Does God Have “Feelings?”
This fall we began our study of the Doctrine of God in our Theological Equipping Class.
One of the most misunderstood attributes of God is what theologians call God’s “impassability.” To be “passible” means to be acted upon, to be movable, to experience pain, or to have “passions.” So to say that God is “impassable” means that God does not have feelings or emotions.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. That sounds crazy! Doesn’t the Bible say that God loves us (Eph 2:4)? Doesn’t the Bible say that God can be “grieved” (Eph 4:30)? Doesn’t the Bible say that God burns with hot wrath (Ex 22:24)? Doesn’t the Bible even say that God has “regret” (1 Sam 15:10-11)?
Because of verses like these I used to think that the doctrine of impassability was absolutely wrong. I thought that this idea must be the residue of Greek philosophy that somehow crept into the early church. I thought it was an unbiblical idea that made God out to be some type of stoic statue that didn’t really care about us.
But then I found out that almost everyone in all of church history held to the doctrine of impassability. Augustine held it. Anselm held it. Aquinas held it. Calvin held it. The Westminster Confession of Faith (used by Reformed churches) states that God is “…without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible.” The Thirty Nine Articles (used by Anglican churches) says that, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions…”
Now, just because a bunch of people in church history have held to a view doesn’t make it necessarily true. But it did lead me to wonder why they held to this doctrine. Perhaps there was something that I was misunderstanding.
My study led me to the conclusion that the doctrine of divine impassability is true, but that most people (including myself) misunderstand what it means. It is true that God really does love us. It is true that God really does have wrath. But it is false to say that the way God loves us or the way that God has wrath is the exact same way that we as humans express these things.
I misunderstood this doctrine because I was thinking about God as if he were just a really big human. If he were a human, then it would be bad to not have emotions. But God is not some really big human in the sky. He is God. He is unlike anything else. When it came to this doctrine, I had made God in my image instead of being made in his.
Below, I have included eight clarifications showing how God really can be loving but that God truly is impassable.
My Feelings about God’s Impassability
1. God’s nature is different than ours.
We feel love; God is love. Those are very different. In the same way that someone standing in the sunlight can feel its warmth, the sunlight itself doesn’t feel its own warmth; rather… it is warmth! God doesn’t “feel” love; he is love! That doesn’t make him less loving than us. In fact, it makes him much more loving because love is part of his very nature.
2. God is all his attributes at the same time.
It’s not the case that if someone sins, God was 40% angry that day, and now that person’s sin bumps him up to 60% angry. God is wrathful 100% all the time. God is loving 100% all the time. God is just 100% all the time. God is joyful 100% all the time. God is jealous 100% all of the time, etc. God is all of his attributes all of the time to the highest degree. In theology we call this the doctrine of God’s simplicity. This doesn’t mean that God is “simple” in the sense of “dumb” or “uneducated.” It means that God’s nature is unique in that he is made up of only one substance. Technically to say, “God is love” means “God is ‘God-ness’ and ‘God-ness’ happens to be loving.” If God literally felt emotions then he would be more of one attribute than another (ex. when you are sad, you are more sad than happy, at least for a short period of time). Because humans are made up of parts, our feelings happen inwardly. However, God doesn’t have an “inside” and an “outside” because he is simple.
3. Biblical descriptions of God are often anthropomorphic.
The Bible describes God using human language (so we can understand it), but certain things are not “literally” true of God because he is not a human. We call this “anthropomorphic language,” which is when God is described in human language though he is not human. The Bible will say that God has a mighty right arm—but we know from other texts that God is Spirit and doesn’t have an “arm” at all. The Bible will say that God rides on the clouds, despite the fact that the Bible says that God is everywhere and doesn’t need to “ride” anywhere. This is why you can’t just say something like, “the Bible says God was grieved therefore the doctrine of impassability must be incorrect.” You can’t just say,“this is what the Bible says.” You have to say, “this is what the Bible means when we are talking about a being that his wholly unlike anything else in the universe.” When we read the Bible it is not enough to simply read the words in front of us; we have to actually interpret what they are saying.
Compare these two passages:
The word of the LORD came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” -1 Samuel 15:10-11
"And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” -1 Samuel 15:29
Notice how the Bible can say that God feels a certain way and then go back to clarify that he doesn’t “literally” feel that way.
Or consider James 1:13 that shows that God doesn’t feel the pull of temptation like we humans do.
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. -James 1:13
4. God does not have a physical body with which to feel.
Feelings and emotions are something that we feel in our physical bodies, and God does not have a physical body. When you start dating someone, love feels like butterflies in your stomach. When you get scared, your blood pressure rises. When someone cuts you off in traffic, you feel anger well up inside you. When someone embarrasses you, your face turns red. But God doesn’t have a stomach, or blood, or a face that turns red. Everything involving emotion somehow affects your physical body and God doesn’t have a physical body with which to “feel.”
5. God does not change.
Feeling different ways means an emotional change has taken place—and there is no change in God. For example, if someone cuts me off in traffic, I now feel differently than I did before. I wasn’t angry, but now I am angry. However, there is no change in God. Not only does God not change in regards to his nature or purpose, he doesn’t vary in any way:
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. -James 1:17
6. God acts but he is not acted upon.
If God “literally” had emotions then it would mean we could give God good days and bad days. On days when people were walking in righteousness, he would be happy; on days when people were walking in sin, he would be sad. This would mean that God needed humanity (or needed us to act a certain way) to be happy. This would mean that God wouldn’t have joy in and of himself within the Trinity but rather would be dependent on humans.
7. Love is not just an emotion.
In this entire discussion, we have a tendency to assume that love or wrath is an emotion. However, that’s not always true. I can love my wife even on days when I don’t “feel” love because I have made a commitment to do good to her. The government can exercise judicial “wrath” on wrongdoers (Rom. 13), even though the entity known as “the government” doesn’t have the emotion of wrath.
8. Lastly, it is important to note that Jesus does really feel pain and have emotions.
Though God is impassable, Jesus also has a human nature and is, therefore, able to suffer and feel emotions. His humanity and experience in his earthly ministry allow him to sympathize with us:
"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." -Hebrews 4:15-16
The Goodness of God’s Impassibility
It seems like we have to accept the fact that, whatever it means for God to get angry or feel jealousy, it can’t mean the same thing for him that it means for us. So how is this good news? Doesn’t it make God seem like he doesn’t care?
Well, this is where I need to restate a point I said earlier: People who don’t like the idea of God’s impassability are thinking of God as a big, emotionless human. But God is not like that! We know from the Bible that God really does love us. That he really does display wrath. That we really are commanded not to provoke him to anger. Just because we don’t really understand how all that works it doesn’t mean we can deny what the Bible says. God really does love you even though his love is different than your love. God really does hate sin even though his hate is different than your hate. You see how easy it is to slip into making God into our image?
Here is the good news of this doctrine: It means that God’s love for you cannot be based on how well you’re doing spiritually because he always loves you the same. Though I change from day to day, God’s view of me doesn’t change because he doesn’t change. His love and commitment to me are steadfast. Some days I don’t love God because my feelings change, but God loves me the same every day because his love is based upon his nature—not some changing emotional state.
This doctrine can set you free from works-based, performance living when you realize that God doesn’t have mood swings. God is stable. God’s loving nature is for your good—and you cannot make him love you more by your good deeds or less by your bad deeds.