Foundations: No.79 Autumn 2020

Pleasing the Impassible God

The Bible says, “find out what pleases the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). But is God not already perfectly happy, and therefore not susceptible to changeable emotional reactions as we so often are? This article unpacks issues of accommodation in divine speech, anthropopathism, and the doctrines of immutability and impassibility (the idea that God is “without passions” as some confessions put it), in order to understand better the scriptural metaphor of pleasing or displeasing God.

If God followed you on social media, what would he make of your posts? What would he “like”, and what would he frown at? Would he retweet or share your contributions, or make some kind of comment on them along with everyone else?

Sometimes social media pops up and tells me that one of my friends has liked a certain product or started following a particular account. I am informed that “This person likes Nottingham Forest” or “That person likes listening to Awesome Cutlery”. The implication is clear: would I care to do the same? Here’s a button to press if I would. Sometimes Twitter tells me that several people I follow have also started following X. That can be revealing, and raise an eyebrow or two: “Oh, I had no idea they were into that!” Or I am told that “So and so has commented on Dominic Cummings’ or President Trump’s latest tweet — to do the same, click here.” Would I care to do the same? Maybe, or maybe not.

What if Facebook notified me of the things which God had liked today or commented on at some point? What would I do with that kind of data? I’m not trying to scare anyone into conducting a godliness audit of their social media interaction (not that this is necessarily a bad idea). Rather, I want to stimulate thinking about the more basic question: does God like or dislike the things we say or think or do? And if so, how can we tell? Short of him actually opening up an account on Facebook or Instagram, is there a way to know how he views things? Or are we left to guess and speculate using our own ideas and imaginations: “I think God will like this”, or “I’m not sure he’d like that very much”?

The answer, of course, is to be found primarily in “God-breathed Scripture” (2 Timothy 3:16). As Martin Luther (1483-1546) rightly said, “It is not man’s business to determine what pleases God; it is the business of God alone.”[1] And he has let us know what he likes and dislikes, not exhaustively perhaps, but sufficiently. There are several different ways in which God’s word speaks of his approval of something. He says someone “finds favour with him” or that something gives him pleasure, he delights in it, he is happy. The Bible talks about how something is good in God’s eyes, or acceptable to him, or pleasing. It also tells us what he finds loathsome or abominable, and the various things he hates or finds a stench in his nostrils.

We have thumbs up and laughing reactions on Facebook (and now a hug reaction too), and there’s a heart on Twitter to express our feelings about a post. God uses a number of different words and phrases to express his likes and his dislikes in Scripture — not just a crying emoji or an angry face. He is much more subtle and clear.

I. Studying words

In days gone by the idea of studying particular words in the Bible was very popular. Many sermons and books were just word studies, like extended dictionary articles with application tagged on. There were certain dangers associated with that approach to the Bible which have led to its being abandoned in many parts of the Church. Often a word would be defined without paying attention to the context in which it was used. Or it was just assumed a word meant the same thing in one place as it did in another, when that was not necessarily the case. Bible words were given dictionary meanings – that is, the meanings they had in the English of the day, rather than the meanings they have in the Bible itself.

There are other errors and difficulties associated with word studies. Yet we must not be so cautious of the potential mistakes we could make that we altogether neglect studying God’s actual words. Otherwise, we would never open the Bible and start reading, for fear of making a mistake. “Every word of God is flawless” says Proverbs 30:5. So we can suck on every last one, and all of them in their splendidly rich variety, and they will not ultimately lead us astray.

I am trying to finish a book on the subject of pleasing God. I intend to unpack this whole concept or biblical theme, not just one particular word as it turns up in random places throughout the Bible. Naturally I will attempt to pay attention to the context as much as possible too, within the constraints of a short book. So this will not be what is sometimes called “systematic theology” as such, but more like “biblical theology”. That is, I am trying to discover the theology of pleasing God as it is presented by the Bible books themselves, paying due attention to their contexts and their place in the history of God’s plan.

