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Can I Hurt God's Feelings?

Can I Hurt God's Feelings?


I’ll confess immediately, I am not going to sufficiently answer the question posed in the title of this post. This essay was originally written for a seminary class at Fuller Theological Seminary, called “The Church's Understanding of the Church, Humanity, and the Christian Life in its Historical Development.” In my experience growing up, I was taught (and believed) human emotions were inconvenient distractions in the pursuit of truth. But when I went through therapy, I found that my emotions acted as helpful signals alerting me to deep truths, while oftentimes my mind was thinking up cleverly reasoned thoughts that led me into false understandings of people and circumstances.

The essay that follows is an exploration of what a theology of emotions might take into consideration. When I started, I didn’t realize that this topic would have tentacles reaching deep into other areas of theology. It was particularly alarming to find myself rattling the chainlink fencing around classical ideas of God’s attributes. I found myself asking, is God in time, or outside of time? Immanent or transcendent? Immutable or mutable? The answer: YES. (Just kidding. Kind of.)

A preliminary draft of this essay was reviewed by my professor, who seemed to think it was audacious of me to claim that God is both in time and outside of time. In hindsight, I supposed that is a strange and philosophically complex thing to say, but it seemed like the answer that just made the most sense of all the other pieces.

The other puddle this essay steps into is the idea of what a human is and what the theological idea of “imago Dei” really means. There certainly wasn’t time to address all of this at once, but it was a fun paper to put together, and I have since learned much more that has kept me moving forward, seeking truth and asking more questions.

I’ll add one last thing: One reason I really enjoy this topic, is that it is closely tied to how we relate to God. If God is far away and unfeeling, then you just stress about following God’s rules. But if God is near, and he is grieved by the evil and brokenness in the world along with us, then we’re talking about a real spiritual relationship.


Who Am I? Where Am I? Who Is God? When Is God?

Psychology and neuroscience have uncovered the huge significance of emotions in human experience and decision-making[1], and there’s a need for our theological anthropology to expand to address this fundamental facet of being human. Church tradition has historically minimized or villainized the emotional life[2], leaving ministers disabled to respond to emotional communication and needs, and unable to process their own emotional signposts. Classical theologizing about God’s attributes often relegated emotions to analogous, anthropomorphic language about God. But could it be that such a fundamental quality of our humanity is completely foreign to our Creator God, especially if we are made in that God’s image? Could our emotions be part of our special equipping for caring for the earth and each other? If we re-examine some of the classical attributes of God through the lens of a more holistic theological anthropology, we will see that God’s emotions are intrinsic to God’s nature and we will be better equipped to understand the potential redemptive capacity of human emotions. We will also be enabled to construct a theology that is more in step with our lived experiences.

John Calvin began his Institutes with the claim that knowledge of self must begin with knowledge of God, and that the reverse is also true. We can understand ourselves best in relation to the fixed, eternal authority we know in God. Though Calvin certainly did not excel at applying this idea to the emotional faculties of a person; classically called the “affection,” emotions were seen as needing to be renounced, lest they guide the Christian away from holiness.[3] Alvin Plantinga speaks in a similar way posing the philosophical question, “What is it to be a human, what is it to be a human person, and how should we think about personhood?” The beginning of the answer is that, “God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood . . . and the properties most important for an understanding of our personhood are properties we share with him.”[4] [5]

The great minds of Christian history have oft wrestled with the strange nuances of the Venn diagram of human and divine nature. In the Roman context Christianity was born into, two extremes were present. Firstly, the pagan pantheon was an immense catalogue of lusty, greedy, jealous, and altogether very human gods, whose escapades were often scandalous. On the other side of the pendulum was an artery of Hellenistic thought by which Christians could find compatibility to communicate their God to Roman culture; the immutable and perfect Supreme Being found in Socrates and Plato shared attributes with the God of Christianity, and the logic and virtues of Stoicism held some similar values with Christianity as well.[6] Although some church leaders were very cautious about letting pagan thought infect Christian thought, the earliest apologists, like Justin Martyr, did not shy away from the opportunity to utilize this common ground. For the Stoics the emotions (“passions”) were the enemy of the good life and needed eliminating, and the Supreme Being was a supremely impersonal one.

