Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. We’re on the topic of joy again — namely, is our joy commanded by God as an act of obedience? Or is our joy in God made authentic by being spontaneous? It’s a common question posed to Christian Hedonists and a great question asked by Emily today. “Dear Pastor John and Tony, thank you so much for this podcast! I have a question that comes from listening to two of your more recent episodes. In them you stated that joy is not a choice but a sovereign gift. To quote you, Pastor John: ‘Joy is a God-given, spontaneous experience of the beauty, worth, and greatness of God.’ Then in the next episode, you discussed that we are commanded to rejoice by Jesus, Peter, and Paul, implying we have some control over our rejoicing.” Those are from APJ 1983 and APJ 1984. “Pastor John, can you explain how this works, spontaneous joy and commanded joy?”

This is such an important issue because not only does it relate to joy, but it relates to all the behaviors and all the decisions and all the emotions of the Christian life. The paradox between an emotion being given by God and being commanded by God runs through the whole Bible.

And the reason it does — the reason it runs through the whole Bible — is because it’s at the heart of living a life that glorifies God by depending on God in doing what he commands us to do. When God commands us to do things, or believe things, or decide things, or feel things, he’s treating us as genuinely responsible moral persons in his image, unlike all the animals. He’s honoring us as the kind of beings in his image who can perceive things, and think about things, and evaluate things, and then feel and act in accord with how we think and evaluate.

But while he created us to be morally responsible persons, he did not create us to be independent from him and his enabling power. Because if we use our own native powers to analyze the world, think it through, make decisions, experience emotions, perform actions without relying on him, we’re going to get the glory, not him. He didn’t make the world for us to gain independent glory. That’s not why he created the world. He created the world for us to live in such a way that he gets the glory and we get the help. We get the joy; he gets the glory.

We Get Help, He Gets Glory

So, here’s the principle with a couple of texts. For example, 1 Peter 4:11: “Whoever speaks, [let him speak] as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, [let him serve] as one who serves [now, this is key] by the strength that God supplies.” So, as we serve in obedience to what he commands, we rely upon strength that’s not our own. And then, why? He gives us the why: “. . . in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.” That’s an absolutely fundamental principle of living the Christian life. We get the help; he gets the glory. We obey commands by relying utterly on his gift.

“We get the help; God gets the glory. We obey commands by relying utterly on his gift.”

Another way to say it is that the Christian life is meant to be a life of “[walking] by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16) or being “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:18). We fight against sin, Paul says, by putting to death the deeds of the body “by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13). All those phrases — “by the Spirit,” “by the Spirit,” “by the Spirit.” We do the action but, Father, you give the strength. We do it in reliance upon your power: “by the Spirit.”

So, the whole Christian life, not just the emotion of joy, is built on this paradox of moral responsibility to do what God tells us to do, and yet to do it in the strength that he supplies. So, it’s really a gift. It’s really a gift from him, even though our willpower is involved.

Command and Gift

Probably the most famous words outside the Bible to capture this paradox were spoken by St. Augustine. He prayed like this in Confessions book 10. “Give what you command, O Lord, and command what you will.”

Now, here are some of the concrete biblical illustrations of what he meant. Let’s just take belief in Jesus. Command: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). It’s a command. Gift: “It has been [given] to you that for the sake of Christ you should . . . believe in him” (Philippians 1:29).

Or take repentance. Command: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). Gift: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone. . . . God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). It’s a command; it’s a gift.

Here’s another one — love. Love is a command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). But it’s a gift: “the fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22).

So, Emily was exactly right to quote me as saying, on the one hand, “Joy is a God-given, spontaneous experience of the beauty, worth, and greatness of God” — that’s true; it’s a gift — but then saying, on the other hand, that we are commanded to rejoice by James and Peter and Jesus and Paul, implying that we have some control over our rejoicing (that is, control over the pursuit of it and obedience to that command).

For example, we’re commanded (returning now to the issue of joy), “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13) — a command. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) — a command. “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4) — command. But on the other hand, joy is a gift: “The fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy” (Galatians 5:22). Or Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.”

Look and Pray

So, what do we do to live in this paradox of joy being a gift and a command? To make it as simple as I can, here’s what we do. We look — that’s the key word — at the reasons God has given us to rejoice; we look at them in the Bible. And second, we pray. Look and pray. Look and pray. Look and pray. We pray that God would open our eyes to see and feel the value of those reasons the way God intended them to be felt.

For example, Paul says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). So, we look at it, we look at the hope, we ponder it, we think about it, and then we pray, “O God, open my eyes to see the worth of the glory of your hope.” Or Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12). So, we read about that, and we look, we ponder, we think, we meditate on the reward in heaven. And then we pray, “O God, open my eyes to the worth of the reward, so I feel what I ought to feel when I’m gazing at this amazing reward. Make me happy the way Jesus commanded me to be happy, because of how beautiful this reward is.” Or the psalmist says in Psalm 119:162, “I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.” So, we read the word — we read it, we meditate on it, and we pray and pray and pray, “God, open our eyes, that we may behold wonderful things in your word” (see Psalm 119:18).

Now, if this is new to any of our listeners, this kind of paradox between living with commands and gifts like this, and you’d like to probe more deeply, I really simplified things by saying the key is looking and the key is praying. If you want to read a whole book about it, I wrote a whole book. It’s called When I Don’t Desire God, and you can read it for free at So, as paradoxical as it sounds, this is a glorious way to live. “Give what you command, and command what you will.”