Part of that must be to acknowledge that there is a shift of some kind from Old Testament to New. There is a progression in the Bible’s revelation of God, so that we know more about what pleases him at the end than we do at the beginning. Plus, we have Jesus in the middle, so to speak, who shows us the way more perfectly, and sends his Spirit to help us. These are all vitally important things to take note of when we are trying to work out what makes God happy. We can’t simply lift things straight out of the Old Testament necessarily, and apply them directly to us today without thinking about whether something significant has changed for us in the meantime.

So we might come across a passage in the Old Testament which says God is pleased when people sacrifice bulls and goats and sheep, or when they keep the Sabbath. We cannot just lift those texts straight out of the Old Testament and say God is still pleased with animal sacrifices and the keeping of Sabbaths. The meaning of both sacrifices and special days today has to take account of the radical change to the whole Old Testament system brought about by Jesus. God has not changed, but he always planned to teach us and lead us in a different way after Christ was raised. For example, God’s people used not to be allowed to eat shellfish or pork (see the dietary laws in the book of Leviticus); but Jesus “declared all foods clean” for us (Mark 7:19). Yet in both Old and New Testaments, certain things also remain the same, of course. He did not declare all sexual practices clean, for example.

II. God’s happiness

Thinking about pleasing God a bit further, however, leads to some tricky questions, which may lead us into more systematic theology areas – for example, the whole idea of divine emotions and divine language. I have realised after years of thinking about the biblical theme of pleasing God that I need to look at these doctrinal things as well, before the book I am writing starts to dig in to the Bible’s teaching on this subject in more detail. Why? Because I do not want to draw false conclusions from what I find in individual texts. It would be too easy to simply take one verse or passage of scripture and expound it without properly putting it into the context of the Bible’s revelation of God as a whole.

It is easy in everyday life for us to get the wrong impression about someone by not doing that. My Facebook friends are not simply the things they “like” on social media (such as films, football teams or food). Those things may be revealing, but they are not necessarily the most important things to know about them, or the absolute truth which defines their whole being. Those little revelations need to be put into a bigger context, or I will not actually know the truth about them at all. I need to know about their usual manner and tone of communicating on Facebook (not everyone uses it in the same way), and about all sorts of other aspects of their lives, to put individual revelations into context.

So it is with God and the revelation of his character in the Bible. Each revelation needs to be understood in the context of the whole, and not interpreted so that one part contradicts another. That is a good Anglican (Reformational) principle of hermeneutics, from Article 20 of The Thirty-nine Articles: “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. No part of Scripture should be interpreted so as to be contradictory to another.

Let us apply this thought to the biblical theme of pleasing God as it emerges in various parts of the Bible, as we ask “what makes God happy?” We chase after certain things because we think they will make us happy. Knowledge, power, wealth, respect, fame, relationships — these things fuel our ambitions and give us pleasure. But does God need any of these things? Does he seek after such pleasure? He knows everything. He governs the whole universe. He is completely self-sufficient, and does not need us or anything else to “complete” him, as Psalm 50 for example makes abundantly clear:

If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine. (Psalm 50:12)

God is at peace with himself and utterly content. He is indeed “the essence of happiness” as one early Christian writer called Boethius (480-524) put it many centuries ago.[2] Anything that could possibly make one happy, pre-exists wholly and in a more eminent degree in God, agreed the great medieval theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), as he contrasted God’s happiness with ours.[3]

When Scripture talks about us displeasing God in some way, he is not waiting on us to make him feel fulfilled and happy. It is not as if what we do can really harm God and drag him down. He is not anxiously hanging on our every word, desperately waiting for us to make him smile, otherwise he will be sad, lonely and incomplete. He does not have such human “passions” which make him vulnerable to manipulation by his creation. Article 1 of The Thirty-Articles also tells us that “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness.” Anglicanism starts by affirming classical Christian doctrine about God, as do other Reformation-era confessions of faith.[4] When the Westminster Con-fession says God is “without passions”, it cites Acts 14:11, 15 as its proof for this. Paul and Barnabas explicitly reason there that they themselves are intrinsically unworthy of worship because they are men “of like passions” with the Lystrans and subject to the actions of others upon them. In their thinking, just as Hermes and Zeus are vain objects of worship, so would “the living God” be if he were subject to such passions. In other words, their point is not that the audience have made a mistake worshipping people who are not really Zeus and Hermes; their point is that even if they were Zeus and Hermes they would still be unworthy of praise, because Zeus and Hermes are also homoiopathēs, of like passions, and a God who is thus vulnerable to human passions is not worthy of worship. Greek gods were constantly falling in and out of love, getting angry or spiteful, experiencing ecstatic joy and other, more unworthy emotional outbursts. They would never have been described as impassible (incapable of suffering pain or feeling emotion). So, the doctrine of impassibility is not a Hellenisation of the biblical God but quite the opposite – to claim God was passible would be to import Greek categories into him.

