A listener named Fenot writes in: “Hello Pastor John! If Christ is the only one that can truly satisfy my hunger for joy, why do then I seek to excel in what I do? What I do brings me joy, and I also feel like it brings glory to God, too. I get confused about joy. If God is my joy, why do I care in making the perfect meal or writing the best paper for academia? Thank you for any help.”
I love this question and I found myself, as I was thinking about it, soaring. I love to think about the relationships of the enjoyment of God with the things that God has made and the activities he designed us to perform. I mean, this question is so unbelievably important.
However, I empathize with Fenot’s perplexity. It is one thing to enjoy the simplicity of delighting in God himself, and delighting in his gifts, and delighting in activities that he has equipped us to do. It is quite another thing to articulate with words how all of this fits together without contradicting any Scriptures and without demeaning any of God’s gifts.
So for those of you listening in who simply want to go on your way full of the Holy Spirit, overflowing with proper enjoyments without complicating your life with explanations in words that get all tangled up in complexity, then I say with John Owen: “I bid you farewell.”
But if you want to keep listening, I am going to go into the tangle and see if we can sort it out. At least I need this very much and it sounds like Fenot does, too. So let me simply set the stage for the answer by drawing attention to a batch of relevant passages from the Bible which show that Fenot’s question is necessary. It is demanded by texts, not just by experience.
Psalm 73:25–26, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Philippians 3:8, 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.”
I think the point of those passages is not to say there can be no legitimate pleasure in God’s gifts. Too many other texts contradict that idea. But the point is only in God, or supremely in God, we find our pleasure. Those texts are intended to say that, compared with God, and compared with Christ’s beauty, all other gifts, including rewarding activities that he gives us to do, are as nothing, like dust in the balances. That is how much our delight in God himself, how much the glory of God, compares to the glory of his gifts.
So I don’t think those texts are designed in the Psalms or anywhere else as cancelling out the legitimacy of a proper enjoyment of God’s gifts. The big question is: Okay, what does proper mean?
And we start stumbling upon texts like:
Philippians 4:1, “Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.” So here we have Paul, who just said he counts everything as rubbish compared to Christ, now describing the fruit of his apostolic labor in the people at Philippi as his joy and his crown. And when he does it he is not being an idolater.
1 Timothy 6:17, “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” So set your hope on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. So now we have an enormous amount of material — relational, intellectual — an artistic truckload of blessings poured out by God on us with the divine intention that we enjoy them without becoming idolaters.
And then we have Paul saying to the Ephesians elders — and I am going here because of Fenot’s question about activity, actions — he enjoys actions and behaviors and writing and so on. Paul said in Acts 20:35, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” It is more blessed, happy, satisfying, to give than to receive. In other words, if you are performing an act of giving — and that could be giving of any kind, right? It could be giving your time, giving your skill, giving your words, giving your money — then this should be experienced as blessedness. In other words, it should be enjoyable. I think that is what that text says.
He said the same thing in 2 Corinthians 9:7. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Money is in mind, but any giving would be true. In other words, when you are not merely receiving from God the enjoyment of his fellowship, but rather turning it outward towards other people and engaging in activities of giving yourself away, giving your gifts away, your time and talent, giving it all away, you should be doing it with cheerfulness. You should be enjoying it.
Ecclesiastes is notoriously difficult to interpret. But however you interpret Ecclesiastes, some things are repeated so often, they are so unqualified, they are so related to God’s will, that we know they are intended by the inspired author to be embraced. Three examples:
Ecclesiastes 2:24, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.”
Ecclesiastes 3:13, “Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man.”
Ecclesiastes 5:19, “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil — this is the gift of God.”
And of course everything we have seen so far fits in with God’s original purpose for man on the planet that we have meaningful work to do and that was not a result of the fall. “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:28).
Or when he put Adam in the garden, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). And, of course, before the fall he didn’t mean: And find it boring and begrudge getting up in the morning. He meant: Go at it with all your heart and mind and find joy in it, just like Ecclesiastes said.
So here is my very short and tangled and, I think, exciting, answer to how joy in God fits together with the calling that is on us to enjoy God’s gifts and to enjoy the work that he gives us to do. I have four steps:
Our work and the enjoyment of it and the enjoyment of God’s gifts in it is the overflow of joy in God himself. In other words, our enjoyment of our work or our enjoyment of God’s gifts should be an enjoyment of honoring what God has given us and what he has done for us. He causes us to enjoy his gifts as an overflow of the enjoyment of himself. And the reason I say that is because of 2 Corinthians 8:2, “For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Overflowed — there is my key word. So they are undertaking activities of giving and serving, and those very activities are called the “overflow of joy.” First we taste the kindness of God in the gospel, and everything else becomes overflow.
In all our enjoyment of God’s gifts, including the gift of meaningful work, we are tasting something of God himself in his gifts. God created things as good because he is good. They are expressions. They are aspects of his goodness. And we should learn to enjoy the sweetness of the peach because there is something of God’s sweetness in the sweetness of the peach.
When we do our work, conscious of being created by God, dependent on God, gifted by God for certain work, motivated by God, being eager to do it as to God, then we can say that our very work is an embodiment or an incarnation of the very glory of God that delights us. And thus, we find our work delightful — delightful precisely in proportion to the way it reflects the glory of God in which we delight. In other words, all the aspects of our working: our thinking, the working of our muscles, the working of our nerves, the working of our eyes and ears, the emotional capacities we have to relate to people, and on and on and on. All the aspects of our working are designed by God to show the glory of God. And we love the glory of God. We delight in the glory of God. And when all of that comes into play in God-honoring work, we enjoy that work because we experience this work as the very embodiment of the glory of God. How else could it be if God is creating all those possibilities for us as a demonstration of his glory?
All of our working, all of our ministry, all of our activity should be the pursuit of an enlargement of, not just the overflow of, but the enlargement of our enjoyment of God himself. In the sense that we want the fruit of our lives to be such a display of the all-satisfying glory of God that other people see it. Other people see it and come to share in it so that our joy in God is enlarged by their joy in God.
So that is my best effort, Fenot. I hope in the piling up of words, there is at least a smidgeon of truth and insight that help.