It’s funny how happy I feel about spring,” I said to my husband, who’d joined me on the patio. It was an ordinary day in May. Our tulip poplar shaded me with its new leaves, and birds chirped and whistled from its tangled branches. A warm breeze rustled the fabric of the patio umbrella, and I felt the full force of joy bolstering my spirit.
We weren’t doing anything special. In fact, it was a Friday afternoon following a particularly busy week, and I was outside reading. I should have been pulling the mass of weeds in the flowerbeds or mowing the towering grass we couldn’t keep up with in the unseasonably wet month we were having. But for the moment, the sun was shining, the air was warm and dry, and all felt right with the world.
“Our tulip poplar shaded me with its new leaves, and birds chirped and whistled from its tangled branches.”
“I think it’s because winter seemed to last forever,” Steve said, lying back in the reclining chair next to mine. We sat there quietly for several minutes, letting the delight of spring dull the memories of a particularly harsh season: the polar vortex that froze our water pipes, one son’s frustrating struggle with Spanish class, my extended bout of the flu, and the ongoing reality of aging—both our own and our parents’.
Finally, with one last gulp of sweet spring air—surely the neighbor’s lilacs were blooming—we headed off into the busyness of another weekend.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks about joy in much the same way we experienced that evening: the result of waiting for and finding the things we deeply desire after a period of struggle. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd is thrilled when he finds the one and can return to the 99 (Luke 15:1-7). In the parable of the hidden treasure, joy propels the man not only to receive the treasure, but also to buy the field it’s buried in (Matt. 13:44). The woman who loses a coin searches until she finds it again. Then, not only is she filled with happiness, but she also invites her neighbors to rejoice with her (Luke 15:8-10). Each parable points to the future and to the wonder and exhilaration we’ll experience when the kingdom is at last fulfilled. These stories point to sinners repenting, God’s purposes being accomplished, and Christ, our true treasure, being revealed at last. What joy there will be when God’s kingdom comes!
These stories point to sinners repenting, God’s purposes being accomplished, and Christ, our true treasure, being revealed at last.
It’s like a long-term annuity, something I learned about recently when I helped a relative plan for retirement. Annuities are a type of insurance policy that allows for tax-deferred savings, and specifically with the long-term ones, a person makes a significant up-front investment for a big payoff down the line. Often we see joy this way: a future payout in heaven after a lifetime of adversity. Particularly as we enter the season of Advent, this cycle of suffering, waiting, and joy seems embedded in God’s plan for redemption: first, when Jesus came as a baby, and ultimately when He comes again. We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” even as we look toward our future joy when the Lord will return.
But joy doesn’t point us only to the future. In my research, I also learned about income annuities. In this case, the investment is the same, but the payout can begin immediately, with periodic payments along the way rather than one lump sum at the end. When I compared the two options, the latter brought not only the quicker return but, in my relative’s case, also the greater. I think this is how joy is supposed to work, too.
During the Last Supper, the Lord tells His disciples this story: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21 NIV). In one sense, Jesus seems to be saying that future joy makes present suffering worth it. Suffer through the pain of pregnancy and labor, and you’ll gain a baby to love. Or even endure winter, and spring will be waiting for you. Or invest your money wisely, and one day you’ll receive a profit.
But Jesus, more than anyone, understands that life doesn’t always work out so neatly here on earth. Sometimes, even the best investors lose everything in a crash. Occasionally cold, wet springs, like the one we ended up having, offer little relief from the ravages of winter. And all too often pregnancies end in miscarriages or stillbirths, with a mother’s (and father’s) anguish even greater at the end than the beginning. Yes, the coming kingdom will offer that linear joy following directly after suffering, but Jesus isn’t asking us just to grin and bear it here on earth until He returns. Rather, He’s giving us a vision of future joy that makes present joy possible, despite our suffering and pain.
“They could live hopefully now ‘in the body’ as they were ‘being renewed day by day’—like a pregnant woman who experiences the thrill of her baby kicking.”
Jesus shared this parable of childbirth the night before He was arrested, as He talked about His own death and resurrection. He’d raised the topic often enough that the disciples were starting to believe Him. He knew they were shaken by the death threats and attempted arrests. But He wanted them to understand that all the things they were—and would be—enduring were actually producing something greater, both now and in the future.
It’s like what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (NIV, emphasis added). That meant the disciples didn’t need to simply survive the days at hand, letting their “light and momentary troubles” achieve only some future glory (2 Corinthians 4:17 NIV). They could live hopefully, confidently, even happily now “in the body” as they were “being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV)—like a pregnant woman who experiences the thrill of her baby kicking. Or like my husband and me keeping track of the growing hours of daylight in the darkness of winter. Or like Jesus Himself, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
But joy isn’t ours to relish alone. In 1 Thessalonians 2:20, Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians they are his “glory and joy,” and the reason he endured imprisonment, shipwreck, torture, and scorn. Kingdom joy is others-focused. It’s at the heart of brotherly love (Rom. 12:10). It’s the secret to rejoicing with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). It’s why John wrote in his third epistle, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4).
It’s also why, on that ordinary day in May, I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying a quiet moment of spring weather until my husband came to share it with me. It wasn’t just that we’d endured the long winter; we’d endured it together. And now, the delight was ours to share together, too. The same is true for all of us in God’s kingdom. Even during the long, cold months of tragedy, difficulty, and suffering, we can await Christ’s return with hope, confidence, and—most of all—joy.
