Delighting in God
by Troy Cady
Moments of joy are the bookmarks of the soul. Like folds on the corners of the pages of your life, moments of joy are wrinkles that point you to something good. Turn to a joyful page mentally and you could swear you were there again physically. Despite some hard things I’ve experienced over the years, I am grateful that if you were to pick up the unfinished story of my life, you would see many, many page corners turned over—reminders that life has truly been filled with joys too many to count, unforgettable moments of delight, grace and wonder.
I think of childhood winters in Minnesota, playing hockey on an outdoor rink with friends from the neighborhood. In my memory, I can smell the wood burning in the stove-fire from the warming house, I can feel the heat and hear the laughter after my oldest brother told one of his many jokes.
I wonder: as you reflect on your own story…what pages are earmarked—what special moments of pure joy would we encounter there? I invite you now to enjoy a bit of silence as you turn in your mind’s eye to one of these pages.
I am convinced we can never have enough of such goodness. So, in this essay I invite us to look more deeply at the theme of delight. In another essay, I considered an aspect of delight that we don’t often think about: it’s the reality that God delights. Zephaniah 3:17 says that God delights in us and sings over us. God is not a killjoy; he loves us so much he actually likes us, enjoys us.
I write this in hopes that we will get caught up in God’s goodness to the point where we can reflect God’s delight and wonder in our own lives. To that end, in this teaching I want to explore 1) why delight matters, 2) what it is and 3) a few ways we are invited to live in delight.
Why delight matters
First, why does this topic matter? To be honest, talking about living a delightful life seems like a luxury to us. I mean…who has time to talk about enjoying life when there’s so much work to be done, wrongs to be righted, and improvements to be made? Ultimately, this is why this topic matters. As a society, we are constantly driven to accomplish more and we feel guilt or shame if we don’t. Sadly, this is an indicator to me that we tend to take ourselves too seriously.
To be sure, this mindset of crippling seriousness easily infects us. We live in a world where bad news dominates the daily media cycle and Facebook turns others into faceless abstractions such that we would do better to call it Hatebook. It’s easy to take ourselves too seriously when we are overwhelmed by negativity, fear and anger. This causes us to suffer from what author Christine Aroney-Sine describes as “play deprivation, nature deficit disorder, awe depletion, compassion fatigue, imagination suppression, and more.” And, if it is true that God is, in his very essence, filled with delight, joy, and creativity, then it is also true that, as Aroney-Sine asserts, “…we suffer from God deprivation too.”
Our need for delight is not a new concept. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas asserted that delight matters because it is essential for happiness—and happiness, he says, is “the last end [or goal] of human life.”
In commenting on this, Peter Kreeft, a philosopher at Boston College, says that happiness is the ultimate goal in life “because all seek it as an end [in itself], not as a means to any further end...No one seeks happiness,” he says, “in order to be rich, or powerful, or wise, but people seek riches, or power, or wisdom because they think these will make them happy...”
That’s why Aquinas devotes four large sections of his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica, to the matter of happiness. In one article, he provides four reasons as to why he thinks delight is essential for happiness. 1) Delight, he says, is “a preamble and preparation” for happiness. Just as one needs instruction if one is to understand science, so delight is a teacher who prepares us for the eternal art of happiness. 2) Delight, he says, perfects happiness. It is like the soul of the body. If happiness is the objective state of total well-being, delight is the subjective experience of it. Delight perfects happiness because, through delight, we know first-hand that we are happy. 3) Delight, he says, is a helper to happiness, like a friend helping another friend achieve what could not be done alone. When we feel lost and lonely, delight is a wise companion showing us the way to happiness. And, 4) Aquinas observes that delight is essential for happiness because it is “attendant” to happiness, like heat is attendant to fire.
The nature of delight
Aquinas’ fourth observation does more than tell us why delight is important; it also tells us about the nature of delight. The mystery of being human is that no person you ever meet is only a mind, or emotion or a body. To be fully human (and gladly so) is to integrate mind, emotion and body—just as it is in the nature of a flame to always integrate heat, light and the substance (or body) of fire. To blaze with life, humans integrate (as Peter Kreeft puts it) “the light of the fire of life” and “the heat of the fire of life”—while the fire itself is given tangible expression through our bodies.
Delight integrates these life-fire qualities of light, heat and substance. We experience it often as warmed affections or quickened emotions, but we also experience it when our intellect has been enlightened and we learn something new. What’s more, our mind and heart converge in delight such that we can actually sense it physically in our bodies—and sometimes this works the other way around, too. Our body has the capacity to tell us when our mind relishes an exciting new discovery or when our feelings are telling us we are falling in love. The taste of sweet fruit, or the sound of ocean waves or the tenderness and passion of sex all testify to the way delight unifies body, mind and heart. Just as it is impossible to pick apart the light, heat and substance of a flame, so it is impossible to separate what makes us wonderfully and mysteriously human.
