Is God Moody?
Have you ever seen someone so moved by emotion that you could tell their brain had kind of checked out? Maybe you’ve been there yourself. Sadly, I know I have. Whether it’s the result of anger, frustration, confusion, or despair, there’s a certain look in a person’s eyes when they’re operating on pure emotion. God never experiences this.
The doctrine of impassibility describes how God isn’t controlled by passions. While I hope you have control over your emotions, at least most of the time, you can certainly relate to experiencing emotions that don’t match reality.
Think of a surprise birthday party. You walk into a dark room, and all of a sudden, a lot of people jump out at you. Your immediate response might be shock or fear, but in your rational mind you’d be elated or happy. God never experiences anything like this. There’s never a time when God’s emotions dictate his attitude toward a situation. God is never out of control.
Now, to be clear, there are plenty of passages in the Bible that talk about God having feelings. Again, this is anthropomorphic language. Passions or emotions don’t affect God the way emotions affect us. We can’t read our experience into God.
So whatever it means in such descriptive passages about God, we must keep the prescriptive passages in mind. For example, Malachi 3:6 that tells us God never changes, and Hebrews 13:8 says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. When we see a change in God’s mood, we need to ask how this change fits with passages that say God doesn’t change. How can we make sense of the two realities — passages that say God doesn’t change and passages that describe God changing from anger to delight?
Here’s the way I try to help my students think about this topic. God has a fixed attitude toward every possible situation. For example, God feels a certain way toward sin. He always has. He always will. God feels a certain way toward repentance. He always has. He always will.
So if, in a given passage, we see God angry at sin, it has nothing to do with God changing. That’s who God is. If we see God pleased by repentance, this has nothing to do with God changing. That’s who God is.
In such cases, what has changed isn’t God. The situation has changed. God has a fixed attitude toward every situation, and if the situation changes, we will see God’s fixed attitude toward that changed situation. The clear passages in Scripture teaching us God doesn’t change, prescriptive passages, help us make sense of less clear passages where it seems like God is changing, descriptive passages.
I remember as a kid getting irritated at the Rubik’s Cube. I couldn’t figure the dumb thing out. Unlike my kids today, I couldn’t watch YouTube videos to learn the patterns for solving the multicolored, three-dimensional puzzle from the underworld. The more I turned that square, the more the colors got jumbled. If you’ve learned how to work a Rubik’s Cube, you know there are some set patterns to follow to get all the colors lined up. If you don’t know the patterns, it always feels a bit arbitrary, or willy-nilly, as if the thing just refuses to comply.
So I did what any young kid would do who wanted to get it right but just couldn’t. I peeled the stickers off and then put them back on with all the colors on the right sides. To be honest, it wasn’t very convincing. In peeling them off they lost a lot of their stickiness; now the color squares were just barely hanging off their spots. I didn’t fool anybody. I hadn’t solved the puzzle. I had only changed the properties of the Rubik’s Cube to fit my purposes.
Sometimes we think we can do this with God. We think we can manipulate him so that his emotion will lead him to do something contrary to what we know to be true of his character. Unlike the Rubik’s Cube, this is impossible. We can’t get God to make an emotional decision.
God’s actions are always perfectly proportionate to his character. God’s character never changes. When it looks like God has changed in the Bible, we should explore those passages for changes in the situation: people’s attitudes, behaviors, and decisions—not changes with God’s character or being.
This post is an excerpt of my new book Sketchy Views: A Beginner’s Guide to Making Sense of God (New Growth Press, 2023).