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Does God Experience Emotional Change?

Immutability and Impassibility

You may have seen a popular commercial advertising the Snickers candy bar in which grumpy persons are pacified by eating chocolate, nuts, and caramel. The premise of this scene is summed up in the words “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” We can, of course, resonate with this statement. Some people even talk about being “hangry.” They are angry because they are hungry. We have natural appetites (inclinations and disinclinations), and our moods change as our appetites are satisfied or dissatisfied. There truly are times when the difference between being content and irritable depends on a Snickers bar (or double stuf Oreos).

We know what we are like, but is God like this? Does God experience emotional change? If we answer this question based on popular Christian music, and even popular Christian literature, we would reply that God does experience emotional change. But the Christian creeds, the Christian tradition of theology proper (the doctrine of God), and the Protestant and Reformed confessions of faith disagree.

What do the Scriptures teach about emotions and God, and how can we formulate a responsible and faithful answer? We will consider four points, focusing on how God describes himself in the Scriptures, and how God teaches us to interpret his own language regarding himself.

1. The Bible describes God in the language of human experience and emotion, but denies that those very experiences are in God.

In 1 Samuel 15:11, God declares, “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” Later in 1 Samuel 15:29, the same passage, this statement is qualified and controlled. “And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” Other passages, like Numbers 23:19-20, reinforce the truth that the difference between God and creatures controls the way we read creaturely language about God. It says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

2. The Bible describes God in a way that makes it impossible for him to undergo anything or be acted upon.

Take Genesis 1:1 into consideration. There is a Creator, and there is creation. God did not create something greater or more powerful than himself, nor did he confine himself within the time and space of his creation. God is eternal and a se, of himself, and all things are “from him and through him and to him” (Rom. 11:36). Consequently, God is always the agent, never the patient. God is always fulfilling his purposes and never changing his mind, as stated in Numbers 23:19-20, above.

Similarly, several of the names of God, especially “I AM THAT I AM,” are self-revelation using the word “to be.” God is that he is. He is perfect absolute independent being, the source of all that exists, the Creator of all things. Nothing can add to God who is I AM. Nothing can subtract from God who is I AM. Neither can God make himself more perfect or reduce his perfection.

God himself declares his perfect unchanging nature to his people in Malachi 3:6, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” And we are told the same in James 1:17, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

The truth that the Bible describes God in the language of human experience and emotion, yet denies that those experiences are in God, combined with the Scriptures’ description of the perfection of the being of God, provides a firm and certain conclusion.

3. We must not equate the human language used to describe God with God himself.

We can no more contain God in our language than you can contain the ocean in a thimble. The finite cannot contain the infinite. Thus, our minds and language can never wrap themselves around God and fully express him. But although we cannot know God fully, we can know him truly. God’s self-revelation may be suited to our creaturely capacities, but it is not false or empty. God’s repentance is not an undergoing or a happening to God, but from the creature’s perspective in time it is a reversal of actions, all of which was decreed by God in eternity. Click To Tweet

Many authors have described God’s self-revelation through creaturely communication as God lisping to us or stammering with us, as parents or nurses speak to children. If God spoke to us in a manner that communicated the infinity of his being and power, we would never understand it. We can’t understand it. So, God speaks in our language, in creature-language. And as a result, we can’t think that God has been contained in that language. We can’t run straight from the creature language to the Creator without protecting that language or qualifying it, as the Scriptures themselves have taught us.

There are two sides to be balanced here. And we can end up in two ditches. On the one hand, we can’t reduce God to the creaturely language used to describe him. God is not like us. But on the other hand, we have to remember that these passages are still telling us something. God is speaking to us in our language, and while we can’t equate him with our language, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing for us to learn. Quite the opposite.

For example, when Scripture speaks of God repenting, regretting, or relenting, the point of connection is not between the emotional state of a human that repents and some emotional state in God, but in the action taken. When someone repents, they stop doing what they were doing, and they begin to do something else. So also, God created man, then he destroyed man; God made Saul king, then he removed him; God threatened judgment on Nineveh, then he removed the sentence of judgment.

You can call that repentance because of the analogy between God’s action and human actions, without taking along with it the baggage of human emotional turmoil. When we repent, it’s because something confronts us, and we are changed. Spiritually speaking, we turn from sin to righteousness. Generally speaking, we encounter some problem, we regret a decision, and we redo something or do something else. But God is eternal and has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, accomplishing all his holy will. So, God’s repentance is not an undergoing or a happening to God, but from the creature’s perspective in time it is a reversal of actions, all of which was decreed by God in eternity. God decreed from all eternity both to create man, and to destroy him, to make Saul king, and then to remove him, to threaten Nineveh, and then to deliver it. We see it all play out in time. The sequence of God’s actions in time leads to a fourth point.

4. We need to distinguish between our eternal God in himself, and the outworking of his decree in time and space.

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.

First, love.

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.”

Second, mercy.

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.”

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.’”

Third, anger.

This is probably the best example of the problem of human language. We get angry. Is God perfectly and eternally and infinitely angry? No. So, why do the Scriptures so often refer to God as being angry? Remove the passion from anger. When creatures get angry they cause some punishment or revenge to be poured out on the object of their wrath.

In men, our anger leads us to all kinds of terrible and wicked revenges. But in God, anger describes God’s perfect and unstoppable justice. God will cause the wicked to be punished. God will pour out judgment and punishment upon the unrighteous. God will punish sin. So, you can’t make God angry. God isn’t eternally burning with anger. Rather we use the term angry to describe God’s immutable justice. And whereas we get angry and can’t do anything about it, God perfectly brings judgment on the objects of his wrath.

It’s very difficult to think about anger without passion. There is righteous anger, but our anger is brought about by something we perceive to be bad, whether we are right or wrong. God is angry in the sense that he will cause justice and vengeance to be poured out on the unrepentant and wicked. His anger is therefore an eternal perfection, not an emotion as it is in us.  God is angry in the sense that he will cause justice and vengeance to be poured out on the unrepentant and wicked. His anger is therefore an eternal perfection, not an emotion as it is in us. Click To Tweet

God’s perfections of love, mercy, and justice being free from all passion, not being emotions, is what theologians refer to as impassibility. Because God is God, I AM THAT I AM, and because he is the eternal Creator, he is unchangeable, always accomplishing his purposes, but never being acted upon. God pours out love, mercy, and justice from the unchanging infinity of his perfect being. And though the Scriptures describe God in creaturely language, and though we experience God’s perfections of love, mercy, and justice in temporal sequences, we cannot conclude from our creaturely perspective that God is emotional. Rather, as the Scriptures have taught us, what we call emotions are unchanging essential perfections in God.

So, we can say with the Psalmist,

“Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the LORD say, ‘His steadfast love endures forever’ (Psalm 118:1-4).

Image credit: Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap

Samuel Renihan

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).

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