Would it be possible to hurt God’s feelings? Can we make God happy or sad? At first, it seems like there should be a quick and obvious answer.
If God is emotionless, then he would seem like a heartless monster. But if he is emotional, then he may be unstable and fickle. So how should we think about this in light of Scripture and the Church’s teaching over the last 2000 years?
Christian theologians have consistently taught that God is impassible, which means he does not experience emotional change. This has become widely denied today because it seems to indicate an unemotional and harsh god who is detached from his creation. It should be obvious this is not what impassibility means, since Christians who proclaim the love and compassion and mercy of God have taught this doctrine throughout the life of the Church. God has emotion, but not in the same way the people do. Rather than having emotions that change (like us), God’s emotions are unchanging and perfect (Num 23:19, Mal 3:6, James 1:17, Heb 13:8).
The distinction between passions and affections is crucial in this discussion:
- Passion: emotional response to external actions. Passions overpower the will and cause us to respond on their own power. These include reactions like anger or lust or fear.
- Affection: self-chosen emotional response. Affections are active responses of the will, such as compassion, love, or wrath against injustice.
These are seen most clearly on the cross, where the love of God was displayed for his people and where his wrath against sin was satisfied. God was not emotionally unstable or making a knee-jerk reaction. Instead, he took pity on humanity and moved according to his love.
“Critics often contend that the doctrine of impassibility depicts God as an emotionless rock. But to teach that God is impassible is not to deny that God has an emotional life with cares, joys, loves, and so forth. Impassibility does not mean impassivity any more than immutability means immobility. Both are caricatures and misunderstandings of the classical doctrine. Just as the doctrine of God’s immutability or changelessness is not a teaching about a static, stone God, but a God so perfectly overflowing with life that any “change” could only tend towards a lesser state, so the doctrine of impassibility is statement about the perfection of God’s emotional life, his sovereignty over it, rather than its absence.”
Derek Rishmawy, The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)
Why Does This Matter?
I know many Christians who behave and talk as if God’s feelings about them depends on their level of righteousness at the moment. Perhaps God is mad at them right now because they haven’t read their Bible enough and missed church for the past two weeks? Or, maybe God is really happy with me because I resisted temptation and talked to a coworker about the gospel?
When all else seems unstable, there is incredible peace in the immutability and impassibility of God. His love is always perfect and it never wanes or flinches. His compassion is always full. The Christian’s security in Christ isn’t dependent on his or her obedience, but on God’s unchanging nature. If God has placed his steadfast love over you, it will not change or diminish.
To answer the question this blog title asks: Yes, and no. God doesn’t have “feelings,” because those are so unsteady and unreliable. Our emotions are imperfect reflections of God’s perfect emotions. In short, God’s emotions are perfect, and his passions aren’t changed because of us – we are changed because of his affections towards us.
Want More on Divine Impassibility?
- Blog: Derek Rishmawy, The Beauty of the Impassible God (Or, Is God an Emotional Teenager?)
- Paper: Kevin DeYoung, ‘Tis Mercy All, the Immortal Dies: Why the Gospel of Christ’s Suffering is more Glorious Because God Does Not Suffer
- Book: Rob Lister, God is Impassible and Impassioned: Toward a Theology of Divine Emotion
- Podcast: Joe Thorn and Jimmy Fowler, Doctrine and Devotion, Divine Impassibility