So, when the Bible says something we do pleases God, we know from the Bible as a whole that it is not saying God changes his facial expression from a frowny face to a smiley one every time he assesses our thoughts and words and deeds. He is not clicking a series of thumbs up or thumbs down emojis to express his feelings about your actions every second of the day. His thoughts are not our thoughts, and he dwells in inapproachable light, unharmed and not susceptible to emotional blackmail or control. This is why we sing to God our perfect Rock (Deuteronomy 32:4): “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.”[5]

III. God’s metaphors

The language of pleasing or displeasing God is, therefore, metaphorical. It is communication designed to convey something real, but utterly sublime, to us mere mortals. The Lord speaks in a way we can grasp, accommodated to our human understanding. As he communicates to us in this clear and beautiful way, God is not revealing absolutely everything about his inner being. But he is telling us something true, in such a way as our mortal capacity can handle it. As the early church theologian Pseudo-Dionysius put it, “We cannot be enlightened by the divine rays except they be hidden within the covering of many sacred veils.”[6] This is why Scripture expounds spiritual truths using figures of speech, including the somewhat paradoxical idea of pleasing the already infinitely happy God. It takes something we are familiar with from our everyday relational life and uses it to convey something about God that is useful and joyful for us to know. God’s word tailors its language to our capacity to understand, and is phrased for our spiritual advantage.

Technically, this idea of God expressing his “feelings” in human clothing is called anthropopathism – that is, ascribing human emotions to God, just as anthropomorphism is ascribing human shape to God. We know from the Bible as a whole that God is a spirit (John 4:24), and so does not literally have hands, eyes or ears (or feathers and wings) despite the Bible speaking of us being in the shadow of his wings (Psalm 36:7; 91:4) or of him rolling up his sleeves to bare his holy arm (Psalm 98:1; Isaiah 52:10). So, in the same way, we must be careful not to press the language of divine emotion or pleasure too much or too far beyond its biblical purpose. Otherwise, we may end up with a misshapen understanding of God’s inner self. As the early theologian Origen (185-254) said:

The language of Scripture regarding God is adapted to an anthropopathic point of view… as we ourselves, when talking with very young children, do not aim at exerting our own power of eloquence, but, adapting ourselves to the weakness of our charge, both say and do those things which may appear to us useful for the correction and improvement of the children as children, so the word of God appears to have dealt with the history, making the capacity of the hearers, and the benefit which they were to receive, the standard of the appropriateness of its announcements (regarding Him). It is no human passions, then, which we ascribe to God, nor impious opinions which we entertain of Him; nor do we err when we present the various narratives concerning Him, drawn from the Scriptures themselves, after careful comparison one with another. For those who are wise ambassadors of the “word” have no other object in view than to free as far as they can their hearers from weak opinions, and to endue them with intelligence.[7]

Ephrem the Syrian (303-373) similarly sang in his Hymns on Paradise that the Creator “clothed His majesty in terms that we can understand”, and with metaphors “God clothed Himself” for our benefit, stooping low to the level of our “childishness”. Grace clothed itself in our likeness and used our language, in order to bring us to the likeness of itself.[8] So when God speaks to us, it is not in full-blown, raw and concentrated majesty, because we could hardly bear that. When there was something even remotely like that, at Mount Sinai, it was frightening and the people begged never to hear it again: they said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). Instead, God considers our finite human capacity, and the benefits he wishes to convey to us, and communicates appropriately. As the Reformation writer, John Calvin (1509-1564) puts this,

