As a dad, I’m not always pleased when my kids obey me. This is because they need to obey with a glad and sincere heart, and that is not always the case. Any child can muster grudging compliance. I’m longing to see a willing spirit and joyful trust.
The command to be joyful permeates the Scriptures, but it’s a bit strange if you think about it. Joy is an emotion, not a behavior. How can I be told to feel a certain way? What if I want to but just . . . don’t?
Let’s start with something we don’t often think about when it comes to God.
It may sound somewhat strange, but God is happy. Happier than the happiest person you’ve ever known. His gladness stretches back before the beginning, when infinite joy was contained within a triangle of love. For all of eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—one God in three persons—delighted to share the joy of divinity with one another.
So why did the triune God create the universe? Was he lacking something, perhaps compliant creatures to complete him? No. The creation of the world was an explosion of joy—not a filling up, but a spilling out. Consider that for a moment: Not only the astounding natural world, but you and I, created by God, are an overflow of his exceeding joy. In extravagant generosity, the persons of the Trinity decided to share their boundless gladness with the work of their hands.
What does this mini theology lesson have to do with approaching your Bible joyfully? Everything—because that’s the God who exhaled its words, and in whose image you are made.
You were made to be happy in a happy God.
Not an Accessory
Tragically, of course, the “happily ever after” of Genesis 1–2 was short-lived. Now we inhabit a Genesis 3 world, riddled with darkness and dysfunction and death, as I’m sure you’ve experienced. (If you haven’t, keep living.)
Have you ever wondered why the Bible is so lengthy? One reason is because God is so patient. It’s the long story of his longsuffering. And why has he been so patient? Because he loves us, yes. But even more specifically, because he’s been carefully executing a plan—a plan to share his endless joy with his rescued people, a multitude no one can count (Rev. 7:9).
Have you ever wondered why the Bible is so lengthy? One reason is because God is so patient. It’s the long story of his longsuffering.
According to the Bible, joy is not an accessory to the Christian life, a perk for shiny saints who can turn their frowns upside down. Rather, joy is tenacious. It fights. It grips the promises of God and won’t let go. And joy is not a mere good mood; it is ballast in our boats, an anchor in our storms, an immovable rock to stand on when the waves of life threaten to flatten us.
Far from being a peripheral subtheme in Scripture, joy is the heartbeat of God. No wonder it is at the core of his ultimate story and is intended to shape our smaller stories, too. Consider a snapshot of its centrality:
- What is the gospel? It is “good news that will cause great joy” (Luke 2:10).
- What is death? “Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:21).
- What is the goal of prayer? “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24).
- What is the goal of fellowship? “I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete” (2 John 12).
And what’s the goal of engaging with Scripture? “When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight” (Jer. 15:16).
Gladness of heart, Jeremiah discovered, is downstream from the feast. The same is true today. Despite what our culture tells you, real joy is not found in listening to yourself; it’s found in listening intently to God. It’s found when your “delight is in the law of the LORD” (Ps. 1:2), when your happiness is tethered not to circumstances but to promises, when you can’t get enough of your Bible.
Despite what our culture tells you, real joy is not found in listening to yourself; it’s found in listening intently to God.
The New Testament only advances this theme. Here’s how Jesus puts it to his disciples:
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)
And here’s what he prays to his Father:
. . . now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. (John 17:13)
Observe also the words of John:
. . . we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)
Hear the refrain? These things, these things, these things—namely, words. Some spoken (by Jesus), some written (by John), but all the breath of God, and all preserved for us in his Word.
The purpose of the words of Jesus and his apostles—the purpose of your Bible, friend—is to flood your heart with joy.
When Delight Dries Up
I already mentioned that biblical joy is not the same thing as being chipper or maintaining a glass-half-full temperament. Hell is filled with former glass-half-full people. Real joy is so much more, and so much better.
It is the nature of discipline to give way to delight.
One last thing, though, lest you get the impression that Bible reading is an uninterrupted joyfest for me. It’s not. Cracking open God’s Word often feels like a duty, not a delight. It requires discipline. It will for you, too. But as with so much in life—eating healthy, working out, and other wise things I struggle to do—it is the nature of discipline to give way to delight. Not every time, and not all at once. But steadily and increasingly, until the day we see our King face to face and behold him in his beauty—with joy that never ends (Isa. 33:17; 1 Cor. 13:12).
This is an adapted excerpt from Matt Smethurst’s book Before You Open Your Bible: Nine Heart Postures for Approaching God’s Word (10Publishing, 2019).