Grace and the Psychology of God

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

God is not a dog. But we supply His dialog as well and we impute to Him thoughts and feelings like our own. 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 other many co-dependent struggles of their day.

“Will God hate me if I…?” I have heard this question more than once. It tells me nothing about God but it tells me a world about the inner torture of the one who asks it.

So I will be clear at the outset: God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do. We use such language because we are human beings. But the poetic language of Scripture in such matters becomes something utterly misleading and delusional when codified into the principles of theology. And they can become the stuff of deep neurosis and psychotic delusion 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 was 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 understood in 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. Grace is the action of God in the world, in my life and within my being. And grace is not God’s actions apart from God (simple effects), but the acting of God in the world. And 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 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 response to certain situations. But such an accurate description of human anger has no association with God. 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.

Wrath is cruel and anger a flood, But who is able to stand before jealousy? (Pro 27:4)

While this accurately describes human beings, and such words are applied to God, God in no way can be described as cruel, etc. Anger is metaphorical. Thus in St. Isaac of Syria:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like 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 incorrect. He speaks here of the Divine Nature and not of Christology. Besides, this 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). Thus 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 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, even to legislate how we feel about one another. We imagine that eliminating “hate” and “prejudice,” “racism” and “sexism” will impact violence. But despite the unflagging efforts of modernity, violence not only continues but escalates.

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

The result 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. People attend Christian assemblies because they “like” them and they encourage them to “feel” good. Teaching is interpreted as learning to manage the “relationship” (contract, emotions, 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, the classical Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, 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. Our 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 (koinonia) of the Church. That communion is expressed in a community of love and action, nurtured through the Holy Mysteries of grace (Baptism, Eucharist, Chrismation, Repentance, Marriage, Unction, Ordination, etc.).

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 in which we live.

Our union with God is not based or grounded in a divine psychology or in human sentiment. It is grounded in the certain action and work of God. God became man. The “Word became flesh.” 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 loves us), it is the divine action of suffering, death and resurrection that save.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom 6:5)

And as this section in Romans makes clear – our union with Christ is through Holy 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 repair of our emotions and thoughts – if we follow that path. That path is clearly presented in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. The Church is what salvation looks like. 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.