What do you do when you have tried everything, but joy still feels far away?
You have read your Bible — silently and aloud, five verses at a time, even whole books at a time. You have pasted promises on notecards, and whiteboards, and on the back of your hand. You have gathered with God’s people, unburdened yourself to friends, searched for unrepentant sin. You have prayed — oh, have you prayed — by yourself and with others, in your room and on long walks. Perhaps, in desperation, you have gone on spiritual retreats, fasted for extended periods, heeded impressions you thought might be from God.
But still, darkness. Silence. Doubt.
Does he hear me? Does he know me? Is he there? Am I his?
Sometimes, when joy feels far away, we need to hear some simple reminders.
By simple reminders, I do not mean simplistic solutions. You may have heard your fair share of those by now — counsel from people who, though well-intentioned, assume the problem is not that bad, the solution not that difficult. “Just do x,” they say. If they only knew.
“Seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people.
The Bible never hands us such simplistic solutions. It does, however, remind us again and again of simple truths we are prone to forget. Such truths may not lift the darkness. But they may shine out to us like stars between the clouds, reminding us there is a world of light we cannot see, strengthening us to keep walking till dawn.
In Psalm 40, King David gives four simple reminders for those whose joy feels far away: Darkness is normal. God is near. Joy is coming. Hope in him.
Darkness Is Normal
David reminds us, first, that seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people. And seasons is the right word there. Psalm 40 does not describe an afternoon’s sadness, but rather a long and stubborn darkness.
Notice, for example, the length of David’s darkness. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” he begins (Psalm 40:1). We never learn how long David sat in the shadows. We know only that, for a time, he cried to the Lord and received in return that miserable word: wait.
Mark also the persistence of David’s darkness. At the midpoint of the psalm, David seems to have escaped “the pit of destruction” and “the miry bog” (Psalm 40:2). But then, unexpectedly, he falls back in (Psalm 40:11–13). His return to the pit almost undoes him: “My heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12).
Finally, observe the ongoing presence of David’s darkness. By the psalm’s end, David still finds himself engulfed in shadows. Instead of rejoicing, he laments: “I am poor and needy.” And instead of praising, he pleads: “Do not delay, O my God!” (Psalm 40:17).
David’s song of happiness lost, found, and lost again chastens our expectations for joy in this age. His experience, alongside that of so many others, reminds us that we must not grasp for heaven too soon. All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours. As long as we walk in a frail body, and carry within us a mortal enemy, our joy, though real, will be mixed with darkness.
The darkness, agonizing as it can feel, is a shared darkness. Shared with psalmists, prophets, and apostles. Shared with saints before us and beside us. And shared, of course, with our Savior. “We are not on an untrodden path,” C.S. Lewis reminds us. “Rather, on the main-road” (Letters to Malcolm, 44).
God Is Near
Black is not the only color on David’s paintbrush, however. This psalm, so full of melancholy, is nevertheless more than balanced by hope. Darkness is normal, yes. But God is near.
Even when David’s prayers seemed to sail unheard into the sky, they were in fact caught by the God who never left his side (Psalm 40:1). Even when David found himself in the pit again, God drew near to him with steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 40:11). Even when David felt poor and needy, his heart nearly failing him (Psalm 40:12), he could nevertheless say, “The Lord takes thought for me” (Psalm 40:17).
“All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours.”
“But if God is so near,” we might ask, “why is darkness normal?” Sometimes, of course, the darkness is our own fault, as David’s was, at least in part (Psalm 40:12). God has always been near, but we have walked into the pit ourselves. Often, however, God’s people sit in darkness through no fault of their own. And in those moments, we remember that the Lord who loves us — indeed, who has loved us unto death — has some purposes that can be fashioned only at midnight.
We need look no further than David’s greater Son, whose footsteps echo through this psalm (Psalm 40:6–8; Hebrews 10:5–7). Compared to the darkness Jesus endured, David’s was just a passing shadow. No one was nearer to God than his own Son. Yet no one’s path was darker.
Resist judging God’s nearness to you by the brightness of your sky. If you belong to Jesus, you are not forsaken or forgotten; your Lord, infinite as he is, takes thought for you (Psalm 40:17).
Joy Is Coming
God’s nearness, then, does not mean we will never walk in darkness. It does mean, however, that darkness is never an end, but only ever a means: the tracks, not the station; the pathway home, not the fireside. In the darkness, God tunes the strings of our souls, readying them for the coming praise.
In God’s time, the joy that seemed so far away from David returned: “He drew me up . . . and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2–3). The memory of joy lost and restored then emboldens him to pray at the end of the psalm, when joy has once again fled from him, “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” (Psalm 40:16).
David’s confidence in the coming joy does not mean his darkness was not so deep after all; it means that joy, for those in Christ, is always deeper and surer than the darkness — everlastingly deeper, infinitely surer. You may not feel the truth of it right now. But can you, in hope against hope, imagine yourself singing again, laughing again, telling everyone who will listen, “Great is the Lord!”?
