The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength

Article by

Senior writer, desiringGod.org

“I think it’s fair to say that many Christians don’t believe God is happy.” It’s an insight from Randy Alcorn, in his book Happiness. “If we did believe it, wouldn’t we be happier?”

It’s not that Christians don’t want God to be happy, it’s just that we are slow to understand the theology that God is always, essentially, and completely happy. We may believe that he is sometimes happy — that makes sense to us. But is God always, essentially, and completely happy at the core of his being?

That is a question that we have a hard time understanding, and one of the most common questions we get in the Ask Pastor John inbox: If God is so happy, why does he seem so angry in the Bible?

It’s a legitimate question for us to deal with, but under the surface it reveals our weird theological agnosticism about God’s happiness. How we answer the question will determine everything about how we view the Christian life — and how we search for holiness.

If we do not embrace the happiness of God, we jeopardize three precious realities in our own lives.

1. Your joy rests on God’s joy.

In a fallen world, cursed and made vain at so many points, we are fundamentally unhappy and prone to long bouts with unhappiness. We are made “happy” by having stuff, getting gifts, or feeling like we belong in a group.

In stark contrast, God is happy within himself. As Aquinas said so clearly, “God is happiness by his essence: for he is happy not by acquisition or participation of something else, but by his essence. On the other hand, men are happy by participation.”

We read our acquired happiness onto God (“God will finally be happy when X, Y, and Z all go his way”). We think God is merely happy by participation — just like us.

But God is happiness. Joy is fundamental to his triune nature. To find God is to find the fountain of all joy, so beautifully and simply put by Augustine: “Following after God is the desire of happiness; to reach God is happiness itself.” We participate in joy when we reach the essence of all joy: God himself.

Or take it from one of the most careful theologians of our age: “God is essentially blessed and happy” (Richard Muller, 3:382).

Yes, thank you for all these quotes, but please show me texts, you ask.

The foundation for this point is laid in 1 Timothy 1:11, where Paul extols “the gospel of the glory of the blessed God.” God is essentially blessed. His blessedness — his happiness — is central to his glory. This text shows us that God’s expressive glory is essentially linked to his inner joy (The Joy Project, 116–119). God’s majesty is his radiating joy, and that joy is what he promises to us. His holiness and beauty attract the elect to him. God communicates his majesty as beams that burn out from the solid, rocket-fuel radiance of his inter-Trinitarian joy.

See this truth, and embrace it, and your life will find an eternity of joy-fuel for this life — and the next one.

2. God really does delight in you.

When we assume that God is fundamentally angry, and simultaneously know that we are nothing special — not unique or extraordinary in our service — we cannot believe how on earth (or in heaven) the God of the universe would sing over us his song of delight (Zephaniah 3:17).

How can a holy God delight in me?

It was a preacher named Henry Donald Maurice Spence (1836–1917) who made a point I cannot forget: “God is so joyous that he finds joy even in us.”

Let that land for a moment. God’s song of joy over his justified children is not merely the sum of the joy we attract from him; it’s also the multiplication of his abundant joy exponentially expressing itself out over us. Joyful people more easily express joy, just as God delights to rejoice over his children, because he is essentially joyful.

3. The happiness of God is the strength you need.

The text on this point is a familiar one, but one we don’t stop to think about more carefully. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Whether the “joy of the Lord” here refers mainly to the joy he has in himself, or to the joy he gives us, we have no real hope of joy or strength unless God is happy (John 15:11).

God does not give us any joy outside of the joy he has in himself already. Which means, God’s happiness is our strength.

It’s a remarkable point delivered to Nehemiah and a people who were ravaged by war, weakened by insecurities, and constantly reminded of their own fragility.

And this is where we find our strength: for life, for pain, for trials, for marriage, for child-raising, for missions, for everything. The strength we need for this life is found in the essential joy of God.

You will never be spiritually stronger than your God is happy. God’s joy is our strength. Settle it biblically. God is essentially happy within himself.