Ann from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, writes in, “Pastor John, if Jesus was infinitely satisfied in the fellowship of the Trinity with perfect joy, in what sense did he endure the cross ‘for the joy that was set before him’? How could his joy increase if he was perfectly satisfied already?”
I don’t know whether Ann realizes what a massive question she is asking. This kind of question has philosophical names she wouldn’t even recognize. Her question is not quirky or new. It is part of a bigger issue. If God was perfectly happy in the fellowship of the Trinity from all eternity, why did he create the world?
Joy of the Lord?
Did God rejoice in creating the world? If so, was God deficient before he actualized that joy in creating the world? When God got angry at Israel and threatened to wipe her out before Moses intervened and God relented, did he rejoice in Israel constantly through the whole episode? Or did his joy go up and down? And if God’s joy goes up and down, how can we talk about him being consistently, perfectly, and all-satisfyingly happy?
What did the psalmist mean when he sang, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3)? What does God mean when he says, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me . . . saying, ‘My counsel will stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:9–10). Isaiah uses purpose, or good pleasure, which conveys the same idea as pleases from Psalm 115:3. God does all that he pleases. He accomplishes all his purpose. If that’s so, in what sense can he be displeased?
“God’s seeming variation really forms part of his glorious, unified, constant, stable, pure, coherent mind.”
The Bible clearly does say we can displease God. Paul says, “Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10) as though sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. We don’t always please the Lord. Sometimes, we displease him.
Ann, you have posed a huge, huge problem. You quoted Hebrews 12:2: “For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross.” Jesus’s joy was not fully there in Gethsemane. It lay out in front of him. But how could a member of the Trinity not be fully and completely satisfied? I will give you Piper’s little, puny effort to try to respond to this. I thought a lot about it. I will throw out my thoughts for people to ponder.
Higher Than Us
First, God does not experience emotions — positive or negative — the way we do. We have very little control over how we feel. Emotions happen to us. They affect us. They sneak up on us when we don’t want them to happen. They make us feel ways we wouldn’t have chosen to feel.
God is not like that. Nothing sneaks up on God. Nothing overtakes God that he doesn’t see coming, permit, and plan to respond to. Nor is God whimsical. None of his emotions control him. God is never the victim of emotion. He plans them all. All God’s feelings form part of his unified, integrated, complete perfection, which rises and falls precisely the way he plans and wills. However God appears to vary, that appearance is part of a much larger constancy, unity, coherence, and stability. God does not experience emotions like we do.
God and Man
Second, Ann’s question from Hebrews 12:2 — the joy set before him — owes partly to the mystery of Christ’s two natures. Jesus is human and divine at once. His divine and human natures did not respond identically to what he went through. I don’t know how to describe or discern what Jesus’s divine nature experienced in Gethsemane. But we must surely see Jesus’s human nature during his last hours as extremely oppressed, weighed down, sorrowful, and in great agony. Yet the hope of success in his mission sustained him. The joy set before him gave him strength. He could taste enough of this joy to carry him through.
Jesus’s divine nature did not cease communing and fellowshipping with the Father and Spirit. But it’s difficult to conceive of these things. When we ponder the experiences of Christ on earth, we just need to remember his two natures.
The Father’s Joys
Christ’s two natures do not solve the larger issue of God’s joy in creation, his pleasure in the obedience of his children, and so on. God feels real, varying joys. How can God always rejoice fully and perfectly in the Trinity if Israel or our behavior can displease him? What does the Bible mean by saying there is more joy in heaven because of one repentant sinner than ninety-nine righteous people? I make two responses.
First, God may view any event through two lenses. His narrow lens focuses on the thing itself without reference to the totality of all things. His broad lens sees the thing in relation to everything he does.
“God does not experience emotions — positive or negative — the way we do.”
Say he looks at an evil like my sin. I, his child, sin and displease him. When he views my sin through the narrow lens, he sees it as ugly, and its ugliness displeases him. But when he views it through the wide lens, he sees it in relation to all things like a thread, a dark or tattered thread in a bright tapestry. In relation to the whole, that thread performs a perfect role even though the thread is imperfect. So God rejoices. God rejoices when he sees how my sin fits into the big picture.
Mysteriously, God can look through these lenses simultaneously. To us, God appears variable. At times we please him; at times we displease him. Yet God’s seeming variation really forms part of his glorious, unified, constant, stable, pure, coherent mind.
Second, let me offer you a picture of a fountain. I get this from Jonathan Edwards.
When we say God found joy in creating and redeeming the world, do we mean this joy made up for some deficiency in God? Because the joy wasn’t there before, did God have a deficiency? The answer is “No, no, no, no, no!” We mustn’t think that way. Edwards says, “Tis no sign of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain that it is inclined to overflow.”
We want to retain two biblical truths: God experiences joy in doing things, and God’s joy was full before he did them. I would explain those by saying: God’s joy in doing things does not make up for any deficiency of joy, but rather expresses a fullness of joy. God’s joys in creation are not additions, but overflow.
Ann raised weighty, weighty matters. I gave my best effort to tackle her question.