Lost joy need not stay lost. For those in Christ, it will not. Though your joy in Christ seems barely to flicker right now, it will one day burst back into full flame. Even if darkness lingers in great measure for the rest of your earthly pilgrimage, you will one day stand firmly on the rock, your feet no longer slipping; you will one day sing a new song, your mouth no longer sighing. However much darkness you face in this battle for joy in God, it is, as Samuel Rutherford puts it, “not worthy to be compared with our first night’s welcome home in heaven” (The Loveliness of Christ, 21). Fullness of joy is coming, Christian. Exceeding joy, everlasting joy, world without end.
Hope in Him
The promise of coming joy does not belong to all who walk in darkness, however. It belongs to those who, even in their darkness, never stop seeking God. Notice the qualifying phrase in David’s prayer: “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you” (Psalm 40:16). David’s last reminder, then, comes to us as an exhortation: hope in God.
“Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.”
Keep waiting for your God, even when he tarries long. Keep clinging to his promises, even when it feels like he’s abandoned them. Keep crying out to him, even when you’re unsure he hears. Keep seeking his face, even when you want to least. Refuse the temptation, when you find yourself tired of waiting, to “go astray after a lie” (Psalm 40:4) — some refuge other than God that promises immediate relief. Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.
Soon, darkness will not be normal, but nonexistent. God will not be merely near, but visible. Joy will not only be real, but full, and forever. As Thomas Kelly writes in “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him,”
Then we shall be where we would be,
Then we shall be what we should be,
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Soon shall be our own.
Take pleasure in the Lord and in all His deeds. He created all things for his glory. Give praise to His name on high, for He is great above all things and wonderfully gracious toward us. His mercy never fails.
“Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous! Praise befits the upright. For our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name.” (Psalms 33:1, 21)
God’s love for us will endure forever. Through His son Christ Jesus, we have salvation. Through no other name will we rise again. He gives mercy to the merciful and honor to the humble. Our joy comes from loving Him with all our heart.
As many times as we feel alone, God will not leave us. As many times as we feel abandoned, God will not forsake us. His spirit lives in us and He will comfort us. His unceasing love will always warm our heart. Whatever we may be feeling, God is there, helping us along the way.
All glory belongs to God. Every word of worship belongs to Him. May our prayers be as sweet incense and fill the heavens with our heartfelt praise. May we reap joy and gladness with every word that we pray, for God is good and His goodness makes our soul glad.
Let us give thanks and praise, for this is true joy in the Lord.
There are few guarantees we can count being there to greet us every day. Few things we can wake up every morning and know without a doubt we will encounter them. God and His love for us is one. The second guarantee is trials. One removes anxiety, fear, and stress. The other adds anxiety, fear, and stress. What if in Gods infinite wisdom He gave us the tools to eliminate the anxiety, fear, and stress from trials? When Jesus faced the last hours and His greatest trial, he did it with grace, humility, joy and an understanding of Gods will.
How we as Christians encounter and endure trials is one of the center pieces that set us apart from the world. When we face the things that would break the world, and we move through them with Christ we are strengthened. We are drawn closer to our Lord and drawn closer in the relationships that Glorify Him. Fortunately, through His infinite wisdom he gave us the perfect road map to endure and grow through every trial.
James 1: 2-4 (NASB)Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
Romans 8: 28 (NASB)And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
Those two verses give us everything we need to encounter and endure trials the same way Jesus faced His. I have spent the past year focused heavily on those verses and facing trials with joy knowing that with an omniscient Father He is always building things to His glory and our benefit.
Trials have many forms. From the hard trials of losing a loved one, losing a job, depression or whatever you personally view as a hard trial, to trials of minor inconvenience, being late, cleanliness of a home, or an unexpected bill. Regardless of what the trial is we are taught to approach them the same. With Joy. Understanding that there is a purpose behind the trial for good is the key component to finding that joy amid the trial.
We have a few things to do to achieve this.
First, we need to make sure we are doing everything every day to a level that glorifies God. We need to submit to His sovereignty to work and move in our lives. By doing this we are allowing God to open and close doors as he sees fit. Basically, if you are giving a 100% to your job. You have given that to the Lord. You have submitted to His will and authority it. After that if you then lose your job you can know one thing in certainty. God has it and He is closing a door to move you where He needs you next. However, you can’t oversleep, not perform, blame it on the enemy and then say it’s God closing the door. Wrong you closed that door. That’s the first part, staying focused on doing all things to His Glory.
Secondly, we need to open our eyes. When we come into a trial, we need to see that there is a purpose for it. God is doing a work in us to bring out the good in it. How we see the trial changes the light we see it in. Trials can be for any purpose. They can be to show us something we need to give up and hand over to God such as an addiction. They can be to help us grow closer in those relationships that glorify Him. Psychologists have even proven that working through a hardship with someone is a key component to building a lasting bond in that relationship. So, trials with your spouse and children are a very good thing if you view it from that angle. They can be as simple as the enemy trying to deter, de-rail, or force you to question God. If that is it, you should see more joy in the trial as it’s a clear indicator to you moving down the right path.
Trials can protect us. Ever have those days where you just feel like you are perpetually running late. No matter what you do you can’t make up those 10 minutes you lost? You keep getting rerouted out of your plan for the day? Then at the end of the you drive by a fresh accident that if you would have been on schedule would be part of. Or you run into someone during the day that you get to help because you were 10 minutes behind. We don’t know Gods plan, but we do know He moves in our lives and while we play checkers, He’s playing chess.
