Is God sensitive? And if he is, what difference does it make?
But first, what do we mean by sensitive? Is it another way of saying “very alert” or “acutely aware”? God, as Psalm 139 promises, knows all our thoughts and our every word even before we speak. And in Matthew 7 we read that he has every hair on our heads counted.
That’s reassuring, of course, as it reveals God’s full awareness. But it doesn’t answer the affective question: does he care for us? As in a wife whispering to her husband after a difficult exchange, “Thanks, dear, for listening so well.” Or a friend who knows just what to say to his or her companion about a crushing loss.
In asking about God’s sensitivity we also need to consider the reciprocal: does he desire to be cared for? Can we hurt him? We ask this because in our human experience sensitivity is mutual. We love and are loved; and we offer love and are grieved if our love isn’t received and returned.
But do these emotions represent an exception: a realm of incommensurability where God is wholly unlike his creatures?
Not if the Bible speaks clearly. Scriptures regularly present him as like us; this because we are made in his image and share his prior relational qualities. God’s tender mercies are seen, for instance, in Hosea 11 where God’s heart is torn by his chosen people: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim.” Elsewhere we find Jesus grieving over Jerusalem; and in separate settings the Spirit is said to have been grieved and quenched.
Our understanding here has implications for faith. We guard or hide our emotions around emotionally distant figures. So when we read of “faith working through love” in Galatians 5:6 our view of God is in play. Can real faith exist apart from our having a felt assurance of God’s love?
By now many readers may by wondering why I’m exploring the prospect of a disaffected God. The Bible, after all, is thick with the language of God’s love, loving kindness, mercy, tenderness, and more. And we regularly sing songs, hymns, and choruses that celebrate God’s love. So why this question?
Here’s why. If we assume that power sustains authority—and God is the ultimate authority—then God’s power must be his defining quality. Aristotle, among the classic Greek theologians, made this a starting point for deity and many Christian thinkers have since assimilated his view. God is seen as the ultimate cause of causes: the unmoved mover. So to think that he can be moved—as in responding to human emotions or actions—is to deny his status as God.
This, in turn, leads these theologians to reinterpret the biblical language of God’s love. A face-value reading—in which the affective mutuality of love is a given—proves to be incoherent. So they quietly shift away from the language of human love in favor of a divine version of love as disaffected choice. This, in turn, means that God is eternally insensitive.
Yet—because most young Christians presume that God’s love is affective—the shift isn’t widely advertised. That, in turn, creates a conflicted middle ground in Christian education. Teachers who embrace this anthropopathic reversal—and who write our theology textbooks—have a major chore on hand: almost everything the Bible says about God calls for an intellectual revision and theological training features a shift to this more ‘mature’ understanding.
So this information is only for the stout of heart and not for young believers. And it accounts for the cooling of affections that regularly occurs as vibrant students enter theological training and shift from their early confidence in God’s love to a growing focus on God’s power.
Our question about God’s sensitivity, then, has a new weight in this light: is the portrayal of God as the unmoved mover accurate?
No. Let me suggest that it comes from the wrong source—from a disaffected, selfish, and unholy spirit who wants to mar the image of the truly relational God. This spirit turns the triune God—who “is love”—into a self-concerned and disaffected Power (i.e. into what Satan himself represents!).
This calls for serious chutzpa in the face of John 3:16 and the broad thrust of revelation. The biblical God features an eternal, giving relationship—with power and authority only present in the background—in which the Father has always loved the Son and the Son has always loved the Father in a reciprocal bond.
God now invites us back into this love that Adam abandoned. This love sent the Son to the cross and released God’s love to all who die with him and are raised with him. At the heart of this message is a triune God who has a heart—and whose stability and authority are not at all threatened by love. Instead we find that God has anticipated us—knowing us intimately even before we were created—with an ambition to call out a bride for the Son.
How? By drawing us with his love.
And what is the affective quality of this eternal relationship? An exploration of the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. The Spirit—no longer grieved or quenched—will pour that love out in our hearts and we will live with the joy we’ve always longed for.
God, in turn, will be delighted.