The following is an edited transcript of my interview 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, as you know, God is happy. Scripture tells us that. So if God is so fundamentally and essentially happy all the time in Himself, why does He often seem ill-tempered in the biblical stories?
Well, I think we need to realize that sin and the consequent suffering that comes out of it is a reality in this world. We’re under the fall and the curse. Even though Christ has become a curse for us who believe in Him, we recognize that we still face the realities of sin and suffering in this life. And this sin that infiltrates the world is a temporary condition. I think this is the key to understanding how it is that God could be from eternity past utterly happy within Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit delighting in each other.
I developed this theme of the union of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the book and others have developed it, of course. (John Piper develops it tremendously in The Pleasures of God and somewhat in Desiring God as well.) The Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And Luke 10:20–21 says that Jesus then rejoiced in the Holy Spirit after telling his disciples to rejoice that their names are written in heaven.
But He has always been happy. He will always be happy. And He is predominantly happy now. Sin is a temporary condition. So the causes for God’s unhappiness are themselves temporary. His primary identity is as a happy God, not an unhappy one.
Sin is so prevalent and the Bible is written to point out and deal with the sin problem. Hence, we often do see a God with anger and wrath, and it’s easy to overlook all of the lovingkindness passages and all the passages about God delighting in His people and God being pleased. We can miss the master, in Jesus’s words, saying to the servant, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into your master’s happiness.” Enter into a happiness far more ancient than the world itself—a happiness that preceded all creation, a happiness that goes on undaunted and will continue forever (see Matthew 25:21).
And God not only says this to us so that at the end of our life we might be welcomed into His happiness, but also so that we can frontload, so to speak, that happiness into our life right now because of His redemptive work. But even then people will say that Jesus is called “the man of sorrows.” And I heard this from a lot from people when I told them I was writing a book called Happiness.
By the way, unbelievers would always think it was great when I’d tell them I was writing about happiness. But when I’d say it to believers they’d scrunch up their faces and say, “Oh, wait a minute. Did you mean joy? What are you doing talking about happiness?” I received a letter from a pastor telling me why I shouldn’t write on the subject of happiness. But for unbelievers they see the appeal of it, because that’s what they long for.
But look at Jesus. He’s called “the man of sorrows,” which people point out, but that’s in Isaiah 53:3—and it’s specifically in relationship to his redemptive work: “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” And He is pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities and all of that (verse 5). But even that redemptive work was done for the joy set before him according to Hebrews 12:2.
So if we picture Jesus going around in perpetual sadness or anger, grumbling, and looking to condemn more than to extend grace, then we’re really not seeing the Jesus of the Bible. And children were attracted to Him, by the way. And who are children attracted to? They’re not attracted to unhappy people.
People today sometimes say, “I’ve got the joy of Jesus way, way deep in my heart, even though my life is pretty miserable.” It’s like, “Well, you know what? I think that joy needs to work its way to your face once in a while.” After all, we’re called to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). And if God weren’t happy, He wouldn’t call us to be happy. And furthermore, if God were not happy, He couldn’t be the source of our happiness, because God can’t give us what He doesn’t have. We’re to value joy, happiness, gladness, delight precisely because our God is characterized by them, and the gospel we preach to people should be a gospel of a holy God, yes, but also of a happy God.
Passages like 1 Timothy 1:11 and 6:15 explicitly tell us God is happy, or “blessed” as most translations put it. I heard you recently argue, in another interview, that all the times in the Bible that talk about God seeking to delight in someone or something, means that God is essentially joyful, because He is always postured to delight. That’s a fascinating point.
Exactly, because who delights? A person who has the capacity to delight and the desire and orientation to delight, a person who delights in delighting, who is pleased by pleasure, who is happy in happiness.
So insightful. And some theologians say that God’s wrath is the flip side of His love. No love, no wrath. Can we say that God's anger against sin is the flip side of His desire for his creation to rejoice?
Yes, absolutely. I think the very fact that He’s unhappy with sin is an indicator that sin is what robs people of happiness. So He’s happy with that which is not only in conformity to His holy standards, but also that which is in conformity to His happiness and delight. He wants the best for us. He sincerely wants for us to participate in His happiness and His joy and His delight. And sin is the enemy of all that.