John Piper has often said, “My dad is the happiest man I’ve ever known.”
His father was a fundamentalist evangelist, who traveled to speak at “revival” services hosted by local churches across the country. He was a Billy Graham who ministered in smaller settings. He prayed and worked hard to make ends meet. And yet he was unassailably happy.
One time John asked his father, “Daddy, what would you say, in a word, is the key to a lifetime of happiness?” His father didn’t even hesitate.
“Tell somebody about Jesus.”
That was not the answer John expected, but he says it makes profound sense. “Receive and overflow — that’s what you’re made for — for receiving untold graces from God and then telling someone about them.”
Worth Every Minute
Evangelism is fraught with difficulties and natural resistances: the awkward moments, the strained interactions, even harsh responses. But part of what makes evangelism so gratifying is the barriers and hardships. When God gives us the wherewithal to express his gospel with clarity, it is a spiritually rewarding experience, even when our message is rejected outright.
Such is also the case with disciple-making. And perhaps even more. At least the attendant pains and trials can be even more difficult in the depth and duration of investment required in making disciples.
Disciple-making, in fulfillment of the Great Commission, is of a whole with evangelism. Jesus charges his church both to baptize and to teach. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is a one-time, evangelistic event at the outset of the Christian life, while “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has] commanded” is the extended process by which a young believer is nurtured toward maturity in the faith (Matthew 28:19–20). Both have their difficulties, and both have their remarkable, irreplaceable, soul-stirring rewards.
Joys Particular to Discipling
God richly rewards the many costs of disciple-making, and also laces disciple-making with remarkable joys, which make all the unavoidable costs worth it. God holds out unique pleasures when we empty ourselves, at depth and length, for the spiritual well-being of others.
“Those whom we disciple are not the enemies of our joy in Christ, but an expression of our joy in him.”
Paul writes, “What is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20). Naturally, we would not have expected him to say it like that. What is Paul’s hope or joy or crown of boasting at Jesus’s coming? The Thessalonians are his glory and joy. How can this be? What about Jesus himself?
What makes discipling worth the cost is that those in whom we invest become, in a real and God-glorifying sense, our glory and our joy. And such sweet-tasting fruit from our investment is not in competition with our joy in Jesus, but is itself a kind of completion of it. Those whom we disciple are not the enemies of our joy in Christ, but an expression of our joy in him.
Joy Too Good to Express
If you wonder whether Paul got a little carried away in expressing his joy in people in 1 Thessalonians 2:19–20, notice how he turns up the dial in the following verses.
He says it’s “good news” — that’s sacred language for the apostle Paul — that the Thessalonians are well (1 Thessalonians 3:6). Gospel. This is a remarkably lofty expression of the joy he received to hear that the Thessalonians were spiritually healthy. It landed on his soul as a kind of gospel truth.
“Now we live,” he says, since such a report came (1 Thessalonians 3:8). Again, this is surprisingly elevated word-choice. His joy is so deeply tied to those in whom he has invested himself that some part of his soul would feel dead if their spiritual flame had been snuffed out — but “now we live” to learn that they are well in Christ.
The report of their spiritual life gives him a joy that is not easy to express. And again, this is a holy (not idolatrous) joy, which the apostle enjoys not by turning his back on God, but in his presence (“before our God,” 1 Thessalonians 3:9). Paul’s soul is tied to their souls in a way that makes us uncomfortable, and perhaps in a way that too few of us have experienced.
All the Joy We Feel
Then, 1 Thessalonians 3:9 names it as “all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God.” The apostle tastes a kind of joy — a joy in God, not apart from God — that he would not otherwise enjoy without the depth and difficulty and personal connection he has with his people.
Paul doesn’t write so powerfully, and particularly, about his joy when he sends letters to people he hasn’t yet met (for instance, the Romans and Colossians). But when his investment has been personal, particularly when it has been in difficult circumstances (as it was in Thessalonica, Acts 17:1–9), he experiences a kind of joy — “all the joy that we feel for your sake” — he otherwise would not taste.
No Greater Joy
Finally, the apostle John writes, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4).
No greater joy.
“Real joy in Jesus grows and expands to draw others in.”
How can he say that? Because this is precisely how Jesus himself would have it. This is what joy in Jesus does — it grows and expands to draw others in. “No greater joy” does not mean that Jesus himself is less than our greatest treasure, but that the way in which he is our greatest joy is not inward and sequestered from others, but that such joy ripens and extends and draws others in — that our joy becomes greater as we invest at depth in particular individuals for an extended period of time, and see God work to give the growth.
Disciple-making is indeed costly — and designed by God, when healthy, to be a great joy-producing enterprise. It is not easy, but hard work. Yet it is deeply rewarding, with joys we will not otherwise taste apart from God’s work in and through us in sharing “our own selves” (1 Thessalonians 2:8) with others.