Human Emotions vs. God’s Emotions
Humans experience emotions differently than God. God is consistently slow to anger. Many of us struggle with being quick to anger. God’s jealousy is always pure and appropriate, whereas many of us struggle with unhealthy forms of jealousy. So there’s gonna be a lot of ways it’s gonna look different for God than it does for humans. But according to the Bible, God is shockingly described as emotional in many contexts, and there’s a lot we could say about that.
Dr. David T. Lamb Explains God’s Jealousy
Many psychiatrists and psychologists will differentiate between healthy and unhealthy jealousy. The Bible does the same thing. In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul says, ‘For I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy; for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ.’ He wants them to be exclusively focused on God. No fooling around with idols that they may be tempted to worship. It is completely appropriate to be exclusively focused on God and to worship Him only.
So when we mess around with other idols, God gets jealous. Many people say that if you can express that you are jealous, that is usually a sign that what you’re experiencing is a healthier form of jealousy. God is clear about His jealousy. He owns it, explains it, and always gives a reason for it.
Primary and Secondary Emotions
I meet with a woman named Christine, who’s a spiritual director. And in our pilgrimage together, I will talk about being angry, and she will often tell me that anger is a secondary emotion and there’s usually something behind it. The problem with these emotions is that it’s hard to nail them down. Often, we don’t feel a simple binary emotion but rather an array of emotions that we’re feeling at any given point in time. And I think anger is complex. In Scripture, it’s often connected with hatred and jealousy. The Bible makes it clear that that is how God feels in certain situations.
What Happens When God is Angry?
I like to look at the book of Exodus. In Exodus 4, Scripture tells us the first time God got angry. If you’re familiar with the story of Moses’ call, Moses is rather hesitant. He offers a series of objections because he doesn’t want to return and deliver his family from Egyptian oppression. God’s patient with him initially, but God gets angry eventually. He gets angry because Moses is unwilling to help. Later on, God gets angry about His people when they worship the golden calf in Exodus 32.
We see some jealousy mixed in with this anger. There are two emotions associated with God far more than any other: anger and love. But consistently, God is described as being abounding in steadfast love. His love is overwhelming and overflowing. God is love; His anger is limited. He is slow to anger and angry at His people when they are not loving or caring for other people. When God is angry, what’s behind it is His love.
What Provokes The Anger of God?
A lack of trust is a lack of faith. It’s like a parent struggling with a young or old child. We want to protect them. We get angry at them when they do something dangerous, which gets their attention. But anger is an appropriate response for God to His people when they don’t trust Him. They’re not putting their faith in Him.
The Seven Emotions Dr. David T. Lamb Chose
People have asked me, ‘Why did you pick these seven emotions, and why not some of these others? Or what was one emotion you wished you would have or could have picked if you’d added another chapter?’ I couldn’t find any other emotion that is frequently associated with God. My list includes hate, anger, jealousy, joy, compassion, love, and sorrow. These seven are associated with God and His people. Fear and shame aren’t associated with God in Scripture. As I looked at my list, I noticed that in a lot of the classic formulations from Aristotle, Darwin, Plutchik, and even Inside Out, the emotions listed are the same.
God’s Emotion in Exodus
The golden calf is a classic story. It’s one of the worst sins in human history, after eating the fruit in Genesis 3. God has just delivered His people from hundreds of years of oppression. He takes them out to Mount Sinai and gives them the ten commandments. The Israelites say, ‘All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!’ Then, in Exodus 32, Moses has gone for a while, and they build a golden calf. God is aware of it from Mount Sinai, and He gets mad and says, ‘Go down at once, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have behaved corruptly.’ Most of us had a parent with a lot of anger. In those situations, you avoid them.
Moses steps in, which is one of the bravest things anybody’s ever done in Scripture. God is angry, and Moses steps in the gap and convinces God to change His mind and not wipe out the people. Then God reveals His compassion and that He was willing, because Moses stepped in, to show mercy to people that deserved judgment. But I love this description because it’s filled with emotional language, and God describes Himself emotionally.
Does God Accommodate Himself to Humans?
God is always accommodating Himself to humans. We are finite beings and will never fully fathom the depths of God and God’s character. We’re the vessels of clay that will never be able to say to the clay maker, ‘Why have you made me thus?’ If you want to be overwhelmed with how different we are from God, read Job 38-40. I do not feel comfortable saying that these accommodations somehow misrepresent God and His character. This is still who God is. If the emotive description of God’s character in Exodus 34 only showed up there, it would be a different story. But versions of it show up all over the Old and New Testaments.
Jesus is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, and there’s a way that Jesus is in some ways different from God the Father. But when we talk about Jesus walking around in Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Jerusalem, He was fully God. God’s accommodating, but He never changes. The Bible’s emotional descriptions of God are very accurate.
The Continuity of God The Father and Christ The Son
The thing for me that was maybe a little surprising is all of these ways that I see God behaving in Jesus in the gospels. Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus and Jesus weeping over the city of Jerusalem. And yet, we see something similar in Isaiah 14-16, where a lot of commentators think that God is speaking and weeping over the cities He had to judge. We also see it in Genesis 6, where right before the flood, God grieved. He was sorry, and that’s the God of the Old Testament.
