How to Fight for Joy: Q&A
Desiring God 2005 Regional Conference
When I Don't Desire God
The following is a lightly edited transcript.
What if you love the sovereignty of God in all of its fullness and you are surrounded by people who are hostile to that. You love it. You would like them to love it. Do you have any advice?
I presume you mean the way a Reformed or a Calvinistic person would. Those are fighting words and unhelpful words in a lot of contexts, though I cherish what they stand for mostly. Don’t beat them over the head with that. Out rejoice them. Out rejoice them and out love them. And when trial comes to your life show them that to have a solid rock of sovereignty under your feet is more precious than to have a God who drops the ball and says oops.
We had a baby die forty hours into its life last week. The young parents have sat in Bethlehem on the front left pew for two years absorbing a vision of a great God. Their grandparents, the grandparents of the baby, their parents, have been in the church for fifteen plus years. And as they saw that the baby was brain dead, had a little dedication service while it lived, pulled the plug, watched the baby die at 10:30 in the evening, they were deeply rooted in the sovereign goodness of God. And the mother said, “God, I don’t know why you took my baby. I don’t like it that you took my baby. But I am putting all my eggs in the God is good basket and you are sovereign. The Lord gives. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I think if people who are hostile to the sovereignty of God see that kind of stability and strength enough, they might realize that their wobbly God, who really just can’t keep up with the world and he is always playing catch up ball and trying to fix things when they break and he doesn’t know why they break, they just might, their heart might be open.
We who love the sovereignty of God need to say it and live it as gloriously good news, not mainly fighting language. We just... it won’t work to just go hammer Arminians over the head and say: That is not biblical. That doesn’t get anywhere. We need to be Christian Hedonists who find in the sovereignty of God more reasons to rejoice than they find.
Isn’t it remarkable? Let me just test you on this. Isn’t it remarkable that as you look around the American scene there are hundreds and hundreds of conferences everywhere. Conference this, conference that. Have you ever heard of a conference to celebrate man’s free will? I haven’t. But there are conferences everywhere to celebrate the sovereignty of God. And there is a reason for that. Man’s free will doesn’t feel like it is worth celebrating. It just kills us. It just damns us is what it does. Our wills get us into continual trouble. It is hard to build a conference around the human will. But it is easy to build a conference around the majesty and sovereignty of God. And so there is something fishy going on out there that in hundreds and hundreds of churches the default mode is my free will when, in fact, the best news in all the world is God runs the universe for his glory.
But we have got to live it and out rejoice them. I will say more in the very next point in this pulpit tomorrow morning about how do you fight for what can only be a gift? So there are categories of thought that we have to pray into people’s heads. I will say one last thing. I could go on and on on this one. Those who reject the absolute sovereignty of God over me and my will, do so usually on the basis of philosophical presuppositions, not biblical sentences. So they start quoting back to you whosoever will texts. You say, “I got no problem at all with ‘whosoever will’ texts. Of course whosoever wills may come.” The question is, “Why do some will and some don’t?” But they are inferring a philosophical conclusion from a whosoever will text, namely, “I have ultimate self-determination.” That is nowhere stated in the Bible. You cannot find that sentence in the Bible. Human beings have ultimate self-determination. That is a philosophical inference from texts where you can’t get it. And so we must pray that categories of thought would be granted to people like I must do what only God can do. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you to will and to do his good pleasure. That is a category that most Americans don’t have in their brain. And, therefore, when they hear an imperative they hear non sovereignty, which is just absurd. It is philosophically absurd. It is biblically absurd. And it is sad. So here I am saying absurd things like that and alienating people. Don’t do that. Don’t call them absurd. Just out rejoice them. Reel it back in. Please.
Since we are sinners and we fall out of close communion with God on occasion just like David did, what do you believe is the best accountability model to hold us accountable to get back into fellowship? Is it my wife? Is it a small group? Is it my pastor? Is it God?
I will try to answer your question, but, really, what I want to say is, “All of the above by grace.” Thank God, right? If my fellow pastor doesn’t nail me, Noël is sure to nail me. That is my wife. She is sitting over there. And if she doesn’t, Abraham will. And if he doesn’t, Benjamin my other son will. And if they don’t somebody on the street will and God mercifully surrounds us. Now that is not what you asked, but that is the truth. God corners his own. He corners his own. He hedges us about so that as we backslide or wander away we get in trouble. We get in the thickets and we wonder what is wrong. And what is wrong is that he loves us and he is stopping us.