Trials build testimony. As we go through trials and walk with Christ through them, we are building testimony to help others through similar trials. As we come along side one another in fellowship and life our testimony was perfectly built to help those we encounter. If you battled depression and gained control of it that testimony could be the very thing that saves another life. The difficulties and trials in your marriage will one day be something that could help save another marriage. Your financial trials and how you came out of that could be the very testimony of hope and grace that carries another through their trial.
So, the next time you encounter a trial remember, it’s for a perfect purpose, God is moving in it, and look forward to the beauty that will come as a result of the trial. There is either a reason for everything or a reason for nothing.
Father I pray that you help us see the joy and beauty in the trials we encounter each day. That we take them on with a new perspective and through that it removes the anxiety, fear, and stress we normally feel and replace them with joy and anticipation of good work you are doing through the trial. Amen.
Holiness is a hard challenge. The key is surrender, not striving.
by COLLEEN CARROLL CAMPBELL
I’ve been called an overachiever. In elementary school, I considered a B-plus an abject failure, and I was updating my résumé before most kids could spell the word. I used to return my high-school boyfriend’s love letters to him spellchecked—in red ink. A journalism colleague once predicted that given where I was at age 25, my next career move would be a midlife crisis.
You don’t have to be a congenital perfectionist like me to have a problem with perfectionism. Nor must you demand flawlessness in every part of your life. Perfectionism is simply an addiction to control and a refusal to accept imperfection in some human endeavor. Looking at our culture today, I’d say a whole lot of folks suffer from that.
What other common thread links today’s Tiger Moms and Helicopter Coaches, work martyrs who won’t take their vacation days, and exercise addicts who anguish over missed workouts? What connects our soaring rates of pharmaceutical addictions and eating disorders, our escalating levels of anxiety and depression, our epidemic of credit card debt, and the explosive popularity of cosmetic surgery? Many factors contribute to these trends, yes, but a key driver is our demand for perfection.
For believers, spiritual perfectionism is an equally pervasive and insidious problem. It’s dangerous precisely because so many of us mistake it for a virtue. Spiritual perfectionism is that same obsession with control and flawlessness transposed into our relationship with God. It’s rooted in the lie that we can earn God’s love and work our way to heaven. Most of us know better than to think that out loud, and yet we often live like we believe it.
Over the years, I’ve learned that slow, incremental progress—the kind we impatient perfectionists hate—can be a blessing. It schools us in humility, keeps us tethered to prayer, and produces visible fruit as we travel toward more complete surrender. Opening our hearts to the Lord’s mercy, even if we can do so only inch-by-inch, allows him to heal those wounds we’ve covered over with perfectionism and draw us closer to himself and all those we love. That itself is a liberation.
Liberation in this life is not the ultimate goal, though. The ultimate goal is still—believe it or not—perfection. Christian perfection. And Christian perfection is not just different from perfectionism. It’s diametrically opposed. The very perfectionist impulse that makes us winners in the world’s eyes is the one we need to overcome on our journey to eternal life with Christ.
The pursuit of Christian perfection, even though we can’t fully achieve it in this life, brings joy. It’s the joy that comes from giving God the reins, turning our lives over to Jesus, and allowing the Holy Spirit to upend our plans and explode our expectations.
Such radical openness to God isn’t easy. As a bishop I know likes to say, “Obedience to God always gets us into trouble.” It’s a good kind of trouble, though—the kind that forces us to lean into God’s grace instead of crowding it out with our own petty plans and limits and rules. Letting go of perfectionism frees us to pursue real holiness instead of its self-righteous counterfeit.
Unlike the pursuit of perfectionism, a life aimed at attaining Christian perfection probably won’t impress the world or even our friends at church. The saints who walked this path before us faced ridicule, misunderstanding, and suffering, and their lives often ended in apparent failure.
Think of Francis of Assisi, shedding his clothes in the dispute with his father and marching off, stark naked, to embrace evangelical poverty. Look at Mother Teresa of Calcutta, striking out alone at age 37 to start a street ministry in India’s slums, then spending the next 50 years suffering secret desolation while laboring for a God whose love she could no longer feel. Consider Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, dying at age 24 in a French convent where the other nuns fretted that they’d have nothing to write in her obituary because she was so unremarkable.
Then there’s Paul, who gave up a life of living and thriving by the Mosaic law to become an itinerant preacher of a gospel that got him whipped, beaten with rods, stoned, shipwrecked, robbed, hunted, betrayed, tormented by anxiety, left in the cold, and deprived of food, water, and sleep—not to mention harassed by that “thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan sent to torment me and keep me from becoming proud” (2 Cor. 12:7 NLT).
The way of gospel perfection is the narrow way, and it doesn’t always make sense. Many of the saints struggled for years to surrender to God, to give him permission to show his power through their weakness. Once they began to make that surrender, though, they discovered the deep-down, lasting joy that comes only from God. Even Mother Teresa, tormented by feelings of divine rejection, wrote these words in the thick of her darkness: “Today really I felt a deep joy—that Jesus can’t go anymore through the agony—but that He wants to go through it in me.—More than ever I surrender myself to Him.—Yes—more than ever I will be at His disposal.”
Surrender is the heart of gospel perfection and the antithesis of perfectionism. We can’t accomplish holiness without God’s grace. With him, though, “all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26)—even freedom from perfectionism.
