What is the nature of God’s emotions? Does He experience sadness for our sin or joy when we glorify Him?
I appeal first to the definitions of St. Thomas Aquinas, who considers our human emotions (or what he calls “passions”) as those movements of our “sensitive appetite” toward what is good and away from what is bad – that is, those movements of our soul that are responses to what is perceived either in a way that attracts us to the good or turns us from the bad. A simple example is to consider the joy we have over something perceived to be good or the sadness we have over something perceived to be bad. These responses within us will often lead us to act or not act; however, in themselves the emotions are understood as “morally neutral,” meaning that an emotion itself cannot be morally judged as good or bad. Yet as we know, our emotions clearly do influence our moral actions (what we choose to do or not do), and these actions are judged as good or bad.
I begin with this appeal to St. Thomas on this subject of emotions so as to relate how in God such emotions do exist insofar as He willed to take on our humanity. Jesus Himself would have experienced these movements within Himself in the same manner as we do – often leading Him to act or to not act. It is clear in Scripture that Jesus at times experienced joy (rejoicing in God the Father and His will) as well as sorrow (over the lack of belief of those to whom he came). However, when considering God in heaven as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, (that is, within His hidden, inner nature as a Trinity of persons), it is far more difficult to show whether emotions may or may not be present, insofar as His attributes of life, love, omnipotence, and the like are perfect and not subject to change nor are they subjected to the circumstances of human limitation. While in the Old Testament we hear about such “emotions” in God as His delight in His people or in His anger over His people’s unfaithfulness, these sentiments of God ought not to be characterized as we would think of our own delight or anger over others and their lives or actions. For in God such sentiments are not about a feeling inside that will cause a response as much as they are a manifesting of His perfect love in His want for what is meant to be perfect in us. In this way, His true “joy” is when His own people are living as He made us while His sorrow or even anger characterize the objective sense that we are not receiving or living what He knows is our truest and best way to live.
Thus, while it is useful to us in our human limitations to consider God as having emotional responses, it is important that we do not seek to understand Him in such purely human terms as being joyful over our good and angered over our sins – as such categories do not rightly see Him for His perfections and proper attributes. (Remember, too, that the divinely inspired Scriptures were written through human cooperation – with the use of human categories and perceptions seeking to
characterize God’s revelation of truth about Himself and His will; therefore, even though the Scriptures make use of emotions to describe God’s life and action, these emotions are used in a purely human way for our benefit, not as actual characteristics of God in His perfection). Perhaps the best way to consider the emotions within God is to look directly to Jesus in our human nature, while always being mindful that His perceptions and responses to what He perceived always had one consistent goal: the salvation of humanity and the eternal union of those whom He came to save in the perfect love of the Trinity in eternal life – as it is our sharing in His own eternal life and perfections that is His greatest delight.