Return to Sermon Archive
Does God have Feelings?
8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.
Last Sabbath, Rev. Billy Barron delivered our Homecoming message, and I did listen to what he had to say. Contrary to what some people may think, I do listen to other preachers. Billy was reminiscing about our days together at seminary, and he said that sometimes when he was sitting through all those classes on theology, he wondered what he was doing there. I had some of the same thoughts.
As a young Christian, I went off to seminary to study for the Christian ministry with high ideals and high hopes. In particular, I hoped that my questions about God would be answered. I believed in God, I believed that a God of love sent Jesus to us. But I still had a lot of questions about God that I wanted answered. You see just because you believe does not mean that you must stop thinking and asking questions.
The most obvious question is that if God is love, why is the world is so bad? Or, a variation of that same question: Why do bad things sometimes happen to good People? Or, how about this one: A plane crashes, and 100 people are killed. But one person is miraculously unhurt. That person says, “God was with me, Praise God.” Does that imply that God was not with the hundred who died?
As I said, I had questions that I expected seminary to answer. I expected the professors to rattle off answers and settle finally any doubts I might have. But, when I got to seminary and got in class and began to actually raise my questions, my teachers frankly admitted that they did not really know any more about those things than I did. Besides, they said, we had books to read and material to cover that we would be tested on, so we had better get on with it.
I remember though, in talking about God, my teachers insisted that we should beware of “anthropomorphisms”—which means that we should beware of ascribing human traits to God. Erskine Seminary in the 1970’s was a strict defender of orthodox Calvinism, and Calvin had followed Medieval traditions about God, traditions which often were derived more from Greek Philosophers like Aristotle than from the Bible. Aristotle has said that God is the Unmoved Mover who moves everything, but who is himself not effected or moved by anything.
This is what is called classical theology. The emphasis is that God is totally different from us. Thus, God certainly does not have feelings like us. When we read in the Bible about God being angry or jealous or envious, we must take that as figurative language. That is just a human way of talking about God, but God is not human.
A problem with that way of thinking is that Genesis says that we are made in the image of God. Thus, we are like God to some extent. The question is: How are we like God? Classical theology says we are like God in that we can think. Human beings can reason. That is our divine image, but otherwise we are not like God at all. And certainly God does not have feelings.
Understand that I am not putting down my teachers here. They were conservative Calvinists, and this is what conservative Calvinism taught. They were following in the tradition of classical theology that was taught in most conservative seminaries.
But I was always troubled by the obvious fact that what classical Christian theology says about God and what the Bible says about God are so far apart. Everybody notices this. Take a devout reader of the Bible. Let her read a book on theology. The first thing she will say is: “This is not the God I find in the Bible.” Classical theology says that God knows about our feelings, but God feels nothing. God wills to do us good, but God does not care about us in any emotional sense.
In classical theology, feelings are regarded as weakness. Again, the theologians got that more from human society than from the Bible. In human society, particularly in Western society, there has always been the perception that thinking is a masculine, strong trait, and feeling is a feminine, weak trait. Thus, we admire great thinkers: from Plato and Aristotle to Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. We do not admire those who feel deeply. We regard them as weak and ineffectual people.
Since feelings are thought to be a weakness, they can never be applied to God, who can never have a weakness. Thus, God does not have feelings. God does not share our griefs and sorrows. The Classical theologian would say that God know about our sorrows, but God does not really enter into our sorrows and share them with us.
Again, the Bible says pointblank that God is love—which most people would say is an emotion. When you love someone, you have deep feelings about them. But classical theology defines “love” in such a way that it is not an emotion. That is a trick of theology. If you don’t like something, you just redefine it into something you do like. A definition of love that I was taught in seminary was: “a willingness to act for the benefit of others.” That definition does not imply any feelings at all. That definition says that God will act for our benefit, but God does not share either our sorrows or our joys. God is up there and we are down here, and never the twain shall meet, at least not on any emotional level. Thus, classical theology took a perfectly good word like “love,” a word loaded with emotion and feelings, and stripped it down and twisted it around so that it ceased to be love.
The essential meaning of love is sympathy. When you love someone, you are in sympathy with them, so much so that when they are sad you are sad and when they are happy you are happy. When something good happens to them, you count it as happening to you.
The Bibles shows us above all a God of sympathy. God feels our feelings in the most literal sense. God does not act from mere benevolence, a mere willingness to do us good. God acts from real love—which is a feeling. God suffers when we suffer, God rejoices when we rejoice.
In the Old Testament, we see this in the relationship between God and Israel. As far as God was concerned, if an enemy attacked Israel, that enemy attacked God. God saw himself as intermingled and interconnected with Israel at every point and in every way.
That is why it hurt so much when Israel rejected God. God is a lover and when his love rejected him, he writhed with agony and pain.