But now what I really ought to say, I think, is that the best idea of accountability is God’s Church structure. There should be a church with elders. And these elders should give an account for every soul in their church through some mechanism of care, depending on the size of the church. If you have got a little church of thirty then maybe three elders can know everybody and hold everybody accountable. If you have got a church of three thousand, that won’t work. You have got to share the pastoring. And so eldering is God’s idea and Church discipline, a very positive kind first, before there is any kind of excommunication, very positive kinds of I love you. I see you going astray. Don’t go astray. Come back. Let’s talk about this. At our church this is — I mean this is what we are seeing as best — that about eighteen pastoral staff are over a whole army of small group leaders. And then we try to encourage our people into those small groups and then I and the other pastors meet with the small group every month and we try to through a filtering up and down effect make sure that every covenant member is accounted for so that nobody is slipping away. I say we try. Don’t think we have got it down. Every church I know of struggles. That is a growing church, whether it is fifty and growing or five thousand and growing. Every growing church is struggling with doing pastoral care biblically and well. But I think families is a central one and then I think church family with elders and small groups of some kind is another.
That will be one of my points on the second hour tomorrow, that in the fight for joy exhort one another every day as long as it is called today is an absolutely crucial, horizontal means of grace.
Is it possible that God ordained that some people not find full enjoyment in him? And I ask that thinking of the Scripture that talks about the measure of faith that God has given.
Yes. That is easy. Yes. There is no doubt that God ordains some people to have more joy than others. And for some people to go through seasons of darkness. And the biblical support for that — and there would be numerous texts — but the first one that comes to mind because I have got all these talks ready — is Psalm 40 where David says: I waited patiently for the Lord. And I just stop right there and think of the meaning of that. I waited patiently for the Lord. He heard my cry. He lifted me up out of the miry pit, out of the miry bog, put my feet upon a rock, made my steps secure, put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord.
Now that is a process that God did not make happen immediately, because he said: I waited. So since God did it when he wanted to do it, David waited and waited and then it came. I don’t know whether he waited a week or two weeks or three weeks. Some of you have been depressed and dark for months and then God breaks in in ways and means that you never could have dreamed and a season of spring time and thereafter a long winter. And so if you are asking me: Is God totally sovereign not only over who gets saved, but who gets happy, absolutely. I will just... I will settle all those questions in a minute. He is totally sovereign over everything, every attitude, every sin, every virtue. God rules the universe from the subatomic particle to the supernova. I will quote R.C. Sproul. There are no maverick molecules. I am totally in agreement with that.
Do you have any practical advice specifically for seminary students dealing with marriage and work and studying and ministry? Just practical advice on how to get through that and to have the affections for God and not in all these other things?
Resolve to live as simply as you can so that you and your wife can work as little as possible and not burn the candle at both ends. So don’t set yourself a lifestyle — I mean this is like — this does not be said to most seminary students. But I will say it anyway. Choose a simple apartment. Eat simple. Don’t eat out very often. Don’t go to a lot of movies. Save a lot of money in order to keep your life pressured by things that matter. School work matters, marriage matters, kids matter, health matters. So jog a little bit. Physical health doeth a little bit of good, the Bible says. So that is the first thing. Try to strip away the nonessentials. And then within the essentials, put your time with God in a place and a time that is sacred and inviolable. He does not get the dregs, not even after your wife. You meet him in the morning and if you have to you get up a half hour early and you do what George Mueller did. He said the first task of my life every morning is to get my heart happy in God because I am of no use spiritually to anybody if I cannot share the delight that I have in God. And so to fight that fight, that is more important than assignments and more important than marriage and more important than children and more important than health to keep yourself alive in God.
And I think when that is in its place, then you can be a better husband and you can be a better father and you can be a better student.
And then you are already married, it sounds like. If you weren’t, I would say: Marry the right woman, namely the woman who can do without you for three years. Not a good thing to say. But it does help to have a wonderfully self-resilient wife who says: This is a season. And all of you know that, right? Whether you are sixty or sixteen you know that life is seasons. And there is a season with little kids and diapers and there is the diaper season. I figure Noël and I must have changed at least thirty thousand diapers, you know, with five kids over, whatever number of years. So there is a diaper season and there is a preschool season and then there is the homeschool or public school or what have you. There are like the seasons. And if you take any one season it feels like: Oh, this is all life is going to be. No. And seminary is not the end of life. It is a tough season. Maximize it, even the hard things. Maximize the hard things in it for your own sanctification. Then you will enter into another kind of hardness afterwards.
Your friend and mine, Jonathan Edwards, in his essay on the Trinity is saying that Christ would be the idea of God the Father. I see that in 1 Corinthians 1:24. How else can I see that more clearly philosophically and biblically?
