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David T. Lamb – The Emotions of God [Feature Review]

The Emotions of GodA Directory of Emotion: God’s & Ours

A Feature Review of

The Emotions of God: Making Sense of a God Who Hates, Weeps, and Loves
by David T. Lamb

Paperback: IVP, 2022
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake

Scholars and Christmas carolers alike face the question of God’s impassibility (the singers perhaps more implicitly). Theologians might struggle with the topic in essays and books; the rest of us face it in the pews each December when we sing, “The little lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” God, even as an infant human, doesn’t feel, at least not in the ways we do, or not in a way that could lead to tears. Ignoring the fact that adult Jesus weeps, the song teaches a questionable point. Author David T. Lamb uses the hymn as a starting point in his new book The Emotions of God, in which he addresses feelings ascribed to God throughout the Bible.

Lamb sees multiple problems in addressing God’s emotions (which lead many of us to dismiss them altogether). The topic of impassibility is dismissed almost out of hand. Yet we’re still left with the task of working through the emotion that we find in the biblical text. Lamb points out that people tend to see emotions as irrational, confusing, uncontrollable, or dangerous (5-7). None of these qualities connect with God, so we reject or ignore the very concept of God’s emotions. We also tend to learn the Bible as a story rather than as a song. When we read the Bible as narrative only (or, I’d add, strict theology, as when we hear sermons on the epistles), we miss the poetry that tells us more about God’s heart (7-8).

Fortunately, Lamb takes time to address these concerns, expanding our view of emotion, and how our emotions work both in our lives and in Scripture. For his study, he looks at seven emotions frequently connected with God throughout the Bible; hatred, wrath, jealousy, sorrow, joy, compassion, and love. While exploring each concept, he builds a sense of how a given emotion connects to God, and how we see that emotion in action (emotions are not static or impractical). The book takes us through the full scope of feelings, from those that appear to be strictly negative to those that are supremely positive (if not always easy).

Lamb takes a methodical – but not phlegmatic – approach to the whole topic by applying a very similar format to each chapter, which focuses on one emotion. He typically begins with an anecdote, followed by a definition of the emotion. He then looks at the Hebrew and Greek words used for the feeling. With the terms and context in place, Lamb reveals examples of God displaying the particular emotion first in the Old Testament and then in the New, before giving his readers insight into potential takeaways from the exploration. The structure offers us a clearer understanding of God while helping us to take a look at ourselves, too, especially if we wish to grow in Christlikeness.

The rhythm largely works. Tracing some of the original language provides evidence of textual nuance without following academic rabbit trails. The methodology also demonstrates the continuity throughout scripture, rebutting in part the idea that there’s a God of the Old Testament and an ostensibly different one in the New. God, we can see, has the same emotions throughout, and while context changes, God remains consistent in expressing his emotions.

Lamb’s most valuable section (until the very end) comes with his chapter on jealousy. In our modern usage, jealousy tends to be understood as a negative emotion. We associate it with pettiness and insecurity, traits that we surely wouldn’t find in God. Through both anecdote and exegesis, Lamb explains the value of healthy jealousy, explaining that it “is a healthy emotion when connected to a real, not imaginary, threat and when the jealous partner is aware they are feeling it” (69). That feeling connects to zeal, and when God acts on his zeal, as in Isaiah 9, amazing things happen. Lamb points out, “The emotions of God were not merely felt. The impact of God’s zeal are described as wonderful, mighty, everlasting, and great.” It’s an emotion that supports God’s just and righteous work in the world.

While the book’s structure helps us understand jealousy, it can also be a bit of hindrance at times. Not all the terms benefit from being put into tables; the less nuance in usage, the less useful the semantic exploration. The format also enables listing a series of examples without full examination. In the text, example is sometimes confused with argumentation, and anyone already in agreement that God has a given emotion might feel bogged down. The idea of this presentation makes sense since Lamb isn’t writing a polemic so much as he’s addressing introductory concerns. At times the book reads almost like a dictionary of God’s emotions, which serves a purpose in its own right.

Regardless, the book truly comes together in its final primary chapter, on the love of God. Lamb provides moving images of God’s love in its various forms, and he returns to his idea that “if there was ‘one emotion to rule the all’ it would be love” (167). We can see a fundamental aspect of God’s being and recognize how it permeates his other emotions, such as when love and jealousy become deeply intertwined.

He closes by suggesting ways to apply these ideas not just to our understanding of God, but also to our understanding of ourselves. Some of us need permission to truly feel our emotions (particularly the negative ones), and Lamb grants it. He also teaches us how to talk about our feelings and how to act on them. As he suggests several times – most pointedly with compassion – emotions involve action. We can learn to process and even deploy our complex emotions. With clarity and precision, Lamb helps us toward a richer view of both God and self while maintaining a practical awareness.

Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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