Glad Tidings of Great Joy

Buried in the Old Testament’s prophecies about rebellion, judgment, and the wrath of God is a beautiful bit of hope. In my favorite verse of all time, Zephaniah shouts, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty One who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

As a perfectionistic performance addict who has always found the concept that God doesn’t merely tolerate me difficult to swallow, I was drawn to the phrase, “He will rejoice over you” and decided to study it. The Hebrew used for “rejoice” is the word sus (like Dr. Seuss). Although it may seem doubtful that one tiny term can make much of a difference in understanding the Bible as a whole, watch as it reveals the God who holds both justice and mercy in His hands.

Sus means to “have a feeling or attitude of fondness and enjoyment in an object, implying a love or relationship to the object of delight.” If you read the short book of Zephaniah, the first two and a half chapters (out of the total three) are really, really saturated with negative images: think a super bloody movie with the Lord hunting down humanity for their unfaithfulness. And then 3:17 happens, the one time in the book where this word is used. The idea that God—who had thus far been busy vocalizing destruction—would rejoice over the same people who have driven Him to grieved fury floored me. This shows a picture of pre-Christ redemption: God pretty much tells His people, “You have earned my wrath repeatedly, but I will bring about your good because of who I am.”

Matthew Henry’s commentary on this verse says: “O the condescensions of divine grace! The great God not only loves his saints, but he loves to love them, is pleased that he has pitched upon these objects of his love … He that is grieved for the sin of sinners rejoices in the graces and services of the saints, and is ready to express that joy.” We find a God uttering these words who is not grudging, bitter, or stingy; He is instead jubilant, exulting in His love to such an undeserving lot! Here it is, the gospel tucked into the middle of the Old Testament: God loves us wildly not because of who we are but because of who He is, and there is a response we are called to give in return.

Some people out there believe God is unemotional, detached, apart from the chaos and beauty of this world. But that is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible is profoundly expressive, emotionally generous with those He loves. He does not tolerate us: He delights in us. He does not wait for us to make “that last final mistake” before calling off our relationship: He glories in us. It is an unchangeable, unfathomable, eternal joy He takes in us that we can do nothing to earn, that we can do nothing to lose. And it is to be a mutual celebration—as He takes pleasure in us, we take pleasure in honoring Him. This isn’t to earn His good graces but because His good graces are already and forever ours.

Recognizing that this joy, this extreme sense of gladness, is how the Lord feels about me down to His toes just takes my breath away. It is not dependent upon my performance (as evidenced by the fact that God shouts this message in the middle of the Hebrews’ rebellion), and it is not necessarily reflected in my surrounding circumstances (as evidenced by the fact that the Hebrews did have to face the consequences of their rebellion). But a slave who knows she is genuinely loved by the King has something that can’t be taken away or hidden by her circumstances.

How could we not be struck by the depth of God’s reckless, extravagant love by knowing that it is placed amidst promises of judgment and destruction? As a child, and far into my adult life, my relationship with God was based on fear, laced with it, and doing what Jen Hatmaker calls a “manic dance” to perform, to earn my way into belonging. I have recently learned that that lifestyle of striving breaks His heart. I, so unworthy, so small, so flawed to my core, have nothing to offer but full acceptance of the enormous, ecstatic love of God.

This is what I’ve learned: God is far more merciful than He is just; our actions and attitudes matter not because we are obligated to do the next right thing but because we are so deeply cherished; and lingering anxiety, depression, and fear do not belong in the life of one who is loved by God. More personally, I can stop the manic dance and rest in the pleasure Jesus takes in me. It has been said that what you believe about God is the most important thing about you, but from my standpoint, what you believe God believes about you is second on that list.

Loving someone who may decide to leave you at any moment is difficult, if not impossible. But loving someone who will not only stay but who will also delight in you (even when you are at your very, very worst) is the easiest thing in the world. After a lifetime in church and years in ministry, truth has leaked past my brain and into my heart: I am intimately loved, and there will never ever be a time when that stops being the case. I actually cried as I studied this word, just realizing how good Jesus is to think of me the way He does. There has always been an internal drive to be excellent, to make Him look good, down deep in my soul. But now that I know that He is dancing and singing over me even when I’m the worst version of myself, the shackles have been removed, and I find myself invited to join the dancing and singing in an eternal flurry of joy.

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