How much joy can we expect to get in this life? It’s a great question for you, Pastor John, who joins us over the phone today. The question comes from Cameron in Northern Ireland.
“Dear Pastor John, I’m reading your book Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Your description of the three stages of worship has struck a chord in my heart. I know the lowest stage well, where I feel deep sorrow for not being able to worship my Lord as I should. I’m also acquainted with the second stage, spending much of my devotional time in a state of intense longing for the full joys of God’s presence. However, I find myself only rarely able to experience the unbounded joy and satisfaction of worship which you describe, leaving me in what feels like a state of perpetually unsatisfied longing for God. How much of the Christian life is marked by an unsatisfied longing for a joy that we will not fully find in this life?”
More Is Coming
This question is so important as a clarification of what Christian Hedonism really looks like in this life. I know that I might easily give the impression, when I speak of God’s purpose for us to delight in God above all things, that this might mean uninterrupted, full satisfaction in this world while we keep our eyes on God. But from Scripture, from the lives of great saints, from our own experience, we know that’s not the case.
“Unbounded joy in this fallen world of sin and misery will always be rare.”
Cameron says, “I find myself only rarely able to experience the unbounded joy and satisfaction of worship which you described.” My response is that such experiences of unbounded joy in this fallen world of sin and misery will always be rare. I hope he’s not too discouraged by that. I don’t mean that real and deep joy will be rare, but that the kind of joy that feels unbounded — that is unmixed with sorrows and the limitations of the sinfulness of the world — such a joy will be rare.
I say that even though I know that Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). That could be taken to mean that the satisfaction we experience when we come to Jesus never has any limit or frustration, but only constant and perfect contentment. That is, we never thirst. I don’t think that’s what Jesus means.
First, I think he means that when you find Jesus, you have come to the end of your quest for satisfaction. Jesus is the living water, and there is nothing better in the universe and nothing that will satisfy more, so the quest is over. You’re home.
The second thing I think it means is that in due time, all frustrations impeding our fullest satisfaction will be over. They’ll be overcome in the resurrection when we sin no more and deal no more with misery and suffering in this world.
In the meantime, we have tasted and we know that Jesus is all-satisfying. We know he is. That’s what we’ve tasted. Sometimes that satisfaction goes very deep and very high, and seems to be all-encompassing. More often, it seems embattled and compromised by competing sorrows and miseries.
There are a lot of reasons for that. It might be good just to mention them so that it doesn’t feel like we’re weaseling here. It will help because it will expel the idea that there are joys we should know and it’s really our fault, as if we could have them if we just believed more.
Of course, that’s true; there’s always more to be had. But there are real reasons why we will not experience that kind of unbounded, un-embattled fullness of joy in this life.
Hope of Glory
In Romans 5:2, Paul says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Our present joy is not the full and complete joy of present glory, but an anticipation of future glory, a foretaste of future glory.
“When you find Jesus, you have come to the end of your quest for satisfaction. You’re home.”
In Hebrews 12:2, we read that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. On the cross, there was joy (I dare say). There was joy in the trustworthiness of his Father as a faithful judge who wouldn’t give him up to Sheol. But it was all but snuffed out by the horror of God’s judgment.
The joy set before him sustained him all the way. That’s what it does for us. We taste it now, but we have a hope of the joy of the glory of God.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” In this age, there will always be weepers, and so our joy is always mixed with sorrow. Our joy is always mixed with the sorrow of empathy.
Paul himself showed that he was an example of this in Romans 9:2, where he said he was in constant anguish over his lost Jewish kinsmen. He said he was in anguish even though he said that we should always rejoice.
In fact, Paul described for us what that looks like in 2 Corinthians 6:10, where he says, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In Paul’s mind, the Christian life is always rejoicing and often — perhaps simultaneously — sorrowful.
Restore Me, O God
Then you have the psalmists who cry out continually for renewed joy to God as though it’s not constant and so it has to be made new. Take, for example, Psalm 90:14: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” Why would he cry out for that if he was already satisfied?
“In due time, all frustrations impeding our fullest satisfaction will be over.”
Psalm 51:12 is another great example: “Restore to me the joy of my salvation.” Restore — meaning, it’s gone; something took it away. Even the psalmists, at their best, are modeling for us that joy is something we fight for and cry for in its fullness, every day.
Paul describes the whole Christian life as one of progress, of not having arrived. “[We’re] being changed,” he says, “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). If we’re being changed from one degree of glory, that means we’re seeing new degrees of glory. We’re being conformed with new degrees of glory, and there are fresh experiences of joy that we didn’t have before.
Tears for Joy
Finally, John says that when the kingdom finally arrives, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17; 21:4). Clearly, until that time, our joys are going to be mingled with tears.
In fact, one old saying puts it this way (I think it’s an old American-Indian proverb): “If the eye had no tears, the soul would have no rainbow.” This is just one of the ways that God makes our tears now serve our joy.
There are kinds of joys we would not know without tears. We need to be realistic about the fullness and completeness of joy in this life. Joy will never be as full as it will be in heaven, when it’s no longer mixed with sin and misery.
I have one more thing. In answer to the question “Okay, how then do we make it as full as it can be?” Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). There’s a blessing, a happiness, a joy that comes with purity of heart because of seeing God. And seeing God is certainly the key to having our joy be as full as it can be.