This dialogue came into play as patristic theologians clarified the attributes of God, namely God’s immutable and impassable nature, yet these concepts are not easily reconcilable with the witness of several biblical texts. There are many texts that highlight God’s unchangingness as important,[7] yet there are also many First Testament texts wherein God seems to change his mind.[8] Within the idea of immutability is the subset of the doctrine of impassability that wishes to “protect” our conception of God from being subject to the harm of changing circumstances. In this vein, many theologians have reduced the emotional life of God in the Bible to figurative language. To speak of God’s grief or joy is like speaking of his “hand” or “face”; the personification language is being employed pedagogically.

Theologians like Thomas Oord on the other hand have rallied against the “strong immutability” view seeking to preserve a sense of God’s loving relationality towards his creation.[9] In Oord’s “open theism,” this takes priority, and other traditionally held attributes of God (like omniscience) must be edited (or compromised, depending on one’s perspective). This is because in our understanding of relationships there is an exchange of reactions that takes place, as each party has agency and is in a state of learning how the other party will respond. Open theists believe the classical doctrines of God necessitate a God who is controlling, and that control is alien to love. Many theologians of this thinking believe that God volunteered to abdicate God’s atemporality in order to have a “genuine” relationship with humanity. They would argue that much of the classical view of God was imported from pagan philosophy and is actually alien to a true conception of Yahweh.

Other theologians have sought to affirm both God’s relationality and impassibility. Rob Lister, who carefully delineates such a perspective affirms “…God is both invulnerable to involuntarily precipitated emotional vicissitude and supremely passionate about his creatures’ practice of obedience and rebellion, as well as their experience of joy and affliction.” Notice Lister’s use of the word “involuntary” to indicate the transcendent God of the universe voluntarily wills to be emotionally vulnerable towards creation. Explained further, Lister writes:

“God’s relationally redemptive responsiveness remains grounded in his eternally perfect passion. In other words, God’s varying emotional response to his fallen and repentant creatures is the in-time expression of his eternal character and passion. The temporal fluctuation is secured in virtue of the fact that God’s commitment to his own glory is perfectly and eternally unwavering.”[10]

This inspires two conversations that I will explore: one about God’s presence “in time,” and another about the redemptive function of emotions.

Similar to the mystery of the 3-and-1 Triune God or the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, Lister’s view evokes an idea of God who remains both in time and outside of time. By analogy, consider the collective chronology of human persons, or perhaps all of human history, as the warp of a loom; God is the owner/builder of the loom, outside of “the loom,” and God is also manifesting in time as “the weft” through providence, revelation, theophany, the word, etc. The John 1 understanding of Christ’s incarnation is an important force in conceiving of this interaction. Transcendent, atemporal realities engage human history as the “word made flesh,” as God had manifested temporally in prior times in other ways—and Christ is the fullest expression of that reality (see Hebrews 1). Creation is porous and is being repeatedly intercepted by God’s immanence and variance, yet God is still anchored in his eternality and transcendence.

Sci-Fi Theology

At risk of venturing into the realm of theological sci-fi, it’s interesting to note that many scientists/mathematicians today concede to the existence of ten or more dimensions, the fourth of which is time. Such concepts are a challenge to the limits of human imagination, just as Zeno’s paradoxes were in the fifth century B.C. Zeno noted that mathematically, there are infinite points on a given line (since any distance can be divided by two, infinitely), so how is it possible that anything can traverse an infinite amount of points, in a finite amount of time? One wonders if Saint Paul had such things in mind as he stood in Athens and quoted Epimenedes saying, “in God we live and move and have our being.” Paul also implicitly cites multidimensional considerations in writing to the Ephesians, praying that they’ll “have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers,” and continues saying, “I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.”[11] Perhaps this is what Salvador Dali was getting at in his famous Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus) painting, in which Christ’s woundless body levitates above a tesseract (or hypercube) extending in all directions, with a two dimensional version on the chess-board like ground below him.[12] Dali here wished to embody the earthly and divine aspects of the Passion through what he called “nuclear mysticism,” recognizing that the most complex areas of science and math intersect beautifully with some of the most mystery-laden areas of faith.

