Delighting in God as the Fountain of Love

SEMBEQ Conference | Montreal

I said I left out the seventh argument from my eight that I was giving you as to why we should pursue our joy in God all the time, but now I want to talk about that seventh argument. The argument is that if you don’t find your joy in God, pursue your joy in God, and seek to maximize your joy in God, you won’t be able to love other people. To that end, let’s go to 2 Corinthians 8. I find here in 2 Corinthians 8:1–4 a definition of love that makes joy essential to it.

What Paul is doing in chapters eight and nine of 2 Corinthians is seeking to motivate the Corinthians to give generously to the collection that he’s taking for the saints in Jerusalem who are poor. He’s trying to motivate practical, sacrificial love in the form of money being given by the saints in Corinth, and the way he does it is by pointing to the way the Macedonians (the Christians who lived near Thessalonica and Philippi) have already been generous. What we have here is a description of how generosity was produced in the Macedonian church.

In Pursuit of Radical Love

If you pastors, like me, want to produce a generous church, not only that we can pay our bills, but that they are overflowing in love to the community, reaching out, meeting needs, denying themselves, and sacrificing so that other people can be helped and their suffering can be minimized, then listen carefully:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…

The first thing to observe is that the grace of God arrived in Macedonia. It was shown. It came down. Something amazing happened. The grace of God worked in Macedonia. Then 2 Corinthians 8:2–4 says:

…for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.

So what happened when grace was shown in verse one was not that afflictions went away; afflictions increased. And poverty didn’t go away; it had afflictions added to it. Did you see that in verse two? It says, “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.”

Let’s get the picture. Paul arrives in Macedonia (around Philippi and Thessalonica), and he preaches the gospel. Lydia gets saved, the jailer gets saved, and a church is born. Over time, great grace is manifested in the Macedonian church. The effect of this is that many of the people, while they were in poverty, had affliction added to it because now they are Christians and are being persecuted. So there is poverty with affliction added on top of it. In spite of poverty, and in spite of affliction, verse two says there was abundance of joy. Do you see that? There was an abundance of joy.

Don’t ever teach your people that when gospel arrives, it first takes away poverty and then it takes away affliction so that joy can happen. That’s not what happens. In the early church, there was much poverty, there was much added affliction, and in spite of it, there was abundance of joy. Why? Because the joy was in the grace that was coming down, not in the relief that was happening in their circumstances. This was joy in God. This was joy in hope. This was joy in the gospel, in Jesus, and in a new fellowship. And what did it produce?

In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

It brought them to give generously. In fact, verse four stretches us to the breaking point in believing what happened there because Paul says they were “begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” Paul was probably saying to them, “You’ve given enough. You are poor, and you’re under affliction. That’s enough.” And they said, “Please. Please, take another offering from us.” That’s what happened.

The Origin of Love

Where did that come from? It came from joy; the abundance of joy in spite of persecution, in spite of poverty, was overflowing in them saying: “Please, take our money. We don’t have much, but take what we have to the poor in Jerusalem.” That’s what the grace of God had done in their lives. The reason I call this love is because of 2 Corinthians 8:8, which says:

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.

So when I see the word love in verse eight, and Paul says, “I want your love, Corinthians, like the Macedonians, to be genuine,” then I know that what he’s talking about in verses one to three is love.

So if I gave you a quiz right now, and the quiz said, “Define love in terms of its origin in 2 Corinthians 8:1–3?” What would your one sentence definition of love be? I’ll give you mine: Love is the grace-enabled impulse to expand your joy in God by extending it to others in practical ways, like kindness and generosity.

Here’s a simpler way to say it: Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. If you accept that definition on the basis of those verses, you’ve already agreed with my argument number seven, because if that’s where love comes from, and you say to me, “I will not pursue that joy. I will not make that joy a priority in my life,” then you have just cut the nerve of love. If you say that joy doesn’t matter, you’re saying the overflow of it doesn’t matter. There are so many people who try to define love so that it does not require joy in God.

There’s a reason for that. The reason is that they want love to be more in their control. Joy doesn’t seem to be in our control. It goes and comes, it rises and falls, but we need to be able to control love because we’re commanded to do it. So it has to be defined in terms of decisions.

Imperative Emotions

I had a teacher in college, Millard Erickson, who wrote a big book called Christian Theology, and lots of other books. He taught me a class on apologetics. In 1967, we read lots of bad books to learn from him how to respond to bad books. One of the bad books we read was Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. That was not a good book. Erickson took the role of Joseph Fletcher in the class, and we had to interact and try to show why it wasn’t biblical. That’s the way he taught us, and it was very helpful.

When I read Joseph Fletcher I was 21 years old. I didn’t know much, but I had grown up in a home saturated with the Bible. I didn’t think in theological categories, but I had a lot of Bible in my head, which is a wonderful way to grow up. So I was sitting there reading and making comments, and this was one of Joseph Fletcher’s arguments about love: Love has to be defined in terms of actions, not emotions, because love is commanded in the Bible and you can’t command the emotions, but you can command actions.

