Locating Joy: God’s Presence

The Trinity is the source of all joy, it follows that nearness to him correlates to our experience of joy. If you read through the storyline of Scripture with an eye to the theme of joy there is a discernible pattern that will emerge—joy and celebration are consistently experienced in the presence of God.

The symbol of God’s presence in the Old Testament was the tabernacle and temple. In the stories where the tabernacle and temple are built there is great joy. We see this in every tabernacle/temple building or re-building narrative.

The book of Psalms, likely the book with the most references to joy, is focused on the the worship of God in the temple. The destruction of the temple is the occasion for the book Lamentations, clearly showing that sorrow is directly connected to distance from God’s presence.

This theme carries through to the New Testament where Jesus tabernacles among us (Jn 1:14). We become the temple of the Holy Spirit. And we await the time when the entire earth will become his temple. Every time God takes up residence with his people joy is the response. The Psalmist could not be more clear: “In Your Presence is fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11).

Circumstances do not dictate joy, presence does. You see, for the Christian there are two constants in life: pain and presence. We live in a world wracked by the curse and faltering under the weight of sin. It is our reality and it causes us great sorrow in our souls.

Yet, we who have trusted in Jesus Christ have the Holy Spirit residing in us and the promise that God will never leave us, which means he is always Immanuel. He is God with us! His presence is connected to joy, hence the possibility of rejoicing in the midst of sorrow. It is his presence that enables us to know joy in impossible situations.

Christmas & Unexpected Majesty

The Christmas story is filled with all kinds of unlikely, unexpected twists and turns. The sleepy town of Bethlehem, a teenage virgin, a stable, a crowd of animals and shepherds, a crib—are we sure the one promised to reign and rule, the one coming in might and majesty, the one promised to save and shepherd his people has chosen such a strange entrance?

Yes! We must step back and realize that Christmas is as much about God’s showing work as it is about his saving work. The nativity story is a divine autobiography. God is telling us about himself. He is revealing to the world just who He is and what He is like. The reason the story is so unexpected is because the majesty of our God is unexpected.

The nativity helps us recognize that the glory of God is seen in humility, passion and generosity. It is glimpsed in the paradox of the “Ancient of Days” taking his first breath as a new born baby. Augustine in one of his Christmas homilies beautifully captures the majesty of God in the paradox of the incarnation as he explores the Creator of all knit together in Mary’s womb.

The Word of the Father, by whom all time was created, was made flesh and was born In time for us. He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day [set aside] for His human birth. In the bosom of His Father, He existed before all the cycles of ages; born of an earthly Mother, He entered upon the course of the years on this day. The Maker of man became Man that He, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that He, the Bread, might be hungry; that He, the Fountain, might thirst; that He, the Light, might sleep; that He, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that He, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that He, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that He, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that He, Discipline, might be scourged with whips; that He, the Grape, might be crowned with thorns; that He, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Courage might be weakened; that Security might be wounded; that Life might die. To endure these and similar indignities for us, to free us, unworthy creatures, He who ‘existed as the Son of God before all ages, without a beginning, deigned to become the Son of Man in these recent years. He did this although He who submitted to such great evils for our sake had done no evil and although we, who were the recipients of so much good at His hands, had done nothing to merit these benefits. Begotten by the Father, He was not made by the Father; He was made Man in the Mother whom He Himself had made, so that He might exist here for a while, sprung from her who could never and nowhere have existed except through His power.

Remember, the greatest gift of Christmas is always getting more of God. It is about glimpsing more of his majesty and wonder. May he grant us the joy of the angels on that first Christmas day, the gratitude of the Shepherds who welcomed into the world and the persistence and wisdom of the Magi to seek him with our whole hearts. Merry Christmas!

Locating Joy: The Triune God

Joy in this world must always be explored against the backdrop of sorrow. In 2 Corinthians 6:10, Paul describes the Christian journey with the striking phrase: “we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” The true surprise in this paradox is that joy can be present at all in a world so wracked with pain. How can it be? Where does joy come from? How can it stand alongside sorrow?

Joy is not rooted in circumstance…if it were it would not exist alongside sorrow. Take a look at these texts.

  1. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh 8:10)
  2. “Well done good and faithful servant enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matt 25:23)
  3. “That my joy may be made full in you.” (John 15:11)
  4. “The Fruit of the Holy Spirit is…joy.”(Gal 5:22)

In each of these texts there is a joy that belongs to God. Did you notice that each text also describes the joy of each of the Triune Persons. We see joy belonging to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The joy of the Lord is always the joy of the Trinity. Our God is the Triune God—one eternal God existing in three persons. God is perfect community, perfect unity, the perfect experience and expression of emotion, the perfection of relationship. It is in the Triune community that joy exists in its purest form.

The joy of God first and foremost takes shape in mutual delight. Before creation, God was fully satisfied and fulfilled in his Triune existence. The three persons delighted in one another, loved one another and shared true joy. It was out of the overflow of their love and joy that creation came to be. We see this joy in one another bursting forth in the storyline of Scripture: the Father delighting in the Son, the Son delighting in the Spirit and the Father, the Spirit delighting in the Father and the Son.

