A listener named Califf in Oklahoma writes in: “Pastor John, I’ve listened to you and read your books for years and it has been such an encouragement for me. You speak a lot about joy, but the manner in which you speak from the pulpit seems to communicate more of a desperation for this joy. I’m not saying you don’t lay hold of it, but it seems more like you wake up having to fight for this joy every single morning rather than just simply being saturated in it. I know that is my experience. I wake up at 5am almost everyday to read and pray in my fight for joy. Can you please explain this disconnect of fighting for joy and not simply having a natural disposition of being a joyful person?”
Yes. I have thought so much about this. The answer is yes, I can tell you something about that disconnect and Califf is very discerning. I would have no problem accepting what he just said about the way I sound. I have often commented that the name of my book is Desiring God — not having already found complete constant satisfaction in God.
So he is asking, What is with the disconnect about fighting for joy relentlessly and not having a simple, steady state, natural, sweet, resting in joy as God loves us so much? What is with that? The Bible itself very clearly says: “Rejoice always; and again I say, rejoice” (see Philippians 4:4). It says, “Give thanks for all things.” Yes, “for” not just “in.” There is another place that says “in,” but Ephesians 5:20 says, “Give thanks for all things.” So why do I talk so much about not having full joy and fighting for it and desiring to have it? What is the disconnect? Good question. There are three reasons for the disconnect — at least, three that I see.
1) Personality. This is tricky, but let me try. People are very different. By nature we are more or less cheerful, and I don’t mean to equate spiritual joy with natural cheerfulness. That would be a big mistake. But I do think personality makes some fruits of the Spirit more prominent in some than in others. And there are things in our personality and in our experience that create greater obstacles for experiencing certain spiritual graces.
For example, I think there are personality types that have a great more difficulty having patience and gentleness, and those are fruits of the Holy Spirit — and yet personality entangles us and makes obstacles, and we grieve him and we resist him more naturally than others. These come more easily for others than for some. So it is wit joy. So, my first explanation is that those who struggle the most for joy may have greater obstacles to overcome in their personality. That is the first answer.
2) The disconnect between steady state joy and the struggle for joy when we don’t have it, is sin in our lives. All of us who are born again have what Paul calls “indwelling sin” remaining in us. There is corruption that must daily be put to death. Colossians 3:5, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” So he is telling Christians: Put that to death. If they are Christians that have to put it to death, there must be some remnants of it there to kill.
Same thing with Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” He is talking to Christians. Or 1 Peter 2:1, “So” — you, Christians — “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”
He is talking about warfare, daily warfare, encroaching sins that need to be squashed and killed and put down because they are militating against our joy. So the reality is: John Piper often fails in having attitudes and words and deeds that conform completely to the gospel. We are supposed to walk in step with the gospel and walk in step with the Spirit, (Galatians 2:14; Galatians 5:25).
But I don’t fully and completely walk in step with the gospel in the Spirit. And these failures, my failures, militate against my capacities for joy. So the fight for joy is a fight against joy-killing sins in my life. That is the second factor that goes a long way to explaining the disconnect between wanting joy and not enjoying a steady state experience of it.
Piper: “The fight for joy is a fight against joy-killing sins in my life.”
3) And the last disconnect is, I think, explained in significant measure by the fact that we live in a world and age that is broken physically, and the sorrow and sin of other people make it impossible in this life to experience unsullied, only unique joy. Let me give three examples.
Romans 8:23 says that even we who have the Holy Spirit groan inwardly as we wait our adoption, the redemption of our bodies — our bodies. So this is what I meant when I said we live in a world of physical brokenness: broken bodies, cancer, arthritis, Zika, and Ebola and on and on. The existence of pain in this age means that sooner or later joy is going to be mingled with significant weeping.
Another example is that other people’s weeping becomes our weeping if we love them. Paul says, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). There are always people weeping. And the more you love, the more their weeping becomes your weeping, and the interplay between our weeping and our joy is very difficult and very complex.
One last example.
People are perishing and going to hell. Some people that are very close to you may be in that condition. And Paul, when he faced that terrible reality that his Jewish kinsmen that he loved profoundly were cut off from Christ, he said — this is Romans 9:1–2, “I am speaking the truth in Christ,” — he feels like he almost has to swear this, it is so painful — “I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.” Now that is the man who said: Rejoice always; and again I say, rejoice (Philippians 4:4). So you can see that constant, uninterrupted joy must at least be able to exist side by side with unremitting sorrow over the lostness of the people you care about in the world.
So the upshot of this is that I don’t expect to have constant and complete joy in Jesus in this age. I don’t. Full and everlasting — those were the key words — full and everlasting joy will come finally when this fallen age passes away and we are made completely perfect. Our personalities will be set free from every obstacle to joy, and everyone in our experience will be sharing with us the fullness of everlasting joy (Psalm 16:11). That will come. That age is going to come, and the hope of it, Paul says, the hope of glory in Romans 5:2, the hope of it sustains us in our present fight for joy.