Christian Joy and Feasting
The following is an edited transcript of my interview last month with Tony Reinke, who invited me to be a guest on Desiring God’s “Ask Pastor John” podcast. You can also listen to the audio of this interview.
Randy, what is the relationship between spiritual joy and joy of God-honoring parties and feasts? How should we think about spiritual joys and enjoyment of great food and friends?
Well, it’s amazing. When you look at Scripture. you see all these Old Testament passages about the parties and the feasts (and that is what feasts were—they were parties). They would often involve sacrifices, but most of the time was spent eating and drinking and basically having fun and taking time off. You see in Leviticus 23:40 God says, “You shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.” This is a seven-day party of rejoicing in God, and the Old Testament is full of God-ordained celebrations for the Israelites.
God built into Israel’s calendar seven holidays, amounting to about thirty days of feasts per year. Add the weekly Sabbaths, and the total comes to around eighty days of feasting and rest annually. Add the later feasts of Purim (one day) and Hanukkah (eight days), plus weddings and birth celebrations, and the amount of time off for celebration and worship exceeded three months annually!
Deuteronomy 14 is a passage that I was so struck with. In verses 24–26 in the ESV it says, “If the way is too long for you, so that you are not able to carry the tithe, when the LORD your God blesses you, because the place is too far from you, which the LORD your God chooses, to set his name there, then you shall turn it into money and bind up the money in your hand and go to the place that the LORD your God chooses and spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves. And you shall eat there before the LORD your God and rejoice.”
What strikes me, first of all, is the language. You talk about hedonism—I mean this is God-directed hedonism. He’s saying, “Whatever your appetite craves, get the best of whatever you want to eat and drink: wine, strong drink. And you shall eat there before the Lord your God and rejoice.” And I love that it says “before the Lord your God.” Happiness and joy are not things we’re to experience behind God’s back, as if that were possible! But he calls upon them: “Do it all before me. And I am by implication going to be there with you. I am going to enjoy it with you. And so when you are partying, I will be partying with you.”
Think about the rejoicing that takes place in the presence of the angels of God that Jesus speaks of twice in Luke 15:7, 10. Who is in the presence of the angels? God is. God’s people are in the presence of the angels and, of course, the angels themselves are there. All heaven is throwing a party and rejoicing over conversions on earth. And these are things that we’re to celebrate. In 2 Chronicles 30:21–23 it talks about how the people of Israel kept the feast of unleavened bread for seven days with great gladness. The word “gladness” and the various happiness-related Hebrew words are used for all of these Old Testament celebrations.
How much different it would be if people looked less at the church as a group of always critical, always complaining, always feeling persecuted bunch of curmudgeons—which sometimes we can project that image to the world, no doubt. And we can also project it even to our children growing up in Christian homes. They hear what mom and dad are saying and the critical spirit and the complaining and the ingratitude and all that sort of thing. But what if we as believers were known as the people of celebration and gladness, and the church as the place of feasting?
And it wasn’t just Old Testament—in the New Testament, the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper, the love feast. Now we’ve got the cracker and the juice, you know? And it’s fine symbolically, but we really need to have feasts. What if the church led the way in participating on March 20 in what the United Nations unanimously appointed as the International Day of Happiness, by celebrating the good news of happiness that Isaiah 52:7 talks about?
More feasts in either case. Thank you, Randy. In our circles, we like to say that external circumstances of life do not determine our happiness. This is helpful for those who are suffering, and it’s an important pushback to our world that says outward circumstances in life are essential for true happiness. That’s false. But it also seems disingenuous to say that outward circumstances play no role in our God-glorifying happiness. How do we talk about joy in God in God-glorifying circumstances of life?
Well, I think, first of all, we see Paul rejoicing over circumstances. Consider the Greek verb kairo and the noun form korah that are translated “rejoicing” and “joy.” Those words are associated with Paul when he finds out that Epaphroditus, who these people were very deeply concerned about, was better (Philippians 2:28–30). He came close to death, but now they’re rejoicing that he is well. That is a circumstance. That’s a good friend who was in trouble and now is okay, so they’re rejoicing in that. It’s fine to rejoice in circumstances. If you get a raise, great! Rejoice. Be happy. That is circumstantial. But at the same time it’s a blessing of God. Many of God’s common graces are circumstantial.
However, we cannot rest our ultimate joy and happiness upon the circumstances in our lives. I remember as a young Christian when I was a teenager reading Richard Wurmbrand’s Tortured for Christ, Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Brother Andrew’s God’s Smuggler, and all of these great stories of people in huge tribulation. They went through horrific things, yet in the midst of them, experienced a transcendent joy, happiness, gladness, delight, pleasure in God.
Usually when we think of circumstances we’re almost kind of dismissive about them. But Scripture says to give thanks in all circumstances in 1 Thessalonians 5:18. And Paul says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11–13).
But I also think we need to focus on what I would call our true circumstances—not all circumstances are visible. To start with, we’re created by a good and happy God. We were created in His image. He gave us the capacity to be happy. We’d have plenty to contemplate about what Scripture says about our true circumstances if we just took Romans 8 alone. Think of verse 1: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
In Jesus I’ve been set free from sin and death, and God sent his Son to save me (verse 2). I can set my mind on the Spirit, and that is life and peace (verse 6). God’s Spirit indwells and empowers me (verse 11). God has adopted me, and I can call him, “Abba, Father” (verse 15). I am an heir of God and a fellow heir with Christ (verse 16). The sufferings of this present time aren’t worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us (verse 18).
Creation will be delivered to the freedom and glory of God’s children. The world itself, the universe itself, will be ultimately redeemed during the redemption of our bodies (verse 23). The Spirit prays for us in our weakness (verse 26). Christ Himself intercedes for us (verse 34). They indwell us. We have been called to a life in which God promises that He will cause all things to work together for our good (verse 28).
We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (verse 37). And how much more will God, who gave us His Son, give us all things (verse 32)? And then finally, to top it all off, nothing shall separate us from the love of Christ (verses 35, 38–39). Those are the true circumstances of the Christian life. Let’s meditate on those circumstances which are a true ground for eternal and present happiness.