Does God Experience Emotional Change?
The new issue of Credo Magazine is titled The Immutability of God. The following is an excerpt from Samuel Renihan’s article, Does God Experience Emotional Change? Immutability and Impassibility. Samuel Renihan (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California; PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) serves as pastor of Trinity Reformed Baptist Church in La Mirada, California. He has written a number of books including God without Passions: a Reader and a Primer, and From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704).
God is not limited by time. He is eternal. He created time. And everything that God has done, is doing, and will do in time is the fulfillment or the outworking of his eternal decree. This means that if we ascribe things like emotions to God, or reactions like repenting, relenting, regretting, or being provoked to wrath, and if we understand those as God existing in time and acting in time rather than the outworking of his eternal and singular decree, we will have collapsed eternity and time, and collapsed the Creator into a creature. God’s decree is one simple cause with an unfathomable (to us) multitude of effects, all of which coalesce in the glory of God through the redemption of the elect in the death and resurrection of Christ, and the judgment of the unbelieving.
What this all boils down to is that we speak of God in a way that fits with his infinite being and perfection. And we speak of creatures in a way that fits their finite being and imperfection. The Scriptures themselves teach us to do this when we consider what they say about God, about creatures, and about God described in the language of creatures. These four considerations prepare us to answer our original question more specifically. Does God experience emotional change? Is God not God when he’s hungry? Thankfully, God is not a man.
God is Love, who is good in and of himself, pouring goodness on his creatures. This means that when God does good to his creatures, he is loving them. And he is not loving them because of something good in them that he is perceiving and responding to, but he is loving them because he is love. He is doing good because he is good. Love for us is when we perceive some good, and are drawn toward it, and reciprocate good to it. We must apply love to creatures and the Creator differently, according to their being. Therefore, God is love, essentially. We love him, because he first loved us. His love is an everlasting perfection, not an emotion. And this makes John’s words all the sweeter when he says in 1 John 4:16, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”
Mercy, again must be applied to creatures in one way, and to God in another. Men are moved to mercy when they perceive a need in another like them. We are merciful because we suffer and feel alongside of another person. We enter into their state and we pity them. We are overcome by sympathy or compassion. We help those to whom we relate in their suffering.
It is not so with God. God does not suffer. He cannot undergo or be acted upon. Does that mean he cannot be merciful? Quite to the contrary. God is the one who helps the helpless even though there is no connection between his nature and the helpless person. And because he is free from those kinds of restrictions, he is able to have mercy on anyone and everyone that he wills.
We are moved to sympathy because we see something of ourselves in another person. We don’t feel mercy for rocks being smashed. If God is so different than us, couldn’t he say the same? No, because the less God’s mercy is conditioned upon his participation in our nature, the greater he is able to be merciful to all as he wills. Romans 10:13 assures us of this truth. “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” God is the most merciful because he helps those that are entirely unlike him, and he helps those that no one else would help. Click To Tweet
Do not equate mercy in mankind with mercy in God. If you do, God cannot have mercy at all. But God is perfectly merciful. Mercy workers get overwhelmed. They see a lot of suffering and they sometimes have to stop or take breaks. Ministers in the ministry experience this. God is not subject to such weakness. He is like an immune ebola doctor. That’s the God I need, not the doctor who might get sick from me or with me. God’s mercy is a perfection, not a passion or affection. God’s mercy is his helping the helpless. And therefore, God is the most merciful because he helps those that are entirely unlike him, and he helps those that no one else would help.
So, we can sincerely say with Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:21-24, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”