I want Christ to be the treasure of my life. In fact, I often find the wanting of him to be my treasure a more common reality in my life than the actual act of treasuring and enjoying him as my treasure. Is that normative? It’s an important question, and this time it comes from a podcast lister named Kai.
“Hi, Pastor John! I keep hearing your answers on this podcast talking about how we need to enjoy God’s glory, be satisfied in Jesus, and embrace him as our treasure. But I cannot seem to manage it. I always want Jesus. I always want to glorify God. It is always my ambition to do so. But I almost never feel as though I actually have Jesus or love the glory of God. I feel like I’m always wanting and recognizing my lack without being satisfied by him. Is this normal? Is my experience normal?”
Insecure and Discouraged
Back in the 1980s, I was thinking about writing a book on Christian Hedonism (actually, they were sermons first). This truth would become my life passion and ministry. Back in the 1980s, I wondered, “What should I call it?” J.I. Packer had written a book called Knowing God, and Charles Colson had written a book called Loving God, so I decided on the title Desiring God.
“The born-again person’s desires are owing to a new taste, a new spiritual taste for God.”
I liked the ring of it. I liked lining up behind those two guys. But there was something more — there was so much more significance behind that title. I can remember in those early days of my pastoral ministry walking to church seven minutes from our house. I’ve done it fifteen to twenty thousand times. In those early years especially, I would regularly feel insecure and a little discouraged. I would be praying all the way to church for God’s help, whether I was going to a staff meeting or a funeral or a preaching service or some tough counseling session.
Hope in God
I remember that two Bible passages dominated my mind for an important season in the mid eighties, maybe even longer than that. They were like the music on the answering machine in my brain. If I called in for help, this would be the message of my mind.
One of them was Psalm 42:5: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God.” We put that on a big sign so I could see it. It was a big sign on the old sanctuary. It’s torn down now, but for a decade or more, we had this big “Hope in God” sign so that John Piper would take heart as he’s walking to church.
The psalmist says, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:11). You can see that this is the prayer of a man whose heart is not as full of God as it should be, because he says, “I shall again praise him,” meaning praises are not spontaneously welling up joyfully from his heart, and he knows it.
He’s preaching to himself that God is infinitely worthy of being trusted, and he’s declaring confidence that praises are going to return. In other words, this is the prayer of a man who has tasted and known the satisfying preciousness of God as better than anything else, and he’s not experiencing it to the degree that he knows he should. Now, that was one of the texts.
Whom Have I But You?
Here’s the other one: Psalm 73:24–26. I can remember being called on to pray in many situations where I wasn’t expecting it. I would push this button in my brain; I called into my brain, and this is the music that came out. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory. 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” (Psalm 73:24–26).
“Even your wanting is a kind of satisfaction, a true experience of satisfaction in Jesus.”
Now, probably if there were one text that I could trace to the title of the book Desiring God, that would be it: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”
When he says, “There’s nothing I desire besides you,” I think that is the psalmist’s way of saying what Paul said in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Technically, there are other desires. We get hungry. We get thirsty. We have sexual desires. We get sleepy. But compared to God and his fellowship — all that he is for us in Christ — these other desires fade.
If You Have Tasted
What kind of desire is this in Psalm 42 and 73? The key to its essence, I think, is found in 1 Peter 2:2–3. It says, “Like newborn infants” — this is a command coming up — “long for [that’s an imperative of the verb desire] the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” Now comes this all-important if clause: “if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (1 Peter 2:2–3).
Think carefully about that with me for a minute. There are desires that unbelievers have for something beyond this world that they can’t name. These desires may lead them to God. They did for C.S. Lewis, for example.
Until a person is born again, these desires are not spiritual desires. They are not the work of God’s Spirit and are not based on a true experience of the beauty and worth of God. They are simply expressions of the empty place in our heart that’s made for God. What must happen for those desires to be spiritual and God-pleasing desires, desires that really magnify God, is this: “if indeed you have tasted.” You can desire God if you’ve tasted God.
The difference between the desires of the non-Christian and the born-again person is that the new desires of the born-again person are owing to a new taste, a new spiritual taste for God. They have seen something, smelled something, tasted something spiritually that is different than anything they had known before.
Tasting True Desire
Here’s what I’m saying to Kai when he says, “I always want Jesus, but I almost never feel as though I actually have Jesus.” I am saying that if, by the work of God’s regenerating Holy Spirit, you have tasted the true glory or beauty or worth and greatness of Jesus, that taste is present in all your wanting. It’s present in all your wanting, all your desiring. Therefore, even your wanting is a kind of delighting; even your wanting is a kind of satisfaction — a true experience of satisfaction in Jesus.
“On earth we will never have an experience of joy in God that is not composed mainly of desiring.”
C.S. Lewis analyzed the relationship between desire and satisfaction as deeply as anybody I know. He said that joy is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction” (Surprised by Joy, 19). Let me say that again because that’s pretty profound for somebody like Kai to come to terms with. Joy is the experience “of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” In other words, the taste of the desired in that desire is better than any other satisfaction.
I think he’s right when he says that on earth we will never have an experience of joy in God that is not composed mainly of desiring. In other words, only in God’s immediate presence in heaven, or in the new age, is there “fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
For now, in this fallen world, satisfaction in God will be in measure, not in fullness. The most common way we will experience those measures will be in desiring and wanting and longing based on a true taste. If we have tasted the true goodness of the Lord by his Spirit, that desiring, as Lewis says, will be more desirable than any other satisfaction, and God will be honored in it.