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. That John would choose logos as the eternal expression of the sonship of Christ is most remarkable. And so I think that is part of where Edwards got it. Another one would be Hebrews 1:2 where he is the exact image and the radiance of the Father. In him all the fullness of deity dwells bodily, all the fullness of deity. God sees in the Son the fullness of what he is. So he sees it out there. Many of you don’t even know what he is talking about because we are both referring to the “Essay on the Trinity. It is not long. I commend it. It is understandable. How do you conceive of three in one? And Edwards has a thirty or forty page essay called “Essay on the Trinity.” In a nutshell, the Son is the Father’s perfect and complete idea of himself that is so full and complete it has in it everything the Father is and has and, thus, stands for eternally, never came into being, as a person in his own right. And then flowing back and forth between the Father and his perfect image of himself — that is another one, image for 2 Corinthians 4:4 — flows this reality which carries so much of them back and forth that all of them is in him and that is the Holy Spirit standing forth as a third person. And that is a conceptuality that isn’t perfect and all conceptualities of the Trinity leave things to be desired. But he and I have found this very helpful. I have used that just like I did it there in one minute after services where people come up, skeptics and they say: What is this Trinity stuff? And I try that on them and they just kind of . . . I have never heard anything like that. So we will . . . you know, consider that. I mean it is only a human construct. It is not God talking. That is me talking, but there are a lot of biblical pointers that that may be a helpful way to talk.
As a counselor we are confronted at our place with a lot of suffering, and as we know, people try to avoid pain, and yet, in this brokenness, we have found that that is where they can find their truest joy. What is your opinion about that?
I think, if I understand you correctly, that is exactly what I wanted to say in 2 Corinthians 6:10. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I mean, I don’t want to in any way make light of that weighty thing you just said, but may I put it like this? I have never met anyone who says: I got to know God better on the sunniest and brightest days of my life. Everybody says: I have discovered most of God, most of me and most of how to know him in the hardest days of my life. And that is just pure Bible. That is pure Bible. That is 2 Corinthians 1:9, right? Where Paul said: I would not have you be ignorant of the testing that we had in Asia. We were crushed unbearably. We despaired of life itself. That was in order that we might not rely upon ourselves, but on God who raises the dead.
In other words, God ordained for Paul to come right up to the edge of death through the misery of Asia in order that he could find God alone as his satisfaction. As long as I am healthy, totally healthy, marriage is totally fine, church is totally fine, children are totally fine, everything is totally fine, I am in the greatest danger of being in love with health, family, church, ministry and not God. And so God mercifully knocks the props out from under our lives in different ways at different times and I — it sounds like you have a theology able to help people say: God is not hating you at this moment. He is not hating you. He is loving you in a way that you don’t want to be loved right now, but wake up to it because you are going to find more of him in this moment of darkness and struggle and pain than you ever dreamed. It is amazing to me how many people tell that story.
If you feel called into ministry, to be an elder, pastor and you read the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and one of them is “blameless,” how do you interpret that?
I taught on Wednesday night two weeks ago on sinful blamelessness, unrighteous righteousness, imperfect integrity. I took all these paradoxes from the psalms, because you have psalms like Psalm 32 that begin with how wonderful it is to be forgiven. So you know he is a sinner and at the end he says that God blesses he righteous. So this sinner is righteous. And that is not a surprise to those of us who read Romans, that God justifies the ungodly. And those are the only kind of people that there are. And 1 John makes that real clear that if you say you have no sin, you are a liar. And so I do not take blameless from Paul, who taught me all these things, to mean perfect. I take blameless to mean that probably two things: I understand there is a public “above-reproachness.” I am taking down above reproach from the top of the list down here that an elder in the community should basically have a very good reputation, not one who is being investigated and one who is guilty of crimes and everybody in the community has suspicions about him and so he should be above reproach. That is a public dimension. And then the private dimension is he keeps very short accounts with God and man.
So when he stumbles and sins, mouthy mistake from the pulpit or with his wife or wherever and everybody knows it. That was ill advised. That was a bad use of his tongue. He is not disqualified at that moment from being an elder because he is not blameless. If he accepts rebuke, apologizes to the person or persons that he unduly offended and goes to God in terms of 1 John 1:9 and receives forgiveness and now he is in Christ maintaining his blamelessness. So we all know that when we are in Christ there is no condemnation. We are in Christ. We are clothed with perfect righteousness. And I think there is a lifestyle, a rhythm of repentance and forgiveness and repentance and forgiveness that Paul calls blameless. I don’t know how else to put it together, but to say something like that.