June 14, 2016 BY AMERICAN COUNCIL OF CHRISTIAN CHURCHES
Few will deny that we are living in evil times. The enemy has “come in like a flood.” Every perversion imaginable to sinful man is now promoted as “good” or “normal.” Basic standards of morality and decency, which once prevailed in the United States, now have been largely abandoned. Sadly, as our society’s culture has sunk further into the swamp of moral degeneracy, a love for the world has eroded the standards of many Christians, which were once grounded upon the teachings of God’s Word. Selections of music, entertainment, clothing, and other choices necessary to godly living have become more similar to and less distinct from those of the lusts of the world. Many of God’s people lack a zeal for putting a cultural difference between the clean and the unclean (Lev. 20:22-26).
The true child of God must reject and resist such worldliness. The Bible warns that the world in which we live is in an important sense the domain of the prince of the power of the air (Eph. 2:2). What God has ordained for life in this world, Satan has sought to corrupt. For this reason, Paul warns in Romans 12:1-2, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
1 John 2:15-17 commands us to “love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth forever.” To love the world in this sense is to fail to love the Father. To conform to the cultural norms produced by this lack of love for the Father is to communicate a similar lack of love for Him.
Some justify a greater conformity to the world by divorcing what is in the heart of a Christian from his outward appearance and actions. God indeed told Samuel: “for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). However, what is in the heart will always manifest itself outwardly. “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil” (Luke 6:45). Paul is concerned with both the transformation of the mind and the consecration of the body to holiness (Rom. 12:2). Matthew Henry, in commenting on the holy behavior of older Christian women in Titus 2:3, says that Christians should have “an inward principle and habit of holiness, influencing and ordering the outward conduct at all times.”
God has commanded us: “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). The Scripture is clear about the fruit of true holiness in the child of God: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22-23). This fruitful holiness produced by God’s Spirit is antithetical to worldliness, the works of a flesh that produces both sinful desires and a wicked walk (Gal. 5:16-21). Cultural choices are included among the works of the flesh. Any music, clothing, entertainment, speech, or other cultural choice promoting fruitful holiness must not be conformed to styles developed to promote the worldliness of 1 John 2:15-17. This mandate applies equally to our personal lives and our corporate worship. Our love for the Father provides powerful motivation for careful conservatism that draws a clear line well-removed from the gray of compromise in this regard.
Therefore, the American Council of Christian Churches, at its 71st Annual Convention, October 23-25, 2012, in the Cedar View Independent Methodist Church, Kingsport, Tennessee, affirms the need for all Bible-believing churches and individual Christians to separate from conformity to the cultural norms produced by this world’s love for possessions, pleasures, and pride. As children determined to love our heavenly Father faithfully, we commit ourselves to the promotion and practice of consistently conservative, godly Christian living, regulated by cultural standards that demonstrate the distinctiveness of our calling as pilgrims and strangers in a world ruled by “the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience.” It is our desire that in every area of our lives, the change that has called us “out of darkness into His marvelous light” would be seen plainly by others in a way that will “glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:9-12).
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, …
In the first message, I said that Christian Hedonism is a life devoted to experiencing Christ himself as our supreme treasure with as much satisfaction as possible in this life and the next. And I argued that such a life is essential — necessary — for the human heart to glorify Christ as he deserves. Because Christ is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
The entire emphasis in that message was on vertical Christian Hedonism, not horizontal Christian Hedonism. That is, the focus was on the fact that experiencing joy in Christ is key to glorifying him (vertically) as we ought. The focus was not on the fact that experiencing joy in Christ is the key to loving people as we ought. I call that horizontal Christian Hedonism.
So, putting the two together, I would say that Christian Hedonism — a life devoted to maximizing our joy in Christ — is the key to glorifying God the way we should, and the key to loving people the way we should. Experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure is essential for true worship and for true virtue. If you cultivate a way of life that ignores or opposes the pursuit of joy in Christ as your supreme treasure, you will not worship him or love people as you ought.
Seven Decades of Joy
Now, the reason I bring up horizontal Christian Hedonism in this message is that it relates so closely to the topic that I was assigned, namely, “Reflections on the Fight for Joy Throughout Seven Decades.” I don’t have time to talk about all seven decades. The third decade was the all-important decade of discovery. That’s the decade (my twenties) when the sprouts of Christian Hedonism sprang up in my mind and heart. And for the last fifty years, I have been trying to see and savor and show the supremacy of God in Christ. Everything I have written relates to this quest, more or less.
So, instead of trying to walk you through the developments of all those years, what I think will be most helpful, and manageable, is to bring you into some clarifying discoveries about horizontal Christian Hedonism, and the way it relates to my fight for joy, and the way it relates to the gospel, and to gospel-centered preaching in our day.
Two Levels of Love
So, let’s begin by stating the relationship between the joy of vertical Christian Hedonism and the biblical command that we love each other and love our enemies. The way I usually describe it is like this: genuine love for people — Christ-exalting love for people — is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. Or, sometimes, I get more precise and I say: Christ-exalting love for people is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.
“Experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure is essential for true worship.”
The difference between those two definitions of horizontal love is that, while both of them are rooted in the new-birth miracle of experiencing joy in Christ as our supreme treasure, one of them is stated more passively as the overflow of that joy that meets the needs of others, and the other is stated more actively as the effort to increase that joy by including others in it, which would also involve meeting their needs.
