The Emotions of God, David T. Lamb. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2022.
Summary: A study of the emotional language used of God in scripture, considering seven emotions spoken of both in Old and New Testaments.
The title of this book caught my attention. God has emotions? Readings in systematic theology taught me that God was impassible, that God does not experience passions or emotions, pain or pleasure, in ways that would change the unchanging God. Part of the reason for this is that emotions, at least as humans experience them do reflect real changes in our state of being, vacillating between highs and lows, sometimes unpredictably. Yet as this work amply demonstrates, scripture in many places attributes emotion to God. And the author freely admits that he does not believe in an impassible God, but rather one who is “affected emotionally by the behavior of humans” (p. 6). He chooses not to engage the theological discussion but rather to examine the biblical material supporting the idea of God having “emotions.”
It should be noted that in making this assertion that Lamb considers emotions not only to be strong feelings, but they may involve actions, can be rational, may be controlled, and may be understood. He then proceeds to introduce the scope of his study, seven emotions, all of which are evident in connection with God in the Psalms: hate (5:5; 11:5 45:7;), anger (6:1; 30:5; 78:21), jealousy (78:58; 79:5), grief (78:40), delight or joy (18:20; 22:8; 35:27), mercy (25:6; 28:6; 103:4), love (5:7; 25:6; 136).
In each of the following chapters Lamb takes one of the seven, defines the term, identifies the different Hebrew and Greek words used in Old and New Testaments respectively associated with the emotion, and then considers a number of key texts and what they reveal about these emotions in reference to God. With hate for example, he discusses what it may have meant to say “Esau I hated” or Jesus reference to “hating mother and brother and sister,” the latter which he would propose meaning “loving less.” In scripture, much of God’s “hatred” is directed against evil, and reflects the obverse of his intense love for his good creation, deeply hating anything that mars it and his good purposes for it. God hates injustice and falsehood. He discusses ways in which we do not hate like God (for example, being inconvenienced), and that we ought hate the things God hates, that sometimes, these should make us furious. He recommends that we take this to prayer but that this will also mean resisting evil and injustice.
In similar ways, Lamb moves from definition and word study to key texts to application with each of the seven. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of what God takes joy or delight in, from the creatures of the deep to his people, each and all of us! His chapter on sorrow centers on the reality that God may be grieved, and that Jesus wept deeply for Lazarus. He distinguishes compassion, which is more episodic and empathic with love that is faithful and enduring. In the process, Lamb invites us into the redemption of these emotions in our lives: to hate what God hates, to be angry but not sin, to be jealous for God and the things of God, to grieve and lament with God the world’s deep brokenness, to revel in and join in God’s delight in his world and people, to show mercy and compassion, and to love steadily and faithfully and selflessly.
My only wish would be that Lamb had said something more about emotions and how God may be both responsive and unchanging. We believe God is both transcendent and immanent, infinite and yet personal, is spirit, and yet in the second person of the Trinity, for eternity to come the Incarnate Son. As we hold other truths in tension, is there a way in which we are also called to hold God’s unchanging nature and evident emotional response to his creatures in tension? To deny a belief in impassibility does not seem enough, nor is a denial of the emotional language attributed to God. Often, we cannot fully explain these truths in tension, yet it seems we must hold them in tension in mystery, wonder, and faith, hoping that one day we will know more fully, even as we are known.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.