Does God Feel Sorrow?

Yesterday, in our morning bible study with the men, we had an interesting discussion about the character of God, the regretful God who has no regrets. Compare the following texts:

“I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments.” And Samuel was angry, and he cried to the Lord all night.” (1 Samuel 15:11, ESV)

“And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Samuel 15:35, ESV)

“And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.” (1 Samuel 15:29, ESV)

To understand these verses, we need to understand a number of key theological ideas/concepts.

First, God, as He is in Himself, can never be fully known by humans. The finite simply cannot comprehend the infinite. As a result, we can have no knowledge of God behind the back of His self-revelation to us. Even with this revelation, by far the greatest part of His glory will forever elude us.

Second, when God stoops to reveal Himself to human beings, He has to accommodate Himself to us. Calvin likened this process to an adult speaking to a toddler in a prattling baby language. In doing so, we acquire the child’s attention and help them understand what we mean. In such circumstances, grown up language is above their heads; they cannot understand it.

Third, one of the ways God accommodates Himself to human beings is to use anthropopathic and anthropomorphic language. So God describes himself as having human form— hands, feet, eyes, a mouth, etc. Now we know, God is a Spirit and is as such without body or parts, but still God stoops to our weakness, He gets down to our level and speaks of His hands at work moving things, protecting people, sustaining them, helping them, providing for them. We appreciate the metaphor, it makes sense. Similarly, God uses the language of human emotions (compassion, anger, grief, etc.) to describe His own feelings. Again, such language makes sense to us, it helps us understand.

Fourth, when the Westminster Confession of Faith tells us God has no passions (II.1), it does not mean He has no emotions, as if He was some cold slab of infinitely impassible concrete, like those statues of Buddha with the beginning of a smile always playing on the corner of his mouth, but never really forming. The Creed’s statement, “without body, parts, or passions,” means to describe God as a being whose emotional life doesn’t vary, He doesn’t have ups and downs, good days and bad days, His mental state (as so often is the case with ours) isn’t the plaything of unruly passions or circumstances. That is not to say, however, that He is emotionless. The Scriptures clearly speak of Him rejoicing over His people (Zeph 3:17), feeling wrath and anger (Deus 3:26), having compassion (Psalm 103:13), feeling grief (Eph 4:30), etc. Clearly God does indeed have a rich emotional life, replete with the full gamut of appropriate emotions: He feels they way He ought to feel in every given situation. Would it not be be morally abhorrent for God, the great Judge of all the world, to feel nothing in the presence of evil, betrayal, and injustice?

In affirming this, we must make a number of important caveats:

  1. God never changes; He is immutable. His being is not in flux. His emotions do not rise and fall. Although, to be sure, it may seem that way at times. But this is only from our perspective. So when God’s wrath flares up, it is not that God’s emotions are ruffled, but that the emergence of sin experiences the always present holiness of God in a new way. Think for example of the blue light of death in restaurants. It shines all day and all night. Only when flies come into contact with it do they experience destruction. So it is with God. The angels in heaven surrounded by His glorious holiness. They are not threatened by it. If they were to sin, however, their experience of this attribute would immediately change—but this new experience would reflect only the change of their status from innocent to guilty, it would not reflect any change in the character or being of God, who remains the same, yesterday, today, and forever.

    Furthermore, when God’s wrath flashes out against sin, it is always appropriate and always the same. God is not more touchy some days than on others. He does not overreact, nor is He ever underwhelmed by human evil. His response is always just right: He gives evil exactly what it deserves.

  2. God is never the victim of circumstance or of human action. His emotional response is always the appropriate response of One who preserves, upholds, and governs all things. He is never a helpless bystander. His emotional response to the story of human life is a response to a story He Himself is writing (Eph 1:11). So when the Scriptures describe God regretting making Saul King, the Scriptures are simply describing God’s emotional response to a story produced by His wisdom. He feels “grief” because He ought to, not because the situation is somehow out of His control. The Second Person of the Godhead became a victim in His human nature, but the Divine nature knows nothing of such helplessness, as if He could be influenced by events outside His control or will to change, as if things could “happen to Him.”

  3. When God employs anthropomorphic or anthropopathic language, He is conveying something that is meaningful about Himself to us. His words are true not only for us, but also for Him. This is an important point to make. The Truth is not lost in the accommodation—as some writers seem to suggest when they say things like, “Well, yes, that’s just a figure of speech. God uses the language of sorrow, but He doesn’t really mean that He is sorrowful. God could never be sorrowful. We have to uphold the doctrine of Divine Impassibility after all.”

    But don’t you see, such language makes a mockery of the whole revelatory process. For God clearly means to reveal something about Himself when He says, “God was sorry that He had made man (Genesis 6:6).” He is not saying nothing!

    How are we to extricate ourselves from this riddle? Well, might I suggest the fact that God made us in His image gives us a place at least to start. The imago dei makes meaningful comparison between the way God is, and the way we are possible. To be sure, this metaphorical relationship between God and mankind is not in any sense exhaustive (before or after the Fall). God is more than just like us, but He is not less— sin excepted of course!

    Without this point of contact with God, if God was only different from us in His being, thinking and feeling, if God were “wholly other” and there was no point of similarity, using the same words to describe God’s love and ours, God’s compassion and ours, God’s grief and ours, God’s anger and ours would in fact be meaningless, even deceptive. No, we use the same words because, at least at some level, there is commonality. Because some of His attributes are communicable, then communication is possible. While we can never know everything about Him, we can at least know Him and know who it is that we are knowing when we do.

Christ Covenant Church