I have spent virtually all of my adult life encouraging people to pursue their supreme satisfaction in God. I have argued that saving faith in Jesus Christ does not just bear the fruit of joy, but in fact, even more profoundly, is itself a species of joy. Saving faith at its root means being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus.
I have celebrated the way George Müller — that great prayer warrior and lover of orphans — approached the Bible when he said, “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord” (Autobiography, 190).
Though he was a thoroughly doctrinal man, with a strong commitment to Reformed theology, he was never content to find doctrine in the Bible. Unless some unusual obstacle hindered him, he would not rise from his knees until sight had become savoring.
True Illumination Before Proper Affections
To be sure, Müller agreed with his contemporary and friend Charles Spurgeon that seeing precedes savoring. And we must read the Bible with a diligent pursuit of right understanding before there are to be right emotions.
Certainly, the benefit of reading must come to the soul by the way of the understanding. . . . The mind must have illumination before the affections can properly rise towards their divine object. . . . There must be knowledge of God before there can be love to God: there must be a knowledge of divine things, as they are revealed, before there can be an enjoyment of them. (“How to Read the Bible”)
Yes. Illumination precedes and warrants and shapes the affections. But Müller agreed just as much with John Owen that the “ravishing joys and exultations of spirit that multitudes of faithful martyrs of old” have tasted came “by a view of the glory of Christ” (The Works of John Owen, 1:399). Therefore, neither Owen, nor Spurgeon, nor Müller was satisfied with “mere notions” about the glory of Christ. They read their Bibles not only to see but to savor. Owen put it like this:
If we satisfy ourselves in mere notions and speculations about the glory of Christ as doctrinally revealed unto us, we shall find no transforming power or efficacy communicated unto us thereby. . . . Where light leaves the affections behind, it ends in formality or atheism; and where affections outrun light, they sink in the bog of superstition, doting on images and pictures, or the like. (Works, 1:401)
Two Great Dangers
These men understood — and we should understand — the double dangers of intellectualism and emotionalism. Intellectualism stresses the use of the intellect and its discoveries without the corresponding awakening of all the emotions that those discoveries are meant to kindle. Emotionalism stresses the energetic stirring of the emotions that are untethered to truth as their warrant and guide. Owen gives sound counsel about how the emotions of the heart should be rooted in and shaped by the truth that the mind sees in Scripture.
When the heart is cast indeed into the mold of the doctrine that the mind embraceth, — when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us, — when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts, — when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, — then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men. (Works, 1:lxiv)
I love this vision of how we seek and contend for truth. Is it not a beautiful prospect to “have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for”? How different our Bible reading and our Bible discussions would be if we refused to speak of our insights until they were sweetened by the real communion of our souls with God in them.
Quest to Savor
In all our effort to see more and more of the glory of God, we are aiming, by that seeing, to savor the God we see. That is, we are always aiming to experience spiritual affections in our heart wakened by the spiritual sight of truth in our minds. We are taking upon ourselves the same goal for our Bible reading that Jonathan Edwards had for his preaching when he said,
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 4:387)
We read our Bibles to “raise the affections.” Yes. But we aim to be affected by truth. And we aim that our affections accord with the nature of the truth we see.
We should aim in all our seeing to savor his excellence above all things. Seeing the glory of God as we read the Bible should never be an end in itself. We read in order to see in order to savor. We seek insight in order to enjoy. We seek knowledge in order to love. We seek doctrine for the sake of delight. The eyes of the heart serve the affections of the heart.
Savor Bitter, Savor Sweet
One corrective is needed immediately to clarify the meaning of savor. I have treated savoring as though it were all positive — enjoying and loving and delighting. The reason is that this is how the peculiar glory of God does its deepest transforming work. We see it. Then we are profoundly satisfied by it. And then, by this satisfaction, we are changed at the root of our being.
But it is also clear from Scripture that God uses not only pleasant emotions in response to seeing his glory, but also painful emotions. These too come from seeing the glory of God in Scripture. And these too are meant to be transforming, in their own way. They are meant to bring about change in a more indirect way, driving us away from destructive sins, in the hope that we will be drawn positively by the superior satisfaction of God’s holiness.
God does not cease to be glorious when he disciplines his children. Yet this glory leads us first to sorrow. And then, through sorrow and repentance, to joy.
“The Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” . . . For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:6, 11).
God aims at “peaceful fruit,” not pain. But he may cause pain for the sake of the pleasant experience of peace.
Peculiar Glory of God’s Word
God does not cease to be glorious when he says to those who are entangled in sin, “Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:9–10). His aim is that we enjoy the experience of “he will exalt you.” But on the way there, God’s strategy may be rebuke. It is fitting.
Together with all God’s ways and purposes, it too is part of his peculiar glory. It may stretch the ordinary meaning of language, but this too we should “savor.” “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (James 1:2–3). There are foods that blend the sour and the sweet in such a way as to make the sweet all the richer.
What this means for our reading the Scriptures is that seeing the glory of God may not always awaken, first, the sweetness of his worth and beauty. It may awaken the sorrows of remembered sin and remaining corruption in our hearts. “Savoring” this painful truth would mean welcoming it rather than denying it or twisting it. It would mean being thankful and letting the rebuke and the correction have its full effect in contrition and humility. And it would mean letting it lead us to the mercies of God and the sweet relief that comes from his saving grace in Christ.
Read in Pursuit of Passion
So, we never read the Bible merely to see the glory of God. Never merely to learn or merely to know or merely to amass doctrinal truth. We always see and learn and know in the pursuit of affections, and feelings, and emotions, and passions that are suitable to the truth we have seen.
The range of emotions in response to reading the Bible is as broad as the kinds of truth revealed. The truth may be horrible, like the infants being slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16), and our emotions should include revulsion and anger and grief. The truth may be precious beyond words, like the words to a lifelong thief who hears, just before he dies, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). So, our emotions should include wonder and thankfulness and hope.
The divine fingers of Scripture are meant to pluck every string in the harp of your soul. We never read just to know.