Does God have feelings?

Does God have feelings?  The traditional Christian doctrine of Divine Impassibility answered with a resounding, ‘No!  God’s life is marked by calm, unmoved tranquillity.  Not only is he beyond the reach of physical pain; he cannot be affected emotionally by anything that happens in the world he has created.  Even the sufferings of the church leave him unmoved.’

But this is hard to square with the biblical revelation of God.  The impression we immediately receive from Scripture is that the Holy One of Israel has a full and rich emotional life; and part of this emotional life is that, far from being a deity who moves everything but is himself moved by nothing, he is profoundly affected by events in the world he created : a world scarred by human irresponsibility, and a world where humanity sins and suffers, but a world, too, that God loves.  It is with this broken world that God, according to Scripture, has a profoundly emotional relationship.


God experiences pleasure

First, God is portrayed as one to whom the world gives pleasure.  We find this at the very beginning of the biblical narrative, the Genesis account of creation.  When the work is finished, God looks, and it is ‘very good’.  That is his own verdict.  Its execution corresponds in every detail to what his infinite wisdom and imagination had envisaged: a world of order and beauty, teeming with life, and at its apex a very special species, humanity, whom he had formed in his own image and in whom his own glory shone.  Here was a ‘made thing’ (Rom. 1), indeed, but one with whom God could speak, from whom God could hear, and with whom he could share immortality and eternity. 

But then this sublime creature, ‘man’, fell, bringing creation down with him so that it, too, is now subject to futility and vanity (Rom. 8:20).  Even so, the creation still gives its Maker pleasure.  The heavens still declare his glory, the earth still teems with a huge variety of living forms, and the human race, blessed with common grace, is still capable of remarkable achievements.

And even at the spiritual level, too, ‘man’ is still able to give pleasure to God.  He is pleased when we do justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8).  He is pleased with the sacrifice of  a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17); he is pleased with the life his Son lived in our human nature (Mk. 1:11); he is pleased with the sacrifice Christ offered on the cross of Calvary (Eph. 5:2); he is pleased, along with his angels and all the other residents of heaven, when even one sinner repents (Lk. 15:7, 10); and at the End it will give him great joy when he presents us blameless before the presence of his glory (Jude 24), poised to serve him day and night for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:3)


God is moved by human misery

But if God derives pleasure from his creation, he is also moved by its plight, and particularly by the plight of his people.  One early instance of this is the divine response to the misery of Israel in Egypt (Ex. 3:7-8).  They had groaned to him and he had heard their groans.  ‘I know their sufferings,’ he declared, ‘and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.’  This great paradigm runs through the whole Bible.  God hears, God sees, God knows, God feels, and this is why he comes down.  It is love and pity that move him to action (Is. 63:9). 

One of the key issues in this Exodus account of God ‘coming down’ is the meaning of the word ‘know’.  Does it point to bare knowledge, mere cognition?  Or does God also have emotional intelligence so that, as in the case of the human mind, what he knows is accompanied by appropriate feelings, and also by appropriate choices and actions?  The human mind, we have to remember, is not made up of separate bits such as, for example, intellect, will and affections, each able to function independently of the others.  The functions are all functions of the one mind, with the result that we are affected by what we know and moved to act by what know and feel. 

The doctrine of divine impassibility, however, is based on the premise that while God is like us in that he knows and wills, he is not like us in having affections and feelings; and this means that his actions are never prompted by such emotions as pity or compassion.  He knows, but doesn’t feel; he sees, but isn’t moved. 

If this is so, then there is a fundamental  difference between what the word ‘know’ means when applied to God and what it means when applied to us.  For him, knowledge is dispassionate; for us, it can never be.  How can we square this with the belief that we are made in God’s image?


A dispassionate love?

Is it, then, a dispassionate love we meet in Exodus Three?  In some other biblical passages the verb ‘to know’ clearly implies more than mere cognition and a grasp of the facts.  In Psalm 1:6, for example, we are told that whereas the way of the wicked will perish, God ‘knows’ the way of the righteous.  In other words, he approves of it.  It gives him pleasure.  Similarly, in Amos 3:2, God declares, ‘You only have I known of all the families of the earth’.  Did he not know all the families of the earth?  Yes, but he had taken special, loving, notice of Israel and brought them up out of the land of Egypt.  Then they had slighted him, but while other nations could sin with impunity (as far as temporal judgements went), Israel could not.  Precisely because he had ‘known’ her, and treated her with special consideration, he would judge her, the loved one, for her unfaithfulness.

There is good reason to take ‘know’ in Exodus 3:7 in this same sense, and as meaning more than bare, dispassionate possession of information.  The NIV gives the rendering, ‘I am concerned about their suffering’, while the New English Bible translates it, ‘I have taken heed of their sufferings’.  The two best commentaries on Exodus take the same view.  It is such a knowledge, wrote the late John L. Mackay, as clearly implies that, ‘he is not indifferent to the pain of their suffering.’  Alec Motyer speaks to similar effect, referring to ‘the sensitive feeling which makes the Lord aware of Israel’s plight and the graciousness which prompts him to identify with them in their need.’

This point is made explicitly in Isaiah 63:9 as rendered by the Authorised Version, ‘In all their affliction, he was afflicted.’   The verse is not without its difficulties, but the NIV follows the AV here and translates it, ‘In all their distress he too was distressed’; and this is endorsed by Motyer’s Commentary on Isaiah, which suggests that a literal rendering of the prophet’s words would be, ‘in all their affliction, to him affliction’; that is, ‘he identified with them and shared their tribulation.’