For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont [accustomed] in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.[9]

So, we must not reduce God’s ineffable being to our very effable and fallible level. His emotional life is infinitely rich and far more complex than ours, in a way we can only begin to comprehend. Because as Garry Williams rightly says,

The denial of passions in God is not a denial of passions of every kind, but specifically a denial of passions of a limited, human kind… Nothing could be further from the truth than the idea that the emotional life of God is deficient, like that of a psychopath. The classical Christian doctrine of God holds that God is immeasurably more emotionally alive than any other being. God does not have affections like ours not because he has no affections, but because he has the highest degree of affections, maximally realized.[10]

Deep study of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is the best way for us to make a start on understanding all this, but we will still be meditating on it in glory for thousands and thousands of years. He is an inexhaustible fountain of wonder and goodness.

IV. God’s moods

As all parents know, bringing up children can be a tiring and frustrating business. It often leaves us exhausted and moody. When I am rested and calm, I can be cheerful and generous to my kids; later in the day, when they become tired and grumpy (and so, on occasions, do I), maybe not so much. But God is not like me. In himself, he does not change. Malachi 3:6 says “I the Lord do not change” – a fact which, in the context, anchors both his impending judgment on those who do not fear him, and the salvation of his people who are not consumed, thanks to his covenant faithfulness towards them despite their Jacob-like waywardness. James 1:17 says that with God “there is no variation or shadow due to change” – unlike the other fixed points of observable light in our universe such as the sun or moon, which are constantly on the move and so casting shadows. He has an immutable, unchanging strategy towards us, willing both the means (every good and perfect gift) and the end (that we should be a kind of firstfruits). God is steady and calm, unlike people, who change and vary depending on how much sleep they have had and how well fed they are, and a thousand other variables, as even Balaam confesses in Numbers 23:19,

God is not man, that he should lie,
             or a son of man, that he should change his mind.

Has he said, and will he not do it?
             Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfil it?

God is immutable in his purpose and constant in his character.[11] He is the self-existent God who simply “is” – “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). But that does not mean he is somehow static. He is living and active, even “energetic” as some theologians put it.[12] The world changes, and even the heavens, but God remains the same; as Psalm 102:25-27 puts it:

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
             and the heavens are the work of your hands.

They will perish, but you will remain;
             they will all wear out like a garment.

You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
             but you are the same, and your years have no end.

So, he is not vulnerable to bouts of unhappiness, despair or depression because we have been naughty or cruel or unfaithful. Though it is true that “we should imitate God’s Immutability in a gracious way, be constant in our love to God and men, in our promises and good purposes” as theologian Edward Leigh put it,[13] we so often are not. And yet despite this, our salvation is not vulnerable or fragile, because God is not going to suddenly change his mind about us because of something we do that makes him feel bad or sad or mad. As the Genevan theologian Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) put it, “This immutability of God is the fulcrum of our faith and the foundation of our hope.”[14] These are not abstract points, but part of the biblical picture of an un-fluctuating God we can rely on for everything, “the rock of my salvation” (2 Samuel 22:47).[15] In contrast to the changeable and temporal things around us, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Psalm 90:1-2). This is why Richard Muller concludes that in Reformed systematic theology, “God’s immutability is not a springboard for speculation but a ground of Christian faith and hope in the God whose nature and therefore whose intention and will cannot change.”[16]

So, when his word says that we please God or that he delights in us, the idea is that our actions resonate with the harmony of God himself. Or that he will react in a similar way to how we react when we feel such emotions as pleasure or disgust. It is analogy, not literalism. As Calvin put it,

Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he testifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercising judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered.[17]

So, to take another example, when we are told not to grieve the Holy Spirit by our bitter interactions with each other (Ephesians 4:30), this is accommodated language, metaphorical language designed to teach us something. It is not to be pushed too far, so that we imagine the Spirit is curled up in a ball all the time with agonising grief and sadness because of our behaviour. It means the Spirit’s reaction to our unkind or unforgiving conduct is akin to our human emotion of grief. What that means within God’s being, must be something far deeper and sharper and more ineffable than can otherwise be expressed. It is meant to arrest our attention, make us sit up, and change.

