Can We Hurt God’s Feelings?
As I grew in my knowledge of God it became even more difficult to accept this rather sappy idea, but it seemed I could not escape it. Through college I kept hearing about how “passionate” God was for me. I even knew a girl who had regular “dates” with Jesus. Sorry, but that just seemed rather creepy. Later I was told that our relation to God was a “sacred romance.” In seminary I thought things might get a bit clearer and was told that God had “unchanging emotions.” This made more sense – metaphysically God cannot change nor be affected, so of course however He feels cannot change or be affected either.
But then someone asked me what it meant for God to have feelings about things that did not affect Him. Hmmmm. Good question. Isn’t that like someone finding me in a bad mood and asking me what made me so mad –to which I answer, “Oh, nothing.” Another good question: Without a body what would it mean for God to have “feelings” in the first place? Double hmmmm. So I turned to The Theologian, St. Tommy himself, and found some interesting stuff that I thought might be of interest to other philosophy geeks.
There are different facets of passions by which we can discover if they may be found in God. First is the source of the passion. In God there can be no passions of sense, for these require a body with which to sense and that can undergo some change (as when our hearts beat faster to produce certain feelings), but God does not have a body, nor does He change. So when we speak of passions in God we are not using the term to mean “feelings” as we often do when ascribing these things to humans. Rather, we are referring to the intellect - the will. In good marriage counseling it is often pointed out that love is a choice more than a feeling – it is thus more properly said of love that it is an operation of the will (viz. the willing of the good of another), than a reaction of the emotions or body.
Second, we can also look at what a given passion is directed toward and in what way that passion is directed to its object. For example, sorrow’s object is some present evil. God cannot be directed toward evil, thus He cannot have sorrow. Joy is the opposite of sorrow for its object is the present good. God can have joy, for He is the ultimate good to which He is directed and in which He has joy. Hope is in relation to a good that is not present. Because God is directed to His own good, which is ever present, God cannot have hope. Fear, the opposite of hope, is relating to a non-present but threatening evil. Fear cannot be found in God then, Who cannot be threatened.
Using these metaphysical criteria one may deduce the appropriateness of assigning passions to God. For example, envy, which is sorrow over the good of another, cannot be found in God – not only because it requires sorrow, but it takes the good of another as being evil – and this confusion is not present in God. Anger, which is the willing of the evil of another due to sorrow over injury, cannot be found in God for it too requires sorrow and the willing of evil which God cannot do (in fact, if God were to will evil of a thing then it would simply not exist). Love, which is the willing of good for another, is not improperly said of God, for He wills the good of Himself and others. Joy and delight are properly attributed to God, for both require that one finds rest in a present good – which is God in Himself. Hatred, which is the willing of the evil of another is not properly said of God, unless one takes hatred to mean the willing of less good (which it often does in Scripture, see Luke 14:26 and Rom. 9:11-13). It is not that God simply wills less good for one than another, rather that the proper good of one is less than the proper good of another.
So what about the Bible passages ascribing the above passions to God? Thomas’ answer is simple: other than love and joy these other passions are said of God metaphorically. Often passions that are attributed to God are done so based on effects that, when considered from a human perspective, would usually indicate the passion’s presence (such as anger resulting in punishment). While it might at first seem merely arbitrary to label some statements in Scripture as metaphor and others as proper truths, we must remember that all metaphors require some prior knowledge of a thing’s essence in order to properly communicate. Thus, one’s prior metaphysical beliefs will determine how one takes these descriptions of God (for if they are all taken literally contradictions would result, see Num. 23:19 cf. Ex. 32:14). So in the end it is really more a matter of whose metaphysical system is most correct.