So the ways that Jesus spoke about His own emotions and the narrators’ descriptions of Jesus’ emotions are all connected with the God of the Old Testament. There’s a continuity between Yahweh in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament. For me, that’s beautiful and quite compelling. And the stoic God that we seem to encounter in some of the theologians we read is not as compelling. That’s not the God that I encounter in the pages of Scripture.
Dr. David T. Lamb Explains The Problem of Emotions
Like almost anything, God can redeem our intellect, or the enemy can corrupt it and use it for evil’s sake. Likewise, our emotions can seem uncontrollable and confusing. The God of the Bible still is associated with emotions, and so I think He can redeem them. Now the reality is we do just feel emotions. And I think, generally, it’s better to talk about them than not talk about them.
God talks about emotions. He models for us a healthy way to talk about emotions. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, uses emotional language when He talks to Peter, James, and John. He doesn’t shy away. God in Exodus says He is a jealous God. There is a downside to emotions, but there are also many upsides. As a speaker, you can manipulate your audience emotionally, so we need people around us who can hold us accountable.
The God of the Bible weeps. And the people of God weep throughout Scripture. Sometimes what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus is that I’m going to weep. God’s emotional character does not change. He models for us appropriate ways to talk about and express emotions. The clearest example is that God is consistently slow to anger. And Paul tells us to be slow to anger and that we can be angry but not sin. There are calls in Scripture to be able to control our emotions and display them in a healthy way.
What Does it Mean to ‘Hate Your Family’ and Follow Jesus?
I agree with Paul in 2 Timothy 3; all Scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching. So if the Bible talks about hate, I have to talk about hate. When Jesus tells us we must hate our family or other important things, He’s using hyperbolic language. What He means is we have to love these things less than Him. There are places in the Old Testament where hatred comes up, but I don’t think it means a smaller amount of love like it does when Jesus uses it.
Jesus is one of the most provocative people in Scripture and history. It gets my attention, and hopefully, it will cause me to make sure that my focus is on Jesus and Him alone. Everything else should pale in comparison.
What Does Hate Mean in The Bible?
Malachi 1:2-3 says, ‘I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, How have You loved us? Was Esau not Jacob’s brother? declares the Lord. Yet I have loved Jacob; but I have hated Esau, and I have made his mountains a desolation and given his inheritance to the jackals of the wilderness.’ Anytime we look at these texts, we must read in light of Scripture. Paul’s got a little bit of a different take in Romans 9. The story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis also has different points that we could make. The thing to focus on is the meaning of Malachi 1. There I see judgment against the Edomites for how they treated His people.
The other thing we need to remember is that The Bible was written originally in Hebrew, Greek, and a little bit of Aramaic. Words like hate are problematic because they don’t appear in the original Greek and Hebrew. So we’re using words with a similar semantic range, but there will always be a little bit of a problem there. I think God intended for some of these texts to be provocative.
The Core Emotion of God
All of these emotions, but maybe even shockingly so, the ‘negative ones,’ are motivated by the love of God. It may not always be obvious, but it doesn’t take a lot of work to see that what is motivating God’s hate, wrath, anger, or jealousy is love. It’s the same way you are jealous of your wife if someone hits on her. You could talk about it in a way that’s unhealthy and maybe manipulative, or you could talk about it in a way that’s more straightforward, honest, and direct. Paul does it in 2 Corinthians 11:2. He wants them to be exclusively devoted to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, because he loves them.
Dr. David T. Lamb’s Overview of The Love of God
Love is the only emotion that God is, and all these other emotions are somehow tied up. If there is one emotion to rule them all, it’s far and away, love. But what I pushed into is that people will talk about it as tough love. When Jesus interacted with the rich young ruler, He looked at him and loved him, and told him he had to sell everything. If someone were to say that to me today, it wouldn’t sound very loving.
We would say he just needs to be willing to do that. He doesn’t have to do it. That’s not what Jesus said. Read how often Jesus loved people by speaking truth to them in a way that made them uncomfortable. My call as a follower of Jesus will sometimes mean that I will call other people to follow Jesus in a way that won’t seem like love. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to lay up treasures in heaven, Jesus gave this man the best financial advice he could ever receive. In the world that we live in today, that’s hard because we struggle with idolatry, particularly money. For Jesus to tell people that to love, we must focus on Him alone is the most loving thing He could do for His followers.
About Dr. David T. Lamb
Dave Lamb loves to teach the Bible. This passion was developed during twenty years of ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, first as a student at Stanford (BA, MS), and then on IV staff in LA and Philadelphia. Studies at Fuller (MDiv) and Oxford (MPhil, DPhil) deepened his love for the Old Testament. He has been teaching OT at Missio Seminary (formerly Biblical) since 2006.
His dissertation, Righteous Jehu and his Evil Heirs was published in 2007 (Oxford). He wrote three popular books, The Emotions of God: Making Sense of a God Who Hates, Weeps, and Loves (IVP, 2022), God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist (IVP, 2011), and Prostitutes and Polygamists: A Look at Love, Old Testament Style (Zondervan, 2015). He also wrote a textbook, The Historical Writings (with Mark Leuchter, Fortress, 2016) and a commentary, 1-2 Kings (Zondervan, 2021). Dr. Lamb became the Allan A. MacRae Professor of Old Testament in 2016 and the Dean of the Faculty in 2017.
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