I have a question on evangelism. Does the Scripture go so far as to say that a man or a woman that is a Christian needs to stop all that they are doing, leave home and just focus on evangelism or evangelizing a certain area instead of evangelizing as a second priority to working?
No. It doesn’t if you mean for everybody. There are people who have that call. And that is what a call is, when you feel that inner compulsion. I have got to leave everything. Whoa is me if I don’t preach. That is the call of God. But the reason I so easily say no, the Bible doesn’t go there, is because the whole assumption of the Epistles is that most people are working to earn money and coming to church tired in order to give and send Paul to Rome. I mean, the easiest place to see it is Paul writes to Church in Rome and he says: I am writing in the hopes that you will send me on my way, not go with me. I am not recruiting you to go with me. I don’t want you to go with me. I have got my team. But you all have jobs and you should have those jobs and now send me. Use your resources to send me. And you could go to other passages where servants are said to serve in certain ways so that they adorn the gospel in their service. So I say employees should adorn the gospel I think most Christians should not be full time evangelists. Most Christians should not be full-time church workers. God doesn’t want most Christians to be full-time Christian workers. He wants most Christians to be salt and light in every layer of society where they can plug in without sinning. And so I don’t want to breed a church in which everybody up and leaves their jobs. I want to breed a church in which everybody takes Christ radically into those jobs, turns their job and work situation upside-down with justice and mercy and integrity and appropriate speech.
So if I understood what you were asking, namely, does the Bible task us to leave jobs, leave everything and go do that? There would be times when we should do that and there will be some people who should do that all the time, but in general the Bible wants Christians to be permeating
Right. And I understand that. But my point was I have a job. I work 40 hours a week. How can I devote myself to sharing the gospel more than just at work when my job limits the interactions I can have in my community?
Yeah. I see what you are saying. Does the Bible call everybody to do that some? Sure would be nice. I don’t think I could answer that with an absolute yes. But I sure would say: Does the Bible call them to watch videos and TV that are nice and clean every night? I think that would be an easy question to answer. No. Well, what should they be doing? Playing games with their kids? Well, till about 7:30. And then they can go to bed if they are little. So I think, you know, in a more life giving way probably for a congregation to answer that question rather than: Does God call every one of you to give one night a week to full time evangelism or a full hour of evangelism? Would be to say: What does God call you to do with your evenings? What are the things that are possible for you to do? What would glorify God? What would honor God? And get people to go there themselves by pushing the big things on them. Live for God. Don’t live for yourself. Don’t throw your life away in front of your little video thing with your surround sound and your big new screen and throwing your life away every night. You know, breed that kind of a radical mentality and then they will start to say: Well, what would be significant, you know? Make cookies every night? Well, no, but make them two nights and then the other nights take them and give them somebody.
So I think the answer is: No, not an absolute, for once, but go at it the other way.
I wonder if you might comment on the emergent church, where it came from and where it is going?
I wonder how many how many know what we are talking about with the technical phrase emergent church? For those of you who don’t, it would be characterized by younger 20 somethings who are pretty disillusioned with excessive doctrine orientation, lack of appreciation for the arts and emotion and certain traditions and way disillusioned with hype and church growth and management and mechanism and media and therefore you find, you know, living rooms with incense and conversation and so I think it has come out of a disillusionment with a lack of life in a lot of traditional churches. So in that sense I have some sympathy for the origin. And I think like with a lot of aberrant movements — which I believe it is — it is borne out of a lack of what the Church ought to have been to keep it from happening. But having said that that is probably where it comes from, its lack of doctrinal commitment is appalling and will be devastating. It won’t go anywhere. I don’t think it will go anywhere but bad. Unless God mercifully moves in and takes Brian McLaren and the others and makes them care about the existence of hell and other doctrines, keeps them from saying things like — now I don’t put this on Brian, but somebody in England — that the substitutionary atonement is divine child abuse. If they don’t get beyond that to a big, robust appreciation of historic Christian doctrine and right thinking, the emergent church will be a flash in the pan and it will do a lot of damage in the process, I think.