Because of this, I find it helpful to think of delight as the soul of life itself. And the expression “Bless the Lord, O my soul” (Ps. 103:1) illustrates this vividly. We often relate this expression to “the spiritual life,” imagining the words “bless” and “soul” as invisible realities. But the expression “bless the Lord, O my soul” points us to the body from first to last because the word “bless” here is the Hebrew word “baruch” or “barak”, meaning “to kneel.” And the word “soul” is “nephesh”—which means “neck.” Significantly, the neck is the crossroads where blood, oxygen and the electrical signals of the nervous system pass through to integrate the mind, heart, lungs, and extremities in one glorious living, breathing, pulsing, walking, and reaching wonder.
Thus, “Bless the Lord, O my soul” could be rendered expansively as: “Bend the knee to the Lord, O my everything. Neck, do your work. Let my mind be rapt in wonder, let my heart (my emotion) be amazed and enjoy how good God is…and let my body show it: let me laugh and sing, shout, cry, run, rest and rise. Let worship sink deep into my bones; drive me to my knees because God is awesome and wonderful and beyond understanding. Make me a put-together person.”
The expression denotes wholeness, which the Bible describes as “shalom”—total well-being. It’s a vision of human flourishing and, indeed, the flourishing of all living things. In Psalm 72, we get a vivid picture of this “blessed” life of shalom. The Psalm was written by King Solomon during a time of peace and prosperity. Food was never lacking and the nation’s intellectual endeavors gained international recognition. It was a golden age. Though this psalm serves as a picture of Israel during the time of Solomon, it can also be taken as a description of what happens when people and the world are whole (or put-together) by delighting in God.
The Psalm says a world of shalom is a world where justice is done, the oppressed are defended, and children are fed. It says we are rescued from violence and the land is fruitful. As the psalmist finishes painting this picture for us, he observes in verse seventeen: “Then all nations will be blessed through him [the king], and they will call him blessed.”
Our picture of the happy life is enriched here because the word blessed appears in two different forms: “barak” and “asher.” Both can be translated as “blessed” but the former means “to kneel” while the latter connotes “gladness and happiness,” or “to make glad” or “to be happy.”
The first instance this word appears in the Bible is when Jacob’s wife Leah has a child and names him Asher. Upon his birth, she exclaims how happy she is and that others will call her happy, too, so she is going to call the child “Happy” or “Asher.” In Leah’s story, happiness is both an objective state of being and a subjective experience, both a noun and a verb.
That is the picture we get in Psalm 72 and it’s actually an image of a king kneeling to serve, such that the nations are blessed and the king is “happy” because the nations are blessed.
Princeton scholar Ellen Charry refers to this all-encompassing vision of shalom as asherism. It sounds like a strange concept, but Charry sums it up simply: “God enjoys our happiness and we enjoy God’s happiness.” Asherism holds forth the hope that one day we will experience happiness not as a momentary experience but as a permanent, lasting reality—as it is in God’s very self. It affirms that God made all things out of God’s own deep gladness and joy—and God made humans in God’s image to reflect and experience that same gladness and joy. God wants all that is in God’s being and all that proceeds from God’s being to return to God, to flow in and out continuously in eternal gladness, like an endless ocean of deep, enduring happiness.
Ways to practice delight
In her book God and the Art of Happiness Ellen Charry includes several practical outcomes of asherism and I will mention two before considering other ways to practice delight as a means to happiness.
First, Charry asserts that to grow “in the art of happiness” it’s good to steward our talents and strengths well. God, in utter gladness, has made each of us unique and it delights God when we notice, appreciate and live in step with the special abilities he has given us. Charry encourages us to be “unashamed” of our gifts, so if someone shares with you how you have blessed them, you can just say thank you to them and to God for making you the way he did. Just delight!
A second way Charry encourages us to practice delight is to enjoy creation by stewarding it well. For those who are especially dedicated to creation care, it is good to remember to just enjoy creation along the way and to let yourself be amazed by nature’s ability to heal itself. In our work to save the planet we can sometimes feel overwhelmed. In those instances, you might like to try imagining God right by our side, smiling, sweaty and singing as he tends the fields and forests, rivers and lakes. He notices the butterflies and bees before we do, so it’s good to let God’s own sustenance of creation delight us deeply.
In any case, whether we are stewarding our gifts or stewarding creation, both types of stewardship are rooted in a key aspect of delight—which is noticing what God notices by bringing all your senses, your full self, to your waking hours. I think of the delight of cooking and relishing the taste of food that has been lovingly prepared. Just the act of slowing down to savor a meal can do wonders to strengthen your posture towards delight. I think of the wonder of music, the sounds of the wind, crickets and birds; we have endless opportunities to delight in God with our ears. I think of the many delights we can enjoy as we slow down to notice the scent of a recent rainfall or a plot of flowers, the smell of a puppy or fresh-ground coffee. Our eyes can delight as we slowly take in a painting of thick oil textures, a black-and-white photograph, or the veins and colors of a maple leaf. Gazing at the clouds, looking at the waves, or taking in the sunset can fill us with awe and wonder. Feeling the sand beneath your feet, gently touching a baby’s cheek, or just enjoying the feeling of water flowing freely through your hands can be great ways to delight in God. There is no contradiction between a godly life and a sensual life.
