Grace and the Psychology of God

June 5, 2015 Length: 12:25

Does God have feelings? Can we influence how he feels? Fr. Stephen looks carefully at the theology of grace and the idea of the psychology of God.

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We are human beings. We think; we feel—though I like to think that my dog thinks and feels. The semi-imaginary conversations we have as we take our long, daily walks are fairly entertaining for me, even though I have to supply his side of the dialogue.

But God is not a dog. But we supply his dialog as well and we impute to him thoughts and feelings like our own. For instance, we think God is angry. God is pleased. God is gentle. God is stern. For many Christians, managing God’s emotions and thoughts can be at least as serious as the many other co-dependent struggles of their day.

So we think, “Will God hate me if…?” I’ve heard this question more than once. It tells me nothing about God, but it tells me a world about the inner torture of someone who asks it.

So I’ll be clear at the outset: God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do. We use language of thinking and feeling when we speak about God because we are human beings and it’s what we understand, but the poetic language of Scripture in such matters becomes something that’s utterly misleading, even delusional, when it’s codified into the principles of theology. And they can become the stuff of deep neurosis and psychotic delusions in the minds and hearts of the weak.

There is no psychology of the Divine.

When I was a child I was taught that grace was “God’s unmerited favor.” It sounded theological, and, understood in a certain manner, it’s correct. But, like all psychological descriptions of God, it fails to adequately say what must be said. God does not have an “attitude.” “Favor” and “disfavor” are images that carry a theological meaning, but they mislead if they’re understood in anything like a literal manner.

Orthodox teaching declares that grace is “uncreated.” By this it means that grace is nothing other than God Himself. It is God’s Life or the divine energies, as we say. Grace is the action of God in the world, in my life, within my being, and grace is not God’s actions apart from God (that is, simple effects), but the very acting of God in the world is God himself. God is his acting.

When St. Paul writes that we are saved by grace through faith, he is not making reference to God’s attitude towards us. Nor when he says the “wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” is he describing a change in God’s inner affect. The universe is not the playground of divine emotion.

The God whom we worship is the Creator of all that is. He is the author of our being. He sustains all things in their very existence. He is the source of all good. The work of our salvation does not consist in bringing about desirable emotions in God. We are told that God “is not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” If God did not immediately and relentlessly will good for us, then no one would even continue in existence. Being and existence are inherently good things. The very fact that we exist is itself a witness of God’s good will for us.

The Scriptures certainly use the language of emotion when speaking of God, but the language is figurative. Emotions are part of the human condition, and even at that, they are, more often than not, symptoms of our disordered existence.

Anger, for instance, is understood as one of the faculties or energies of the rational soul. It has a proper (unsinful) use in the human soul—normally as a burst of energy associated with a quick and appropriate responses to certain situations. But such an accurate description of human anger has no association with God. God doesn’t need a sudden burst of energy. And though Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, indeed has a human soul, its purpose is not to be understood as supplying the godhead with human emotions. Proverbs says:

Wrath is cruel and anger a flood. Who is able to stand before jealousy? (Proverbs 27:4)

While this accurately describes human beings, and such words are applied to God, God in no way can be described as cruel. Anger is metaphorical. So we read in St. Isaac of Syria… He says:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy and such have anything to do with the divine nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God.

I have read at least one evaluation of St. Isaac’s thought that tried to dismiss it as coming from his supposed Nestorian tendencies, but this is simply just incorrect. He speaks here of the divine nature, not of Christology. Besides, what he says is simply proper Orthodox theology.

In our modern culture, Christian belief has become divorced from the Christian Church. This was an intended outcome of the Reformation. So people, self-identified as individuals, struggle to have a “relationship” with God in a manner that is analogous to their “relationships” with other individuals. The nature of these “contractual” events (our relationships with other individuals) is largely perceived as psychological. How we feel about one another and what we think about one another is seen to be the basis of how we treat one another. And so in our cultural “social contract” we seek to control, or even to legislate, how we feel about one another. We imagine that eliminating “hate” and “prejudice” and “racism” and “sexism” will impact violence. But despite the unflagging efforts of modernity, violence not only continues; it escalates.

With God the “contract” is often extended or renamed a “covenant” by some Christian traditions: an agreement between a human being and God that stipulates requirements and behaviors and outcomes. Grace, if it’s perceived as a divine emotion or attitude, is part of the contract, God’s promised manner of performance.

The result of all of this imaginary divine milieu has been the gradual decrease of the Church (or anything resembling it). The Church as sacrament and mystery has been replaced by the sentimentality of the individual, and even of God. People attend Christian assemblies because they “like” them and they encourage them to “feel” good. Teaching is interpreted as learning to manage the “relationship” (that is, the contract, the emotions, the obligations) with God.

This is all interesting—but it is not Christianity. It is “Christian” in the sense that it makes reference to Jesus Christ and accords a divine status to him, but it is not Christianity, that is, the classical Church, the pillar and ground of Truth, that which Christ himself established, nor is this in any way the same thing as the path traditionally described as “salvation.”

Salvation is not a contract. Salvation is the work of God within us, transforming us from “glory to glory,” into the image of Christ. As the work of God, it is God himself in us bringing about this transformation. We, of course, are expected to cooperate with that process. We do this by keeping the commandments of Christ. We do this by living our lives in the communion of the Church. That communion is expressed in a community of love and action, nurtured through the holy mysteries of grace, such as baptism, Eucharist, chrismation, repentance, marriage, unction, ordination.

How we feel and what we think will often be “all over the map.” As disordered human beings, we frequently feel other than how we should, and think other than how we should. This is particularly true given the disordered culture we live in.

Our union with God is not based or grounded in a divine psychology or in our own human sentiment. It is grounded in the certain action and work of God himself. God became man. The “Word became flesh,” Scripture says. How Mary “felt” about that is not information given to us in Scripture, beyond her meek acceptance and adoration of God. We do not get a running commentary of the psychological development of Jesus as a child. Rather we are told simply that he “grew in stature and in wisdom.”

And though there are some revelations regarding the emotions experienced by Christ in his ministry—they are not the stuff of our salvation nor of the salvation of those around him at the time. Instead, we are told that the God-man, Jesus Christ, suffered and died and was raised from the dead for our sake. And though we are told that he loved us—and he still and always loves us—it is the divine action of suffering, death, and resurrection that save. That’s what manifest his love to us. Romans 6 says:

For if we have been united together in the likeness of his death [referring to baptism], certainly we also shall be in the likeness of his resurrection. (Rom 6:5)

This is how we are united to Christ in our baptism.

I am not here saying that feelings and thoughts are nothing. The human will is certainly not nothing—it is vital—but the basis of our union with Christ is not at all like the basis of our modern, psychologized social contracts.

The path of true salvation will, in time, bring about the healing and the repair of our emotions and thoughts—if we follow the path. That path is clearly presented in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. The Church is what salvation looks like., certainly in this life. There is no “relationship” with God apart from the Church. We are indeed saved by grace, but we are not saved by false teachings and disordered modern paradigms.

Get out of your mind. Come to your senses. Enter into the household of God.