All of us 21-year-olds were impressed with that argument. We thought, “Wow. That’s right. Emotions just come and go. You can’t can’t control the emotions very well, but you sure should be able to control love, so he must be right.” But I remember looking at that and thinking, “There’s something fishy about this. There’s something that’s not right about this.” I couldn’t put my finger on what wasn’t right about it, but that’s the value of growing up in a home where you’re just full of Bible — your intuitions are better than your head sometimes. You can’t quite name the problem but your intuitions are so biblically informed that you know something is wrong. I knew something was wrong with that argument.

Now I know what’s wrong with it. What’s wrong with it is that one of the premises is false. His argument went like this:

  1. Love is commanded.
  2. You can’t command emotions.
  3. Therefore, love must be an action, not an emotion.

The second premise is false. The reason I felt it was false that you can’t command the emotions was because in my head, deep down in my subconscious, were all these memories of Bible verses where emotions are commanded. I’ll just list a few.

Gratitude is commanded. You know that’s an emotion, don’t you? If your 10-year-old son gets a Christmas present and he opens it, and it’s a pair of black stockings, he will not feel the emotion of gratitude. But you can tell him, “Say thank you to your grandmother.” And he can say, “Thank you, grandmother, for my socks.” Now, that’s very different from gratitude. That’s obedience to mother. Gratitude is something that rises spontaneously in the heart when you get a red fire truck, or whatever you wanted. Gratitude is commanded in the Bible. Be thankful in all things (1 Thess 5:18), even though it’s an emotion you cannot control. Either it’s there or it’s not there, and you can’t make it be there. It’s commanded to be there, when God gives you good things.

Hope is commanded. Set your hope fully on the grace that is to be revealed to you (1 Peter 1:13). Joy is commanded, as we just saw in the previous session, and joy is an emotion. Sorrow is commanded — “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That is not a command to be a hypocrite. That’s a command to feel compassion when people are hurting, and you can’t make yourself feel compassion. If you’re not a compassionate person, you can’t obey that command and you sin.

Fear is commanded. We are commanded to fear in Romans 11:17. Contentment is commanded, as Hebrews 13:5 says: “Be content with what you have.” If you’re not content, you can’t make yourself content by snapping your finger. The list goes on and on.

So, premise number two in Fletcher’s argument is false. The premise is that you can’t command the emotions. Here’s the reason God has a right to command the emotions: God can command anything to exist which ought to exist. God is just, and God is right to command that anything happens that ought to happen. We ought to be grateful, we ought to have hope, we ought to rejoice, we ought to sorrow with those who sorrow, we ought to have compassion, we ought to fear, and we ought to be content with what we have. If we don’t, we’re sinning. Sin is the absence of proper emotions and the actions that flow from them.

Willpower Religion

So many churches completely de-emotionalize the Christian life. They just strip the emotions out of the Christian life to make it manageable. Do you know where that comes from? Let’s get theological and controversial for a minute. It comes from Arminianism. A Calvinist, in his very soul, believes that God requires of us what we cannot produce: Faith. We can’t produce it because we’re dead. We are dead in trespasses and sins according to Ephesians 2:4–5, which says:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…

The first little cry of a newborn baby is, “I believe you.” We don’t perform the, “I believe you,” and then get made alive. Dead people don’t do anything. So Calvinists have no problem with this. Calvinists can take the Bible as it stands with all of its mystery and embrace it, whereas the Arminian comes with this impulse: “God can’t require of me what I can’t produce. That’s unjust.” Well, that’s false. And so, Arminianism functions to strip the Christian life of anything we can’t produce. It turns the Christian life into a willpower religion. It says, “I’ve got my free will and what I can do. I’m responsible to do it, and I can do it. Just tell me to do it, God, and I can do it.”

If that’s what you turn the Christian life into, the Bible is going to be ripped to shreds. It’s so full of commands of things you can’t do that if you neglect these things you will not be able to make any sense out of it. So I hope that you will abandon that impulse and go to God and say, “Everything worthwhile that you require of me, I cannot perform. Command what you will, and grant what you command,” as Jesus said in John 15:5:

Apart from me you can do nothing.

It’s like a branch and a vine. If you pull the branch off there’s no fruit. If you put it in, sap will flow and fruit will be produced. We can’t perform the emotions we’re required to without him.

More than Affection, Deeper than Action

Therefore, Fletcher is wrong because his premise is wrong. But let’s be careful here. Maybe you thought I was going to argue that love is an emotion. Well, it’s not that simple, is it? Love is clearly more than an emotion. The Bible talks about deeds that are love. For example, Matthew 5:45 says:

[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

We should be like our Father and love our enemies. So love includes practical deeds of helpfulness. James and John get upset with professing Christians who see needs and just say, “Be blessed, be filled, go your way” (James 2:16, 1 John 3:17), but don’t do anything. So love clearly includes doing something to help people. If they’re hungry, feed them. If they’re thirsty, give them something to drink. If they don’t have clothes, clothe them. If they don’t have homes, house them. If they’re in prison, visit them. If they’re sojourners, fold your arms around them and get them into your community. Do something.

