We have learned to laugh when our 2-year-old screams.
At this stage, the end of anything good has become a devastating crisis — the bottom of the ice-cream cone, the closing scene of his favorite movie (that he’s seen dozens of times), the last time down the slide, even the end of a good bath. Good no longer goes quietly, but ferociously — not just whining, but roll-on-the-ground screaming.
Some screams deserve fatherly distress and strategic measures, but not these. Not yet. They’re immature, and at this early age, strangely adorable. We laugh because his sorrow is so wildly out of proportion. And because every good he mourns today will, in all likelihood, be just as good again tomorrow (we’ll probably have to give him another bath).
I laugh, but not when I rock him each night before bed. While he sleepily smiles up at me, I bury myself in our rocking chair like it’s a bunker. When I hold him, I secretly hate the brevity of those moments (and these years). The neighbors don’t hear me scream, but I protest deep down. Like a 2-year-old at the park, I refuse to put him down, wanting to keep the good from ever ending — to keep him from ever growing. I can already tell I won’t be able to hold him like this for long. I want my heart to be bigger, and the minutes longer, and the goodnights fewer.
We feel the futility of this world in goodbyes and all-gones.
Pleasures Are Not Accidents
From God’s perspective, my crib-side sorrow is probably even more wildly out of proportion than my son’s — I am not only two. He didn’t give me a serpent or a scorpion; he gave me a son. And if he gave me something as precious as a son, how much more will he give in the days to come?
Pleasure can breed disproportion in us. We chase small pleasures into the trap of thinking that life is really about small pleasures — food, sex, shopping, even friendship, marriage, and parenting. We end up trying to carve a god out of our small pleasures instead of following each one up to the greatest Pleasure.
The other pleasures are not accidents. God filled this world with them. These priceless moments with our 2-year-old are not accidents. They are good gifts from a perfect Father (James 1:17), like items we buy for someone months before Christmas because we found just the right gift for them. Except the perfect Father gives perfect gifts to children with short memories, small hearts, and wandering eyes. And because we are small, weak, and wandering, we’re never as happy as we were made to be.
John Piper writes, “Imagine being able to enjoy what is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever. This is not now our experience. Three things stand in the way of our complete satisfaction in this world” (The Pleasures of God). There are at least three good reasons why we are not (yet) totally happy, even in our happiest moments.
1. Even the best things here are not good enough.
Piper lists this first: “Nothing has a personal worth great enough to meet the deepest longings of our hearts.” God intentionally gives us longings deeper and wider than his gifts. He means for us to enjoy the gifts, but not to be content with just his gifts. He wants us to taste the good in everything else and want the highest pleasure: him. If I buy the best Christmas gift for my son in July, but then give him little energy and attention, even the best gift comes up far short. He wants Dad.
The apostle Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:8–9). Not some things, but everything — all things. Not as just less, but as loss. Not as small or cheap, but as garbage. As the Preacher of Ecclesiastes says,
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10–11)
When compared with the size of our souls and the length of eternity, all the earthly pleasures simply add up to vanity. Together they come up short, even pitiful. Even the best things here are not good enough.
2. Our hearts are not big enough for the good we do have.
Again Piper writes, “We lack the strength to savor the best treasures to their maximum worth.” The angst I feel in our rocking chair is not only about the brevity of childhood. It’s also about the smallness of my heart. My mind knows there is more to enjoy in those moments than my heart can handle in real time, like my son enjoying his books without being able to read yet. The days force us to turn pages in life before we’ve learned how to see and enjoy all that’s there — before we were ready for the pleasures. The good we have is not good enough, and our hearts are not even big enough yet for the good we do have.
Part of why “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11) is only found in the presence of God is that only then will we have hearts that could be that full. God has already given us a new heart (Ezekiel 36:26), but it’s an incomplete heart, one that will only be made whole when we are finally whole (2 Corinthians 5:1; 1 Corinthians 15:42–43; Philippians 1:6).
When we come up against the limits of our minds and hearts while we’re enjoying God’s gifts, he wants us to pray and wait. God wants us to pray that he would open our minds and widen our hearts to take in more of his glory in what he has made. He also wants us to wait with anticipation for the day when we receive new and better equipment — new eyes, new ears, new hands, even a new nose and tongue.
For now, we sample infinite joy with inadequate hearts.
3. Every good gift comes to an end — for now.
Piper’s final reason we will never be completely satisfied in this world: “The third obstacle to complete satisfaction is that our joys here come to an end.” My son won’t always fit in my arms. We won’t always live in our current home. It’s likely I will not be there for him throughout his life. The earthly goods we enjoy now will not last forever. In fact, they will not even last for long. “The world is passing away along with its desires” (1 John 2:17) — and its pleasures, even the very best ones.
Just like the pleasures are not accidents, the expiration dates are not either. They were formed for us, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:16). God wired every good gift with unique measures of pleasure. And he wired them to end. In love. He knew we needed finiteness to appreciate the infinite. If everything here lasted forever, God might seem less glorious, heaven less promising, hell less terrifying, and souls less precious.
Every temporary good — and they are all temporary here on earth — is an appetizer for the eternal. Now “we know in part . . . but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:9–10). The partial was always meant to prepare us for something perfect — someone who could satisfy us completely, someone who could make us perfectly and invincibly happy.