Rejoicing in Divine Emotion
Can God feel?
For years, I didn’t think so. I grew up in a very conservative Christian environment that imparted many benefits to me, but it also scarred me in some deep ways, particularly in leaving me with a flawed perception of God. To its credit, this movement developed in rejection of the emotionally-charged mainstream churches that prioritize a “feeling” of closeness with God over the relationship itself, which ought to be steeped in the truth of God’s Word. Yet, in seeking to reject shallow sensationalism for intellectual truth about God, we became polarized in the opposite direction—all of the Law of God without the love and grace of God—which is a frightening place to be. Consequently, I came to believe in a form of Christianity devoid of emotional attachment and closeness with God. I envisioned Him as distant and unapproachable— an impersonal Lawgiver capable neither of understanding nor of having compassion for human feelings. And I was certain He could never feel anything Himself, save anger perhaps. I thought that a relationship with Him was meant to be sterile and subservient, and I could take but little joy in my walk with Him, since I believed reciprocation of my feelings by the Object of them to be impossible. I had been taught that the presence of emotion in the Christian life is manipulative and insincere and thus to be avoided at all costs. So, for years, I did just that, cutting myself off from feeling in my relationship with the Lord.
I limped along with this distorted perception of God for years, not allowing myself to experience feeling in my Christian walk, since feeling breeds intimacy, something of which I believed God to be incapable. But, in His mercy, He threw me into a season of trial, hurt, and loneliness. At first, in my pain, the intellectual answers sufficed. Thoughts such as, “God is sovereign—He can do what He wants,” and “God means this for His glory,” ran through my mind and, of course, there is no doubt that these things are true. But a mere understanding of the answers alone without an understanding of the heart of my Father behind them could not comfort my broken heart when I was crying myself to sleep, my insides literally aching from the pain I felt so acutely, and which I thought God could not understand or pity, but instead begrudged disapprovingly.
So, the Lord placed people into my life to challenge my existing framework and at first, I balked at what they told me. I heard from them, “God is your Father. He loves you, as a father would. He cares for you.” I can’t allow myself to believe such heresy, I thought. His love is a mere act of the will, unaccompanied by emotion—He can’t feel for me the tenderness of a father for his child. But the more I opened my heart to accept this notion of an intimate relationship with my Creator, the more I understood that Scripture, and indeed, even logic, backed up the idea that God was not the robotic sociopath He had been painted in my mind to be.
To believe that God is incapable of feeling emotion would be to defy the very dictates of logic. How could we, mere human beings that we are, possess a capacity for feeling within us that extends beyond the comprehension of our Creator? If He is indeed the fountainhead of all knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, then how can any one of our attributes be a mystery to Him? If it were so, then there would actually be a part of Creation over which Christ could not claim ownership and declare, “Mine!” because it would have had to be implanted in us by someone other than the One who breathed life into us in the first place. How could He create something in us that He doesn’t understand on some level or even possess Himself? It’s not that He doesn’t feel. Indeed, God feels emotion—He just feels it in a perfect way, untainted by the curse of sin. A.W. Tozer, in his book, God’s Pursuit of Man, had this to say regarding the role of emotion in the character of God: “Now the Bible teaches that there is something in God which is like emotion. He experiences something which is like our love, something that is like our grief, that is like our joy….Faith would easily draw the inference that since we were made in His image, He would have qualities like our own…Here is emotion on as high a plane as it can ever be seen, emotion flowing out of the heart of God Himself.” (Emphasis mine.)
In my journey toward emotional intimacy with the Lord, I combed the Scriptures in a new light, seeing and delighting in the scores of verses that spoke of Divine emotion. One of these passages was Psalm 103:13, which beautifully says, “Like as a father hath compassion upon his children, so hath the LORD compassion upon them that fear Him.” The Hebrew word for compassion in this text is racham, which is described by the Holman Bible Dictionary to express a fatherly emotion, literally, “…love and compassion, a feeling of pity and devotion to a helpless child. It is a deep emotional feeling seeking a concrete expression of love… This word always expresses the feeling of the superior or more powerful for the inferior or less powerful and thus never expresses human feeling for God. The word seeks to bring security to the life of the one for whom compassion is felt.” As this verse demonstrates, God’s feelings for His people are deep and genuine—so perfect that such a feeling can never be possessed by fallen human beings, but only by the God who embodies within Himself the utmost perfection of emotion.
