Monday, May 08, 2023

Anonymous Asks (248)

“Does God have emotions?”

Provided you are paying the slightest bit of attention, it is almost impossible not to notice that the Bible portrays an emotional God. He is described as experiencing joy, love, affection, compassion, jealousy, grief, regret, anger and even hatred. If we think of man as being made to “image” God — to portray him in the world — this makes perfect sense: our own emotions did not come out of the ether; we possess them (or they possess us) because they are modeled after something greater.

The problem comes not in thinking of God as emotional, but in imagining that the emotions human beings experience are identical to those of the Godhead. If we do that, we will certainly find ourselves confused by the language of scripture.

Man’s Emotions and God’s

Perhaps there was a time when man’s emotions and God’s were much closer in their character, but we live in a fallen world, and all our various passions and our expressions of them are tainted by sin, prompted by it and/or expressed in varying degrees of it. God’s are not. His revealed nature is fixed in eternity and it never changes in the slightest. It is not just that he does not sin, it is that he cannot. There are therefore flavors to our emotional experiences that simply do not exist for God. He can be jealous or angry without the slightest hint of impropriety or loss of self-control. His regret contains no element of surprise or shame, because the all-knowing cannot be surprised and never does wrong. His love cannot be quenched or diminished by the failures of its objects because it is self-sustaining. God is essentially what he feels, not merely the subject of it.

When the writers of scripture portray God’s emotional range, they are necessarily using figures of speech. Our emotions are the closest thing they can find in our world to serve as an illustration of God’s, and so they use the same words and metaphors for both. But it can quickly be seen that no human emotion can adequately serve this task. Human passions are feeble things, ebbing and flowing at the drop of a hat depending on circumstances, temperament, health and even digestion. But whether God loves or hates, his emotions are deep, abiding and substantive. They are absolutely non-trivial in every respect.

Judicial Decrees and Subjective Experiences

We are better to think of God’s emotions more like judicial decrees than subjective experiences. In fact, scripture invites that comparison. When we read “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”, Paul is not encouraging us to think of God as capricious or arbitrary in his affections. Rather, a close examination of the context of Paul’s statement in Romans shows he is saying that God’s decrees are based on his sovereign choice. He grants favor to individuals and nations not because their behavior inspires an emotional reaction in him, but rather in order to forward his purposes in the world. In such a context, “loved” means “granted favor”, and “hated” means “did not grant favor”. To the extent that emotions accompany this granting of favor (or not, as the case may be), it remains the case that the words “loved” and “hated” do not reflect the often-uncontrollable passions that attend human love and hatred.

This judicial aspect is especially relevant when the writers of scripture attribute an emotion like regret to God. Human regrets often arise from errors in judgment that lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences. We can easily see none of that applies to God. God makes no errors in judgment and no response of men, principalities and powers to his actions and edicts ever comes as a surprise to him. We need to remember that “regret” is a metaphor when applied to God, a best shot at briefly describing something that would take much longer to spell out if the writers of the Bible were obsessed with theological niceties rather than simply telling a story in words everyone down through the ages can understand.

‘The Lord Regretted’

So then, when we read a statement like “The Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth”, we should not read our own experiences of regret back into the text. By comparing scripture with scripture, we will instead understand that God’s moment of “regret” really marks a tactical shift with respect to his dealings with man. This is not because the Lord had failed to take into account man’s capacity for evil, but rather because he had now succeeded in demonstrating it to the satisfaction of every being in the universe who might have a stake or interest in the outcome of God’s creative experiment in the Garden of Eden. The state of the world in Genesis 6 proved the righteousness of the Lord’s edict concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 2. It only remained to clear the board in order that the next step in God’s plan for man’s salvation and his own ultimate glory might go forward.

Might there be an emotional component to such a tactical shift on God’s part? Of course. He is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance”. That was as true then as it is today. Destroying all but a tiny remnant of his creation was surely an occasion for deep sadness, but we can be confident there was no better way for the Lord to proceed.

Would God’s regret be anything we would recognize as corresponding to our own regrets, which are often a messy cocktail of guilt, shame and frustration with the inadequacy of our own foresight? Not really.

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