Sheldon writes in to ask, “I would consider myself a Christian hedonist, and I’m familiar with the Scriptures that extol God’s own happiness. However, when I observe God interacting with humans in Scripture (such as Jesus in the Gospels, or God with Israel in the Old Testament), he often does not come across as outwardly happy. Am I just reading it wrong? Was Jesus’s time on earth just full of hardship? How can I address this seeming disconnect between biblical theology that exclaims God’s full, unending joy and biblical observations of God (in his actions, speech, behavior), that seem to show him as not all that abounding in joy?”
Well, Sheldon, I found this to be one of the most provocative questions I have heard in a long time. This really forced me to ponder some things that I hadn’t thought of before. So thank you, and it is just a great example of how asking questions is the key to going deeper in the Bible and what we think. I don’t know that I have the answer here, but I will tell you what I have been thinking about.
God’s Emotional Complexity
Let’s start with the truth that we Christians are joyful and sorrowful at the same time — “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Even though the Bible says, “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4) — and surely God rejoices always — we sorrow often, maybe always, because there is always something to be sad about, without losing our joy.
I think it is this way with God. God can be grieved (see Ephesians 4:30). He is angry. He sympathizes with the sorrowful (Hebrews 4:15), and weeps with those who weep (Romans 12:15) — even while laughing at the wicked (Psalm 2:1–4) and rejoicing over sinners who repent (Luke 15:7, 10). So, God is very emotionally complex — infinitely more than we are — but as his image bearers, we are emotionally complex, too.
A Narrower or Wider Lens?
Let me try an analogy of God’s peaceful, joyful, trinitarian happiness. It is like the Pacific Ocean. From a satellite, it is perfect and beautiful, serene and blue. You have seen those pictures — the blue planet. It just looks wonderful. But if you are flying in a helicopter five hundred feet above the waves in a hurricane, the Pacific Ocean is frighteningly and terrifyingly turbulent. And I think that is the way the mind of God is.
Another way to see it is that God sometimes looks at our lives through the narrow lens that focuses on our sin or our pain, and he would be angry or grieved. Scripture says Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” in Mark 3:5. So grief and anger are happening together. I think God can feel that when he looks through the narrow lens at your life. Or he can open the lens to the wider aperture and see our sin and our pain in relationship to the whole panorama of his millions of purposes, and approve of the tapestry that he is weaving in history, including our own pain and sin in it, and thus rejoice over all his works. So, he can be looking through the wide lens and rejoicing and looking through the narrow lens and grieving and suffering.
The Bible’s Narrow Lens
And my answer to the question that he is asking is that in the Bible, what we have mainly is a record of God dealing with us in our sin and pain and looking largely through the narrow lens. That is what the Bible is. It is between the fall and the consummation where the Bible mostly records God’s interaction with man in rebellion in sin before the final day, which, I think, accounts for why the tone is so regularly bleak and agonizing and struggling and grieving and painful.
There are hundreds of glimpses of God’s joy and our joy in the age to come when we are done sinning. But mostly, the Bible is the story of our sinning and God’s painful and merciful dealing with it. God enters our pain-filled world in Jesus, and he is called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). So, he is a “high priest who is [not] unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15) —in our sorrows and in our pain. That is what we would expect — that this man who came into the world precisely to suffer is going to look like a sufferer almost every time we see him, rather than a person who is chipper all the time, even though he went to parties, and they called him a glutton and winebibber. He was sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
Identifying with Us
So, it seems to me that the very problem that has been raised is a good-news problem. God is not distant. He is identifying with us in our sorrow. The God we meet in the Bible is a God revealing himself not usually as before creation in perfect trinitarian happiness or after consummation when all sinning is gone and all evil has been put out of the universe. He is God with us, now, agonizing over his recalcitrant bride, Israel in the Old Testament and in his Son suffering for us in the New Testament.
I would end my effort to answer this question by saying, let us not forget all the places — and I have never counted them, but there are a lot — where God himself reminds us that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). And that means not only ours, but God’s identification with our sorrow and sighing will also flee away, and there won’t be any of this cloud hanging over the universe like there is now.