Do you listen to country music? I have a sort of a love-hate relationship with country music. I really like some country songs. I despise others. There is a whole class of country music songs devoted to lost loves and broken relationships. These songs go something like this: I am down here in this bar, drinking myself into an alcoholic stupor because my woman done run off and left me. And the chorus is something like” I can’t get over you. It hurts so much, but I can’t get over you. And it is all sung at a slow, sad tempo with steel guitars twanging in the background. That is the kind of country song I usually despise, and there are a ton of them. Many country hits have been variations on My-Woman-or-Man-Done-Run-Off-and-Left-Me. They are hits because broken love relationships are so traumatic. When you really love someone and they leave you, it hurts. You are wounded.
That is pretty much what God says in Hosea 11:8. I do not mean to suggest that we should imagine God in a bar drinking himself stupid because Israel “done run off and left him.” But seriously God is the rejected lover and God hurts. We are not dealing with Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover here. We are dealing with a God who loves infinitely well and grieves infinitely deeply when the beloved discards him.
Charles G. Finney
Back in the 1800’s, Charles G. Finney was the most famous American evangelist. Over half a million people were converted through his ministry. In age with no TV nor radio, with no mass communications beyond the written word, Finney spearheaded a revival that altered the course of American history—that revival historians now call the Second Great Awakening.
But Finney also had problems with what classical theology said about God’s lack of feeling. In 1839, he wrote a sermon titled “Affections and Emotions of God” [October 9, 1839, Lecture XVIII]
Finney says, “God really exercises all the affections ascribed to him in the Bible.” Again he says, “The Bible ascribes love, hatred, anger, repentance, grief, compassion, indignation, abhorrence, patience, long-suffering, joy and every other affection and emotion of a moral being, to God.”
Finney uses as his text Hosea, 11:8, which is obviously why I chose that verse today. From this verse, Finney derives two basic principles.
First Principle: “It is a real and great grief to God to abandon sinners to death.” We are always saying that God is love. A loving God does not want any person to go to hell. God grieves when any person rejects him and goes down to destruction. This is what Hosea 11:8 says: " How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.” The language of the verse is that of lover rejected by the beloved. God is in tears. He would have done anything for Israel, anything to save them.
We have the image of God standing not just before Israel, but standing before every sinner with tears and weeping, begging that sinner to turn back from his sin, to turn away from his evil doings.
Other scriptures also show the grief of God over sin. Before the flood of Noah, we read in Genesis 6:5-6: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.”
Further, in the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross, we see the feelings of God. God loved us, but God was grieved to the heart by our sins. That is what the cross is about—anger and love. God in his anger cannot accept our sins. God in his love cannot give us up. So Jesus died on the cross for us that through him we might be reconciled to God’s love.
This leads us to Finney’s Second Principle: Sinners compel God to give them up. I deliberately stated that in the most provocative way. We hesitate to talk about God being compelled to do anything, but that is what happens.
A God of love never wants any person to be lost. But God has created us with free will and made us responsible for the exercise of our free will—which implies that the only person who is responsible for me going to heaven or to hell is me. Let me say that again. The only person who can send you to heaven or hell is you.
Say that it was not so. Say that God absolutely predestined who was going to be in heaven and who was going to be in hell, then God is unjust. If God arbitrarily condemns people to hell, then that makes God into an evil absolute dictator who tosses people into concentration camps without rhyme or reason.
But God does not act that way at all. God does not do that. God wants to save everyone, but not everyone wants to be saved. And when a person finally rejects God, when a person entirely decides to give up on God, God, in tears, reluctantly gives them up. They compel God to give them up.
Let us conclude then. The God of the Bible, which is the only God we are concerned about, is a God of feelings. To suppose otherwise is to make God a hypocrite. God says he loves us. Is God just pretending to love? When the Bibles says, God is angry at sin, are we to take that seriously? Do the words of the Bible mean what they say? Or shall we reason those words away as so much figurative language? The words mean exactly what they say. God is not a hypocrite. God is not kidding about being angry at our sins. God is not kidding about loving us and wanting to save us from our sins.
Charles Finney says, “God enters fully into all the relations between himself and his creatures. I mean that he enters into these relations with all his heart and all his soul. He is feelingly alive to them all. It should ever be remembered that he is not a mere abstraction, an intellect without volition, emotion or sympathy. But his feelings are infinitely intense. So that every object in the universe, every creature, every want, every woe, every sorrow, and every joy, enkindle in“ the mind of God that same feeling.
In Jesus, we find the feelings of God most perfectly expressed. Again, Finney says, the “one great design of the incarnation was to create a sympathy between God and men.” Christ showed God’s feelings for us. Christ taught us that God has the feelings and heart of a father. A guilty child knows that a father's heart can be moved to forgiveness. Even so, we know that however guilty we are in our sins, our father in heaven yearns over us and longs to forgive us and save us from hell. All that we have to do is to accept God’s forgiveness and accept his love. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 8/22/05