Aristotle famously referred to deity as the unmoved mover. And countless Christian theologians have agreed with him as they have described God as impassible such that he is not acted upon by creation. As the Westminster Confession succinctly put it, God is “without body, parts, or passions.” What this means is that God does not undergo changes of emotional state based on the actions of created beings.
While theologians have widely believed God is impassible and thus not subject to changes of emotional state, the Bible frequently describes God precisely in these terms. And that brings me to the entry “Wounded Lover” in Philip Yancey’s devotional Discovering God: A Devotional Journey Through the Bible (Zondervan, 1993). In this devotional reflection, Yancey reflects on Hosea 11:1-11 which describes God reacting to Israel’s covenant unfaithfulness with a turbulent mixture of love, rage, and anguish. Yancey writes:
“The powerful image of a jilted lover explains why, in a chapter like Hosea 11, God’s emotions seem to vacillate so. He is preparing to obliterate Israel–wait, now he is weeping, holding out open arms–no, he is sternly pronouncing judgment again. Those shifting moods seem hopelessly irrational, except to anyone who has been jilted by a lover.
“Is there a more powerful human feeling than that of betrayal? Ask a high school girl whose boyfriend has just dumped her for a pretty cheerleader. Or tune your radio to a country-western station and listen to the lyrics of infidelity. Or check out the murders reported in the daily newspaper; an amazing proportion trace back to a fight with an estranged lover. Hosea, and God, demonstrate in living color exactly what it is like to love someone desperately, and get nothing in return. Not even God, with all his power, can force a human being to love him.” (84)
In this passage Yancey follows the popular Christian interpretation — whilst ignoring the theologian’s appeal to anthropopathism. Presumably Yancey believes this is an endearing picture, one that reflects just how much God loves us, how eminently personal he is, and how much he longs to be with us.
But here I must very much disagree with Yancey and his straightforward reading of this text. Imagine, for a moment, that Yancey is correct, that when human beings sin God responds with all the unpredictability of a jilted lover. One moment God is consumed by rage and hatred as he plans to cut us to pieces. The next minute he is in anguished despair, inconsolable as he is curled up in a divine fetal position. A moment later he is back longing for reconciliation as he regrets the thoughts of violent retaliation that flooded his mind only moments before.
Who could possibly think that this image of God is one to be taken literally? To do so would not be comforting, it would be terrifying. And that’s one very practical reason why the mainstream theological tradition has interpreted such vibrant passages of divine emotional turbulence as anthropopathic.