So this title is a pretty pronounced statement of the obvious. Obvious, at least, to most people who follow this blog, and definitely to anyone who regularly tunes in to IHOP-KC teaching.
It has not always been obvious to all theologians. There are still some today who hold to the reasoning of the Stoics, claiming that God cannot both be truly God and be truly affected by emotions. The reasoning goes like this: If something causes God to feel emotions, then that thing has temporarily become greater than God. Therefore God has to be emotionally detached from this fallen, sad world.
That reasoning might gel with Greek philosophy, but it sure doesn’t line up with the self-revelations of the God of the Bible (see, for instance, Zech 1:14-15; Hosea 11:8; Ps 147:11; Matt 9:36, and too much more to list here).
If God designed humans as emotional beings, it stands to reason that He knows a thing or two about emotions. And if God doesn’t have a bunch of inward walls, scars, and fears like we do, it’s safe to conclude that He actually feels much more acutely than any of us. I know I’m preaching to the choir here. Most of us are on board with the fact that God has real emotions. Most of us will gladly recognize that His emotional capacity easily matches — even exceeds — that of any fallen human being.
But this is where theology and practice collide. We can be quick to affirm the emotional depth of God with our words, but then turn around and practically deny it through our actions. Myself most definitely included. Allow me to elaborate a little.
Imagine yourself having a bad day — not just circumstantially, but spiritually. i.e. You missed your quiet time. You’re getting angry with the drivers in traffic and frequently committing murder a la Matthew 5:22. Every line you have to wait in turns out to be the longest one with the slowest (and rudest) service, and your patience doesn’t put up much of a fight. When it’s all said and done, through the course of a frustrating, taxing day, you crack and do that one thing you promised God you would never do again. In short — a bad day. Very bad.
Now imagine yourself laying awake that night, mulling over the past sixteen hours. It’s just you and the Lord. You are aware that your inmost thoughts are laid completely bare before Him. You know you were off track in twenty different ways that day, and you know that no excuse you can come up with holds any water. What do you say to Him now? And what does He say to you?
This is usually where our great theology goes right out the window. This is where we stop thinking of God as deeply emotional and downgrade Him to a sort of two-dimensional being. Not in those expressed words, of course, but in the way we imagine that conversation of repentance going.
2-D Example #1: God is angry and I must placate Him. We say, “God, I’m so sorry about today. I really don’t like doing that stuff and I’m ashamed of myself.” And then we imagine God retorting, “Prove it, then! You call yourself a dedicated Christian? I crushed My own Son over your sin, and this is all you can come up with in return?! You’d better shape it up, and I mean NOW.” To which we plead with greater tears and more earnestness that we really are sorry, and we imagine God rebuking us again to make sure we get the point, and on and on until God is satisfied that we really are sorry and He can stop being mad at us for the time being. In future rounds of temptation, we imagine His fuse being that much shorter, and if we fall again, we imagine His anger as being that much greater at our repeated failure since we clearly knew better.
2-D Example #2: God is disappointed in me and I must make it up to Him. We say, “God, I’m so sorry about today. I know you don’t like it when I do that stuff. I really do want to please you.” And then we imagine the Lord responding, with a deep sigh, “I just… I just don’t understand. I thought we had a good relationship. I thought you really cared. But now I see where I stand in your eyes, if you can’t resist something so simple and small as this…” Then the conversation finishes out with us assuring God that we really do love Him, and we’ll really try to do better, and we’ll do anything to show that our love is for real. For the next few days/weeks, we imagine an arms’ length emotional distance between us and God, assuming He’s waiting for us to prove ourselves before He allows us near enough to His heart to hurt Him like that again.
2-D Example #3: God is thrown off by my sin and so I must fix it on my own. In this instance, we don’t actually have much of a conversation with the Lord. We anticipate that such a conversation would mostly involve gasping at our shocking lack of self-control, and so we just sidestep it altogether. If we’re serious believers, after all, we really should be getting this under control. We’ll bring it to the Lord when we’ve gotten it settled, or at least when we’ve figured out a good “roadmap to recovery” to present before Him. We determine in our hearts to do better, and then avoid any situation which leaves us silent and alone when we will actually run into the Holy Spirit and His highlighting of our barren state. This way, God gets to see what dedicated people we are, without having to deal with that messy part in the middle.
I’m sure I haven’t covered the different possible ways we view God’s emotions too shallowly. But I know that I have erred in each of the above directions more than once in my lifetime. And when you are off in one of those pits, prayer is not fun. It stinks, actually. It’s something to be avoided, because we just “know” that it’s going to get really ugly when we go there. Who wants to talk to Someone who is angry, saddened, or shocked by you?
Now imagine that “bad day” scenario again, but imagine it for one of your kids. (If you don’t have kids, just play along for a second.) Imagine that they were slow and grouchy in getting out of bed, missed breakfast, and almost missed the school bus. They didn’t focus in math class and got reproved by the teacher for it. They got in a squabble on the playground with some of the other kids. After recess, since they were still upset and distracted, they bombed the pop quiz in history. Now they get home and you ask them how their day went. How do you want them to tell you about it? And what is your response when they do?
Most of us would not treat that child the way we imagine God treats us under similar circumstances.
Where we might imagine a stinging rebuke from the Lord, we would want to hold the child and comfort them. Where we might imagine an ultimatum from Him, we would naturally want to make sure the child understood how their actions were harmful to them, and do what it took to help them conquer it. Where we might imagine heavenly silence, we would reassure the child of our love.
This brings us back to the title of this post: God is not less emotionally capable than humans. If we, as fallen, weak beings, can correct a child without our love or enjoyment of them being tarnished, how much more can He? And considering that He knows our hearts fully — He is not surprised when we stumble, no matter how shocked we ourselves are — He is not going to be rattled to find out that (gasp) we blew it again.
Make no mistake; God hates wickedness. He is grieved over it. But He is a God of great enough emotional depth to handle delighting in us while disapproving of what we have done. He can discipline us and help us to grow in righteousness, and do it all with a smile on His face. He doesn’t have to struggle to find it in His heart to forgive us. He has no hesitancy about inviting is right back into fellowship with Him. He is fully prepared to deal with our thick heads and goofy tendencies. As long as our hearts are sincere (or as it feels like sometimes, sincerely wanting to be sincere), He can work with that. And He’s actually glad to do it. Go figure that one.
This is liberating. The next time you have “one of those days”, go straight to that conversation with the Lord, having full confidence that He still takes just as much pleasure in you today as He did yesterday/a week ago/whenever when you were doing great. Come with repentance, of course — but you don’t have to try and convince God about how sorry you really are or how rare this is for you or how much pressure you were under that day. He already knows. Go to Him, repent, and just be still and let Him enjoy you. No excuses, no protests, no bargaining.
He’s a really good Father, better than any earthly one we’ve ever seen. He’s not going to go too soft on you so that you never learn to change, and He’s certainly not going to go postal on you, either. Meeting this gentle, kind God who likes you in your weakness is what is actually going to spur you on to greater obedience in the future. Relax and enjoy Him as He enjoys you.