Now you all understand that some people fly under the banner of emergent that are very doctrinally oriented and one example would be Mark Driscoll in his book Reformission if you have ever seen it. He is the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Everybody who would look at this church and say: That is emergent, because of the music, the building, the ethos. Everything about it would look kind of grungy and edgy and countercultural and very untraditional. But he is radically reformed, Calvinistic through and through, complimentarian, male elders and his goal is to get 300 young guys married every year with mortgages so that they grow up and quit wasting their lives in postponed adolescence at age 29. I mean he just looks out at the scene in Seattle, one of the most unchurched cities in America where people have put off growing up until about 35 and they play like little boys and little girls the way they dress, the way they fool around. And he wants to just go out. He has got 3000 plus people in his church. He says he does 150 marriages a year and his goal is to get these guys to grow up. And the best way to get them to grow up is to get them married with a mortgage.
Now I like Mark Driscoll a lot, so you can check out Mars Hill Church. That would be called emergent, but emergent but a totally different flavor than Brian McLaren. It is a movement I am not excited about in general and mainly on doctrinal grounds, not stylistic grounds.
I am a pastor mainly responsible for teenagers. How do we take the big concepts of the things you are presenting in your books and try to get a teenager to understand that? I have a hard time getting adults to get it sometimes, but how do you get a teenager to desire God when their number one desire usually is Xbox?
Yeah. I think the way in is through stopping the games and taking them to some place where people suffer. Kids are up to here with games. The world can out entertain you any day. There is no point in competing. But what the world cannot do is drop a kid into horrific suffering and give them a worldview that can handle it. This is frankly easier for teenagers than adults. It is not that adults are the problem. Teenagers can get this stuff because they are hungry. They want somebody to make life look worthwhile because games are not why I am on planet earth. I am on planet earth. I do not know why and it is starting to feel real boring. So I am going to just get in the backseat or do this or this or that because I am just bored at this church.
The last thing that Christianity is, is boring. The last thing Jesus Christ was, was boring. But the edge has to be in suffering. And a lot of these kids are already there, right? The parents have already split and they don’t know where to go or what to do. Can anybody say anything that would have a God big enough to help me handle mom and dad living in two cities? So some of them are already there. But just take them. Get them and take them to the city or take them to Zambia or just tell them: Look. Not everybody is going to go for this, because some of you are very worldly. But I want to be there for those of you who want to get serious about God and I will tell you. Missions, taking kids to where there is suffering and then not letting them play with it, but seriously, theologically come to terms with it. Don’t be afraid of theology with teenagers. *The Blazing Center, those messages I talked to you about I was talking to the high school group of my church. So there are eight messages delivered to the teenagers of my church. And they sat rapt. And I hope it wasn’t because there were cameras, but because they were serious. So I would be encouraged if I were you. When you can’t take them there, tell them stories of teenagers like I did in that video. I read the book *Flags of our Fathers, which was a war story about Iwo Jima and about teenagers who enlisted in the army in the Second War World because they wanted to be a part of the war effort. And they did the absolute craziest things you can imagine. And I said: Why shouldn’t they do that for Jesus? Why would it be for Uncle Sam and not the King of kings? So take them there.
As I listen to messages from your site it seems you go to the end, you conclude and that is it. From a pastoral perspective, how do you allow people to respond, and what type of invitation do you offer?
In worship services do you mean? Here is the way we do it. It is not in any way put forth as the ideal. We are shaped by our background. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. I could point to the church. Invitation every Sunday. I am still, at age 59, in reaction to that, probably in an unhealthy way. But I just thought that was awful, the way that we did it. But what I do is I finish preaching. I pray. When I am done praying the video goes off, because they are taping this for our other campus. And I am up now. I am free from that camera. And I walk around in front of the pulpit and I say: I am going to be here at the front with some other prayer team members. And we will stay as long as you want to pray about anything you want. And I will list off some things that might be relevant from the service, from conversion, to broken marriage, just whatever the sermon happens to be about. And then I pronounce the benediction and I stand there and I generally pray with people an hour after the second service, half an hour between the services and an hour and 15 minutes on Saturday night about everything under the sun.
Kim came forward last Sunday with two of our girls on either side of her, looked to me about 25, sort of orangish hair, not real. I mean orange. And had not been to church since she was six years old. Didn’t have a clue what was going on in this room. So she said, “I saw people raising their hands. I saw some people crying. What is going on here?” And we got to share the gospel with Kim and I turned her over to these two girls and asked them later on in the week, “How is it going with Kim?” And they said, “We are hopeful. We are hopeful.” So it is from that totally non-churched response to most often somebody who just has an awful thing they are facing this week and they would like prayer. That is the way we do it.
And we train prayer teams, so I am not the only one, although a lot of people stand in line to talk to me. And I wish it weren’t that way, but people, you know the priesthood of the pastor is heresy that we haven’t gotten beyond yet. And it is ten o'clock and I have got two talks tomorrow. And you got to get some sleep.