One of the most breathtaking examples of Divine emotion in the Scriptures is found in John 11:35. The shortest verse in the Bible is one of the most profound: “Jesus wept.” “Wept” doesn’t mean that His eyes got a little moist, or that He had to swallow a lump in His throat. And it certainly doesn’t mean He stood beside Mary and Martha as they grieved, with His arms crossed, disappointed in their lack of faith. “Jesus wept,” means that He felt the gut wrenching anguish that comes from losing someone you love and who loved you, and displayed it in a very human way—by shedding hot tears. He felt empathy and compassion for the sisters of Lazarus and wept with them even though He knew that He was going to raise their brother from the dead in just a few minutes! Yet, that knowledge didn’t stop Him from entering into their pain and experiencing it with them, weeping so intensely that the onlookers said to one another, “Behold, how He loved him.” How consoling it is to us to understand that He who set the stars in place and stretches out the heavens comes to us in our individual struggles and shares our burdens, telling us to “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me that I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:29-30)
As I began to realize that God does indeed experience emotion, even compassion for us, I knew that such an understanding carries some implications for me as well. It means that it must be not only permissible, but also actually desirable, for His creation, made in His image, to experience emotion in our relationship with Him! Tozer, in the aforementioned book, had this to say regarding the role of emotion in the life of believers: “Feeling, then, is not the degenerate son of unbelief that is often painted by some of our Bible teachers. Our ability to feel is one of the marks of our divine origin. We need not be ashamed of either tears or laughter…One of the very greatest calamities which sin has brought upon us is the debasement of our normal emotions…The work of the Holy Spirit is, among other things, to rescue man’s redeemed emotions…” Emotion itself is not weak or vile; otherwise, God would have to be considered weak and vile. Rather, the radiance of emotion and intimacy is what elevates camaraderie above mere alliance and joyful servitude above duty fulfillment.
God does not want us to live in a sterile, emotionless existence, merely following His rules without His love dwelling in us and making our hearts glad. Three times in the New Testament, we hear God’s desire that “your joy may be full.” (John 16:24, 1 John 1:4, John 15:11) Indeed, Jesus said in John 16:22, “And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.” Separation from Jesus’ life-giving presence brings sorrow, but communion with Him brings joy, which no one will be able to rend from us. God desires us to live in communion with Him, being comforted in His love and rejoicing in the hope of heaven and unbroken fellowship with Him forevermore. John Piper, in his book, When I Don’t Desire God, gives three reasons why we ought to “fight for joy” in our Christian walk: first, because God commands it (Deut. 28:47-48), second, because “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him…God is glorified in His people by the way we experience Him, not merely by the way we think about Him,” and third, because “Nothing shows the direction of the deep winds of the soul like the demand for radical, sin-destroying, Christ-exalting joy in God,” the lack of which, he asserts, reveals our own baseness and lack of submission to Him.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean that happiness must be present in our hearts in every moment of our walk with Christ. But consider the difference between happiness, a fleeting sensation, and joy, an all-surpassing assurance of God’s love for us and the hope of dwelling with Him forever. Circumstances are often painful and rightfully merit sorrow, but there is no reason why they cannot be borne with an undercurrent of joy. Jesus says in Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” We are blessed when it is Jesus Himself who rubs the salve into our gaping wounds. We are blessed when mercifully He smites us with suffering, so that we may abandon our self-reliance and throw ourselves wholly upon Him to carry us when we are too weak to stand ourselves. After all, “whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth: and he scourgeth every son that he receiveth.” (Hebrews 12:6, KJV)
Finally, we can be comforted in the certainty that Christ knows what it feels like to suffer, and that He has compassion on us in our pain. Hebrews 2:17-18 tells us, “Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.” He does not despise our pain, in fact, He is intimately acquainted with it, as Isaiah 53:3 says of Him, “He is a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus was wounded for all of us, crushed by His Father for our sins. So when we cry out to Him with tears in our eyes under the weight of our suffering saying, “Father, it’s hurting!” He responds not with a dismissive, brush-off, but He responds compassionately, “I know, my child. But I love you too dearly to let you go without it.” And yet, He is kind enough to hold us in His arms and comfort us while the darkness will not lift. Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” He wants us to try Him and see if His arms are not strong enough to save us, (Isaiah 50:2, 59:1). And those who throw themselves upon Him will never find themselves forsaken for, as Corrie ten Boom so masterfully put it, “There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”
Looking back at all that the Lord has taught me— first that He does indeed feel emotion, next, that He does indeed care for us, His children, and finally, that He does indeed understand, from His own experience, the trials we endure—my heart overflows with gratitude to my gracious God and Father, as should every believer’s when he or she truly understands the attributes and implications of God’s emotion toward us. I stand amazed at Him for, as Charles Spurgeon said, “He at whose voice heaven trembles, even He, Great as He is, knows how to stoop to me.”May we evermore be comforted and delighted by this incredible truth, letting it animate our every thought, word, and deed as we dwell in joyful communion with our Creator.
Image courtesy of Jerry Worster.