Was God moved by emotion?

Hi friends,

I recently heard a pastor, after giving an invitation to put our faith in Jesus, begin her prayer by saying, “God I thank that you loved me so much that you sent your son to us…”

{Before diving into my question I want to say that my aim is not to critique the pastor’s prayer because that is not my heart. My aim is to explore two viewpoints that I’ve experienced on the verse that she paraphrased in her prayer.}

I grew up reading John 3:16 with what I now call a sentimental reading of God’s love. I don’t think it was just my reading of it but instead it was what I was taught. In talking about his with my friend last night he agreed saying that is how Sunday school teachers taught it. I wonder if it is also rooted in the choices made in some translations. Like in John 3:16 NIV opens with “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…” and from the above Sunday school viewpoint it reads with more of a sentimental view of God’s love.

The result has been that in my almost 40 years of being a Christian I think I interpreted the verse with an unconscious emphasis on the “so”, meaning that I would read it in terms of how “much” God loves me. Taking for granted the verse I memorized from the NIV, I never looked deeper and it wasn’t until the past few years when I heard a pastor call out this passage. He highlighted the meaning of the original text is more in line with the opening of John 3:16 from the HCSB, “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son…”

Given this new understanding, I’m inclined to regard the viewpoint of seeing God’s love in any sentimental way as an inaccurate viewpoint. I might even go so far as to say that having this viewpoint has hindered my walk because, even though I understood grace and how I could never earn God’s love, I would unconsciously think of God’s love in terms of how much he loved me and often in light of how well I was living for him.

So now I’ve concluded that God’s love is not one of emotion or sentiment. It is instead one of decision and action. I feel like I’m still experiencing the ripple effects of this realization but it is considerably more freeing to walk from this perspective.

Almost as if God is tweaking the YouTube algorithm to emphasize this point to me this short from Mike Winger came up in feed. Clearing up some confusion - YouTube

This almost has the feel of an Advent devotion to me. Even though Advent has never been part of my Christian tradition.

Has anyone else experienced these two viewpoints?


Hi @chris ,

Thanks for sharing these great reflections. So as I understand, you see God’s love as either based on emotion or based on decision/action and you seem to see these as mutually exclusive options. But have you considered a third possibility where God’s love is based both on emotion and decision?

I appreciate you sharing how viewing God’s emotions as dependent on your actions hindered your walk with God. I think what was also inaccurate in your prior view is that you seemed to have believed God’s love depends on the extent of man’s holiness.

But what if God could love with emotions that come out of His holy nature rather than man’s actions/holiness? I say this because when I go through difficult situations in life and feel pain, I want to know that God understands my pain. Its hard to be comforted by a God who is not moved by my circumstance when he is a holy and loving God. I appreciate the verses in the Bible where God is moved by compassion when he sees the hurting (Gen 16: 13, John 11:33, Zeph 3:17). No matter where we are and how far from him, it is comforting to know God cares. Viewing God as having emotions is consistent with the idea that we are made in the image of God with a mind, will and emotions that characterize a person and as such are very important aspects of interpersonal relationships.

When Mike Winger talks about love being a decision not based on feelings, he also talks about how we humans dont always feel the love. This is because our feelings can be influenced by our sinful nature as well as limitations of our physical body as humans, but this is not the case with God who has a holy nature. I think God’s love can be accompanied by emotions but not influenced by emotions as human love is.

In one of the courses I took here on UP, I was introduced to the historic attributes of God that the church has confessed such as ‘Immutability’ and ‘Impassibility’. Unlike us humans who are constantly influenced by everything and everyone, it was comforting to learn that God is immutable or not subject to change. It makes Him the Rock we can firmly plant our feet on and worthy of being God.

Impassibility was a little more difficult for me to understand as it is defined as “God does not experience emotional change in any way; he does not suffer”. However, I dont think this refers to God not feeling emotions at all. Impassibility is about God’s love not being influenced by emotions. This is important because God by definition must be complete in his ability to love even without man. If God is loving, He cant be apathetic. In my understanding, an impassible God can exhibit emotions out of His infinite love, holy nature, and infinite knowledge. Its been a while since I read about these attributes but the article “The immutability and impassibility of God” by Matthew Barrett was a helpful overview.

Now coming back to John 3:16, I was taught as God loved us ‘so much’ and still continue to believe He loves me but not because of some worth in me but because of who He is.


Thank you @lakshmi for asking your questions. They have helped me refine how I express what God is doing in my heart.

I should clarify that I was talking specifically about John 3:16 and not the broader topic of God having emotions. I am not questioning whether God has emotions. Jesus was moved with compassion and experienced anger. I think both of these emotions were motivated by Jesus’ love.

Instead I am talking about a the difference between,

“For God so loved the world…” NIV


“For God loved the world in this way…” HCSB

I do understand that the use of the word “so” means the same as the the way HCSB has translated it. However, I didn’t pick up on that meaning because it was taught in such a way that the “so” reflected much the same sentiment as my daughter picking up her stuffed fox and saying, “I love you sooooo much Tiny Fox.” I think that is a misreading of this verse.

The trouble with the above misreading is that there’s a tendency to view God’s love as quantitative. Measuring the amount he loves instead of understanding and appreciating that this verse is depicting the way God love. The trouble with looking at the amount of God’s in terms of quantity is that it’s easy to see his love in terms loving more or loving less. I’ve talked with those who view God’s love in that way. They want to please God and earn more of his love.

On the other hand, the benefit of my new reading of John 3:16 is that God’s love was demonstrated by the sending of his son. It’s an action that is set in reality and there is no changing how he demonstrated his love and that reality is not affected by mine or anyone else’s life choices or actions.