Admittedly, I’m not a physicist. And admittedly, maybe the previous paragraph made no sense at all (but it was fun to write). That said, the point is that if we’re speaking of a God who is both in and outside of time, perhaps scientific and philosophical disciplines could assist our Christian imaginations in understanding God’s attributes in a fuller and more nuanced way. Not everyone has the time or energy for that, which is okay, because it’s also an appropriate theological response to not over-theologize in areas we wish to preserve an awe-filled ambiguity in our understanding of God; we are working out with “fear and trembling” a faith that attempts to know the unknowable love of which we are recipients.  

Emotions Redeemed

So what can God’s in-time expressions of emotion teach us about God and ourselves? Firstly, if Plantinga is correct in saying, “God is the premier person, the first and chief exemplar of personhood” then emotions originated with God in the spiritual realm. This would only be argued against if one held a physicalist position that emotions are solely somatic in nature.[13] There is biblical evidence however that disembodied persons experience emotional states to support this idea.[14] The First Testament is littered with references to God’s emotional expressions, mostly in regards to relationships with individuals or groups (i.e. nations).  John in the Second Testament says “God is love,” and love is centrifugal to emotions. Love certainly involves emotions, but it is not solely an emotion. When the object of our love is suffering, we may feel sadness, compassion, or anger. When the object of our love flourishes or demonstrates love towards us we may feel happiness and joy. And thus we see many examples of God demonstrating his love for creation in God’s expression of emotion in time with us. [15] In light of God as love, it is surprising we do not hear more theological discussions of imago Dei that revolve more around human beings as lovers primarily (an idea we will return to shortly).

God’s Triune nature is essential to this perspective. As many theologians have pointed out, a solitary monad cannot love because love must have an object. This vibrant, Trinitarian relationality was called perichoresis by early church fathers. C.S. Lewis called it “the great fountain of energy and beauty… at the very center of reality.”[16] The “dance” of the Holy Triad characterizes an eternal rejoicing, joy, and delight—emotions that grew in breadth at creation when God looked upon all that God had made and, behold, it was supremely good.[17]

The work of James K.A. Smith is profitable for exploring human persons—the crown jewel of creation—as  “embodied agents of desire or love.” Drawing on the work of Augustine, Smith argues what he believes is a biblical anthropology that is consistent with what science is uncovering today, that humans make our way through the world by “feeling our way around it.” This takes into account the human as body-and-spirit, by using the term homus liturgus Smith talks about a cyclical process whereby we perform actions (habits, “liturgies”) with our bodies that move us towards our greatest loves/desires, but these actions also reinforce and/or shape our loves. This is how the human person grows and changes.

“…this love or desire is a structural feature of being human. It is not just a characteristic of passionate people… To be human is to be just such a lover—a creature whose orientation and form of life is most primordially shaped by what one loves as ultimate, which constitutes an affective, gut-like orientation to the world that is prior to reflection and even eludes conceptual articulation.”[18]

If we understand humans in this way, we have a starting point to orient our understanding of emotions around. A human-as-lover concept does not exclude any part of human faculty, and this is consistent with the words of Jesus when asked what our paramount aim is:

“Jesus replied, ‘The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You will love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”[19]

When these loves are properly ordered and devoted, human participate in the nature of God—a sort of temporal version of perichoresis.

So we have seen that emotions are integral to God’s nature, and thus they are deeply corresponding to love. In Western tradition, often the intellect has been hugely privileged above the gut/heart-level emotional life; it seems the West considers the brain to be trustworthy and the heart, a liar. Experience shows us that quite often the emotions can signal deep truths, and the mind produces false thoughts that blind us. These faculties should be equally suspect (as neither is immune to sinful brokenness) and equally honored as instruments of our humanity, and indicators of our essential loves.

