hard to imagine how this inter-Trinitarian language could be stripped of emotion. The text compels us to see that the Father infinitely values his Son. The text reverberates with his feelings of pleasure in his Son, who humbled himself in the incarnation to manifest the love of his Father and fulfill his purpose.
At the beginning of our Lord’s earthly ministry and at the very end we have bookends of the Father’s unbounded delight in his Son. At Jesus’ baptism we read, “Behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matt. 3:17). In our Lord’s High Priestly Prayer we hear him say, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). John Piper has beautifully stated,
We may conclude that the pleasure of God in His Son is pleasure in Himself. Since the Son is the image of God, and indeed is God, therefore God’s delight in the Son is delight in Himself. The original, the primal, the deepest, the foundational joy of God is the joy He has in His own perfections as He sees them reflected in the glory of His Son. Paul speaks of “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). From all eternity God has beheld the panorama of His own perfections in the face of His Son. All that He is He sees reflected fully and perfectly in the countenance of His Son. And in this He rejoices with infinite joy.8
God Delights in Justice and Righteousness
After the trial and execution of one of the most ruthless dictators of the modern world, I told my family, “Justice was done and we ought to give thanks.” Why give thanks at something as gruesome as that? The reason is that Yahweh delights in justice and righteousness. He delights when his creatures demonstrate it. When a court hands down a just verdict, when a judge delivers a righteous sentence, when a man does a just act or a righteous deed, God is pleased. He loves justice because he is just. He loves righteousness because he is righteous. He has a passion for justice and righteousness. When his creatures reflect something of his character by exercising justice and righteousness, he delights in and loves such displays.
Psalmists and prophets echo this theme repeatedly. “He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (Ps. 33:5). “For I the Lord love justice; I hate robbery and wrong; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them” (Isa. 61:8). “But let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord” (Jer. 9:24). This both resonates with and scares us.
God Rejoices in His People If we are listening, we constantly hear notes about how worthy we are, how we really are “all that” and a whole lot more. The notes play repeatedly in Christian books, sermons, and music. Our Christian pop music overflows with unbiblical perspectives on how worthy we are. There is a shallow, sentimental, “It’s all about me” mentality. However, in our reaction to this unbiblical emphasis, wanting to underscore human depravity and wickedness, we may end up missing an important truth about how God feels about his people. God actually values and rejoices in his people, not because of who we are in ourselves, but because of what he has made us by his grace. In the words of Casting Crowns:
Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done.
Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.9
Listen to the language of love and passion welling up within God:
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your sons marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you. (Isa. 62:5)
The Lord your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;10
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph. 3:17)
“I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” (Jer. 32:39–41)
The language in these texts soars with emotion. When God wants to communicate how he feels about his people, he puts it in terms that are already emotionally percolating for us. The groom sees the bride; his heart leaps within, racing with excitement. He expresses his passionate delight in his people with words such as “rejoice over you with gladness.” He paints the picture of being quiet over us with his love, as a parent lovingly yet quietly looks at his child. God goes from quietness to loud, joyful singing. Imagine, God singing for joy over his people! Jeremiah uses “all my heart and all my soul.” The language throbs with emotional imagery, capturing God’s deep feelings for his people.
God Takes Pleasure in Himself, His Ways, His Grace, and His People’s Obedience
Psalmists, sages, and apostles celebrate these pleasures of God. “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7). “I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18; see also 1 Thess. 4:1). “[He] predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will” (Eph. 1:5, NKJV).
God takes pleasure in his own will. What he wills to do pleases him, and what pleases him he wills to do. He delights in the obedience and generosity of his people as a reflection of his own grace. He took pleasure in freely adopting his children into his family, apart from any virtue in them. Again, the pleasure is the emotion of joy and delight in doing his will, demonstrating his sovereign grace and seeing his grace at work in his people. God is indeed the blessed God (1 Tim. 1:11). He is the eternally joyful, authentically happy God, who overflows with delight in his own perfections as they are perfectly reflected in his Son and imperfectly and dimly reflected in his creatures.
God Grieves and Experiences Pain and Sorrow
Just as God has joyful feelings, he also has emotions of grief, sadness, sorrow, and even pain. These emotions need to be qualified of course, but there is no need to relegate them to mere figures of speech.11 We cannot miss the depth of feeling in these passages. The unrestrained depravity at the time of Noah grieved God:
The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen. 6:5–6)
Even when his own people were on the rebellion treadmill, his love for them flowed over in a parental grief. “They put away the foreign gods from among them and served the LORD; and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer” (Judg. 10:16, NASB). The father heart of God is unveiled repeatedly: “How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness and grieved him in the desert!” (Ps. 78:40). “Again and again they tempted God, and pained the Holy One of Israel” (Ps. 78:41, NASB). Just so God appeals to his people through Paul: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30; cf. Isa. 63:10).
There are also numerous texts where God expresses his grief and pain in terms of a husband whose heart has been broken by an unfaithful wife, for example, in Ezekiel 6:9: “I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols.”12 Those who have suffered the awful reality of knowing that their spouse has been with someone else sexually will immediately recognize that the language God chooses carries with it the deepest emotional pain. As a pastor, I have seen the endless stream of tears and the trembling hands and have heard the quivering voice of a soul shattered into a million pieces because that one-flesh union has been violated. Another person, an outsider, has been in that sacred place reserved by vow and covenant only for the spouse. It is a violent violation. It is a cruel act, which goes far beyond the anatomy of intercourse. It is crushing. God uses this very language to give us a picture into his heart.
