In asking this question, this is not so much a question about whether God acts missionally – Scripture is pretty clear that God acts in such a way as to bring about God’s redemptive purposes of making all things new – rather, this question is asking: in what way or how does God act when God acts missionally? How does God relate to us? As an aloof deity or as One who is engaged with us? And in being engaged with us, is God stoic with “stiff upper lip” or is God capable of expressing emotion? And if God is capable of expressing emotion, does God express emotion? And if God is emotional, how does that shape our understanding of God in relationship with us and we being in relationship with God?
These questions are on my mind this week for two reasons. One I was asked if I was available to lead a lecture I have developed on the nature of the missional God this weekend in which I talk about how God’s missional nature is all about the living God engaging us relationally, personally, and second, reading a recent article in which theologian Kevin Vanhoozer asks “does God’s love entail emotional change (for example, suffering?)” (Vanhoozer, “Does a Red-Faced God Sing the Blues?” Trinity Magazine, Fall 2012, p. 19).
Though I have more questions than answers, here are some of my questions and thoughts.
In any relationship to be real and for there to be growth in relationships people need to engage each other openly, revealing and sharing themselves. As we talk about being in relationship with God and God relating to us, it seems that it not only involves our opening ourselves to God, but God revealing and being open and transparent with us – for we can only know God as God reveals himself to us.
In the past, theology has sought to describe God in non-anthropomorphic terms – i.e., God does not have human traits – form or emotions, yet, Scripture often gives expression to God’s hand or arm being powerful enough to save, etc. – Scripture seems more comfortable with describing God in humanly understood ways. In describing ourselves as human beings made in God’s image, I wonder to what extent our beingness and our emotions are indeed not only a mark of our humanity, but indeed an aspect of our being created in God’s image? What in God has led us to be creatures who have emotion and act emotionally? I do not believe it is only a result of our rebellion – we were created to be emotional beings by a God who is aware of his own emotions. Emotion, as Vanhoozer describes, is a cognitive state, a state of awareness (cf. Vanhoozer, p. 21). Emotion, then, is not only a vital part of our being open and transparent with one another as we seek to develop our relationship with one another, it is also an attribute or characteristic of God being the Living God.
So, if growing in relationship with one another involves submitting ourselves to one another – as we are called to do in Ephesians 5: 21, then in what way does God in being in relationship with us submit to us in being in relationship with us as God’s people, as disciples of Jesus? For any relationship to be a relationship a mutual submission needs to take place.
For me, recognizing that God walks with us, that God engages us, that God indeed has emotion does not diminish the holiness nor the magnificence of God for me, rather it leads me to even deeper worship because I begin to see God as One who takes the risk of being emotional, the risk of being real, in order to be in a real relationship with me. I think this is what is unique about God known as Yahweh which sets God apart from all other depictions or manifestations of God.
Also, if Jesus is the exact representation of God, how is Jesus in his humanity also an expression of the “humanity of God?”
I realize my thoughts here are merely crude theological expressions of God as an emotional being. But perhaps we struggle with the idea of God being emotional because when we are emotional we seem to be out of control of our own actions or responses – and so we think that God loses “control” when God responds and acts emotionally.
But what if it is not about “control” but about being responsive? What if God’s emotions are not unbridled, “out of control” passions, but expressions of God’s love and concern in relationship creating ways? Taking control seems to be more of an aspect of our rebellion against God, our wanting not to be in relationship with God – wanting to be in charge of our destinies. But I believe God never intends to “control” us – God is continually described in Scripture as one who is with us, walks with us, comes alongside of us, converses with us – God speaks to us, God initiates with us, and God responds to us. Being in relationship is not about control, it is about responding. It is our desire to be in control that we harm not only our relationship with God but with one another as well.
I remember when my daughter was going through some troubling times she was wondering why I was not getting angry with her. I remember my response to her: “Would that help? I express frustration, anger over stupid stuff, like forgetting to take care of something, or leaving the car lights on, or you doing some bonehead kind of thing in which you were not thinking – but what you are going through now requires us to walk together over the long haul.” My response to her was deeply emotional, though not an irrational outburst. Often times when we read about God’s emotion I wonder if we interject our own irrationality upon God, rather than seeing God expressing emotion, concern, love, care – as the waiting Father did patiently waiting for the prodigal son’s return (cf. Luke 15:11-32), we think that all emotion has to do with not being in control of our feelings. My being emotional in this way with my daughter healed and strengthened our relationship.
This lack of control of our feelings, I believe, has more to do with our thinking that being rationalistic is the best way to comport ourselves in situations – but that is to deny an essential aspect of who we are, of who we are as ones created in God’s image. What if we respond to one another and to God, with our whole beings – our minds, our hearts, our souls, and our bodies – rationally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically? Likewise, I believe God leads us and responds to us with God’s whole Being – rationally, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically (incarnationally in Jesus Christ).