My earliest memories of God centered around a small Methodist church located in a tiny north Mississippi town my mother’s family had faithfully attended since before anyone could remember. One Sunday evening when I was four years old, my mother told me to get ready for church, which seemed odd to me because we had already been to church that day. But I remember my joyful anticipation. When I asked her why we would go right back to church in the evening after going in the morning, I heard her say, “Because we’re going to see God.” I’m quite positive her twenty-eight-year-old mouth didn’t say those words, but my four-year-old ears heard it clear as a bell: “We’re going to see God.”
My excitement was palpable as I looked through my clothes to find just the right outfit to meet God in. I was about to go see (and presumably visit with) God! I got dressed and we made our way to the church in my dad’s black 1960 Chevy. Imagine my letdown when God didn’t greet us at the door. It was Mrs. Thompson, a family friend, who was a really nice lady, but not quite who I was expecting.
Therapists often use the phrase “your younger self” to allow a person to consider how they feel through their younger perceptions. If twenty-year-old me could have looked at four-year-old me, he would’ve seen a boy with a far different experience of God. Twenty-year-old me knew a God who was stoic and indifferent, or at minimum, mildly disgusted. I attempted to pray to, trust, and depend on a God who had no feelings because they were bad. Feelings were fleeting, untrustworthy, and unreliable, and who in the world wanted a God who was also fleeting, untrustworthy, and unreliable?
The four-year-old boy worshiped and desired a God who was excited to see him too. He believed God experienced feelings, expressed to mankind because they mattered to him. That excited young boy anticipated God’s presence, knowing God was excited to see him too. As is often true with children, my “younger self” had a robust theology demonstrated in the opening pages of Scripture. Very early, in fact. Chapter 1 of Genesis.
Genesis 1:26 says that God made one thing like him: humans. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” With one sentence, just twenty-six verses into the Bible, God declares his intentional plan to make us in his image and likeness. As if to make sure we understand the depth of his design, just eleven verses later he adds a detail—he “breathed into (Adam’s) nostrils the breath of life.” With the intimacy of a father holding his child’s face against his, God created humankind in his image.
Children easily bring their internal experience outward. They cry, ask, seek, protest, smile, pout, laugh heartily, and hug with the strength of a vise. They are intensely relational and therefore intensely seek relationship. They are made in the image and likeness of God.
So, “Does God have emotion?” His revealed word answers that question with a resounding YES! Children’s emotional expression and relational pursuit are mirrors of their design. Lest we forget, every person reading this essay was once a child. Could it be that years of struggle, heartache, and loss have blinded us? Has our use of intellect (I’ll figure it out), morality (I’ll get better), and willpower (I’ll get tougher) distracted us from the truth that God is deeply emotional and relational, and that the two are actually connected? Scripture demonstrates that God does indeed have emotions expressed from his core of perfect love.
Genesis 1 and 2 reveal God in his creative artistry, the crowning achievement of which is humans. Created in his image and likeness, humans were dominion over his creation. However, just one chapter later, darkness descends, and humankind sins against him, resulting in the exile from the garden. Yet, even in the shadow of their sin, God still pursues them.
“Adam, where are you?” he asks (Gen 3:9). Obviously, God is not asking for physical directions. He is asking an emotional and relational question. In Genesis 3:13, he asks Eve, “What is this you have done?” Do you see the nature of these questions? They drive Adam and Eve to examine their hearts, to respond to God with the story. He is not interested just with facts, but the heart behind the facts.
In his grace he provided covering for them, and Adam and Eve did indeed obey God in part. They multiplied the earth, as commanded. And at some point after that (just three chapters later in Genesis), God leaves no secret of his emotional state. Something “grieved him to his heart.” God ached to his depths. Humankind’s evil desire for power wounded him so deeply the writer puts it in no uncertain terms. We could say, “It hurt him to the core and plunged him into deep grief.”
Scripture makes no attempt to cover up his emotions. God lamented to the core of his holy being. And yet, in his relentless pursuit of relationship, he found one man to commune with. Noah built the ark according to God’s instruction. He trusted that somehow water would rise and swallow the earth. And “Noah did all that God commanded him” (Gen 6:22). Mankind’s sin pierced God’s heart, and yet he mercifully saved one man and his family from the flood. Because they believed and trusted him, and God continued what he had begun: a relationship of love with his creation.
Some believe the “mean, vengeful God” lives in the Old Testament, while the “meek and lowly Jesus” who is a different God, lives in the New Testament. Not only is that false theologically, it is not the storyline of the Old Testament at all. The Old Testament reveals a God who indeed promises judgment on unfaithful and disobedient people. The prophets, both major and minor, write about God’s anger toward sin.
God clearly demonstrates his anger towards sin with the destruction brought about by the flood (Gen 6), the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), the harrowing plagues rained down on the Egyptians (Ex 7-12), and the repeated warnings recorded in the seventeen prophetic books. Even a cursory reading of these texts leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that God is not passive and stoic concerning his people and their condition. He burns with wrath and pain demonstrated by his judgment. The prophets often begin their prophecies with “The Lord said,” and the Lord does indeed say and do what the prophets warned of in his passion and fury for his people.
His wrath shows his emotional and relational investment in the interest of his children (1 Cor 13:12). So, is the”Old Testament God” a one-dimensional, irritated, but otherwise nonfeeling judge who is perpetually annoyed and only “emotional” in anger?
