About ten years ago, I was teaching a course on the psalms for my seminary students in the midst of a personal health crisis. It wasn’t in my notes, but I spontaneously ended up sharing with my students about my pain, my frustration, and my struggle to understand why God wasn’t healing me. I wept.
Immediately afterwards, I experienced regret, feeling embarrassed about my inappropriate display of emotion in class. I hoped that if I just never mentioned it again, the students would just forget about it. They didn’t.
At the end of the course, students told me that my tears were the most powerful lesson in the course, what they would remember long after they had forgotten the content. Their comments confirmed what I should have known from Scripture. Leaders in the Bible were not afraid of emotions, but displayed them openly and honestly. Emotions make messages more impactful.
I think my reluctance to express emotions is not unique. Many of us are understandably reluctant, or perhaps even fearful of expressing emotions. We all know “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). (It was the first verse we memorized.) Why then are we reticent to express emotions?
There are a variety of reasons, but I see three primary ones. First, emotions seem irrational. They can cloud our ability to think clearly. Second, emotions seem uncontrollable. They can prompt us to do stupid things that we’ll later regret, particularly in anger. Third, emotions seem confusing. They are hard to understand. “Why am I feeling like this?—I don’t know.”
Each of these factors can make us not only want to avoid expressing emotions, but also of attributing emotions to God. Depending upon our theological tradition, we may believe that speaking of God with human emotions—irrational, uncontrollable, and confusing—somehow dishonors God. But since God is shown in the Bible to be highly emotional, de-emphasizing his emotions does not honor him—it distorts his character. In the Bible, the emotional side of God is not hidden, but praised.
Emotions are seen in many ways in Scripture. God’s word talks about God’s emotions. While the whole Bible speaks about God’s emotions, perhaps the Psalms is where we see his emotions most clearly. The Psalms depict seven primary divine emotions.
- God hates (Ps. 5:5; 11:5; 45:7).
- God gets angry (Ps. 6:1; 30:5; 78:21).
- God is jealous (Ps. 78:58; 79:5).
- God is grieved (Ps. 78:40).
- God delights (Ps. 18:19; 22:8; 35:27).
- God shows mercy (Ps. 25:6; 28:6; 103:4).
- God loves (Ps. 5:7; 25:6; 136).
Interestingly, the Hebrew name for the book of Psalms is Tehillim, or “Praises,” which is appropriate since one of the most important things the Psalms teach us is how to praise. And within the book, the psalmist spends a lot of time praising God for his emotions. When we speak of God’s character, we need to allow the Bible to shape our praise, which should lead us to praise him for his emotions.
Not only do the psalmists and other authors of Scripture describe God having emotions, but God himself does it as well. He talks freely and openly about his emotions. In the midst of the Ten Commandments, God declares that he is “a jealous God” (Exo. 20:5). A few chapters later, Yahweh states that if his people don’t care for the marginalized, his “wrath will burn” (Exo. 22:23).
Centuries before Jesus wept for Lazarus, Yahweh said, “My heart cries for Moab…I drench you with my tears (Isa. 15:5; 16:9). In Jesus’ parables of a coin, a sheep, and a son, he describes how joy characterizes God—and should therefore characterize his people—when precious things that were lost are found (Luke 15). God is not embarrassed about his emotions, but speaks about them boldly and frequently. God’s people should do the same.
We see this within God’s Word as God’s people express their emotions. Humans created in the image of God should naturally talk about and express emotions like God does. Some theologians are worried about attributing human emotions to God, but I’m more concerned about not attributing divine emotions to people, as we see them revealed in Scripture. To illustrate how the people of God express their emotions, we could look at any of the seven divine emotions mentioned earlier, but I’ll focus just on sorrow, manifested in tears.
The people of God throughout Scripture weep: Abraham (Gen. 23:2), Joseph (he wept a lot; e.g., Gen. 42:24, 43:30:45:14-15), Hannah (1 Sam. 1:10), King David (he also wept a lot; e.g., 2 Sam. 1:11-12, 3:32; 12:21-22), Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 8:11-12), King Josiah (2 Kings 22:18-20). Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet (Jer. 9:1). Peter wept after his denial of Jesus (Mark 14:72). Mary Magdalene wept at the empty tomb of Jesus (John 20:11). The Ephesian elders wept as Paul departed (Acts 20:37). John wept when no one was found worthy to open the scroll (Rev. 5:4). From beginning to end, the Bible is full of weepers.
And most of these emotional displays were public. They were not only expressing their emotions, but they were modeling healthy displays of emotions for the people of God. And the divinely inspired authors of Scripture decided that these emotions should not be ignored, but should be recorded for us to learn from. So as we preach and teach these stories about the emotions of God and of God’s people, I encourage you to feel, to talk about, and to even express emotions, because after all, emotions are divine.
David T. Lamb is the Allan A. MacRae Professor of Old Testament and dean of faculty at Missio Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He previously worked in campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and has taught extensively in various cross-cultural contexts. He is the author of The Emotions of God, God Behaving Badly, Righteous Jehu and His Evil Heirs, and The Historical Writings: Introducing Israel’s Historical Literature (coauthored with Mark Leuchter).
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