In these passages, God is grieved. He expresses sorrow, even pain. He comes to a point where he can no longer bear the misery of his people. He is grieved over his covenant people’s rebellion. He is devastated by their infidelity. He is wounded as they give him a vote of no confidence in the wilderness. This language does not take away from God’s sovereignty or immutability. To interpret these emotional terms in such a way that detracts from or nullifies his sovereignty or foreknowledge is to violate the whole counsel of God. Nevertheless, to interpret these strong emotional words as figures of speech with no emotional reality is to drain them of their meaning and force. The God of the Bible knows what it is to sorrow and grieve.
God Experiences Anger, Wrath, and Detestation
Anger management is in. Blow your cork at work and you will find yourself in a class designed to help people control their anger.
Although anger is a common and harmful sin, anger in and of itself is not sinful. In fact, our capacity to be angry is a reflection of the image of God in us. Unfortunately, we rarely know righteous anger. Thankfully, righteous anger is the only anger God knows.
God demonstrates his righteous care for the underprivileged by becoming angry when they are oppressed: “You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless” (Ex. 22:22–24).
He does not hide his detestation for evildoers, liars, and the violent. “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man” (Ps. 5:5–6). “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day” (Ps. 7:11).
His hatred of certain sins is something he refuses to hold close to his vest:
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.” (Ps. 95:10)
There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Prov. 6:16–19)
“For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.” (Mal. 2:16, NASB)
Even as God loves justice, so he despises injustice, especially injustice done to the helpless of society: the widows, orphans, and unjustly divorced wives. There are certain sins for which God has a special hatred. As a holy God he also has a perfect loathing of evildoers and those who are willfully ignorant and will not trust him. Although there is a biblical doctrine of God’s universal love, it should not be too hard to understand that the God of perfection is a complex being who transcends our ability to comprehend. That God can love and hate the same object at the same time is a reflection of his incomprehensibility and emotional complexity. “God does not love the sinner and is angry at the sin. Rather, God loves the sinner and is angry at the sinner when he sins.”13 All theological nuances aside, the words used in these texts pulsate with the emotion of anger.
God Is Compassionate
My wife surpasses me in a multitude of Christian graces and virtues. She is far more spiritual than I am. One of the graces in which she surpasses me is compassion. Although there have been many times when I have felt pity for someone who was in a dire situation, my wife seems to have a consistent sense of compassion that compels her to action again and again. In this, she is much more like her heavenly Father than I am. It is beautiful. The Bible does indeed celebrate God’s compassion:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Ex. 33:19)
As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. (Ps. 103:13)
“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.
Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are continually before me.” (Isa. 49:15–16)
The Hebrew word racham, used in each of the above passages and often translated “show mercy,” is the word for compassion. It is a word of intense feeling and deep tenderness. It is a gut-level word, communicating a depth of emotion. This depth of feeling is vividly painted for us in the Isaiah passage. The Lord uses the deepest attachment known by humans, a mother and her nursing child. A nursing child derives its very life from its mother. The bond is almost mystical. This is a transcultural experience. It is universal.
The bond between mother and child is the most fundamental, affectionate, tender, inviolable bond we know. And yet “the love of the Lord transcends in permanence the best earth can offer.”14
God Is Loving
God’s love obviously relates to his compassion. However, there is a unique emphasis in the Bible on God’s love. It is the love of God that is most closely connected to the gospel itself.
The Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. ( Jer. 31:3)
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
and passing over transgression
for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger forever,
because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob
and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
from the days of old. (Mic. 7:18–20)
And of course the most famous verse in all of the Bible:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
We do a grave disservice to God when we say his love has nothing to do with feelings or the emotions. We diminish the dignity of God’s person when we unwittingly relegate love to mere actions of goodwill or self-sacrifice. Such a definition of love is absolutely excluded by 1 Corinthians 13:3. The Bible condemns noble, altruistic deeds apart from love, so how can love simply be noble deeds apart from feelings? God’s love has a strong emotional element to it. Whatever fragmented notes of beautiful feelings may be found in our love, these are merely distant echoes of the thunderous symphony of God’s love.
This is a very brief survey, but the texts speak for themselves. They are a powerful testimony to the emotions of God. This is a significant theological foundation, which has important ramifications. God is not a static being (immutability does not mean static); he is a dynamic, personal being, possessing within himself perfect knowledge, a perfect will, and perfect emotions. He loves, he hates, and he rejoices. He is pleased, displeased, grieved, and angered. He has compassion, love, and pleasure. He interacts with and responds to his people within the framework of both a sovereign decree and perfect emotions, which reflect his values and evaluations, and influence his conduct toward them.
We are made in the image and likeness of God. In order for us to understand ourselves, we must understand God. Although there is an infinite distance between the transcendent, majestic, exalted God and us, his creatures, we can look to God and see the perfect, eternal one who possesses the glorious capacity to feel. In that capacity, he shows the dignity of his person and that we were made not only to think and do but also to feel. “Emotions are a good and legitimate part of man’s character because they are clearly part of God’s character.”15
Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life
Copyright 2009 by Brian S. Borgman
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.