3 Reasons It Matters to Believe God is Relational
“It doesn’t matter whether we think God is relational,” a friend recently quipped. “God is just God.” Well… I disagree!
In recent blog essay’s I’ve explored what it means to say God is relational. In this post, I want to briefly note 3 reasons why it matters to believe God is relational.
A Relational God is Affected by Our Prayers
Throughout scripture, we find examples of believers petitioning God in prayer. God sometimes even invites petitions: “Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Jesus says, “My Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (Jn. 16:23). We find examples of petitionary prayer throughout Scripture, and most Christians today at least sometimes ask God to do something.
If God is impassible and creatures cannot make a difference to what God does, why pray petitionary prayers? Why ask God to do something or help in some way? Petitioning prayer presupposes that our requests affect God, and God may act differently. But if God is unaffected by what we do, it makes no sense to petition God.
In the name of petitionary prayer, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.
A Relational God Suffers with Us
We should affirm that God is relational as the basis for God’s empathetic love. We all suffer, and some people suffer deeply. Oppression can be physical, emotional, social, racial, gender-based, sexual, spiritual, political, or something else.
Biblical writers describe God as empathizing with the oppressed. God cares, consoles those in pain, and has compassion. And God calls upon believers to comfort those who suffer.
The Apostle Paul describes God’s empathetic love this way: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).
It’s hard to feel comforted by those who never experience anything remotely like our suffering. The unaffected can’t relate to what we’re feeling. The nonrelational God never suffers and never relates! A nonrelational does not empathize. Consequently, that God cannot comfort others from the perspective of one who has been affected negatively.
By contrast, the relational God is empathetic. The relational God of love is a fellow-sufferer who empathetically understands our suffering. Oppressed creatures can feel comforted by a relational One who is “the God of all comfort.”
For the sake of we who are oppressed, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.
A Relational God Can be Imitated
A third reason we should affirm God’s relationality pertains to following biblical commands to act like God. The Apostle Paul writes these powerful words: “Imitate God, as beloved children, and live a life of love…” (Eph. 5:1,2a).
Paul also tells his readers to “be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32). Elsewhere in Scripture people are instructed to be holy as God is holy (Pet. 1:14-16) and Jesus says we should imitate God’s compassion by being compassionate (Lk. 6:36).
It’s difficult to imagine how we can imitate an nonrelational God in these ways. Compassion, for instance, requires being affected by those in need, because it means to “suffer with.” Is it possible to express non-empathetic and non-emotional compassion? No. In fact, I have no idea what non-empathetic compassion would mean!
But we can imitate the compassion of a God who is relational. And with God’s help, we can fulfill the call to imitate God’s love that we find in Scripture.
In the name of imitating a loving God, therefore, we should affirm that God is relational.
It matters to believe that God is relational. I’ve listed three reasons. Can you think of others?
 Alfred North Whitehead famously called God the “fellow sufferer who understands” in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, Corrected edition by David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978 ), 351.
 I could list numerous books arguing that the oppressed can find comfort in a passible God. But as one example, see James Cone, God of the Oppressed (London: SPCK, 1977).
 See Roberto Sirvent for a lengthy argument for the cogency of imitatio dei and divine passibility (Embracing Vulnerability: Human and Divine [Eugene, Or.: Pickwick, 2014]).