Do Some of Our Historic Images of Jesus Hinder Our Ability to See God as Joyful?

Zac HicksArt and Worship, History of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & Thought5 Comments

If you don’t think that art has the ability to shape the spirituality and worship of the Church, hopefully this little exercise will shift your perspective.  What’s your reaction to the statement, “God is an intensely joyful God”?  Or, perhaps more starkly, “God is Joy.”

My Pentecostal brothers and sisters have no problem with joy in worship.  Modern worship capitalizes on it.  But what about the more traditional-liturgical traditions?  Is there a sense of joy in our worship?  Many of my somber, cerebral, liturgy-loving friends would say, “Of course! It’s just internal, reverential joy.”  Okay, sure.  If I’m honest with myself, though (I won’t speak for others), when I’m experiencing the richest joy there is, I would have a terribly hard time containing it within a “reverential” shell.  It would probably burst forth.  I might smile.  Perhaps I’d even shout.  Perhaps I’d even dance.  Come to think of it, are reverence and joy at such odds that to express one would be diametrically opposed to expressing the other?

Even if my more high church brothers and sisters aren’t responding to these little jabs, perhaps we might see how our historic Christological art has affected our thinking and worship of God, and specifically the Second Person of the Trinity.

John Jefferson Davis, in his fabulous work, Worship and the Reality of God,1 points out that evangelical worship could stand to rehearse more often one of God’s most inspiring attributes—joy. (By the way, since when have we seen “Joy” as one of the sections of communicable attributes of God in systematic theology texts?)  Davis briefly proofs his claim through showing the richness of joy in God and in early church worship (Acts 2:46-47; Lk 10:21; Jn 15:11; Jn 1:1-3; Prov 8:30-31; Zeph 3:17; Lk 15:5ff; Rev 19:6-7). He then reminds his readers of God’s joy through what may be a shocking statement: “heaven is a happy place; God the Father and God the Son have smiling faces.”2  And, in a footnote, Davis points out something quite profound about ecclesiastical art in both the Western and Eastern Christian traditions:

The images of God in the church and in the Christian’s imagination can have powerful impacts for good or for ill in personal piety and worship.  The crucifix in Roman Catholic churches, portraying a dead and suffering Christ, and the icons of ‘Christ Pantocrator’ in Orthodox churches, portraying a powerful but very somber Jesus, do indeed portray profound biblical truths—but not the whole truth; the joyfulness of the inner life of the Trinity is missing in these images.3

Let it sink in.  When you scan in your mind the depictions of Jesus you’ve seen in paintings, sculptures, and film, what is the prevailing mood?  Now scan your theology (what you believe about God) and your resulting spirituality (the habits through which you personally relate to God).  What do you see?  Is God a highly joyful God in your mind?  Do you relate to God in public and private worship in ways that others would describe as a relationship “full of joy”?  Perhaps a discussion about how art over history has shaped this is a bit chicken-and-egg.  Did art shape our spirituality, or did the ways we thought of God seep into our art?  It’s probably some of both, a symbiotic relationship.  But, nevertheless, here we are.

Perhaps I can’t appeal to your intellect.  Maybe you remain unconvinced that you need to see God as more joyful and that this could have a dramatic impact on your individual and corporate worship.  So I’ll try appealing to your hunger.  Don’t you want, deep down inside, to believe God is intensely joyful?  Don’t you yearn to know and love a God who is pulsating delight—delight in Himself, delight in His creation, and delight in you?  I sure do. 

Artists: it looks like we have some work to do.  We have an opportunity to fill a significant gap that could have a shaping impact on Christ’s church going forward.  We need more songs, more paintings, more sculptures, more film, more drama, and more dance that give us a balancing picture of God’s eternal joy!



1John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).
2Davis, Worship, 58.
3Davis, Worship, 58, n. 48.

5 Comments on “Do Some of Our Historic Images of Jesus Hinder Our Ability to See God as Joyful?”

  1. Zac,

    Great post! I think this is why our forefathers in the faith at the Westminster Assembly discouraged such depictions of any of the three persons of the trinity in Larger Catechism #109. Every time a portrait of Jesus is sketched, there is an inevitable loss of his divine nature somehow, something doesn't get captured fully. As you point out, in many of these traditional renderings, it is the joy of God. Personally, I've been grappling with whether any depictions of Christ are appropriate, as they may elicit some aspects of his incarnation, but almost never His full deity. Full disclosure: I worship in and lead a church with quite a few depictions of the Second Person of the Trinity including some gorgeous stained glass in the sanctuary.

    Matthew Everhard
    Senior Pastor, Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
    Twitter: @matt_everhard

  2. Zac,

    his is a very good post. Just as we must work to develop a theology of suffering, we must likewise work to develop a theology of joy. Both have been neglected– the former largely through disuse, and the latter through misunderstanding. The more we get to know the God we serve, the more we should know true Christian joy, as recipients of his love and grace.

    Moreover, deriving misunderstandings of Christ through art is one of the reasons that I think we should refrain from embracing artistic depictions of Jesus. This, of course, is quite controversial, even among us Calvinists. 🙂

  3. Nice post. I agree with you that the joy of God has been missing from many types of Christian art historically, especially visual art.

    I also agree with the previous comments, that an important part of this specific question of God's joy is the more general and difficult question of the theology of visual depictions of God.

    I think a big part of the meaning behind the 2nd commandment is to guard against the very problem you point out–when we create visual representations of God, and these are involved in our worship, they ultimately fail to capture all aspects of his attributes & glory, thus confusing, obscuring, or tainting our worship of the true God as He is.

  4. Great thoughts, everyone. Hopefully, even in the camps of no-Jesus-depictions, there is room for art which, without depicting God, communicates the joy of God. That is my hope, for that is what is lacking. It sounds, Steven, like you have that hope, too!

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