Some of the most life-changing verses in the Bible are those that come alive years after we first read them. We read them and pass over them, read them and pass over them, read them again, and then suddenly reality breaks through, and their meaning explodes in our imagination. I wonder if any verses like that come to mind for you.
Years ago, a line in Psalm 4 leapt out of the fog of familiarity and arrested my attention. At first, it exhilarated me, awakening me to spiritual wells I had walked by (and looked past) again and again. Then it humbled me, confronting me with how weak and fickle my heart can be. And then, finally, it has strengthened me, stirring my desire and ambition for Christ and building my courage in him. King David writes,
You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. (Psalm 4:7)
Surprised by Joy
The verse slid under my radar for years, I think, because it rang like a cliché to my immature and naive ears — like a sentence beautiful enough for Pinterest, but just out of touch with the heavier realities of real life. I would read verses like this, feel vaguely inspired for a moment, and then move on and forget them minutes later. The vagueness evaporated, however, when I slowed down enough to finally see through the window this verse opens for us.
David does not say, “You have given me great joy,” or even, “You have given me as much joy as those in the world have in their finest meals and fullest pleasures.” No, he says, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” If it was a word that seized me, it was the word more. As David weighs his joy in God against the greatest pleasures on earth — the most expensive experiences, in the most exotic places, with the most famous people — he finds the world’s offer wanting. He prefers what he has tasted through faith over anything else he might see or do or buy.
Do you think about your faith in God that way? When you think about Jesus, do you ever think in terms of joy, delight, fulfillment, pleasure? Have you actually been taught, subtly or explicitly, to pit him against your happiness? The discovery for me, at that time, was that I did not have to walk away from joy to follow Jesus. In fact, I could only find the richest, most intense happiness in him.
Stubborn Longings for Less
The more you sit with a verse like this, however, the heavier it can become. The promise of experiencing a joy like David’s can give way to the troubling realization that we do not yet experience it. Can I really say, with him, “God, you have given me more joy than the world has in its greatest joys?” Am I as happy in Jesus as they are in their food, and friends, and careers, and vacations, and possessions? We know we should be able to say what David says, and yet we also know our own hearts well enough to wonder whether we can.
I feel how slow my heart can be to enjoy God. Sin never prefers God over grain or wine or television or self. And sin still lives in me. As John Piper says, we humans, in our sin, “have a deep, unshakable, compelling preference for other things rather than God” (“What Is Sin?”). This sin isn’t just a lingering tendency to do the wrong thing, but a stubborn longing for the wrong thing. So, Bible reading can sometimes feel burdensome. Prayer can sometimes feel stale. Fellowship can feel forced. Joy in God can feel distant and theoretical.
“Sin isn’t just a lingering tendency to do the wrong thing, but a stubborn longing for the wrong thing.”
To be clear, appreciating grain and wine is not sin. The psalmists celebrate and worship God for both (see Psalm 65:9; 104:19). Our joy in grain and wine and every other good gift from God is meant to kindle our joy in him, not compete with him (James 1:17). Preferring grain or wine or anything else to God is sin. And according to 1 John 1:8, we all, at times, prefer wrongly. We crave lesser, thinner joys over all we have in Christ.
How Long, O Lord?
Even if we overcome our inner resistance to this joy, though, the harsher realities of life also become hurdles to joy. The book of Psalms, after all, is not one long chorus of joy. It holds out a life of worship that is not comfortable or predictable, but difficult and demanding, even agonizing, at times.
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. (Psalm 6:2–3)
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? (Psalm 13:1–2)
The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. (Psalm 18:4–5)
Again and again, the brighter moments of gladness punctuate song after song of hardship. David’s life, in particular, was terribly painful. After he was chosen to be the next king, he was hunted by Saul. After he committed adultery and had the woman’s husband killed, he lost his infant son. Later, another son, Amnon, died at the hands of his own brother, Absalom, who then fled. And when the estranged son eventually returned, he betrayed his father, organized a mutiny, and stole the kingdom.
The agony David experienced (some because of his own sin, and much because of sins against him) makes his words in Psalm 4:7 even sweeter and more compelling. His pain doesn’t gut what he says about joy, but proves it, revealing that this joy is unusually potent and resilient.
Even as I Lose All
When David writes, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound,” he is not writing from the comfort of a palace in peacetime; he is writing from hiding, while Absalom has seized his throne. Psalms 3 and 4 are the morning and evening psalms of a man betrayed. David suffered much throughout his life and reign, but did anything sting like the stab in the back from his own son?
“No amount of darkness and loss could take the depth and fullness of his joy in God.”
And yet he was not utterly miserable, even while he watched the boy he once held and fed and played with plunder his life’s work. No, “You have put more joy in my heart” — even now — “than they have when their grain and wine abound.” Even while my son indulges himself on my grain and my wine and my wealth, even as I lose nearly all that I love, even while I fear for my life, God, you have made me glad in you — more glad than sinners have in their happiest moments. No amount of darkness and loss could take the depth and fullness of his joy in God.
This joy isn’t merely for the lighter, more comfortable, more cheerful moments of the Christian life, but it’s also strong enough for the trenches, the valleys, the storms. What God did for a wounded and despairing king in the throes of betrayal, he now promises to do for us in the throes of whatever we face or carry. And what greater, more practical gift could he give us than to say, in any circumstance, however bleak or painful, I will not only keep your life, but make you glad?