The classical view of God has held that God is impassible, meaning he is above pathos (passion or emotions). The main reason the church came to this view was that, following the Hellenistic philosophical tradition, they associated emotions with change while believing God was above all change (immutable). Moreover, experiencing emotions implies that one is affected by something outside of oneself, and the Church, again following the Hellenistic tradition, generally came to believe God was “above” being affected by anything outside of himself.
If we keep our focus on Jesus Christ as we think about what God is like, how could we ever come to the conclusion that God is above having emotions? Jesus certainly had passionate emotions, ranging from joy to anger to sorrow. Many try to argue that these emotions were simply part of Christ’s human nature, not his divinity. This response splits Christ’s divinity from his humanity (a heresy known as Nestorianism) and undermines the revelatory nature of Christ’s humanity.
Even more fundamentally, one would only come to this conclusion if they started with the assumption that they already knew what God was like before they came to Christ to find out what God is like. If we instead started with Christ—allowing his humanity to reveal to us all we need to know about God—we’d never come to the conclusion that God is “above” experiencing passionate emotions.
The rest of the Bible confirms this point. From the portrayals of God as a compassionate mother (Isa. 49:15–16) to the depiction of God as a Father who is willing to painfully sacrifice his only Son (Rom. 8), the Bible gives us a beautiful portrait of a God whose experience of suffering and love can scarcely be imagined.
Just prior to the crucifixion, Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure (John 14-16). He assured them that he would not leave them as orphans but that he himself would be with them in the power of the Holy Spirit. He told them that the Holy Spirit would teach them what they needed to know. He told them that he was giving them his peace, and so they need not have fearful hearts.
Then he said, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
From this we can learn two things. The first is that Jesus is full of joy over us. His prayer is that we would be filled with “the full measure” of his joy. Though we ordinarily don’t think of God or Jesus in these terms, Scripture makes it clear that we give God a great deal of joy!
This is illustrated in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son (See Luke 15). For instance, the shepherd joyfully carries a lost sheep home on his shoulders and then calls all of his friends and neighbors to come rejoice with him. In the same way God rejoices in heaven over one sinner who comes to repentance. The Lord delights in redeeming us.
The OT makes the same point. The Lord rejoices over us with gladness, and exalts over us with loud singing (Zeph 3:17). He takes delight in the people he has chosen for himself.
The second point we need to learn form Jesus’ teaching about joy is that the Lord desires us to share in this joy. The Lord’s desire is for all who trust in him to be filled with “an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8). The psalmist proclaimed that the Lord fills the hearts of all who trust in him with joy (Ps 4:7). The Lord renews the crying heart and turns “mourning into dancing” and clothes it with joy (Ps 30:5; 11).
Passages such as these show us the depth of passion that God has for us. Whereas the Greeks—and far too much of the Church’s theological tradition—considered this sort of passion and vulnerability to be a defect, in Scripture such features are clearly among those things which make God the supreme God that he is. They are foundational aspects of God’s eternal character and sovereign Lordship over the earth.
To suggest that the “higher” view of God is that God is “above” such emotions in his essence, and that such passionate depictions are simply anthropomorphic concessions to our limited ability to understand or due to Christ’s humanity, is to pull the rug out from under the most beautiful and exalted dimension of the Bible’s teaching on the nature of God. And, consequently, such approaches arrive at a view of God that is contrary to the view offered throughout Scripture, and embodied in Jesus Christ.
God, who created us in his image and is the source of all our strengths and virtues, must be viewed as being supremely passionate. Not only does God experience emotions, he experiences them to a degree that infinitely outruns our deepest and richest emotions. Rather than being impassible, we should see God as supremely passible.
For this, we are thankful.
Image by Dustin Scarpitti