What is God’s Character Like?
There are many portions of scripture, many trustworthy hymns of the ancient church, much unanimous doctrine, and many saintly teachers that tell us what the God of the early Christians is like. It is probably most appropriate to begin with the revelation Gpd made to Moses in the desert at the burning bush. In that account found in Exodus, God tells Moses His that His name is YHWH. The name means, “I am what and who I will be be.” In other words, I am the being that is eternally complete and unchanging. Right from the start we find God condescending to human capacities by telling Moses something about what He is like by way of a particular name that is meaningful in human terms. In that name, God confesses that He is already that which he will always be. Later in the History of revelation there are other adjectives added to the name YHWH:
YHWH Nissi (The Banner, meaning The Victorious), YHWH Raah (The Shepherd), YHWH Rapha (The Healer), YHWH Shammah (The Present One), YHWH Tsidkenu (The Righteous), YHWH Mekoddishkem (The Sanctifier), YHWH Jireh (The Provider), YHWH Shalom (The Peace), YHWH Sabaoth (The Ruler of All Bodiless Beings).
These added names are also a condescension to help humanity understand that God is the beginning-less and eternally unchanging fullness of victory, leadership, presence, healing, righteousness or mercy, holiness, provision, and peace over all creation.
As is abundantly evident that God is eternally and unchangingly an outward moving being, who pours Himself out in as unchanging goodness for the life and well being of His living creatures. This is best summed up by the statement, “God is Love” (1 Jn 4:8).
Yet, there is more, much more. Orthodox Christians have always believed that God has revealed Himself in one way that exceeds every other way, and that is by God’s taking on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the eternal God, the fullness of being, the Logos of God, united himself to humanity. By way of this union humanity was not only forever altered, but also enabled to understand God in a way that could be grasped by mankind. We are told in the New Testament epistles that “He (Christ) is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint (iconos) of his nature…” (Heb 1:3). Therefore, it is safe to conclude that to know what Christ is like is to know what the Godhead is like. Christ cannot be any different in essence that God the Father, or than God the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life. This means that if it is revealed by God that the Son is merciful and gentle, forgiving offenses 70 times 70 (without limit), teaching mankind to be merciful to the good and the evil ones as our Father in Heaven is, that The character of the whole Godhead is in union. The gospels present the character of Christ as the highest possible expression of goodness.
It must also be stated that if it is revealed that the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-23), then so must the Son and the Father be. Moreover, when we take into account the impassability of the godhead, then we may conclude that this character of ultimate goodness, and cannot suffer any change brought about by any actions of His creatures. God is the fullness of being and therefore cannot become anything other than what He already is in its fullness.
Does God Experience Emotion?
God possesses, and is the ultimate state of consciousness from where all other consciousness derives. Therefore, His capacity to experiences serves as the basis for our human experiences, including human emotion. Nevertheless, while He experiences all things, He does not do so in any way that humanity can relate to directly. For this reason, Stanilou calls God a “superessence”. A being that is conscious of all things, yet not moved or shaped by any these experiences. God is conscious of both good and evil, but does not respond to them in any way other than in the fullness of being that He already is. To use an old cliche, God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. God is perfectly good and loving no matter what, there is no darkness in Him at all, His response is unchanging love and goodness at every second.
How then are we to understand the portions of scripture that tell us that God was angry, or that He repented, or exhibited His wrath? The answer according the unified perspective of the Orthodox Church is that these terms are anthropomorphisms. An anthropomorphism is an attribution of human characteristics or behavior to a god, animal, or object. These anthropomorphisms are found in the scripture in order to assist our human perceptions and to help us see and understand what occurs when we interact with God.
St. Anthony The Great said it this way:
"God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God (by repentance and transformation into Christ likeness), are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind." The Philokalia (ch. 150, first volume)
God does not experience emotional swings, nevertheless, He does experience all things in the fullness of his perfect and unchanging goodness. It is the darkened and ever changing creatures who, from their perspective, perceive God as angry, or full of wrath. A great example of this is found in the Egyptian and Israelite conflict of the Exodus. To the Israelites God was a light of goodness and safety, but for the Egyptians that same light was a consuming fire (Exo 13 & 14). God is the eternal YWHW, that which always was and will be, however the two had very divergent experiences of that same God. The anthropomorphism say more about the human experience of a perfect and unchanging God than of God’s feelings or emotions.