Letter to Timothy

Dear Timothy, 

In my last letter to you we began a discussion of the emotions in the psychical life of man. You recall that we discussed two possible dangers which must be avoided in considering the emotions. The one is the danger of making the emotions such an important part of man’s life that they become a power in man’s life, independent from his mind and will. When this happens, the foundations of morality are undermined and a man no longer is responsible for what he does. And, one lets his life be governed by mere “feeling” so that he allows his conduct to be determined by “what pleases him.” The other danger is that we deny the emotions altogether, act as if they do not exist, and try, to regulate our lives in such a way that our emotions never reveal themselves. This is, of course, really impossible; but the danger is that we try to live in such a way that our emotions are surpressed. Both these dangers must be avoided. 

The Scriptures speak often of emotions and we ought, even though briefly, take a look at what the Scriptures have to say about this matter. 

If we look at the Scriptures, it is rather startling to discover that God is often described as having emotions. We are aware of this, of course; but the fact remains that we do not often live in this consciousness. We usually think of God as if He had no emotions at all. In our own thinking we often consider God as being cold, unmoved, without any feeling, not reacting in an emotional way to what happens on this earth and what happens in our own lives. If we think about his, I think that the reason why we have this idea of God is that we have a great deal of difficulty in imagining what emotions are like in God. The Scriptures teach that God is, in His own being and essence, the absolutely unchangeable One. He is from eternity to eternity the same. And, even as He is unchangeable in His own essence, so also He is unchangeable in all His works and in all His attitudes towards men. He eternally and unchangeably loves His people and He eternally and unchangeably hates the wicked. The problem is that when we think of emotions, we think in terms of our own emotions; and, in us, emotions always involve change. One day we are filled with love towards God and our lives are filled with the consciousness of God’s goodness to us. But soon that love grows colder and God is far from our thoughts. There is nothing quite so changeable in us as our emotional life. Because emotions always involve change in us we cannot see how God has emotions without also changing from one moment to the next. And so we, to preserve God’s unchangeableness, fail to reckon at all with the fact that God is indeed a God of emotions and feelings. 

This is a very difficult problem; and there are no easy solutions to it. But we must remember that our emotional life (as well as the life of our minds and wills) is but a dim and creaturely reflection of what is perfect in God. Although it is true that God is unchangeable, it is also true that God is emotional. And whether we can ultimately understand this or not, the fact remains true. 

There are countless texts in the Bible which speak of these emotions, and we must be careful to be faithful to the Scriptures also in this respect. To fail to do this has serious consequences in our own lives. To give but one example: our failure to reckon with the fact that God is angry with us when we sin leads us oftentimes to take sin less than seriously. Anger is a powerful emotion. In God it is much more so than in us. When God is angry with us, we know it, for we lose the consciousness of His favor and love upon us. .But failing to take this into account, we continue oftentimes in our ways of sin and act as if God’s anger is really nothing at all. Convincing ourselves that God has no real emotions, we think very little of His anger, when His anger ought to deter us from a sinful course of conduct. 

Let us look at just a few passages of Scripture which speak so emphatically of God’s emotions. 

Already in the days prior to the flood, when the wickedness of men was great in the earth, “It repented the Lord that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him at His heart” (Genesis 6:6). Although no emotion is specifically mentioned, it is not difficult to see the emotional impact upon God of the suffering of Israel in Egypt: “And God heard, their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them” (Exodus 2:24, 25). Nor is it .difficult to sense the Lord’s anger with Moses when we read: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:24). Or: “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses, and He said, Is not Aaron the Levite thy brother?” (Exodus 4:14). When Israel made the molten calf, God said to Moses: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them” (Exodus 32:10). Who can fail to see the profound love of God which is everywhere mentioned in Scripture, but which is so sharply emphasized in Deuteronomy 23:5: “Nevertheless the Lord thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee.” 

Especially in the Psalms one finds expressions which, if they were not in the Scriptures, we would not dare to use. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure” (Psalm 2:4, 5). “The Lord shall abhor the bloody and deceitful man” (Psalm 5:6). While surely one of the main themes, if not the main theme, of the Psalms is God’s hatred of the wicked and His love for His people, this is expressed by many different emotions which the Psalmists ascribe to God. The Lord is repeatedly called upon to arise in order to punish wicked and deliver His people. God is described as forgetting His servant (Ps. 13:1), as showing marvelous lovingkindness to those who put their trust in Him (Ps. 17:7), as forsaking the Psalmist and being far away from him (Ps. 22:1), as rebuking David in His wrath and chastening him in His hot displeasure (Ps. 38:1), as hurrying to help David in his troubles (Ps. 38:22), as awaking from sleep and rising from bed to come to the assistance of His people (Ps. 44:23), as, on the one hand, hiding His face, and, on the other hand, lifting up the light of His countenance upon His saints (Ps. 51:9). And so we could go on. God’s attributes, e.g., are often described in such a way in Scripture that they reveal to us deep emotions on the part of God towards His saints. He loves His people so greatly that He did not even spare His own Son to die the terrible death of the cross for their sins. His lovingkindness is so great that His heart is moved to save them from all their troubles. His longsuffering is towards them so that He can scarcely bear to see them suffer in this world, but He comes to save them as quickly as possible. In His mercy He is profoundly affected by their misery and longs to make them happy and blessed. When they sin against Him, He is angry with them, hides His face, chastises them as a father chastises his son; but this is also in love that He may correct them and teach them His ways. All these expressions show us the deep emotions which move the heart of God. 

In the same way Scripture not only speaks often of the emotional life of men, and particularly of the people of God, but even describes the calling of God’s people in emotional terms. The very heart of the law is to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds and souls and strength. And love is profoundly emotional. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but fear is, after all, a deep concern that we do not make our God angry by breaking His commandments and by doing that which displeases Him. Formal sacrifices are an abomination to the Lord because the Lord has pleasure in a broken spirit and a contrite heart. He who has not cried in anguish for his sins does not know what it means to be sorry for them. James, almost angrily, tells us: “Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness.” At the same time, Scripture admonishes, us to rejoice in the Lord, in fact, to rejoice always. We too must show compassion towards those in need just as our Father in heaven shows compassion to us. 

The Scriptures make it very clear that, while we share with all the wicked the emotions which God has created in us, here also there is the sharpest antithesis between the life of the wicked and the life of the people of God. Anger is certainly proper in the life of the people of God, but it must be anger against the right things and anger for God’s sake; not the uncontrollable rage of the ungodly. The people of God weep too—just as the world; but when God takes a loved one from them they weep not as those who have no hope. There is happiness in the life of the saints, but not the ribald mirth, the silly joking, the inane banter which characterizes a wicked generation which tries to hide its great sorrow with an outward and external cloak of “fun.” Every emotion in the life of the child of God must be brought under the control of grace and must be sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. Here too, from a spiritual point of view, we share nothing with the world. 

What is important to attain this high calling is to understand that emotions are not a separate “power” of the soul alongside of the mind and the will. The emotions also are part of the functioning of the mind and the will. The emotional life of man, when it is as it ought to be; is a certain phase of the activity of our minds and wills. I am not sure that “phase” is the right word here; perhaps it would be better to speak of “characteristic.” However that may be, we will probably be able to understand this a bit better if we give some closer attention to the different kinds of emotions. But this; shall have to wait till another letter. 

Fraternally in Christ,

H. Hanko