When I am saddened or angered by the words of people on social media, I can unfollow or unfriend them, or even block them altogether if I want to. So, as Aquinas says in his commentary on Ephesians 4:30, this text does not mean God is susceptible to outbursts of passion in reaction to our sins: “When some person is saddened he withdraws from whoever is depressing him”, he says. “Likewise does the Holy Spirit withdraw from one who is sinning… Thus the meaning of ‘do not grieve the Holy Spirit’ is: do not chase him away or reject him through sin.”[18] So it is not about protecting God the Holy Spirit’s fragile mood. He is not one of those immoral, fickle and ever-changeable Greek gods from the Homeric myths! In some way it is about doing what is best for ourselves, because grieving him will not be good for us. It is always best for us, if we try to please God because we love him. Otherwise, we may become like those Isaiah spoke of when he said, “they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them” (Isaiah 63:10).

It is fascinating to see Aquinas here reflecting on this theologically, in the very act of interpreting Ephesians in a commentary. We can observe the same thing in other doctrinally-aware commentators too. So, for example, when Calvin comments on the sadness of God at human sin, which provokes the Flood in Genesis 6, he writes,

Certainly God is not sorrowful or sad; but remains forever like himself in his celestial and happy repose: yet, because it could not otherwise be known how great is God’s hatred and detestation of sin, therefore the Spirit accommodates himself to our capacity… Moreover, this paternal goodness and tenderness ought, in no slight degree, to subdue in us the love of sin; since God, in order more effectually to pierce our hearts, clothes himself with our affections. This figure, which represents God as transferring to himself what is peculiar to human nature, is called ἀνθρωποπάθεια.[19]

Even in his sermon on this text, Calvin feels it necessary to say that this figure of speech,

is to horrify us at ourselves and not to indicate that God is changeable… there is no passion in God… They are dregs of the earth who misinterpret these passages to make God changeable… contrary to Moses’ intention… It is very certain Moses did not intend to change God’s image and say that he is subject to passion.[20]

They knew in those days that you cannot abstract a single text from the revelation of God as a whole, or ignore proper systematic theology when trying to do exegesis – otherwise we end up spouting heresy, or preaching a God in our own image. Scripture itself makes us ask these sorts of questions, not some outside influence such as Greek philosophy, as some have falsely alleged. A proper interpretation of each part of Scripture depends on us not taking it out of the context of the whole. Each verse resonates perfectly with the rest, and should not be made out to be discordant.

On the other hand, in the person of his Son, God literally does have human form and human emotions. It is very clear that he is not apathetic, uninvolved, un-relateable, uncaring or inactive. In his earthly ministry, Jesus was perfectly capable of expressing his displeasure. It was clear what pleased, angered or upset him. In him, we can see something of God’s emotional life literally incarnate, made flesh. Jesus wept; Jesus expressed anger; Jesus longed; Jesus loved.

Again, the idea is that if Jesus is pleased with you, that is good for you; if he is not, it would be better for you if you changed your ways. And if you love him, you will naturally want to make him smile. So, in the Gospels, Jesus is not simply showing us in his reactions to things that he is a “touchy-feely” guy in tune with his inner feelings. Jesus’ emotions teach us something about what we should care about too, or what we should watch out for.

V. Conclusion

So, these are some of the things we need to be aware of and keep in the back of our minds as we explore what the Bible says about any theme, especially the theme of pleasing God. We need to remember the nature of God (who he is, from his revelation to us as a whole), as well as the nature of his word to us (its trustworthy and clear but “lisping” quality). These theological truths will keep us anchored as we unwrap the various colourful and powerful ways that Scripture preaches to us in individual texts.

It will also help us to remember, as the Thirty-nine Articles put it, that “it is not lawful for the Church to ordain anything that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another” (Article 20). This is a vital truth in all our preaching, all our pastoring and all our politics.[21]


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