Does God Have Emotions?


Spurgeon had a sermon on “God Without Mood Swings” Copyright © 2000 by Phillip R. Johnson. All rights reserved. This article is excerpted from Bound only Once, edited by Douglas Wilson, published by Canon Press.

Perhaps the most difficult biblical dilemma for those of us who affirm the classic view of an utterly sovereign and immutable God is the problem of how to make sense of the various divine affections spoken of in Scripture. If God is eternally unchanging—if His will and His mind are as fixed and constant as His character—how could He ever experience the rising and falling passions we associate with love, joy, exasperation, or anger?
Classic theism teaches that God is impassible—not subject to suffering, pain, or the ebb and flow of involuntary passions. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable” (2.1).

God without passions? Can such a view be reconciled with the biblical data? Consider Genesis 5:6-7: “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart” (emphasis added). In fact, Scripture frequently ascribes changing emotions to God. At various times He is said to be grieved (Psalm 78:40), angry (Deuteronomy 1:37), pleased (1 Kings 3:10), joyful (Zephaniah 3:17), and moved by pity (Judges 2:18).

Classic theism treats such biblical statements as anthropopathisms—figurative expressions ascribing human passions to God. They are the emotional equivalent of those familiar physical metaphors known as anthropomorphisms—in which hands (Exodus 15:17), feet (1 Kings 5:3), eyes (2 Chronicles 16:9), or other human body parts are ascribed to God.
We know very well that God is a Spirit (John 4:24), and “a spirit hath not flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39)—so when Scripture speaks of God as having body parts, we naturally read such expressions as figures of speech. Almost no one would claim that the biblical tropes ascribing physical features to God are meant to be interpreted literally.
But the texts that assign emotions to God are another matter. Many Christians are loth to conclude that these are meant to be taken figuratively in any degree.
After all, one of the greatest comforts to any believer is the reassurance that God loves us. But if love is stripped of passion, we think, it’s a lesser kind of love. Doesn’t the doctrine of divine impassibility therefore diminish God’s love?
To complicate matters further, when we try to contemplate how any of the divine affections can be fixed and constant, we begin to imagine that God is inert and unfeeling.

Fearing such inferences, some veer to the opposite extreme and insist instead that God is even more passionate than we are. In one of those ubiquitous Internet theological forums, a minister who hated the doctrine of divine impassibility wrote, “The God of the Bible is much more emotional than we are, not less so!”

Someone else sarcastically replied, “Really? Does your god have even bigger mood swings than my mother-in-law?”

The point was clear, even if made indelicately. It is a serious mistake to impute any kind of thoughts to God that are cast in the same mold as human passions—as if God possessed a temper subject to involuntary oscillation.

In fact, a moment’s reflection will reveal that if God is “subject to like passions as we are” (cf. James 5:17), His immutability is seriously undermined at every point. If His creatures can literally make Him change His mood by the things they do, then God isn’t even truly in control of His own state of mind. If outside influences can force an involuntary change in God’s disposition, then what real assurance do we have that His love for us will remain constant? That is precisely why Jeremiah cited God’s immutability and impassibility as the main guarantee of His steadfast love for His own: “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not” (Lamentations 3:22). God Himself made a similar point in Malachi 3:6: “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.”
Still, many find the doctrine of divine impassibility deeply unsatisfying. After all, when we acknowledge that an expression like “the ears of the Lord” (James 5:4) is anthropomorphic, we are recognizing that God has no physical ears. So if we grant that the biblical expressions about divine affections are anthropopathic, are we also suggesting that God has no real affections? Is He utterly unfeeling? If we allow that God’s grief, joy, compassion, and delight are anthropopathic, must we therefore conclude that He is really just cold, apathetic, and indifferent?

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