The Emotional God
A couple of years ago, I was sitting on my front porch steps after dinner, watching my two oldest daughters playing and complaining to God in my head. I don’t remember what it was (nothing too serious), but the husband had done something to chap my hide. As I wound down my complaints and let the whole thing go, I asked God in an almost off-handed way, “do you ever have to deal with people treating you like this?” At which point I’m pretty sure all of heaven burst into hearty guffaws. But soon a funny thing started happening: as I dealt with people in my life, often some parallel experience between God and people would pop into my head.
Sometimes it was something little, like calling someone who did not answer their phone. How often does God try to reach out to people who ignore or reject the call because they are too busy, inattentive or just don’t feel like it? I would ask one of my boys to load and run the dishwasher only to discover at dinnertime hours later that we had no clean pots, plates or utensils. Suppose God ever asks people to do things that don’t get done? Occasionally, I would have to deal with someone who insisted on talking over me, refused to listen to my perspective or treat it with respect. Yeah, I’m sure God never has to deal with stuff like that, right?
By the next summer a variety of calamities, traumas and disappointments had hit my family full force. As the stress and anger mounted and my husband started to dissemble and then turn on me, these parallels became more pointed and poignant. Loving someone who is being supremely difficult, unreasonable and hostile turns out to be something that God is intimately familiar with. (And much better at than me!)
On our wedding anniversary in 2010, the husband and I got into one of our now-daily arguments. In the middle of it, an accusation was made which was so unfair, wrong and shocking that I stormed out of the house when he refused to back down. He had taken something I did which was good – very, very good – and which had saved our family from disasters none of us would be likely to ever recover from and used it to accuse me of betraying him. It was this very good thing which I had done which was at the root of his extreme hostility to me, he informed me. As I drove off, I was irate and devastated. Into the middle of this, God very strongly brought to mind the crowds yelling “Crucify him!” when Pontius Pilate offered to release Jesus. Jesus was far more innocent than me. He had come to his people – the Jews – out of love. And in the end, he too had what he did out of goodness and love used to condemn him by those same people he was loving and serving. And you know what? It hurt him too.
More than anything, that’s the lesson I have learned: God feels. Jesus felt. Our emotions didn’t come out of nowhere. They are part of who we are as image-bearers. Through the millenia, we have heard a good amount about the angry God. But we don’t hear nearly enough about the God whose heart has been broken. When the Israelites turned to other gods, this wasn’t some violation of the rules. It was a betrayal that carried just as much pain and grief for God as an unfaithful spouse brings into the life of his or her partner. When Jesus’ family rejected him, he didn’t placidly say, “oh well – their loss.” He was hurt just like anyone whose family rejects them is. When Jesus got snippy with disciples who were clueless, it wasn’t simply the reaction of a teacher with dense pupils. The disciple’s cluelessness highlighted the extent to which they just didn’t “get” their friend and teacher. It’s very hard to be in an intimate relationship with someone who completely misunderstands who you are. Religious rulers who fixated on rules while ignoring the heart of God were engaging in behavior not much different than those who spread malicious, false rumors.
God may not have our financial or health problems, but he’s been far from immune to the sort of relationship problems which often tear the rest of us apart. If anything, most people are even more dysfunctional in their dealings with God than they are in their other relationships. What hurts us isn’t a concern to God just because he cares about us; he also cares because he knows what it’s like. We are so much less alone in all of this than we realize. Sure God is unchanging, but that hardly means he’s unfeeling.
Although it started spontaneously, I now try to make a habit of looking for these parallels between my own experience and God’s experiences with us. First, it serves as a great corrective to my own responses to the challenges I face. I can’t just take my own emotional reactions and paste them onto God. No matter what God feels, he is always moving and acting with love. I need to be doing likewise – no matter how hurt, mistreated and angry I may be.
Secondly, I am often brought to repentance by the realization of the potential emotional impact that my own behaviors. I have found that knowing you’ve done something you shouldn’t do is a much different experience than facing the fact that you have almost certainly caused pain to someone you love (like God, presumably). I know that I am and have always been forgiven for all of it, but often I find myself offering a genuine and sheepish “sorry about that”.
Finally, allowing my own painful situations and feelings to inform my understanding of God’s experiences makes God more real. Not real as in “He exists”. Real as in authentic, close, approachable and capable of a back-and-forth relationship. It’s like the experience of growing up and getting to know your parents as real people rather than authority figures and role models. Years ago someone pointed out that we start as clay in God’s hands, become sheep, then children, servants and finally friends. A lump of clay, a sheep, even a child or servant often doesn’t know the mind of the sculptor, shepherd, parent or master. Friends share their experiences with each other. Friends don’t just know each other’s histories; they know what those histories meant to each other. This is what I want with God – a real friendship. Opening myself to understanding God’s experiences as not nearly as different as my own has brought that possibility closer than ever.
Perhaps some of the laughter which seemed to answer that silly question – “do you ever deal with people treating you like this?” – was the sound of delight as well. So as you deal with the challenges inherent in being relational creatures, you too may want to stop and ask God, “ever dealt with something like this?” In my experience, he’d be more than happy to show you when you are ready to listen.