NO. Another aspect of God’s nature and activity in the Old Testament shines amidst the scary shadow of his wrath. To fully grasp the breadth and depth of God’s emotional investment in his creation, we must read with a child’s eyes and heart. God feels wrath about sin and its consequences, but the anger he feels is always from a heart that seeks to restore. He is not angry at us; he is angry for us. Angry for us to experience the fullness of life found only in him.
Parenting well involves emotional investment, feeling feelings and expressing them in a relationship with children. A walk through the Psalms reveals God’s relentless pursuit of his children through the metaphor of “refuge.” In fact, God is called “refuge” over forty times in the Psalms. Thirty times he is referred to as “deliverer.” The Psalmist is not proclaiming the greatness of, or pleading for deliverance, from an apathetic God. He trusts God to be his caring refuge, his safe place, and his passionate hero.
Isaiah, the first in order of the major prophets, devotes twenty-six chapters (chapters 40-66) to comfort. Isaiah 40:1-2 features God declaring to his people against the backdrop of Isaiah 1-39, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended . . .” God comforts his people, much like a parent after disciplining a child says, “I love you. Come back downstairs. I forgive you and want you with me.”
God continues his parental love, pursuit, and emotional investment in his children, when he says, “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” (Isa 49:15). God is asking, “How intensely do I remember and love you?” As intensely as a mother with her newborn child.
“Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; our walls are continually before me” (Is 49:16) The word “behold” means to gaze. It’s as if God is saying, “Look! I have you tattooed on my hands, and I see you 24/7. You are never out of my sight!”
I recently went through some old pictures and one in particular of my son learning to walk made me stop. I sat back in my chair and smiled through grateful tears. They were tears of remembrance and gratitude. The picture was of my son, then just learning to walk. His big blue eyes shone, and his face lit up with one of those toddler “Look what I’m doing!” smiles. What was he grinning about? His dad (that’s me!) walked behind him, bent at the waist to hold his hands above his head. He wobbled across the floor, beaming. He is over six feet tall now, but in that moment, he was a toddler again and I was a protective, overjoyed father, basking in the joy of how much I loved him and loved watching over him as he learned what it was like to live in this world.
Hosea 11 tells the story of another dad teaching his children to walk. “Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms . . .” (Hos 11:3). However, this dad’s heart is breaking. “. . . But they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love . . . and I bent down to them and fed them” (Hos 11:3-4). In verse eight, the father in his heartache laments, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?” Then, as if he wipes his brow, he says, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” These are not the words of a mean, vengeful “Old Testament God.” They portray a God who openly displays his compassion, tender care, and love, then out of that love, wrath and judgment for anything or anyone who would steal his love away.
Perhaps the consummate expression of love that gets to the heart of God’s dogged pursuit of our hearts is found in one of the most cherished and familiar verses in all of Scripture: John 3:16. God did indeed love the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son in loving pursuit of relationship. Some may render the Son’s willing sacrifice as God “just doing his duty.” But, they would miss the passion of that verse. Jesus did not go through the human experience in somber apathy or distant observation.
The Gospels are our record of Jesus’ life on earth. But, we get an early glimpse of it in Isaiah 53, which gives a hint of Jesus’ internal world as he took on human flesh. Essentially, Jesus will live a life of sorrow. He will grieve so deeply that he will double him over in the pain of it. He will be rejected and humiliated. He will weep. He will feel and express it.
As Jesus walked the earth, he lived with and interacted with people at an emotional level that is hard to imagine. Jesus cried at the sight of suffering; obstinate unbelief convulsed him with uncontrollable grief. His fierce love caused him to burn with anger at obstinacy and unbelief. When he encountered the malignant rejection of the Pharisees, he “sighed from the bottom of his heart” (Mk 8:12). “Obstinate sin drew from Christ a deeper sigh than the sight of suffering (Lk 7:34; cf. Jn 13:20), a sigh in which anger and sorrow both had a part (Mk 3:4).”1
Jesus did not stand by stoically as he lived on earth. He shed tears at the death of his dear friend Lazarus (Jn 11), and grew furious at the exploitation of vulnerable people (Matt 21). When Jesus healed a man with a withered hand, he lashed out at the Pharisees who lived in apathetic, cold-hearted indifference (Mk 3). And as he entered the city that would crucify him on a Roman cross a few short days later, he wept over Jerusalem (Lk 19).
He showed his emotions with his disciples too. They became fearful when they realized Jesus was leaving the earth. But he comforted them with a promise. He would not abandon them. He would ask another helper (the Holy Spirit) to be with them forever (Jn 14:16). He tells them, “I will not leave you as orphans” (Jn 14:18). Once again, God is expressing himself as a loving parent. Jesus is telling these scared children that he will never forget them. The Helper will indwell them and never leave them.
As if to leave no doubt that all of God feels emotion, Paul cautions believers to not “grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph 4:30). The word “grieve” in that verse is the Greek version of the Hebrew word used to describe God’s emotion when he observed the world in Genesis 6. The three persons of the godhead feel and feel deeply. Feelings are the language of relationship and God. Throughout all the pages of Scripture, he expresses his feelings in holy passion and care.
Of all the promises in Scripture, perhaps the most precious one is found near the very end of the Bible: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain . . .” (Rev 21:4). Until then, we do shed tears, we do mourn, we do have pain, and God feels it too.
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