This is the first of seven Spreading Goodness reflections on Affective—“heart-based”—theology. We start with God’s heart—his relational disposition. The seventeenth century English Puritan Richard Sibbes took up this key theme as he wrote, “If God had not a communicative, spreading goodness, he would never have created the world. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were happy in themselves, and enjoyed one another before the world was. Apart from the fact that God delights to communicate and spread his goodness, there had never been a creation or redemption” (Works, 6.113).
In the Bible God is sometimes portrayed as a cascade of self-sharing. We see this, for instance, in Jeremiah 2:13 where God described himself as “the fountain of living waters.” And by Jesus in John 7:38 as he promised his Spirit to all who participate in his life: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” The fundamental premise here, as in 1 John 4:8 & 16, is that “God is love” and his love is characterized by self-giving. This is his goodness, and he extends this goodness to and through those who know him.
This confronts a widely held portrayal of God as static and emotionally placid, a view many medieval teachers took from the classical Greek views of Plato, Aristotle, and others. The blending of pagan Greek theology with the Christian view of God in Scriptures is a separate discussion. In Affective Theology we treat it as a mistake and rely on Bible portrayals alone.
The first Bible references to God’s heart appear in Noah’s era, in the tragic contrast between human hearts and God’s heart. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Gen. 5:5-6).
The seeming anomaly of the all-wise, unchanging Creator having both “regret” and a “grieved” heart is surprising, but here it is. The creation was a mess and it called for a do-over. Yet even after God confronted human evil with the flood—a worldwide cleansing—we later read that he knew the problem wasn’t solved. “The Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’” (Gen. 8:21). Yet humanity was now warned against the weight of its hearts-gone-wrong autonomy. So God then worked to change human hearts from lifeless stone into living agents, as in Ezekiel 11:19-21.
Another mention of God’s heart appears in King David’s era as Samuel confronted Saul: “The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). This was David, a man later identified by his unique heart—”For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). David also had deep flaws—heart battles—we can read about in the unflinching narrative of 2 Samuel 11 and in David’s Psalm 51.
But why the heart metaphor? We certainly use it because it refers to the felt stirrings in every chest. The physical organ changes pace with varied emotional excitements—including both fear and love. So, the term was linked to feelings and motives. In a war the soldier is measured either by his fight or flight. And among humans all our heroic stories express strong hearts while our tragedies reveal the weakness of faint hearts. So by now the term is a worldwide label for the site of affective responses to stirring moments. The heart is where all our felt responses—our affections—are rooted.
And with that truism the Bible uses the term heart to speak of the innermost motor of being—always listed first in any progressive set of terms about how humans operate: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Dt. 6:5). Jesus also treated it as the birthing center for evil thoughts and actions in Mark chapter seven and elsewhere.
Yet our point here isn’t to trace how the heart is used in the Bible but to recognize how Bible views of God’s heart all assume his inherently social reality. As Sibbes wrote, God is a communion of One with three eternal distinctions—the “Father, Son, and Spirit.” This is crucial: in his oneness space exists for love and conversation to prosper. The false version of God offered by the serpent in Eden—“You can be like God”—posited a different and non-relational Monad defined by absolute will and power. Images of this non-relational Singularity still dominate fallen portrayals of God.
We must start with the relational God in his eternal conversation. The Son is called “the Word” in John 1:1 which is nonsense unless God’s “I-and-other” reality supports the term even before his works of creation. We find this presumption in texts like Ephesians 1:3-5—”Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption….” The choosing was a process that took place within God’s communion before the world existed.
In Paul’s summary the bond of “love” was central to God’s divine plan, with love as another social feature in God’s eternal being. John’s double declaration, “God is love,” does not presume that God uses love, or is shaped by some vast divine sentimentality. Instead, God’s love reveals his intrinsic relational movement. All he does reveals his love. That also includes his jealousy, highlighted in the Ten Commandments.
The aim of this love is expressed by Jesus in his extended talk with the Father in John chapter 17—”Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” (v.23).This overarching ambition of God, to share his love with his beloved people through the rest of eternity, is the foundation of Affective Theology.
In our next entry we will take a closer look at Jesus as God’s gift of love to the world.