I recently overheard a good Catholic declare that God is without any sense of emotion. He asserted that all dimensions of the character of God (love, mercy, compassion, just anger, etc.) simply represent anthropomorphic thinking on the part of man. The argument continued that, if God had emotions, this would further make Him imperfect, because it would mean that He was subject to change. It is true that human words usually fail to even begin to capture or define a God who is the “same yesterday, today, or tomorrow.” Language often falls flat and meaningless—unless written by those very few like Saint Augustine who eloquently described God in his Confessions as “…the life of souls, the life of lives. You Live, O Life of my soul, because you are life itself, immutable.”
To explain all dimensions or manifestations of God’s rich character as simply anthropomorphic thinking, however, seems a profound over-simplification. Take Hebrews 5:7-10, for example.
In the days when he was in the flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son, though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
Perhaps the most striking example of the reality of Christ’s emotions is found amidst garden before His arrest (Luke 22:41-44).
After withdrawing about a stone’s throw from them and kneeling, he prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still not my will, but yours be done. And to strengthen him an angel from heaven appeared to him. He was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground. When he rose from prayer and returned to his disciples, he found them sleeping from grief.
As religious artist (and my father-in-law) John Collier pointed out, “even if these are anthropomorphic expressions, they are still more like emotions than anything else we might know in our own experience. By denying Him emotions, we make God feel nothing.” It’s hard to find a more beautiful account of love and tender care than the hen carefully gathering her chicks in Matthew 23:37. It is a reminder of the way in which God desires to shield us all from harm, and it directs our attention to his fathomless love.
Another profound insight into the loving character of our God is seen in the mysterious passage found in Exodus 32 11-14. The idea that the prophet Moses is able to convince God to change His mind and “repent” is almost beyond our understanding. Books could be written on this short passage alone, and it certainly implies that our God may respond to true and heartfelt emotion with a response best described as emotional. His love exists, and it is more real than the very air you are breathing. Anthropomorphic language, on the other hand, has a tendency to make its subject less than real in one’s mind.
As a writer of children’s stories, I employ anthropomorphic devices to infuse my non-human characters with human emotions or characteristics. Whether it’s a talking squirrel or a loquacious rabbit, it’s usually a literary device used to understand (or pretend to understand) creatures inferior to ourselves—not the other way around. To employ this kind of thinking about God is like placing Him within a box. There also seems to be a lack of reverence when we try to analyze and dissect His very nature and attempt to interpret it in terms with which we are the most comfortable—something like a gnat trying to dissect a galaxy. Let’s face it, we should not be comfortable before the majesty of God.
While we have many biblical examples of God's anger and "jealousy" and, most importantly, His deep and profound Love, one of the central arguments for God being without emotion is our understanding that external factors will not change God. Some make the misguided claim, for instance, that man mysteriously fulfills God in some way. They argue that qualities such as love could not be present without the existence of man, but this a false and dangerous line of reasoning. God is love. Man is dependent upon God’s mercy and grace, but God is entirely independent of man. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us in paragraph 370, “In no way is God in man’s image.” He does not share our needs or weaknesses, but He sacrificed His very Son in order that we might overcome our spiritual frailties and live forever with Him and the saints.
This brings us to a particularly interesting dimension of this discussion. In Saint Thomas’ masterpiece Summa Theologica, he argues that “emotions are movements of the sensitive appetite”. Since God possess no appetites and can’t be moved or changed, Saint Thomas seems to be saying that it’s impossible for God to have emotions. Now, I only studied Saint Thomas’ writings briefly at the University of Kansas, and I am about as far from being a scholar of his works as one can be. One writer, though, who had a profound understanding of Saint Thomas Aquinas was G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton, who interestingly enough referred to the “mirth” of God in the closing line of Orthodoxy, offered a wonderful portrait of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the saint’s biography. In the chapter entitled “The Permanent Philosophy,” Chesterton warns how clumsily modern language often struggles to grasp the correct meaning of this saint’s words. At times, the timeless truth of the text lies hidden by the years.
It is not simply the word for word translation from Latin that poses the challenge, but the need to also understand the historical and cultural context in order to grasp the intended meaning. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the usage history of the word “emotion” has only fairly recently conveyed an idea of feelings. Before that time, its meaning was more connected to effecting change or movement upon something. To be changed, however, is not necessarily the same as to experience an emotion. This demonstrates potential confusion in what writers of old sometimes intended by words such as “emotion”. Unlike The Word, words are subject to change as language evolves and grows. I am not declaring that G.K. Chesterton necessarily would have supported my line of thinking as offered in this essay, but I suspect that Saint Thomas was stressing more the immutability of God than he was asserting that God could not possess empathy for His creation. After all, love without empathy is like a candle without light.