If that second definition of love is true, is biblical, namely, that love involves active effort to do the things that help people share my joy, so that my joy increases in their joy — if that is what love involves — then my fight for joy happens at two significantly different levels.
The first level is the foundational experience of fighting for joy in Christ — the fight to see him as he really is, and savor the greatness and beauty and worth of Christ, so that I treasure Christ above all, so that there is, in fact, a joy in me that can now overflow, or be extended to others.
That’s the first level of the fight for joy. I call it an ongoing fight, because even though that foundational experience of seeing and savoring Christ is a gift of the Holy Spirit — a miracle of new birth — nevertheless that experience is not static. It must be preserved. Sustained. Intensified decade after decade. It is a fight to the end. That preservation and intensification is the first level of the fight for joy.
The second level of fighting for joy is the conscious effort (battle!) to do the practical acts of love which the Bible says will, in fact, increase our joy in Christ. Now at this point, things have gotten muddy in recent years.
There is, even in the gospel-centered movement — which I am happy to be a part of — significant confusion about how to respond to the hundreds of New Testament commandments that we should do certain things, and not do certain things, as we seek to increase our joy in Christ by loving people. Commandments like:
Outdo one another in showing honor.
Do not be slothful in zeal.
Be patient in tribulation.
Be constant in prayer.
Contribute to the needs of the saints.
Bless those who persecute you.
Live in harmony with one another.
Repay no one evil for evil.
Never avenge yourselves.
Put away falsehood.
Do not let the sun go down on your anger.
Let the thief no longer steal.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths.
Put away all bitterness and wrath.
Be kind to one another.
Sexual immorality must not even be named among you.
Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking.
Don’t get drunk with wine.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord.
How do these commandments (from Romans and Ephesians, and hundreds more) relate to the gospel? How do they relate to love? How do they relate to joy? And commandments is what they are called, not suggestions or guidelines.
And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments [entolas]. (1 John 2:3)
Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. (1 John 3:24)
By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. (1 John 5:2)
Neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God [entolōn]. (1 Corinthians 7:19)
Are We Asking the Wrong Question?
So mainly, what I want to do this message is take you into my struggle, my fight for joy, at this second level — the fight, or the effort, to increase my joy in Christ through doing the acts of obedience to God’s commandments, which the New Testament calls me to do.
And I can see some gospel-centered people cringing as they hear me describe the fight for increased joy in Christ as a fight for obedience to commandments. To them, the only proper strategy for fighting for joy is to send people back to rehearse the gospel — that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are loved, accepted, and forgiven, but that we should never say, “Pursue obedience to the apostolic commandments in order to find fullest joy in Christ.” That sounds too much like legalism — like you are earning something from God by your obedience.
So, is that even a right way to pose the question about how to fight for joy? Isn’t striving just the opposite of resting in the gospel so that love can be a fruit of the Spirit, not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:22)? Isn’t that obvious, Piper, that you are posing the question all wrong? Isn’t it obvious that joy is a gift that precedes and enables acts of love, not the other way around, as if doing good deeds produced joy? If that were true, then how could those good deeds be a fruit of the Spirit? Isn’t it obvious that you’re setting this up all wrong?
No, it’s not obvious. As you will see. That’s where we are going.
Intensify Your God-Given Joy
So, there are two levels at which I fight for joy, and I want to talk mainly about the second one. But let me throw some light just briefly on the first level and establish it as something I’m not calling into question by the second one.
Blinded by the Darkness
The first level is the fight to preserve, sustain, and intensify the initial, God-given joy in Christ that comes with the new birth and with our first faith in the justifying work of Christ. Before we were born again, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:5). Our experience of that deadness was that we were blind to the all-satisfying brightness and beauty of Christ in the gospel.
The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
Then the Spirit blew where he willed and a miracle happened in our souls (John 3:8). We were made alive (Ephesians 2:5). God opened the eyes of our hearts to see Christ for who he really is (Ephesians 1:17–18).
God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)
Made Alive in the Light
What we could not see as bright and beautiful and satisfying to our souls, we now see. This is the treasure that we have found and will not trade for anything (Matthew 13:44). That’s what Paul calls it in the next verse: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
“Christ-exalting love for people is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.”
This treasure — the all-satisfying greatness and beauty and worth of Christ — is now our heart’s satisfaction. This is the foundational joy that overflows in love to meet the needs of others, as Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 8:1–2.
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia [so, things start with an outpouring of God’s grace. This is the ultimate source of God-exalting human joy], for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.
There it is: abundance of joy, by grace, overflowing in generosity. The joy is not in the removal of poverty. It is not in the removal of affliction. It is in the God of grace seen in Jesus. Our sins are forgiven. Our guilt is removed. God is no longer against us, but one hundred percent for us.
Everything will work for our good. He will keep us for himself forever. Leap for joy! This is what the grace of God in Christ does — before we have kept any commandment, except receive Christ for who he is. In the midst of affliction and poverty they experienced an “abundance of joy.”
And that joy overflowed in generosity to the poor. This foundational joy in Christ severs the nerve of greed. It severs the nerve of fear. It severs the nerve of insecurity. It severs the nerve of pride that needs applause. It is a mighty power! And it is rightly described not as pulled up with a bucket of obedience, but as gushing up like a spring. It overflowed in a wealth of generosity. And so, I define love in this text as the overflow of joy that meets the needs of others. And it is rightly called a fruit of the Holy Spirit, not a work of the flesh.