This is what I was trying to get at. It makes me wonder if God’s love should even be described as an emotion. In his love God has emotions, but his love doesn’t change based on his emotions. But then to come back to your earlier point.

Would it be more accurate to say that God’s love is based on who God is and his emotions and decisions flow from that love?

Ezekiel 36:22-38 describes how God will act in response to Israel profaning his name among the nations and describes what will be the new covenant. I wonder if this passage in Ezekiel can be seen as an exposition of John 3:16 HCSB because God is describing what actions he will take for the sake of his holy name. His concern is that the people of the world know who he is and what he’s like. Or as John put it.

“For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Thank you for sharing this. I think Mr Barrett expressed what I was trying to say in a much clearer way than me. Especially when he writes,

If God is impassible, then he does not merely possess love, he is love and he is love in infinite measure. He cannot become more loving than he already is eternally. If he did, then his love would be passible, it would change, perhaps from good to better, which would imply it was not perfect to begin with….
While the love of a passible God is subject to change and improvement, the love of an impassible God changes not in its infinite perfection. Impassibility guarantees that God’s love could not be more infinite in its loveliness. God does not depend on others to activate and fulfill his love; no, he is love in infinite measure, eternally, immutably, and independently from the created order.

This was the shift that i was trying to express.


@chris, Now I understand more about what you are getting at from John 3:16. The misreading in terms of quantity doesn’t always communicate the constancy of God’s love. I too often interpreted ‘so’ in this verse quantitatively but I saw it as ‘infinite’ . The verse also communicated to me that God valued me enough to send His Son and that gave me comfort. Glad to hear how your shift in understanding on just one word ‘so’ in this popular verse has been so formative in experiencing a sense of freedom. Its unfortunate we often dont experience the true freedom we have in Christ because of how certain truths were taught to us when we were young in our faith.

Yes I think you stated it better than I did! All I was trying to say is that God’s love can be expressed both through emotions and decisions. I think your statement conveys better the constancy of God’s love even when emotions change.

It has been great conversing about this topic. Thanks for posting your thoughts.


Thank you both for this discussion. I was drawn to it, of course, because it mentioned emotion! :laughing: Impassibility is a concept I was aware of, but had forgotten the theological term, so thank you @lakshmi for bringing that out!

:joy: I have definitely read it this way before, and, at some point, the alternative translation that you mentioned was opened up for me. Only thing was, for me, knowing that did not stop me from trying to earn/be worthy of the grace extended to me through Christ. The two did not connect in my mind. The Reformed church that I came to faith in and continued to be discipled in made sure not to proclaim a sentimental God, thus, I was more afraid that God would abandon me. We probably could have used more preaching on the heart of God towards us humans! The two finally connected for me when the depth of his love for me was impressed on my heart. That is, the quantitative interpretation of that verse!

I love the nuances of God, and how God meets people from whatever theological spectrum from which they come. It’s a beautiful reminder for me this morning! :smile:


Thank you for sharing this @kathleen. It’s a good reminder that God is in fact affectionate even if he’s not driven by emotion. Otherwise it’s easy to see God as distant and uncaring.

That’s the thing about viewing God’s love in terms of quantity, I think the human response is to think in terms of more or less of God’s love. How can we measure it in those terms? I don’t think we can and it can be a trap to try. If we instead see how God has expressed his love by bankrupting heaven, if you see it through the lens of the Hosea, then what measurement can we do in light of it? I wonder if infinity ceases to be a quantitative number and instead is a qualitative reality.

As an aside, how cool is it that the 1000’th topic on UP is a discussion about the immeasurable depths of God’s love.


Same with me! Though I understood God’s love as God loving me ‘much’ because of who He is, I cant say I firmly stood on that truth. I found a way to doubt it as it took time to even intellectually understand that our significance must come only from Christ as believers.


I love this thought, and I need to bask in it a bit more this morning . :smile: And, indeed, what an appropriate topic for the millennium mark!

Yes and amen! We matter to God. Period. Full stop. And how does he demonstrate it? Prove it? Incarnation. :raised_hands:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined. [Is. 9:2 NRSV]


I have enjoyed reading this conversation over the last few days, and felt that it really resonated with me somehow but it’s taken me a while to figure out how, and still I’m not sure that I can put this into words. I have to say that when I read the HCSB translation (which I’d not heard of before), “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son…“, it seemed to take a weight off my shoulders. I’m not sure if I can explain well why this is, but as far as I can make out, this translation helps me to accept the theological statement far easier, because I don’t have to feel that I’m loved to know that God loves me. Often I think I subtly struggle to accept something if I don’t feel it. I think I (sometimes wrongly) connect how much I feel something to how much God feels it too.

An example that comes to mind is that when I was younger, I’d make some comment to my mum about how I perceived myself such as, “I’m not pretty”. My mum would reply, “you are pretty”. However, I could never accept this was actually true, and would respond with, “you have to say that because you’re my mum”. I wonder if I’ve carried a bit of that with statements found like John 3:16. Somewhere in my mind I may have thought, “God had to send his son because he made me (and probably felt some measure of love for me at some time)”, rather than “sending his son is how much he loves me”. The HCSB version seems to make the statement much more qualitative, as @chris said, and therefore it’s not up to how I feel as to how true it is. It’s just true.

I have found it hard to work out a way to express these thoughts, so I hope it vaguely makes sense!


When the reality of this meaning sank in i felt the same way.

I think this has been a two year journey just to get to this point. I’ve talked about it numerous times in church settings and a number of those times I felt like I was stumbling through communicating the significance. It felt like everyone was just looking at me and not getting what I was trying to communicate. So I think it makes total sense.