Does God Have Emotions? Part III

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radical wesley sliderChad Harrington wraps up his series, “Does God have emotions?” with his final installment. In this post, he focuses in on the person of Jesus in hopes of widening our understanding of God, and suggests we think of our emotions as part of being made in his image.

In Part 1 and Part 2, we looked at God’s anger and compassion from the Old Testament. My goal in this post is to explore God’s emotions from the life of Jesus, especially with regard to God’s covenant loyalty. This covenant ties the entire biblical narrative together. The person of Jesus, in whom the “fullness of the deity dwells bodily,” fulfills God’s covenant promises and shows us how God’s emotions function in flesh and blood as he displays God’s love (Col. 2:9).

Jesus was emotional.

Stephen Woorwinde wrote a book on the emotions of Jesus in the four Gospels.[1] He analyzes every emotion from Jesus’s life—from his indignation at the disciples to his broken heart in the upper room to his grief in Gethsemane and everything in between (Mark 10:13-16; John 13:18-21; Matt. 26:36-46). Jesus experienced a broad range of emotions, especially when it came to suffering people. With regard to compassion, in particular, the gospels record seven unique stories where Jesus was filled with compassion for “the crowds” who were “helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36).[2] He lived God’s emotions [insert hyperlink to Part II], but he also talked about God’s emotions.

Jesus described God as emotional.

One of the most notable parables Jesus ever told—which Mark Twain called the greatest short story of all time—gives us a clear picture of God’s heart. He begins by saying, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father give me my share of the inheritance.’ So he divided his property between them” (Luke 15:11-12).

The younger son throws all his father’s money away on prostitutes, hits rock bottom, and returns home in rags. He feels unworthy to be called a son. Instead of being angry, though, the father runs to his son. He throws him arms around him and kisses him. Jesus says that his father was filled with compassion for him.[3]

Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” depicts the scene of the father’s embrace. It is the featured picture for this series because it captures God’s emotions, bound together by his covenant. As Henri Nouwen points out, upon close examination you will see an important difference between the father’s two hands.[4] The right hand is soft and gentle, and the left hand is strong and secure. This is God’s kindness and severity together (Rom. 11:22). He shows both the compassionate touch of comfort and the strong hand of holiness. The hand of a mother and the hand of a father. Both elements are bound together by his unfailing commitment to the relationship. Learning of God’s emotions in the life and teaching of Jesus help us in at least three ways:

1. Knowing God.

The emotions that come with forgiveness provide a greater appreciation for God’s heart. When we experience sorrow over sin, we understand better the grief God feels over our sin or suffering. That’s why it says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (Eph. 4:30). God opens himself—Father, Son, and Spirit—to be affected by us, and by experiencing pain in the world caused by us or by others, we understand God’s pain better. We can empathize with him.

2. Knowing ourselves.

We are made in God’s image, so coming to terms with his emotional nature gives us liberty to embrace our own nature. This doesn’t give us license for living in unhealthy emotions, but an appreciation for what good emotions can bring—deep satisfaction and peace from enjoying his gifts, yet true sadness from evil and suffering.

3. Loving others.

Embracing God’s emotions also helps us love other people. Compassion, among other feelings, will drive us to action when we are emotionally healthy. More than mere affections, our emotions motivate us to love others.

So don’t shut off your emotions.

They are telling you something about God or yourself or both, and they may be giving you a signal to do something, like throw a big party for someone who finally comes home after a long time away. Or maybe your emotions are telling you to get help and healing. So listen. As we allow ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ, we will increasingly develop emotions like God, who knows how to let his emotions drive him toward covenant faithfulness and love.

[1] Jesus’ Emotions in the Gospels (New York: T&T Clark, 2011).

[2] The gospel accounts regard seven unique occasions when Jesus felt compassion for the people (Matt. 9:36; 14:14// Mark 6:34; 15:32// Mark 8:2; 20:34; Mark 1:41; 9:22; Luke 7:13) and three unique parables about God’s love (Matt. 18:27; Luke 10:33; 15:20).

[3] The word Luke uses is splagchnizomai, and it is used to describe deep-seated emotion—12 times in the gospels. It always describes how God feels about someone in suffering. The root of this word is related to the noun, splagchnon, which means “the inward parts of the body.”

[4] The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 99.

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