That is the way I have most often spoken of horizontal Christian Hedonism and how joy in Christ relates to loving people. And I don’t take any of it back. And the fight for joy at this level is the fight to preserve and sustain and intensify that “abundance of joy” mainly by fixing our eyes on Jesus again and again in his word, and reminding ourselves of the greatness of our inheritance that he purchased with his blood, and praying that God would open our eyes to see the wonders of Christ and his work.
That foundational fight for joy in Christ is never-ending to the last conscious moment of life — “I have fought the good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7). Next stop: heaven. No more fight.
Striving Against Sin — and for Joy
Now the question is, are we only going to revel in that constellation of glorious truths, and sing that song for the rest of our lives? Or are we going to revel in the whole counsel of God revealed in his infallible word, and be open to more glory? Are we going to stay on continual quest for all that the Bible has to reveal for our joy, or are we going to be content with the magnificence we have seen?
I don’t say that smugly. Discovering the joys of level one is like discovering an endless range of mountains in the Himalayas that you had never seen. And it really is endless. There are wonders and glories to be seen in the foundations of joy in the work of Christ that we will never exhaust. But my plea is that you not let your ever-so-proper ecstasy over the joys of this range of joy-awakening mountains keep you from seeing another range of joy-awakening mountains, from which you may see even greater wonders than the first range.
We don’t have a lot of time, but let me at least point you to the mountains I am referring to. This is the second level of our fight for joy: namely, the conscious effort — even striving — not to do sinful acts that grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), wound the conscience (1 Corinthians 8:12), displease God (1 Thessalonians 4:1), and diminish joy (Acts 20:35); but to do acts of love which in fact bring us more joy in Christ himself — indeed bring us safely home to glory.
Can I Obey My Way to Joy?
If it is true that the sinning of a Christian diminishes joy in Christ, and Christian acts of love increase joy in Christ, then the fight for joy is the fight to kill sin and pursue obedience to the commands of love. So the question is this: Does the New Testament teach that there is not only joy in Christ before and underneath obedience causing an overflow that we call love — joy as the rootproducing the fruit of love — but also that there is more joy in Christ himself in and after acts of love because we obeyed?
In other words, does the New Testament teach that we should approach acts of love motivated not just by joy in Christ that we already have because of the gospel, but also motivated by the expanded joy in Christ that we could have if we killed a particular sin, or did a particular act of love?
Enjoy the Narrow Path
Here’s my answer, and then we will look at texts from the New Testament. Yes, there is more joy in Christ in and after acts of love than we had experienced before that obedience. Yes, there is expanded joy in Christ himself that comes from killing sin in our lives (Romans 8:13), and from walking in obedience to the law of Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2).
And the reason for this is that when Christ shed the blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20) he secured, at infinite cost, not only the forgiveness of our sins (Jeremiah 31:34), but also God’s writing of the law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). He secured infallibly for all the elect the new covenant promise “I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
And he did this not by giving us his Spirit and removing all commandments from the New Testament and replacing them with the Holy Spirit. He did it by giving us hundreds of commandments that describe the narrow path of love that leads to life, and then giving us his Spirit so that we would love these commandments, and they would not be burdensome (1 John 5:3), but his yoke would be easy (Matthew 11:30), indeed, more joyful than if there were no commandments at all.
Approved Through Testing
Look with me at several texts that show us why it is that there is more joy in Christ in and through obedience than there was before. Start with Romans 5:2–5:
We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
First, there is rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God (verse 2). That is a gift from the very first breath of the Christian life. To be born again, to be justified is to have the hope of the glory of God. That joy is first and foundational.
Then Paul says we also rejoice in suffering in the Christian life. This is a subsequent joy. And the explanation of why we rejoice in suffering is all-important. There are three steps in Paul’s explanation.
Because suffering produces patience — patient endurance (hupomenēn), endurance without bitterness or rebellion.
This endurance through suffering with patience and without bitterness produces “character” (dokimē) — the quality of passing a test and being found true, approved, real.
That sense of passing the test of suffering and being found real produces hope. It reinforces the hope of glory.
So where does the added joy in suffering come from? It comes from seeing the keeping power of Christ preserve and confirm that we are real. We lived through a test of our faith and we passed. In real, undeniable experience of pain, we went from patient endurance, to approvedness, to hope.
Happiness in Holiness
And this he says is why we are experiencing this added joy. This is a joy that comes from tasting — in real experience — the power of the blood-bought grace of God killing the sin of impatience and bitterness, and creating the obedience of patience and trust. This is a joy that is more than the joy of seeing Christ justify us. This is the added joy of seeing Christ sanctify us.
“God opened the eyes of our hearts to see Christ for who he really is.”
This is not only the joy of tasting the sweetness of the blood-bought sovereign imputation of Christ’s obedience, but also the joy of tasting the sweetness of the blood-bought sovereign creation of our obedience.
Christ intends to be enjoyed and thus magnified not only in his justifying work, but also in his sanctifying work. Not only by imputing his obedience, but by empowering ours. The imputation of his obedience is the foundation of our acceptance, and the empowering of our obedience is the confirmation of our acceptance — and oh, the sweetness of these repeated confirmations of his presence. This is more joy.
A New Dimension of Contentment
Or consider 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 where Paul argues in the same way with an even clearer focus on the centrality of Christ in the joy of our obedient sufferings. Christ said to Paul as he submitted to his thorn in the flesh:
My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.
