We were made to enjoy God.
That’s the message of Desiring God, and we believe it’s the message of the Bible. But if we’re honest, we don’t always feel joy. For most of our lives it seems we feel mediocre, or dry, sometimes depressed, but mostly we feel preoccupied with all the details of life. Only in those rare moments when it seems all of our circumstances align just right do we get a taste of the abounding and overflowing joy God intended for us to enjoy.
So what’s wrong with us? And to find this joy again, where do we turn?
Very often our first impulse is to run to the neon lights of our idols, says college professor and theologian Kyle Strobel, the author of the new book Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP).
Where’d My Joy Go?
Our eighteenth century forefathers answered this question in different ways, Strobel said in a recent interview. “The Reformed, and I’m thinking especially of Wilhelmus à Brakel, are going to make a lot of distinctions. So let’s say someone is not feeling very joyful. Well, the reason why might not be obvious. There’s a different between spiritual backsliding versus spiritual darkness versus spiritual death. There’s a range of distinctions.”
Whatever causes joylessness in the Christian life, it’s a condition fraught with danger. Strobel summarizes the problem in a sentence: Western Christians often wrongly equate an experience of God’s presence with the experience of excitement. In our search for joy in God we go looking for a more exciting church, a more exciting Bible study, a more exciting group of friends, a more exciting worship album. We hunt for moments of excitement, assuming the more we feed on these excitements the more we are enjoying true joy in God.
When we find ourselves tempted to confuse joy-seeking with thrill-seeking, the spiritual examples we see in Scripture correct our faulty expectations — like those of Jesus, Paul, and Moses.
Strobel said, “In our own context, excitement is one of the great idolatries. In reality, there are times of joylessness when God leads us into the desert to get our attention. God might be leading us into the desert, saying, ‘Come here. I want to teach you something.’ But we can turn to idolatries to ‘fix’ what God is doing. And our idolatry pushes against God. Often our response is: ‘What have I done wrong? I better figure something else out.’ And so we reconstruct a mini tower of Babel in an attempt to be like God, to control the situation.”
The Desert Road To Joy
God strategically uses desert seasons in our lives in his ultimate plan for our greater joy in him. As John Piper once wrote, “The fight for joy in Christ is not a fight to soften the cushion of Western comforts. It is a fight for strength to live a life of self-sacrificing love. It is a fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road and stay there with him, no matter what” (WIDDG, 20).
In the words of Jesus: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” and, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3, 5).
We cannot minimize these words, Strobel cautioned. “I think one of the most difficult aspects of being an American Christian is trusting that Jesus is right and that our culture is selling us something that ultimately isn’t a valid way to be joyful — and is actually the very thing that destroys joy. And our temptation will be to create another kind of religion, a syncretistic religion of Christianity where we try to merge some of Jesus’s sayings about the abundant life with the American dream.”
Which sounds a lot like the prosperity gospel. “That is right,” Strobel responded. “We talk a lot about the prosperity gospel as a financial one, but I also think there is something called the spiritual prosperity gospel of ‘excitement.’”
The Modest Means
By wrongly seeking joy in God through the buzz of spiritual consumerism, we mistakenly assume grace is Red Bull fuel, always within reach to provide us with a shot of excitement, he said. “Rather, Scripture defines grace as God’s self-giving. And by giving himself, by sending the Son and by giving the Spirit, by catching us up into the life of God — that life of delight — we are now being formed into the image of God, the image of Christ.”
Which is actually simpler than it sounds. In the words of Piper, “Our strategies to fight for joy are simply means of God’s grace. And means of grace are always modest” (WIDDG, 54).
Through modest means of grace, we seek joy in the simple disciplines of Bible reading, prayer, fasting, and corporate worship. These are rarely exciting; these are the simple “means of joy” (Mathis).
Learning to Be
The ordinary “means of joy” simplify our Christian lives and shape our spiritual pursuits. They also help us maintain right expectations of technology — like our smartphones, tablets, and computers. Living life online through omnipresent text messaging or persistent Twitter broadcasting can intrude on our private disciplines. Technology can distract us from the “means of joy” and personal fellowship with other Christians.
So what would Jonathan Edwards (that eighteenth century theologian we talk so much about) have thought about the digital world in which we live?
He would have been frightened, Strobel suggests. “The kind of modern electronic technologies we have today often destroy our ability to be alone, and our ability to be with others. And that, I think, for Edwards, is death.”