Joyful Jesus

The more experiences you share with a beloved friend, the more you see his personality. I have been sharing life with Jesus for many, many years now, and I have continually been impressed by Him—He is so absolutely joyful!

Maybe that’s an awfully foreign thought for you. Of course, I suppose every human wants God to be a happy God, but we are often very slow in understanding that. For some, our theology doesn’t leave much room for Jesus to actually be joyful. I would go so far as to say that the modern-day ‘yeast of the Pharisees’ might teach us that Jesus is somber and severe. Pastor John Lindell of James River Church, my old stomping grounds, recalled recently that a well-meaning theologian once told him that Jesus could best be described as austere—which Pastor John concluded is an unfortunate, unbalanced perspective. I agree.

So then, what is true?

Aquinas spoke of the subject, “God is happiness by His essence: for He is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by His essence.” In other words, He is not made happy when something turns out right; He is happiness itself, a thought further validated by Augustine, who commented, “Following after God is the desire of happiness; to reach God is happiness itself.”

An old preacher from the 1800s named Henry Donald Maurice Spence remarked, “God is so joyous that He finds joy even in us!” In a June 2017 entry, John Piper’s put it this way: “God is always, essentially, and completely happy.”

Let’s look at this philosophically.

Everything Jesus is, He is without limit (a consequence of His immutability; read more about that in a previous post of mine here). He is singularly the standard for all good attributes, right? I mean, no one can be kinder than Jesus. No one can be more loyal than Jesus. No one can be more generous than Jesus. And likewise, no one can be more joyful than Jesus. It’s impossible. You just cannot have more joy than God, lest a random, mere, created man surpass God in some way. God has always been and will always be the very standard for joy.

So if you have ever felt elation, if you have ever felt happiness, it just cannot compare with the state of authentic joy that God constantly lives in. Isn’t that a glorious thought, my friends? It’s not to suggest that God does not feel other emotions—like anger, for example—but to suggest instead that if we experience the pleasure of happiness, then the One whose image we are lovingly crafted in also experiences the pleasure of happiness, with a level that far exceeds our own.

What does the Bible reveal to us?

Now, philosophy aside, I’d like to break this down a bit more by exploring what the Bible teaches about our joyful Jesus. (I also want to point out that the Bible never distinguishes between “joy” and “happiness” but uses them synonymously, so throughout this piece, I also will use the words “joy” and “happiness” without distinction and interchangeably.)

Jesus experienced the full range of emotions, including anger (such as the time He literally whipped religious people in John 2:13-16), grief (as when He wept over the death of His friend in John 11:33-36), and anguish and suffering (such as in the Garden on the eve of His crucifixion in Luke 22:44). We know that He also experienced immense joy—surprisingly even during His execution saga—as Hebrews 12:2 recounts that “for the sake of the joy that was set before Him, [He] endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (emphasis mine). Yes, Jesus focused on the joy of the reward of the cross (that is, you and me connected in life forever to Him), and that joy gave Him endurance to accomplish His mission.

And it’s no wonder that joy brought Him strength! In Nehemiah 8:10, the prophet said, “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” Wait… whose joy? This is an oft-quoted Scripture, but one that may not be carefully thought about. “The joy of the Lord is your strength…” Nehemiah was revealing an unusual truth in his statement: the fact that God is happy is what brings us strength. Put differently, we have no real hope of strength unless God is happy! I heard it said once that you can never be stronger than God is joyful.

And while Jesus certainly wore the title “Man of sorrows” according to Isaiah 53:3, we must remember that it was our griefs and our sorrows that He bore according to the very next verse, Isaiah 53:4—and not His own sorrows. Author Donald Macleod wrote in Person of Christ, “A joyless life [for Jesus] would have been a sinful life… Jesus experienced deep, habitual joy.” Wow! I love the thought that joy was a habit of Christ’s.

Even before His time on earth, Jesus was infinitely joyful with His Father before and during the foundation of the world, as personified by Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8:30-31, and His arrival to earth was heralded by angels as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10, emphasis mine). Can you believe that His opponents even accused Him of having too much joy (Luke 7:34)?

Jesus told His disciples in John 15 the importance of abiding with Him, and then dropped a glorious statement: “I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (verse 11, emphasis mine). It is Jesus’ will to transfer His personal, heavenly, bright happiness into our lives until we experience a happiness that is complete.

Just a bit later, in John 17:13, Jesus prays for His followers, “I am coming to You (the Father) now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of My joy within them” (emphasis mine). Again, Jesus wants to deposit this full measure of His joy into us—wow! Surely, joy flows abundantly from the Person of Jesus, and even Psalm 116:11 sings out, “In Your Presence, there is fullness of joy!”

I also wanted to look at a pivotal passage, Galatians 5:22-23: “The fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions: joy that overflows, peace that subdues, patience that endures, kindness in action, a life full of virtue, faith that prevails, gentleness of heart, and strength of spirit. Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless” (emphasis mine).