Then Paul says, “therefore” — that is, because I can see your grace and your power in action in my life — “I will boast all the more gladly.” This is an added joy, an expanded joy — there was already joy in the grace and power of Christ to justify and forgive, but now there is more of Christ to see, moregrace, more power.
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me (episkēnoō ep eme).
Oh, how precious are such tastes of the power of Jesus touching us, tenting with us, living in us.
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content [a new dimension of contentment, a new joy] with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Worthy to Suffer
Here’s a glimpse of this joy in the lives of Peter and the apostles. They were commanded in Acts 5 not to teach in the name of Jesus.
They responded, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). For this obedience they were beaten and released. Then Acts 5:41 says,
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.
This is a new joy — an added joy, an expanded joy in Christ. Who are we that Christ would set his favor on us as suitable objects of such a privilege — to be shamed for the name of Christ? To share with him in his sufferings. To know him in terrible and wonderful ways.
Give to Receive
One more illustration that does not relate to suffering. Jesus is quoted in Acts 20:35. Paul says to the Ephesian elders,
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed [makarion] to give than to receive.”
So, the Macedonians in 2 Corinthians 8:2 were so “blessed” — so joyful — in the grace of God that they “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.” Joy preceded and enabled giving. But now we learn that is not the whole story of motivation for generosity. Paul says, not only is there blessedness beforegiving that overflows, but there is more blessedness in and after giving. “It is more blessed to give.”
This is why I defined love in two ways from 2 Corinthians 8:2. Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. And: Love is the effort to expand our joy in Christ by including others in it.
Two Weaknesses in Gospel Preaching
What all of this shows is that there is a twofold weakness in some gospel preaching today.
1. Forgiveness Without Obedience
First, there is a preaching that almost never highlights the truth that Christ died not only to secure our forgiveness but to secure our sin-killing obedience to the commandments of the New Testament.
[Christ] bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. (1 Peter 2:24).
The beauty and power of the cross of Christ is seen and enjoyed in the blood-bought experience of obedience to Christ’s commands. Experiencing this is a dimension of joy that can be had no other way. A Christian Hedonist won’t be satisfied without it.
2. Trust and Obey
Therefore, second, these preachers tend to shrink back from the apostolic intention of “the law of Christ” unfolded in hundreds of New Testament commands that define the path of love that leads to life (1 Corinthians 9:21; Galatians 6:2). And instead of calling for obedience like the apostles do (1 Thessalonians 4:1), they only use the commandments to say, “You can’t do that. Christ did it for you. Trust in the imputation of his obedience. End of sermon. Celebrate grace.”
“Jesus secured, at infinite cost, not only the forgiveness of our sins, but also God’s writing of the law on our hearts.”
That’s a half-gospel based on a half-grace, offering a half-joy. By all means say, “You can’t obey these commands in your own strength. Christ obeyed them perfectly on your behalf. Trust in the imputation of that perfect obedience as the ground of your happy acceptance.” Yes!
And then look to the rest of what he purchased for you at the cost of his life. He purchased the Holy Spirit and gave him to you. He purchased the writing of the law on your heart so that you love his commandments. He purchased the sovereign promise, “I will . . . cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezekiel 36:27).
This is the grand achievement of the blood of the new covenant. And the commandments of the New Testament are not given merely to expose our sin. They are given to show us the kind of life Christ died to create in his church. They are given to us so that by doing them by faith in Christ’s blood-bought power — gospel power! — we might have more joy as his power is perfected in our weakness — that we might have more joy in Christ himself.
Snapshot of the Fight
Let me close with a snapshot of what this second-level fight for joy looked like for me recently. A homeless couple was living in their car for weeks on the street outside our house. This situation caused me a deep struggle with how to be a Christian Hedonist — and how to fight for joy.
Do I struggle only for level-one joy — joy over my forgiveness and my acceptance with God, waiting for it to overflow within a spontaneous inclination to do more for this couple? Or do I look at the commandments to love my neighbor as I love myself, and to practice hospitality (the love of strangers), and do I then ponder the added joy that would come through practical, obedient helpfulness, and then make a specific effort to expand my joy by including them in it and seeing Christ’s sin-killing grace active in my obedience?
During those weeks, those two motives combined to move me to take the husband to connect them with Jericho Road for transitional housing, to help get their car fixed, to provide them with two nights in a hotel with special means over Christmas. To share the gospel with them and give them a Bible. But all to no avail. They turned down the housing and last week were there again in the bitter cold, fifty feet from our door living in their car.
It was six degrees outside. I had work to do. And this couple was probably touched with some measure of mental illness. At that point, my joy in Christ was not overflowing in some wise and caring next step. But I had the commandments, and I had a promise of greater joy through obedience (and I had a gracious wife).
I put on my coat and went and tapped on their window. “It’s really cold tonight. Would you want to come in and spend the night with us?” He talked it over with his wife, and turned and said, “No thanks.” I said, “There are places for you.” He said, “We’re still looking.” I said, “If you change your mind, knock on the door.”
As I came back into the house, there was sadness at these broken lives and this broken world. And there was a surge of joy. The crucified and risen Christ had conquered some of my selfishness and fear. His reality was near. He was precious. Joy went deeper. I hope you will join me in this fight for joy.