Pastor John, ten years ago this month, what I think to be the weirdest video of you preaching was recorded. You were speaking in front of thousands of Christian counselors in Nashville, at the national gathering of the American Association of Christian Counselors. Reports claim up to eight thousand people were in attendance. It was big. And there you delivered a message titled “Beholding Glory and Becoming Whole: Seeing and Savoring God as the Heart of Mental Health.” From the start of the message, you poured your heart out and shared your personal struggles. But what makes the video so weird is that for several minutes, the counselors responded to your serious confessions with laughter.
I have so many questions. A lot of people have questions, a decade later. Caleb asks, “Pastor John, am I right in saying that I hear the crowd laughing at you as you poured your heart out to them and became very vulnerable? It seemed they totally missed the fact that you were really being serious with them. What in the world happened?” Matt asks, “It seemed like there was a lot of confusion. I was just curious on what the reasoning for the response might have been.” Adam asks, “Pastor John, your message was encouraging for me in many ways, and I was particularly encouraged and moved by the humility you showed at the beginning of the message when you discussed your struggles with self-focus both in your ministry and in your marriage. That said, I was disturbed by their audible laughter. Judging by your remarks and composure during all this, I also noticed you were concerned and disturbed as well. What do you remember from the event, and what are your thoughts as you look back, now a decade later?”
Back to Nashville
Well, this was a long time ago. I don’t live with any ongoing bad feelings or resentment or bitterness to those who were in attendance there. I hadn’t thought about it for years, I think, until I was in Nashville last week, in the very hotel where it happened. I said to people, “I’ve never been here” — and then I looked around and recalled, “Oh, I have been here. This is where that happened.” That’s where I just stayed three days ago, at the Gaylord Hotel in Nashville. Well, that’s where it happened.
“In fifty years, I have never told a joke in a sermon.”
The farther I have gotten away from it, the less reliable my reconstruction of the moment is likely to be, so I don’t want to make any condemning judgments on their behavior in laughing while I was trying to confess my sins, but I do have some thoughts about those kinds of events and situations. But first, let me help our listeners who don’t know anything about what we’re talking about have a sense of it.
This was a gathering of several thousand Christian counselors under the theme “Grace and Truth,” which I think is a wonderful theme. My thought was that I would begin my talk by listing my most besetting sins so that they could get some sense of whether this speaker was in touch with his own reality. I’m kind of self-conscious speaking in front of counselors — like, whoa, these folks are good at reading people, so I don’t want to be fake in any way. I didn’t want to begin in any presumptuous, self-assured, cocky way, so I gave nine points. Here they are. I’ll just give you bullet points.
- I’m a man who must crucify the love of praise every day.
- I’m a man who struggles with the same adolescent fear at age 63 (that was ten years ago) that he had at age 15: the fear of looking foolish.
- I’m a man who is prone to feel self-pity and pout when he doesn’t get love the way he wants.
- I’m one who is almost never sure he has used his time in the best way and therefore struggles with guilt.
- I’m one who is short on compassion and long on critical analysis. My wife lets me know that.
- I’m one who can freeze up emotionally when he’s tired, and feel instinctively that it’s someone else’s fault.
- I’m one who loves to praise God in the great assembly and feels a constraint, nevertheless, on my own spirit in my living room with my family. Why is that?
- I’m one who has loved his wife for forty years imperfectly and spent with her over three of those years with a Christian counselor, trying to become better images of Christ and the church.
- Lastly, I’m one who never feels sure that his motives are pure, including right now in this moment, for why he’s telling you all of this.
That was how I began the talk. Those are all sincere. There may be some growth, more or less, in those over the last ten years, but I know what I’m talking about there.
“I’m a man who must crucify the love of praise every day.”
Now, what was disorienting to me was that there was laughter from the audience at points in this litany of my failures — a good bit of it. It took me totally off guard. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, and I still don’t know what to make of it. But wise friends have (and you emailed me one of these, Tony) cautioned me that there may be reasons for it that I don’t see. In fact, I am sure that’s true.
Out-Rejoice the World
But here’s what I want to say that’s semi-related. Desiring God, with me as a prominent voice for Desiring God, exists to promote the vision that we call Christian Hedonism. This means that we believe human beings not only may pursue their fullest, deepest, highest, widest, and most intense joy, happiness, and pleasure, but that we must pursue it in God through Christ if we’re going to glorify God the way we would should.
“Delight yourself in the Lord” is a biblical command (Psalm 37:4), not a suggestion, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which means that Christians, Christian Hedonists in particular, should out-rejoice the world. The treasure of our God and Christ and our salvation and our hope is so spectacularly great, and so utterly sure, that we should be the most hope-filled, joy-filled people in the world.
All Gladness, No Gravity
But here’s the irony — the beautiful irony, the culturally disorienting irony — that was, I think, at the root of the mystifying miscommunication in that conference. The irony is this: in fifty years, I have never told a joke in a sermon, at least that I can remember. Nobody at Desiring God aspires to be a comedian.
The reason this is felt like an irony, in spite of what I just said about us being the happiest people in the world, is that in American culture — inside and outside the church (and that’s the sad part: inside the church) — categories do not exist for the apostle Paul’s phrase “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). By and large, categories do not exist for the motto of Bethlehem College & Seminary: “An education in serious joy.” There are no categories for a happy pastor who never tells jokes in his sermons. That never makes sense to the world.
Our culture thinks that if you’re a happy pastor, you’re going to tell jokes. If you’re a happy pastor, you’re not going to talk about serious joy, but only the happiness in joy. You’re not going to have this sad strain running through your life. The world doesn’t compute with that very easily.
Deeper Laughter Than Levity
Now, I can’t prove this, but I’m going to make a guess here (but the Lord knows). My guess is that John Piper laughs as much as any pastor he knows. And I don’t mean nervous laughter that covers up awkward-feeling moments. I mean laughter that just busts out because there are so many surprising foibles in the world, so many hilarious, unexpected juxtapositions in the world, that you’re being confronted with humor at almost every turn.
“Christians, and Christian Hedonists in particular, should out-rejoice the world.”
But there’s a world of difference between natural, spontaneous, uncalculated eruptions of humor on the one hand, and planned, calculated clowning on the other hand. By clowning, I mean at conferences, on podcasts, in sermons, trying to sound funny, which usually means demeanors and practices and words that create a silly, slapstick, jokey, jesting, clever, trifling, young-teen summer-camp rah-rah atmosphere, because that’s the only alternative to boredom and sadness and sullenness and moroseness and glumness that American culture knows. It’s just the way the entertainment-saturated culture of America is.
I don’t fit that culture. I don’t intend to fit it. I don’t like it. I think it grows out of a worldview with a very, very small and negligible God — if any. And I think it is rampant and damaging in the American church. I suspect that I walked into a set of expectations at that conference — given the way it had been flowing, and given the American culture of Nashville and the world. I walked into a set of expectations that were so different from my own, that I didn’t help people make the transition as well as I might have.