Track with me for a second. An apple tree can only bear apples. An orange grove will yield only oranges. The Holy Spirit will not produce a fruit that is foreign to His nature. If the fruit of the “Spirit-tree” is joy, then the “tree” itself must be a joyful tree.

And even Heaven itself is a constant party, full of joyful dancing and whooping and shouting in loud celebration and praise. In a series of parables about individuals finding once-lost treasures, Jesus said, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7), and He likened His own self to an ecstatic woman who found a lost coin: “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9-10).

Indeed, joy is a whopping one third of the makeup of the Kingdom of God (the other two attributes being righteousness and peace, as found in Romans 14:17)! That’s a lot of happiness! C.S. Lewis put it this way: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven,” and how right he was.

To wrap up this portion, I want to leave you with a wondrous, paradigm-shifting reality: God is as happy as He is holy. I’ll say it again: God is as happy as He is holy! I remember when I first stumbled into that truth and how it so utterly freed me. Yes, knowing that Jesus is enormously joy-filled set me free. It adjusted the way that I approached Him, the method and content of my praying, and my understanding of His commands and promises in Scripture. Oh, yes! Thank You, Jesus, for being as happy as You are holy! Now, let that glory-soaked statement set you free as well!

But why is Jesus as the most joyful Being in the universe such a difficult truth to receive?

This is such a valid question, and it has far-reaching ramifications. For example, if we are to be imitators of God (Ephesians 5:1) and God is largely unhappy, then not only do we have permission to be unhappy, but we are subconsciously encouraged to be unhappy! Thus we believe somewhere deep down that God is pleased when our default habit is one of solemnity, grumpiness, or even sorrow. But of course we know this is not true. As the Bible verifies, God is full of eternal, unconditional joy—it is us who are slow in accepting that. I cannot answer for each Christian who has difficulty in “letting” God be joyful, but my suggestion is this: religion has inadvertently taught us that holiness looks somber and austere. (While “religion” is not always such, it often is a toxic, dysfunctional counterfeit for loving Jesus wholeheartedly. Read more about that here.)

For many, spiritual maturity looks like a frowning man praying to a frowning God. I even read a day or so ago about a preacher named Sarah Osborn who wrote in her memoirs in 1742 that she would literally whip her own back to a merciless, bloody pulp to “remind [herself] of [her] continued sin, depravity, and vileness in the eyes of God.” What a complicated and sad identity, inarguably a perversion of her actual identity as a beloved daughter of God. While this self-flagellation practice still exists in some small circles today, many will instead demonstrate equally destructive behavior by whipping themselves and their neighbors with their attitudes and behaviors, yet exalt it by calling it holiness.

My imagination goes to fictional, strict schoolmistresses in Tom Sawyer’s day who would crack a ruler across the knuckles of misbehaving students. Those who laughed were punished. The playful were wrong. For some, this is unfortunately not a fictitious example. You can see how generation after generation was trained to (mis)interpret maturity as solemnity, how the Church came to praise rule-keeping and unhappiness as forms of spiritual piety. The minds of many were trained to then categorize joy as immaturity. Even today, some of the most memorable paintings and movies of Jesus picture Him as serious and unsmiling—and many have allowed that to further validate their religious approaches, instead of letting the Word of God shape their beliefs.

This is a deception that needs to be broken if we are to live out the prayer of Jesus as I recounted above: being filled with His own full measure of joy (John 17:13).

So what is our right response to the joyfulness of Jesus?

1. Marinate in the truth that God is as happy as He is holy.

Have a series of long “selah” moments in that statement. Let those words sink deep into your spirit. If need be, wrestle with those words. Identify any lies you may have inadvertently partnered with that are trying to prevent you from receiving the truth. Be like a quality marinara sauce simmering and thickening for many hours: let this reality turn over and over again in your heart.

2. Thank Jesus for being so joyful.

He rejoices over you! He sings over you! He takes great delight in you! Be intentional to thank Him honestly.

3. Ask the Holy Spirit to renew your mind. He will!

The Holy Spirit will ever so cheerfully bless you with the ability to “un-learn” any wrong habits and patterns you have picked up over the years. And with a clean blank canvass, He’ll fill you up with truth.

4. Recognize that joy is a fruit of intimacy with the Spirit.

An apple tree doesn’t try to bear apples. When it bears apples, an apple tree is simply doing what comes most naturally. If a Christian tries to muster up happiness of his own doing, he will bear an inauthentic version of happiness, which nearly everyone around him can quickly observe is a bizarre, makeshift farce. No, this won’t do. It doesn’t help the man trying to be joyful or anyone around him.

In fact, trying to “bear joy” is really the wrong perspective for the believer. Listen closely and receive these words: you focus on communion with Jesus, and all the right fruits will naturally come. Lean into the Spirit and make room for Him in your everyday life, and before too long, you’ll be surprised at the joy that begins to manifest. It will just come naturally.

And there you have it, my dear friends! I have long been excited about this piece, and I pray it is a revelation to your spirit, and in turn, a liberation for your soul. In Jesus’ Name!

My heart,