A key aspect of delight simply involves slowing down enough to be fully present. The older I get the more I am convinced this is the hardest thing for us to do. In a culture that values the self-made individual, there is little that makes us feel stranger than the experience of doing nothing. As soon as we have nothing to do, we fill it with something else to do.
In his book Theology of Play, Jürgen Moltmann observes how severely our desire for productivity impinges on our quest for happiness. He notes that, for most people, even vacation has become a phenomenon that must be put to useful ends. Sadly, we often place unhelpful expectations on our rest, measuring it by how effective or fun or productive it was. Somehow, vacation itself even becomes work. Is it any wonder that, irony of ironies, the leisure sector is considered an industry? When rest becomes a market, something is seriously wrong.
The Bible commends to us the practice of Sabbath to help us detox from our addiction to doing and productivity. In Hebrew it is the word “shabbat” and it literally means “stop, rest.” The first instance of the word in Scripture is used in reference to God. It comes right after Genesis 1 where we have a picture of God creating the entire world out of sheer delight. Along the way, the story tells us that God noticed what he had made and blessed it. But then day 7 arrives and the text surprises us. Instead of continuing to make more wonderful things, God stops (“sabbaths”) and rests, truly rests. He just does nothing and he just enjoys being with what he has made.
Lest we think this anticlimactic, the writer gives us a clue as to why this “work of rest” is the pinnacle of all God’s works. The writer says that God not only “blessed” the seventh day, but it says he “got married to it.” Most translations render the Hebrew as “called it holy” but the Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel points out that the phrase “sanctified it” or “called it holy” connotes images of “betrothal” and “marriage.” In other words, God loved this seventh day of rest so much that he said, “I want to marry you; I will cleave to your side forever and love you passionately.”
This is why the rabbinic community has historically referred to the seventh day as Queen Sabbath, because on the seventh day God, the King, took to himself a Queen—the nobility, the dignity, delight and wonder…of rest.
A teacher I had recently told a story about an experience he had with his grandson that illustrates how wonderful pure, simple rest can be. He was visiting his family in Central America and they were at a small, local grocery store. His grandson, who was about three, said: “Grandpa! Come here!” The boy led his grandpa to the back of the store where there was a pastry counter. He wanted the largest chocolate donut you have ever seen, so…Grandpa bought it. By the time they left the store, the boy’s face and shirt front were covered in chocolate frosting but he still had a lot of donut to eat. As they walked towards home, the boy kept eating his donut but they had to be careful because the sidewalk was very narrow and there were cars whizzing by on a narrow street to their left with a high wall towering up on their right. At a certain point, the wall lowered, so the boy could sit down on it just to keep enjoying his donut. Grandpa noticed the boy had stopped, so he turned back to catch him up. And as he approached his grandson, the little boy just gave his Grandpa a look—and motioned (without a word) for him to sit down. And there they sat silently, just doing nothing, just enjoying being with each other, delighting in the moment. As the boy’s grandpa told that story to us, he explained: “That’s why I think of God as a three-year-old boy.”
I think the grandfather in that story is onto something: God really could be a child, inviting us to be a child, too. I love how Ann Lamott puts it in her book Bird by Bird: “Try walking around with a child who’s going, ‘Wow, wow! Look at that dirty dog! Look at that burned-down house! Look at that red sky!’ And the child points and you look and you see, and you start going, ‘Wow! Look at that huge crazy hedge! Look at that teeny tiny little baby! Look at the scary dark cloud!’ I think this is how we are supposed to be in the world—present and in awe.”
Is it any wonder Jesus said that we must “change and become like little children” if we are to live in God’s kingdom? (Mt. 18:3) To delight in God is just to play like God plays, to enjoy God and the world God has made, to rest, to stop long enough to notice, to take ourselves lightly, to just be fully present to others, to honor moments of silent wonder, to get your body into it…kneeling, savoring, listening, embracing, and singing. Play puts us together, within and without. In play and delight we lay down our compulsion to control and consume; we lay down our own agenda…and just rest. Since we cannot achieve the end of happiness without delight, let us practice it with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.
 from The Gift of Wonder (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2019), 4.
 Ibid., 4.
 Thomas Aquinas. Summa of the Summa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 349.
 Peter Kreeft. Summa of the Summa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 350.
 Thomas Aquinas. Summa of the Summa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 382.
 Peter Kreeft. Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1989), 125.
 Eugene Peterson. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 36.
 Ellen Charry. God and the Art of Happiness (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2010), 275.
 Ibid., 275-276.
 Ibid., 276.
 Jürgen Moltmann. Theology of Play, trans. Reinhard Ulrich (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 8-9.
 Eugene Peterson. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 109.
 Quoting a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes “…sanctification is the Hebrew word for marriage.” And: “The Hebrew word le-kadesh, to sanctify, means…to consecrate a woman, to betroth.” See Heschel. The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), 55, 51-52.