In Everything You Wanted to Know about Heaven--But Never Dreamed of Asking, Dr. Peter Kreeft makes a distinction between active/willed and passive/reactive emotions and argues that only the active (or perfected) emotions are present within the nature of God. In other words, Dr. Kreeft is suggesting that God has emotions without change. In trying to pin down the characteristics of God with our limited understanding, we may at times be in danger of confusing this unchanging nature of God with our Creator's ability to interact and empathize with us. After all, Christ suffered in all things as we suffer.
To say that God has no shred of emotion, is then to disregard the human nature of our Savior. Since Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, isn’t it logical to conclude that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all possess emotional qualities? This also leads us to a theological term called communication of idioms. As Dr. Scott Hahn points out in his wonderful book entitled Hail, Holy Queen, this rule is what allows us to confidently call Mary the Mother of God. It’s saying that Christ’s two natures both reflect pure Truth. Whether they are human or divine attributes, they are all dimensions of the true nature of Christ Himself. It is by this principle that we may make statements such as God fell while carrying the cross, since God and Jesus are one. This unity also seems to imply the mystery of emotional consciousness within the Trinity. Couldn’t it be said that the emotions within us represent imperfect reflections of the perfect nature of God—e.g. love, anger, or sadness?
I also believe that God, outside of our time and space, may still be grieved by deplorable actions taking place on earth. Our hearts or souls, fashioned in the image of God, believe in a Father who is pained by the deaths of innocents. This grief, however, does not mean that God is changed. Look at the tragedy of abortion, and reflect on Sirach 35:17. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest until it reaches its goal…” Imagine these cries of pain each day from those thousands of persons who will never walk the earth, and whose very continued spiritual existence is so entirely in the hands and mercy of God. It is these tiny voices which may echo and reverberate through time and space, until they finally reach the very throne of God Almighty. It reminds me of the encouraging words of Revelation 7:16-17.
They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Indeed, we do trust that God hears and shepherds these innocents through the gates of heaven. Surely, the true and living God hears the cries of the children and has compassion—just as He heard and acted when Herod the king threatened the earthly life of His only Son in that city of Bethlehem.
As one priest put it, the argument may appear to boil down to the idea that “pure spirits simply do not have emotions—period.” If we take things to such an extreme that nothing outside of time changes or feels anything, however, we're going to have a challenge communicating or accomplishing much of anything in heaven. If nothing beyond time is subject to change, for example, wouldn't words like "then" cease to have any inherent meaning in the afterlife? Nothing could be completed, because nothing could be begun. Even communications would be impossible, since the beginning would also be the end. I have to think, at this point, that we must simply put our faith in God. It's a mystery, but we can trust in God's love that the place He has prepared won't seem alien to us, but will be more like coming home than anything previously imagined. That's part of the reason why I believe in a God with whom a personal relationship is possible and who understands and loves us in a profound way. His very emotional nature reflects the mystery, depth, and life of this love for us all.
As a personal aside, I would like to attempt to draw upon a private experience to perhaps further illuminate God’s nature in some small way. We have all probably had dreams that seem to be trying to tell us something mysterious about ourselves or our world. More importantly, though, are the dreams that convey a possible sense of well being concerning friends or relatives. When my grandmother collapsed while singing one of her favorite hymns in church a little more than two years ago and passed away in a hospital bed overlooking the fall tapestry of leaves across the Yakima valley some weeks later, it was the end of a long battle with macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s Disease. One night recently I dreamed that I was staring my grandmother in the face in life and telling her with certainty that one day her vision would be as clear and her mind as sharp as anyone could possibly imagine. She smiled, but her eyes seemed dim and cloudy—like they often were those last years. As I woke from the dream, I heard two words sounding loudly and forcefully from within my mind. As I recall, the words were simply “I am.” That was all, but that was enough. Although one doesn’t want to give much weight or significance to most of our daily dreams, some seem like shafts of heavenly light, illuminating the loving nature of a God who awaits us in a place where family and friends long gone patiently watch for our coming home. After all, there is no death in Christ.
We may struggle in our attempt to even begin to grasp the nature of God and eternity, but we know that our God is love. He cares for each of us. I imagine this love and tender care even with the coming and goings of the saints. It’s like God, the Great Physician, knows when to “administer” or send those persons most needed at that time by the suffering body of Christ. And it is through the lives of these selfless saints that we catch further glimpses of the nature of God. In fact, while our world continues to fall towards moral entropy and sin, we should remember that, even if things are getting worse in our world, there are more to intercessors to pray on our behalf in heaven. We won’t ever begin to really understand the mystery of our Creator in this life. In fact, we may not even be able to grasp it in the next; it’s all just too big to get our minds around.
When, by God’s grace, we should reach heaven and begin to meet those persons already in the presence of God, persons perfected in Christ and purified of any blemish, it will be as if we are beginning to know and understand God through each person we encounter. The many “faces” of God will be slowly revealed as we begin to know the one true face of the living God--both directly and through each of those persons we are blessed to meet.