Building a ministry around joy in God leads to a lot of good and important questions we need to think through. For example, if our ministry centers on joy, then doesn’t this invite an emotional-rollercoaster rhythm to life? It is a really important question today from an anonymous listener who writes in to us.
“Pastor John, I struggle with thinking that feelings of peace, love, and joy are the validation and thermometer of my relationship with God. Thus, my relationship is like a rollercoaster. I often feel discouraged and anxious when my heart isn’t moved with emotion during my time with God. On the other hand, I am cautious to seek purely emotional highs because I know they can be misleading or even false. What would you say to me?”
This question really matters to me because I’m a Christian Hedonist. I tell people that the affections of the heart matter just as much, even more, than the thoughts of the mind. I make the case over and over again that Christian faith, saving faith, is not merely intellectual assent to doctrines, but the heart embrace of the truth of the person who makes the truth true. I tell people to devote their lives to pursuing satisfaction in God because God is most glorified in them when they are most satisfied in him.
I utterly reject the notion that faith can be neatly separated from feelings, like a caboose at the end of the train can be dropped off with no great loss. That’s not the way the Bible talks about the Christian faith, as though this train could go on chugging down with no love for God burning in the engine.
“My response to this question is not to make it easy by defining faith separately from the emotions.”
Jesus himself said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
I think the effort to distinguish saving faith from feelings of glad dependence and thankful trust and heartfelt admiration and pleased submission and contented resting and earnest treasuring is futile and hopeless. You cannot strip all those adjectives — glad, thankful, heartfelt, pleased, contented, earnest — from faith and have any saving faith left.
What you have left is what the devil can do, or mere oxymorons like unthankful saving trust.
In fact, I think the effort to define faith as something devoid of feeling is driven by an ancient and very modern belief in the autonomy of the human will that must be in final control of its destiny.
Everyone knows we can’t immediately control our feelings or emotions or affections. You can’t make yourself feel thankful. You can say the words thank you, but you can’t make yourself feel thankful. It’s either there or it’s not. You can’t make yourself feel pleased or glad.
Therefore, that view of human nature that says we have to be able to control our own destiny, our own salvation, has to say that saving faith cannot include things I can’t control. “I have to be in control,” they insist.
That is simply not what the Bible teaches. The Bible requires many things of us that we cannot immediately produce because we are so corrupt and rebellious. Yet we are responsible to produce them because a sinful condition is no excuse for disobedience.
All that to say that my response to this question is not to make it easy by defining faith separately from the emotions.
I think a lot of people would hear her question and say, “Not a problem. You don’t need to let your discouragements go up and down with the rise and fall of your emotions, because faith has nothing to do with emotions.” That’s the way they’d answer.
Four Ways Forward
Now my approach so far may sound like analysis to our friend. She may be saying, “Okay, I’m simply stuck then, right? Come on, Piper, I asked the question for help, not for an analysis.”
When her emotions go up, she says she has assurance, and when her emotions go down, she has doubts about her salvation and feels anxious, because Piper, and who knows what other Puritans, have taught her that faith is more than mere assent.
Now, I would like to try to provide four ways of looking at our spiritual affections that I think will help her and me — they help me — bring steadiness to her devotion to Christ, and not such volatility or despair.
1. Ups and Downs
The biblical realism is that saints have always experienced seasons when clarity and joy and spiritual sensitivity weaken.
“Sin is the preference of the heart getting the upper hand over our delight in God and his ways.”
Otherwise, David would not have cried out in Psalm 51:12, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Paul would not have come to the end of Romans 7 with the words “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Jesus would not have taught us to pray every day, “Forgive us our sins” (see Matthew 6:12). What is sin, but the preference of the heart getting the upper hand over our delight in God and his ways?
Let’s not measure the ups and downs of our affections for Christ as though there were a standard of perfection in the Bible. There’s not. We all struggle with ups and downs — strong affection one day, weak affection the next day.
2. Cooling Emotions
Let us make a distinction between the absence of intense joy in Christ on the one hand, and the presence of intense joy in sin on the other. Let’s make a distinction there. It is possible for our spiritual affections to weaken without this being the sign that our carnal affections are triumphant.
Of course, we should be concerned with becoming cooled toward Christ, because that could lead to the shipwreck of our lives if we fail to confirm our calling and election, as 2 Peter 1:10 says. But we should not assume that the cooling of our affections on any given day is the same as the flaming up of insubordinate rebellion against God and his ways.
It could lead to that. But it need not. The very fact that it causes us grief when our affections wane is a good sign they will restore. They will be restored.
3. Tears of Sorrow and Longing
Consider this understanding of the tears of contrition and the tears of sorrow for joylessness. I bounced this off of Noël last night as we went out to dinner together. She was leaving town today, and I wanted her to hear this because this was my calling up out of thoughts I had years ago when I wrote Desiring God. I said things like this. They were fresh and new to me, and I wanted to see what she thought.
“Are not the tears of contrition the fruit of languishing joy in Christ, impeded by weariness or weakness or sin?”
I want our friend to consider this understanding of the tears of contrition, because I’m hearing in our friend’s question that when her joys go down, she feels bad. She feels miserable. She wants to cry. She cries, “I want to have joy. I want to read my Bible with gladness and happiness and thankfulness and strength, and I don’t do that right now.” So that’s what I’m talking about.
Are not the tears of contrition the fruit of languishing joy in Christ, impeded by weariness or weakness or sin? In other words, when joy fades and you feel sorrowful and contrite and brokenhearted because of this fading joy that you should have in Christ, is not the feeling of sorrow — the feeling of regret and the feeling of contrition — evidence of the fact that your soul is the kind of soul that has a taste for the goodness of God, the sweetness of God in Jesus?
Is not this taste a sign of your regeneration? Indeed, isn’t this taste the very presence of what we might call the remaining aftertaste of joy in the absence of its full expression? If so, I would argue that the tears of contrition, the tears of sorrow for joylessness, are the tears of joy hindered by some physical condition or some weakness or some sin.
Thus, these tears are evidence that we are born of God. They show that our soul has been made into the kind of soul that will never be satisfied apart from God. Even when joy has gone away, there is an aftertaste of joy that is weeping, and the weeping is the aftertaste of joy giving evidence that our soul is the kind of soul that will have joy forever.
4. Our Assurance Is a Gift
Here’s the last thing. I would simply point to Paul’s teaching about the witness of the Holy Spirit: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
To be sure, the Holy Spirit uses evidence and means in his active witnessing to our true adoption. But in the end, assurance that we are the children of God is a gift of God the Holy Spirit.
When all is said and done, and we have reflected on as many wonderful biblical realities as we can, and we have cried out with David for the restoration of our joy, our biblical lot is to wait for the Lord. We are not to despair. We are not to dictate to God how long he will be concealed. We are not to become angry and not to take our eyes off Christ in his word, but to wait. “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).