Being emotional is part of what it means to be made in God’s image

May 8, 2014

A month ago, I wrote that the doctrine of God’s immutability (“God doesn’t change”) shouldn’t be construed to mean that God doesn’t feel or experience emotion. In the Bible he certainly does! Because God freely chooses to be in relationship with his Creation, he allows himself to be affected by that Creation—he takes pleasure in us; he suffers because of us. Because God is unchanging in his being, character, purposes, and promises, however, God is never capricious or moody.

Granted, we could say that every time the Bible depicts God’s experiencing an emotion, the Bible writers are resorting to anthropomorphism—making God seem more human than he really is—because in our finitude we’re unable to experience him in any other way. But that fails to make sense of a great deal of scripture. As Roger Olson said, “The whole story of Hosea requires that God have emotions that require experiences God would not have without rebellious, sinful creatures. The story has no point once you extract that from it. The whole point is the pain Israel’s unfaithfulness caused God.”

Historically, Protestants, who believe that scripture is our primary authority guiding faith and practice, never defended this extreme version of immutability (“God doesn’t change to the extent that he also doesn’t feel”), which comes to us by way of Thomas Aquinas. (Do Catholics believe this?) Unlike Aquinas, we don’t believe that experiencing emotion represents any kind of imperfection. On the contrary, emotions are good and indispensable even to sinful human beings, who often fail to control them or direct them to good ends. Needless to say, we’re not God.

I’m only bringing this up again because Jason Micheli, a popular blogger and fellow United Methodist pastor (in another conference), has a series of blog posts in which he’s arguing, by way of this extreme version of God’s immutability, that sin can only be a problem on the human side, not on God’s side. He writes:

Sin doesn’t alter God’s attitude to us; it alters our attitude to him, so that we change him from the God who is simply love and nothing else into this punitive ogre, this satan.

Sin matters enormously to us if we are sinners; it does not matter at all to God.

In a fairly literal sense, he doesn’t give a damn about our sin.

It is we who give damns.

Sin does not matter at all to God. How many chapters of Paul’s letter to the Romans, for example, must we tear out of our Bibles if that’s true?

In a sermon he preached to confirmands(!) about the Lord’s Prayer, my colleague goes on to say that we project the guilt of our sin onto God such that we turn God (I kid you not) into Satan, a wrathful accuser bent on our destruction. Jesus, by contrast, teaches us not to project our guilty consciences onto God when he says, “Deliver us from the evil one.”

See, it’s all right there in the red-letter words of Jesus! What, you don’t see it?

Regardless, Micheli would say that God’s “forgiveness” (scare quotes are deliberate, since this “forgiveness” bears no relationship to actual forgiveness) is merely this: We remember again that God doesn’t condemn us for our sin. God is love, which can only mean that God never “gives a damn” about sin.

So God is just fine with us whether we sin or not. How could he not be? If God were sorry that we’re sinners bound for hell then that would imply that God feels something for us.

I find the whole discussion bizarre.

I suppose the idea helps protect us from guilty consciences, but who needs that much protection? Guilty consciences are often good and necessary things! Speaking as someone who has sinned really badly in my life, I take no comfort in any god who could look at what I’ve done and be O.K. with it.

But it’s not just me and my personal sins, which are bad enough. What about sin on a global scale? God isn’t bothered by that? I’m reminded of something that Miroslav Volf said about pacifism rooted in the idea that God never punishes or judges sin:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.[†]

Read this nice post (“Does God Change?”) from Roger Olson if you want to know more about my understanding of immutability. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with something that evangelical theologian Bruce Ware said in an essay on the subject, with which I wholeheartedly agree. I underline the part that means the most to me:

The abundance of Scriptural evidence of God’s expression of emotion and a more positive understanding of their nature lead to the conclusion that the true and living God is, among other things, a genuinely emotional being. Heschel suggests that instead of thinking of the emotions ascribed to God as anthropomorphic, we should rather consider our human experience as theomorphic, as part of what it is to be created by God in his image.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

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