“God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness'” (Gen. 1:326, KJV). I think we often think of this in a physical sense — God has hands so I have hands, etc. But perhaps the bodily similarities aren’t what God had at the front of His mind when He made this statement.
There’s much debate over exactly what it means to be made in God’s image. The Hebrew word tselem (H6754) refers to a representation or likeness of an original. The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says, “God’s image obviously does not consist in man’s body which was formed from earthly matter, but in his spiritual, intellectual, and moral likeness to God from whom his animating breath came.”
In other words, God breathed a spirit like His into man. He did not mold man from the same material as Himself (Gen 2:7). It would follow, then, that our primary method of image-bearing is in things that go beyond what we look like. And if so, we can learn something about God from things like emotions that are common to all human beings.
Take heartbreak for example. Someone you trusted betrayed you, or you can no longer walk in unity with someone you love, or a person dear to you dies. Does God understand that feeling? Or to think of it another way, do we experience heartbreak because we’re made in the image of a God who can have His heart broken?
Twisting, Painful Grief
The first time the Bible tells us anything about God’s heart is in Genesis chapter 6. This takes place right before God decided to destroy the earth with a flood.
Yahweh saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart was continually only evil. Yahweh was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him in his heart. (Gen 6:5-6, WEB)
It hurt God’s heart to see the state of His people’s hearts. He’d made them in His image, yet their hearts were focused non-stop on evil, which is something completely outside His character. And because He takes a long term-view of things and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), He knew these people were destroying their lives. In a sense, He was losing His children.
The Hebrew word for “grieved” is atsab (H6087) and it “relates to physical pain as well as to emotional sorrow,” including “mental and spiritual anguish” (TWOT). It’s the sort of grief that twists you up inside (Brown, Driver, Briggs). That’s what God was feeling in the inner core of His being as He looked at humans before the flood.
Looking Through His Heartbreak
Unlike us, God always acts consistently. He doesn’t become a different person when His mood changes, nor does He act outside His character when He’s hurt. His reaction to being “grieved in his heart” is consistent with His justice and mercy.
Yahweh said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the surface of the ground—man, along with animals, creeping things, and birds of the sky—for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in Yahweh’s eyes. (Gen. 6:7-8, WEB)
God’s heart breaks when people do things that violate His righteous standards and break their relationship with Him. He knows that such behavior will lead to their suffering and death, and His character demands that He upholds a just penalty for sin. But He’s always looking through His heartbreak hoping for ways to extend grace, favor, and mercy, as He does to Noah.
God’s Reaction To Betrayal
God describes His initial relationship with Israel like a marriage. He loved her, made a covenant with her, and heaped blessings on her (Ezk. 16:1-14). His heart was hers. In fact, when Solomon dedicated the temple, Yahweh said, “I have made this house holy … and my eyes and my heart will be there perpetually” (1 Kings 9:3, WEB). He literally put His heart into building the relationship with His people.
But Israel was unfaithful over and over again. Usually God’s reaction to their unfaithfulness is described as anger because they forsook Him and murdered their own children (Ezk. 16:15-43). But we’re also told that Israel “grieved him” and that they “rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit” (Ps. 78:40; Is. 63:10).
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that God was heartbroken as well as angry at what Israel did. That’s the word we use to describe what you feel when someone you love hurts you. And God certainly loved Israel, so much that to get her back half the God-family became human and died to create a new marriage covenant (Hos. 2:14-23; Rom. 7:1-4).
Seeking To Repair Relationship
We could probably write a whole book on Jesus’ emotions, including the way He cried when His friend died (John 11:33-35) and the heartache in His words when He said He longed to gather Jerusalem’s children under His wings but they refused (Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34). When we realize Jesus was speaking from the perspective of a God-being who’d been there with the Father from the beginning we realize that this longing He expresses is an echo of what God reveals about His heart throughout the Bible.
Is Ephraim my dear son? is he a darling child? for as often as I speak against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says Yahweh. (Jer. 31:20, WEB)
This isn’t just describing how God feels about one specific person or tribe. No matter how badly we’ve damaged the relationship between us and God through our sins, His heart still wants to connect with our hearts. He wants to repair the relationship and save us because He doesn’t want to see anyone die permanently (Ezk. 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9).
Healing Our Broken Hearts
God has always been interested in building a heart-to-heart connection with His people (Deut. 10:12; 30:6; 1 Sam. 16:7; 2 Chr. 16:9). But since the fall, men’s hearts have tended toward evil, as they were in the days of Noah. So before God brings us into unity with Him, He heals our hearts.
I will give them a heart to know me, that I am Yahweh: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God; for they shall return to me with their whole heart. (Jer. 24:7, WEB)
When our hearts are broken for any reason — because we’ve realized sin damaged our relationship with God, or because someone else hurt us, or because this broken world resulted in the too-early death of our loved one — Yahweh is right there. He “is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves those who have a crushed spirit” (Ps. 34:18, WEB). He knows what it’s like to have a hurting heart. And He will respond to our heartbreak with healing, rebuilding power.