In Christ, we have an example of that healthy integration. Mark Cortez’s research is beneficial here, in emphasizing the importance of correlating our Christology with a theological anthropology.[20] In Jesus Christ’s duel nature we are presented not only with the fullness of God but also with the fullness of true humanity. There is something to be learned in Christ for understanding what it means to be human in the highest sense. Certainly Christ was without sin, so his rich expression of a variety of emotions was consistent with perfect righteousness (e.g. although Jesus knew he was going to raise his friend from the tomb, Jesus wept with Mary and Martha over the death of Lazarus).[21] Although emulating the emotional reactions of Jesus is not the primary take-away in a study of this part of his character,[22] one can at least conclude that in terms of the mission of Christ to redeem, renew, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven, a rich emotional life played part. If this is true of Jesus, perhaps it can also be true of His contemporary followers. In forming a robust theology of emotions, we can step into being better stewards of our own emotional life, and the emotions of others as well.

[1] Lamia, Mary C. “Like It Or Not, Emotions Will Drive the Decisions You Make Today.”Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31 Dec. 2010,

[2] Traditionally theologians have not talked about “emotions,” as much as “affections” or “passions,” but I will choose to use the term “emotions” because that is the term most common to our contemporary thinking.

[3] Calvin, Jean, James Anderson, and James Anderson. 1949. Commentary on the Book of Psalms. Calvin's Commentaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub.

[4] Quotes from Calvin and Plantinga and some of the framework of this essay I owe to work of Dr. Sam R. Williams of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and particularly his articles for BCC, such as, “Toward A Theology of Emotion.” Biblical Counseling Coalition, BCC, 27 July 2011,

[5] Plantinga, Alvin. Faith and Philosophy: Advice to Christian Philosophers, Reprinted from Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophers vol. 1:3, (253-271), October 1984. Journal web site:

[6] González Justo L. 1999. The Story of Christianity Vol. 1. Prince Press ed. Peabody, MA: Prince Press. p. 22-23

[7] e.g. “For I, the LORD, do not change.” Micah 3:6

[8] e.g. Numbers 14

[9] Oord, Thomas. “Thomas Oord and the Uncontrolling Love of God.” Audio podcast. Reconstrust Podcast. May 22, 2017. Also,

[10] Lister, Rob. 2013. God Is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway. p. 181.

[11] Eph. 3:18-19, italics mine.

[12] See Table A. Also, notice Dali makes a point to include the figure of Mary Magdalene grieving Jesus’ bodily suffering in the moment of her great loss.

[13] I am absolutely not saying there is not a biological component to emotions. It is clearly the case that there are very important biological and chemical factors relating to emotions. The interplay/connection between the spiritual and physical sides of emotions is beyond the scope of this essay, but certainly an important discussion to be had for any Christian who sees the human person as a unified being.

[14] Souls of martyred saints lament waiting for justice in Rev. 7:10, Lazarus and the Rich man receiving post-mortem comfort and torment respectively in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31. J. P. Moreland and S. B. Rae, Body & Soul  (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2000) 35-37. Additionally, the “joys” cited by the Apostle Paul in being apart from the body and with Christ in Philippians and 1 Corinthians, and angels are non-corporeal but seem to experience emotion.

[15] It’s interesting to consider that one must exclude from God’s nature that God could experience fear in order to preserve the sense of transcendence discussed above. Fear is something that humans experience to varying degrees with much frequency. There’s a biological fear that is helpful for preserving our lives, as it alerts us to danger when functioning properly (in that sense fear itself is not an evil on its own). The Bible asks us not to fear our circumstances, but rather to grow in trusting (loving) God that we would “fear” God alone, which is more like a shift to awe. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. 1 Jn. 4:18a

[16] Lewis, C. S. 2001. Mere Christianity: A Revised and Amplified Edition. 1St HarperCollins ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

[17] Genesis 1:31

[18] Smith, James K. A. 2009. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Cultural Liturgies, V. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic. p 51-52.

[19] Mark 12:29-31

[20] Cortez, Marc. 2016. Christological Anthropology in Historical Perspective: Ancient and Contemporary Approaches to Theological Anthropology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. p. 13

[21] Voorwinde, Stephen. 2011. Jesus' Emotions in the Gospels. London: T & T Clark.

[22] It could be argued that aspects of Jesus’ emotional expression her particular to his geohistorical and cultural location, and/or particular to his personality, which Christians are not necessarily called to imitate.

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