But this is no isolated occurrence of the idea of the divine compassion, even in Isaiah.  In the earlier oracle, Isaiah 54:8 – 9, the Lord had declared that though he had hidden his face from his people for a moment, yet ‘with everlasting love I will have compassion on you’.  While Hebrew appears to have no word which corresponds exactly to the Greek sunpathein, used in Hebrews 4:15 to describe the sympathy of the risen, the word rahamim, used in Isaiah  54:8, is deeply suggestive. Frequently used to highlight  the mercy of God, it derives from the Hebrew word for ‘womb’ (rehem), and thus bespeaks the kind of bond that exists between a mother and the child in her womb.  That bond, surely, is more than merely a matter of knowing that she is pregnant.  It is deeply affectionate and emotional, and it is as such that it prompts the tender care she will bestow on her infant when it is at its most vulnerable.   

The mother-child analogy also occurs in Isaiah 66:13, where the Lord declares. ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’.  Isaiah 49:15 goes even further, portraying the bond between God and his people as even deeper than that between a mother and her child.  It is not unknown, protests the Lord, for a woman to forget the baby at her breast (Is. 49:15, NIV), ‘but I will not forget you.’  In Jeremiah 31:20 the same profound expression is expressed from a paternal point of view:


Is Ephraim my dear son? 

Is he my darling child?

For as often as I speak against him,

I do remember him still.

Therefore my heart (rachamim)yearns for him;

I will surely have mercy on him

                        declares the LORD.  (ESV)


Jeremiah is clearly not taking any special care to avoid confusion between these divine emotions and the corresponding emotions in human beings, neither does Scripture as a whole.  The same sort of language is used to describe, for example, Joseph’s reaction on first seeing his brother, Benjamin: ‘Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep’ (Gen 43.30).  If God were indeed a passionless being, you would have expected the biblical writers to avoid describing him in terms reminiscent of the most heart-rending human emotions.   But they don’t.  Instead they attribute to him the very same emotions as a father feels for his son, a mother for her child, and a brother for a brother.  Nor is God portrayed in terms of some otiose feelings which lead to nothing .  On the contrary, his emotions are the dynamic behind all his redemptive acts.  He sees, feels, and comes down. 


‘My compassion grows warm and tender’

Nowhere is this clearer than in Hosea 11:1 – 9, where God is portrayed as torn between treating his people as they deserve and treating them in accordance with his feelings for them.  As he contemplates the idolatrous apostasy of Israel, he recalls how he had loved him as a child, his child.  He had called him out of Egypt, he had taught him to walk, and carried him in his arms; he had led them with cords if kindness and with the bands of love; he had bent down and fed them.  But the more they were loved, and the more they were treated kindly, the more they turned away, sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols; and Yahweh felt the rejection keenly. ‘My people,’ he cried, ‘are bent on turning away from me’ (verse 7, italics added).  Yet at the same time he knows that the apostasy cannot simply be condoned.  Justice must follow.  They should be abandoned to the Assyrians, and the sword should rage against their cities. 

But just then (verse 8) comes God’s anguished cry: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, O Israel?  How can I make you like Admah?  How can I treat you like Zeboim?’ (these were ‘cities of the plain’ that had suffered the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah)

What we have here is a remarkable, divinely-inspired picture of turmoil within God himself.  ‘My heart,’ he declares, ‘recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender’; and the tension at last climaxes in the words, ‘I will not execute my burning anger; I will not destroy Ephraim.’ (verse 9)

 Why?  Does he mean, ‘Despite being God’?  No!  but because he is God: ‘I am God, and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.’  

Nothing could express more eloquently the affection God had, and still has, for his people.  His heart yearned for Ephraim (Jer. 31:20).  How could he treat his ‘darling child’ in terms of strict justice?  Let us remember that Hosea’s words were ‘breathed out’ by God (2 Tim. 3:16) and that he is writing not as someone giving his own personal view, but as a man carried by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21).  Any responsibility for exaggeration or over-statement must lie with the divine author, and whatever the ultimate theological meaning of the passage, the surface-meaning is plain.  God’s heart, his very nature, recoils from inflicting on Israel, his apostate son, the justice – annihilation – that he  deserves.

The most arresting exposition of this passage is that of Dr. Campbell Morgan, Minister of Westminster Chapel, London, from 1904 to 1917, and from 1932 to 1943.  Morgan, a close friend of D. L. Moody and predecessor of Dr. Martyn Llloyd-Jones at Westminster Chapel, published his lectures on Hosea in 1935 under the title, Hosea: The Heart and Holiness of God.  One of the lectures is entitled, ‘The Compassion of God’ and it focuses especially on the words of Hosea 11:8, ‘My heart is turned within Me, My compassions (rachamim)are kindled together.’ (RV)?

There was something holding God back, writes Campbell Morgan, and what was it?  Was it something about Israel that made God say, ‘How can I give thee up?’  Surely not!  It was not something about Israel, but something in God and, ‘The secret of it is found in the words, “My heart is turned within Me.”’  Morgan offers various paraphrases: my heart is in turmoil; my heart is moved to its depths; my compassions are contracted; my compassions are in spasm.  ‘That is why he cannot give them up.  Here we are in the presence of Love, love that is not the mere sentimental outgoing of an emotional nature, evanescent and passing; but love that becomes an agony; love that becomes a tragedy.’

Yes, there are tensions here that are too severe to be resolved by what Campbell Morgan calls ‘mere intellectuality’.  How can God wrestle with alternative courses of action before dismissing one of them with the words, ‘No, I will not’?   How can he be compassionate and still maintain moral standards? 

Yet, whatever the final solution to the theological challenges, the passage makes plain that inspiration never prevented the prophets from portraying the divine love in terms of the deepest feelings and the most earnest passion.   Nor did it preclude their highlighting the pain involved for God by his bond with his people.