The paradoxical overlap of sorrow and joy is also rooted in the experience of God. In Christ we see the fulness of God. In him we see the God of joy and yet, he is the “man of sorrows” (Is 53:3). We see rejoicing and we see weeping. We see celebration and we see lament. He perfectly embodied the journey of being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10).

Joy is located in the Triune God. He is truly the taproot, the fountainhead, the source of all joy. It only makes sense that the closer we get to the source of joy the more joy we will know. Proximity to God is the same as distance to joy. In the next post we will pick up and explore this dynamic.

Contaminated By Responsible Action

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian positioned in a challenging historical situation. As a Christ-follower, pastor and professor he wrestled with the dynamic of Hitler’s dictatorship and the terror of the Holocaust.

What must a responsible disciple of Christ do in such an impossible context? Many turned a blind eye to the situation and plugged their ears. Bonhoeffer pushed for and modeled a different path. His comments are wise and challenging in this regard.

Here and there people flee from public altercation into the sanctuary of private virtuousness. But anyone who does this must shut his mouth and his eyes to the injustice around him. Only at the cost of self-deception can he keep himself pure from the contamination arising from responsible action. In spite of all that he does, what he leaves undone will rob him of his peace of mind. He will either go to pieces because of the disquiet, or become the most hypocritical of Pharisees.

Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles. his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible man, who tries to make his whole life an answer to the question and call of God. Where are these responsible people?

Responsible action is messy. When you enter the fray obediently, staying clean is unlikely. The idea that a Christian can stay faithful and unscathed by the mess around them is faulty. This “private virtuousness” that removes our neighbors from us and keeps the world at bay is no virtue at all.

Bonhoeffer’s theology would root virtue in the cross; the embodiment of contamination for responsible action.

The Lesser Known Reformers

You know Luther and Calvin, but are you familiar with John Knox or Heinrich Bullinger?  How about Jan Hus, Theodore Beza or Martin Bucer? Luther and Calvin are the most well known reformers, but there were other champions of the gospel during that time frame pushing for reform and return to the cardinal truths of Christianity.

Here are a few insights from these gentlemen.

“A man with God is always in the majority.” -John Knox

“For the Lord hath in no place forbidden mirth.” -Heinrich Bullinger

“Rejoice, that the immortal God is born, so that mortal man may live in eternity.” -Jan Hus

“What I have taught with my lips I now seal with my blood.” – Jan Hus

“Christ was anointed, so that he might be our king, teacher, and priest for ever. He will govern us, lest we lack any good thing or be oppressed by any ill; he will teach us the whole truth; and he will reconcile us to the Father eternally.” -Martin Bucer

“Does the corruption of your nature astonish you? The Son of God making himself man has fully sanctified it for you. Do your sins make you afraid, which be fruits of this corruption? He has borne them all upon the tree, and has paid for your discharge. Which more is, his righteousness is yours, if he himself is yours. Are you afraid of men, if God is for you? Does death make you afraid? It is vanquished and turned into an entry of life. Behold then all your enemies scattered, behold quite under foot, all such as afflicted you within and without, because the Lord allows you for one of his servants and household.      -Theodore Beza


Blessed Doubters and Gospel Freedom

Helmut Thielicke was a German theologian and professor that taught and wrote during WWII. He has some very helpful things to say about the liberating intention of the gospel and the connection between grasping mercy and knowing doubt. Here are a few of his insights.

“The Christian stands, not under the dictatorship of a legalistic ‘you ought,’ but in the magnetic field of Christian Freedom, under the empowering of the ‘You may.'”

“The gospel must be preached afresh and told in new ways to each generation, since every generation has its own unique questions. The gospel must constantly be forwarded to a new address, because the recipient is repeatedly changing his place of address.”

“Jesus did not identify the person with his sin, but rather saw in this sin something alien, something that really did not belong to him, something that merely chained and mastered him and from which he could free him and bring him back to his real self. Jesus was able to love men because he loved them right through the layer of mud.”

“I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflection. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life.”

“Tell me how much you know of the sufferings of your fellowmen and I will tell you how much you have loved them.”

“The doubters are always more blessed than the mere fellow travelers in faith. For they are the only ones who fully learn that their Lord is stronger than any doubt and any hell of despair.”

“What is the greatest deficiency among human Christians? They have an inadequate view of human suffering.”

Falling Upward and Doing Nothing

Gerhard Forde was a Lutheran theologian that taught as a seminary professor for 40 years. He wrote some very insightful material on the doctrine of justification and the theology of the cross. He was a strong proponent of the radical grace of the gospel.

He understood the original sin to be a an upward lunge and grasp for divinity. He understood salvation to be the finished work of Christ applied to the person who does nothing but receives.

Here are a few great quotes from Forde.

“We must consider the fall and sin differently from the traditional scheme. The fall is really not what the word implies at all. It is not a downward plunge to some lower level in the great chain of being, some lower rung on the ladder of morality and freedom. Rather, it is an upward rebellion, an invasion of the realm of things ‘above,’ the usurping of divine prerogative. To retain traditional language, one would have to resort to an oxymoron and speak of an ‘upward fall.'”

“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!’

“Sanctification is simply the art of getting used to justification.”

“Christian growth is forgetting about yourself.”