Welcome to a new week on the Ask Pastor John podcast. Today’s question comes to us from Rasmus, who lives in Denmark. “Hello, Pastor John! I love the truth that the fullest joy possible is to be found in God. But there’s one angle to it that I quite don’t understand: My question is, when is this true? If I chose not to deny myself and follow Jesus, would I have more joy in this life? Or in other words, can we say that the Christian life is the most joyful life here and now? Or do we as Christians deny ourselves the greatest possible joy in this life for greater joy in the life to come? There are verses pointing in this direction, such as 1 Corinthians 15:19: ‘If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.’ But there are also verses talking about the joy in God being greater than the riches on earth, such as Psalm 4:7: ‘You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.’ What do you think?”
There are two things that we need to grasp about Christian joy in this fallen world that are going to help resolve his paradox. First, Paul calls our joy, in Galatians 5:22, the fruit of the Holy Spirit — “The fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy. . . .” Christian joy is qualitatively different from the joy and happiness of the world. The joy of the Christian is rooted in our spiritual taste and spiritual sight worked by the Holy Spirit for the all-satisfying beauty of God in Christ, especially in the great work of the gospel. You can see that in 2 Corinthians 3:18.
In 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, Paul says that we behold the glory of the Lord. He says that the Lord shines into our heart to give the light of the gospel of glory — the good news of the glory of Christ. That’s what we see spiritually by the work of the Spirit. This is the deepest root of our joy as a Christian. God frees us from being blinded by the glitzy, fleeting, deceptive pleasures of this world.
It frees us from being deceived into thinking that the God-ignoring, cotton-candy pleasures of the body and the mind are the most satisfying food of the human soul. They’re not. God give us eyes (Ephesians 1:17). He enlightens the eyes of our heart to see what is really substantial and rich and deep and beautiful and satisfying and eternal — namely, the beauty and worth of all that God is for us in Christ.
“The God-ignoring, cotton-candy pleasures of the body are not the most satisfying food of the human soul.”
In the new birth, the Holy Spirit give us new taste buds on the tongue of our soul so that, as 1 Peter 2:3 says, we taste the goodness of the Lord. We taste the sweetness of forgiveness of sins. We taste the removal of our guilt. We taste the removal of God’s wrath and our condemnation.
This is the precious experience of being loved by God and God being for us, not against us. We taste the friendship of the Lord and we feel a hundred spiritual pleasures day after day as God promises his sweet promises to satisfy our days. Promises to help us, protect us, comfort us, and keep us until we’re finally home.
The world doesn’t know anything of that. They don’t. They don’t know any of it. All that is a miracle. All that is made spiritually tasted by the work of the Spirit in our hearts. The joy of the Christian is qualitatively unique and distinct from the joy and pleasures and happiness of the world — none of which are based on any spiritual sight or taste of God’s glory.
Fullness of Joy
The joys of the world do not have God at the bottom; therefore, they’re not able to satisfy the human soul. They’re not able to last beyond this world; therefore, they are going to be profoundly disappointing. But Christian joy has God at the bottom, and therefore is utterly unique and cannot be shaken. It can’t be taken away at death and is utterly satisfying, like Jesus said in John 6:35: “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Our hearts were made for God.
God created us to find our deepest, longest, eternal joy in knowing and treasuring him; therefore, Christian joy is better than the joy of the world. That’s what is meant by Psalm 4:7, which says, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” More in the sense of something better and deeper and longer. Psalm 16:11 says in God’s presence is this fullness of joy — pleasures forevermore. This is a pleasure that the world has never tasted.
“The joys of the world do not have God at the bottom; therefore, they’re not able to satisfy the human soul.”
It’s not a matter of quantitative comparison; it’s a matter of qualitative — infinitely qualitative — difference. This is supernatural. This is given by the Holy Spirit. It’s the fruit of the Spirit in our lives enabling us to taste and see the beauty and worth of the Son of God.
“We have seen his glory,” says John, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). That’s the first thing that we need to grasp about Christian joy. It is a fruit of the Spirit, and therefore, it is qualitatively different from the joy of those who do not know God. They don’t believe the gospel. They don’t have the Holy Spirit.
Christians Will Suffer
Now, here’s the second thing we need to grasp about Christian joy. It regularly brings with it affliction and trouble and sorrow, more sorrow than we would’ve had in this life if we had chosen not to follow Jesus. Paul says in Acts 14:22, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” He doesn’t say that about unbelievers. He says that about believers. You can avoid these by avoiding the kingdom.
Jesus does not promise his followers that life gets easier in this world. In fact, he defines discipleship as taking up a cross and denying ourselves. This means that there are many kinds of earthly pleasures that Christians will forego by choice and many sorrows that will come to us, some by choice, but many not by choice. The reason for that is Christians are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
This inevitably means a life of sorrow because we care far more as Christians for the outcome of other people’s lives than we would have if we were not Christians because that’s what Jesus said to do. He said love them as you’d love yourself. When we see these lives ruined by sin — some close to us and some not so close to us — it touches us more deeply than it would if we had chosen not to follow Christ. Therefore, Christians will inevitably have more sorrow than if we had not followed Christ.
Not a Fraud
Now, those are the two things we need to see. Now, let’s put those together and ask about these two texts that Rasmus has asked about. Paul say in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Now, why would that be true?
Well, it will be true because if Christ is not raised, then the first fact that I mentioned about Christian joy — namely, that it is qualitatively distinct and better — is just false. It’s just wrong. We’ve lived a life of utter delusion as Christians if Christ is not raised from the dead.
“Being a Christian brings more sorrow than we would’ve had in this life if we had chosen not to follow Jesus.”
The whole message of the New Testament collapses, including all of its teachings about joy, all of its teachings about the Holy Spirit. It’s all bogus and everything I just said was chatter, chatter, chatter. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just lips flapping in the wind if Christ is not raised from the dead. We based our life on a fraud.
Second, if Christ is not raised from the dead, then we Christians have taken on ourselves a lot of sorrow and affliction that we could have avoided if we had just avoided Christ. First Corinthians 15:19 is true if we, in Christ, have hoped only in this life. In other words, if there’s no future life, if Christ isn’t raised from the dead, if the whole thing is a sham, then we are of all people most to be pitied. But Christ has been raised from the dead, the gospel is true, the Holy Spirit has been poured out, our eyes have been opened to see the truth and worth and beauty of Christ in the gospel.
All the joy that we know as Christians is supernatural and distinct from the joy of the world because it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit. It has the glory of God at the bottom of it all. The sorrows that we take on, because we are Christians, are indeed more sorrows that the world embraces, but they are temporary.
With Christ’s help, the yoke is easy and the burden is light. These sorrows will pass away at the end of our lives here. Our joy will be perfected, and it will be plain that our joy was better and deeper and longer than the joys of unbelievers.