What Does It Feel Like to See the Beauty of Christ?
John Piper is a big advocate for seeing glimpses of the peculiar glory of Christ in Scripture. Those moments of discovery in his Bible are far more than intellectual discoveries. They are affectional — feeding within him his delight in God. So the question then becomes, well, John Piper, what does it feel like to see the beauty of Christ?
This bold question comes from a listener named Josephine. “Hello, Pastor John! I love to read my Bible every day and get to know God better. I have heard you talk about the importance of not just reading the Bible, but reading in such a way to see the peculiar glory of Christ shining from the pages into our eyes to stir our hearts. It’s a very unique type of reading requiring genuine faith, regeneration, and the power of the Spirit. But I don’t really know if or how or when this happens in my life.
“Sometimes I make discoveries in the text that really stir my heart. Sometimes I don’t. Can you bring us into your own Bible reading and articulate for me the difference between simply reading the Bible and those precious times in which you are met with the glory of Christ shining in the pages of Scripture? I presume this does not always happen? But what’s it like for you when it does?”
Okay. As risky as it is, I’ll try to give you a glimpse into this morning’s meeting with God in Scripture. I say it’s risky because our fallen, sinful heart — John Piper’s sinful heart — is so primed for pride that to speak of our own experiences almost inevitably passes over into boasting. As contradictory and insane as that is, such is the nature of our remaining corruption. But perhaps since you asked, the good may outweigh the risk in this case.
Preparing Our Hearts
One of the reasons we don’t meet God profoundly in his word as often as we would like is because our hearts are so unprepared and out of sync with the spiritual reality when we come. Wesley Duewel, in his book Let God Guide You Daily, said, “I have at times read as many as fifty chapters from God’s word before I was completely alone with God.”
“Our hearts are often so unprepared and out of sync with spiritual reality when we come to the word.”
Now, don’t hear me saying when I quote that here that we have a nice, neat daily prescription for how to get alone with God — namely, read fifty chapters of the Bible, and then you’ll be in tune. We all know that’s unrealistic, but I mentioned it for two reasons.
- I say it to point out the fact that we may be that out of sync spiritually and emotionally and psychologically with the Bible, so that when we read, our frame of mind and the disposition of our heart and the spiritual receptivity of our heart are so out of step with the Spirit of the passage that nothing happens.
- The other reason is to say that even though reading fifty chapters of the Bible every day is unrealistic, reading fifty chapters on a two-day retreat in solitude in a motel that your spouse gave you as a gift is not unrealistic. Have you ever pursued it? Have you ever asked for it? Have you ever gone that hard after God? So many people complain about God not meeting them, and they’ve never even conceived of what Wesley Duewel regularly does to find God in his word.
One of the ways that I seek to have my heart prepared for Scripture is to sometimes spend fifteen or twenty minutes reading a book by someone who I have learned over the years has seen more glory in the Scriptures than I have. They’re very good at showing it to me.
Their sight and their experience prepares me for my sight and my experience. Their taste prepares me for my taste. This morning, I read on page 159 of Volume I of the Works of John Owen these words. I’m sitting in my chair in complete solitude and quietness, and then I read this from Owen:
There’s more glory under the eye of God in the sighs, groans, and mournings of poor souls filled with the love of Christ, pursuing after the enjoyment of him according to his promises. He sees more glory in their fervent prayers for his manifestation of himself unto them in the refreshments and unspeakable joys which they have in his gracious visits and embraces of his love than in the thrones and diadems of all the monarchs on the earth. Nor will the poor sighing, groaning, seeking souls part with the ineffable satisfactions which they have in these things for all that is in the world or that the world can do for them or unto them.
Now, when I read that this morning, there rose up in my heart a strong, “Yes. Yes, Lord. Yes, I am sighing. I am groaning. I am mourning. I am longing for these enjoyments, for these refreshments, for these unspeakable pleasures, for these visits and embraces of the love of Christ. I want them more than I want all the world or what it can do for me.”
Cry Out to God
In the very longing and crying out, I tasted the love of Christ for me, the visit of Christ. Don’t you think that C.S. Lewis is absolutely right when he says that the perfect fullness of the enjoyment of Christ reserved for the future — that day when we meet him face to face, and all our sin and all the hindrances to joy are removed, as it says in 1 John 3:2, that perfect fullness of the enjoyment of Christ’s presence — is experienced really, substantively, authentically, spiritually in the very longings for it?
“If God only showed up once a year, it would be worth reading every day to get that taste of glory.”
It’s an artificial thing to separate our deepest yearnings and achings and longings and cryings for Christ from his presence, his sweetness, the tastes of his visits, and his love. That’s an artificial distinction.
The longings are themselves a sweet taste of the bread of heaven. The yearnings are themselves a sweet detection of the aroma of paradise. The inconsolable desires of your soul for Christ are themselves a divine work of the Holy Spirit communicating to you in advance some measure of the sweetness of Christ himself in heaven.
Not Afraid to Dwell
Then, having spent about twenty minutes reading John Owen, I turned to the next reading appointed in my pilgrimage through the Bible. I’m using the Discipleship Journal Reading Plan that gets me through the Bible in a year.
The next text appointed for me was Romans 9. I will tell you straight up that there were three other places appointed for me to read today: Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Matthew. I did not read them this morning. I will do that this evening.
God met me in Romans 9 in such a way that I felt that to walk away from Romans 9 to Deuteronomy or Matthew or Psalms would be to walk away from God’s work in my life.
Now, this is a very familiar chapter to me. I have read Romans 9 a hundred times, and I wrote a big book on the first 23 verses of this chapter. It is the curse of fallen man that familiarity breeds contempt, or at least indifference. I am not immune to being callous to Scripture because I know it so well, but God had prepared me through his servant John Owen.
Struck By Glory
My heart was in a frame, a disposition, a tenderness, a susceptibility, a readiness. For some reason, and I do not know why, when I got to verses 14, 15, and 16, God showed up in an unusual way. You’re right; this does not happen every time I read my Bible.
“We cannot separate our yearnings for Christ from his presence — his sweetness, the tastes of his visits, and his love.”
Now, this next sentence I’m going to say really matters, because so many people say, “Well, what’s the use of daily reading, then?” Even if God only shows up once a year, it’s worth a year’s reading for. I mean, if he showed up once a year, it would be worth reading every day, wouldn’t it? I mean, come on. Are we real or are we fake?
This morning I read this:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:14–16)
Paul is raising the issue of God’s justice here because of his choosing Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau before they were born or had done anything good or evil (Romans 9:6–12). Paul’s answer is, “No, God is not unjust in his choice of one over the other.” Why? Because “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy. I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” This is God talking.
In other words, “Because I do what I do in freedom, my doings, my choosings, are not governed by forces outside of me, John Piper. I am God. This is part of my glory as God.” It is always just for God to uphold God and to act as God in his glory.
Then, he interprets what he means when he says that in Exodus, and says, “My doings, my choices, are not owing to man’s willing or running, not man’s choices, not man’s deeds, but are owing to me, the one who has mercy.”
All I know to say is for the next half hour or so, my mind moved back and forth, back and forth, through Romans 9 as the absolute freedom and righteousness of God washed over me, subdued me, broke my presumptions, shut my mouth, filled me with thankfulness, caused me to weep for lost people very close to me, gave me sweet assurance that God can do anything he pleases in this world in absolute freedom and sovereignty and that therefore, there is hope.
So much more happened, but time is up, and I hope that gives you a little glimpse into what you were asking about.