The problem I have is that there are so many people who want to say that doing is all that love is. Do you know the biblical problem with that? First Corinthians 13 is the great love chapter, but 1 Corinthians 13:3 goes like this:

If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

You mean I could give all my money away to the needy and give my body to be burned, yet still not be a loving person? Yes, that’s what Paul says. Therefore, love cannot be defined in terms of mere deeds. In regard to deeds, they don’t get any better than that. Giving all your money away and laying your life down is the best deed you could do for somebody. If you can do that and still not be a loving person, you cannot define love in terms of mere deeds. You must add something to it.

And I’m getting that something from 2 Corinthians 8:2. Do you see where I’m going? What is the something that’s missing when you just do deeds? Answer: Joy in God as the overflow. So if you just cut that out and say, “You don’t have to know God, you don’t have to love God, you don’t have to delight in God, and you don’t have to have any overflow of joy in him, you just need the deeds and you’re a loving person,” I would reply that 1 Corinthians 13:3 says there are going to be a lot of people in hell who loved like that. For them, God didn’t count and delighting in him didn’t count; horizontal social ethics were what counted. It was atheism in the form of good deeds.

So I’m not going to go there. I’m not going to preach that. I do not want to join ranks with the liberals in my city who deny the deity of Christ, deny the authority of Scripture, deny the resurrection, and are constantly talking about social ethics in the name of love. They’re the ones that get in the newspaper because their theology is totally believable by unbelievers. I’m just not going to go there. I’m not interested in being that kind of a person because those guys are helping people perish. They’re helping people die in the name of homes for the homeless, in the name of meeting the needs of people who are on drugs, and so on.

Sound Doctrine, True Compassion

Here’s the deal with regard to social ethics. We evangelicals have to do better than they do, not worse. If love is not mere deeds, but rather deeds from the overflow of joy in God, why should ours be any less? One of the sad things over the last 50 or 60 years is that the evangelicals looked at the social gospel and the liberals, who were pursuing social ethics but didn’t believe in the gospel of Christ crucified and risen, and they shrunk back from social engagement because they didn’t want to identify with the liberal theology. Isn’t that sad?

Rather, why shouldn’t we be the ones who want to alleviate as much suffering as possible? I have people in my church who are gung-ho evangelists that go out on Tuesday nights, cold turkey, getting in people’s faces, talking about Jesus and trying to get them saved. Then I have these other people who think that is totally non-relational and unhelpful, and they want to have relationships and get into peoples lives, meet their needs, relieve their suffering, and eventually get to the gospel and share it. Those are two kinds of people, right?

I love both of these groups. I really do. I love what these folks are doing on Tuesday night, and I love this relational orientation over here. I think those are two great ways to do evangelism. But the way I put it is like this: “Don’t we all agree that the calling of the Christian in a world of pain is to relieve as much suffering as we can, especially eternal suffering?” That tends to pull them together because if you really do want to relieve people of eternal suffering, and you have a good heart about that, you will probably want to minimize, if you can, their present suffering. And if you really care about people who have present suffering but you are indifferent to whether they suffer eternally, you don’t really care about them.

So I’m pushing these people together to say love cares about all suffering relief because Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12). When you get a very severe pain, say in your hip or heart or chest or head, if you knew somebody could help you feel relief and they didn’t do it, how would you feel about them? You wouldn’t call that love because you want relief. Who doesn’t want relief? If it’s in our power to help bring relief, what a beautiful statement about God’s compassion that is. All that is on 2 Corinthians 8:1-4. Let me take you further down into chapter nine.

God Loves a Cheerful Giver

Now, this is a very familiar verse. It’s 2 Corinthians 9:7. He’s still on the Corinthians to motivate them to give to the poor in Jerusalem:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

So how does he feel about givers who aren’t cheerful? He doesn’t say, but it doesn’t sound good. God loves a cheerful giver. Here’s the way I put it. If somebody says, “The giving of love is the simple, disciplined, sacrificial, risk-taking performance of good for another by helping them — that’s the giving that God requires. The cheer or the joy doesn’t matter.” A person who says that is, in my judgment, saying, “This verse is hogwash and unimportant. It shouldn’t be in the Bible. God really doesn’t mean what he says here.”

Rather, what this verse says is that God loves to see people who do that sacrificial giving joyfully, which means chapter eight verse two was not taken out of context. He is still on this issue of joy.

Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. That’s what 2 Corinthians 9:7 says. God loves a cheerful giver. He doesn’t just love givers. At my church, I don’t want people to give if they don’t delight in God. That’s not what worship is for. I’m not into building and running a church on hypocritical gifts or carnal gifts or unbelieving gifts. I want to say, “Keep your money.” Instead, I want to preach in such a way, live in such a way, and lead in such a way, that this church so enjoys God, that when they write the check for the poor or for the budget, they write it gladly. That would be obedience.

God Loves a Cheerful Pastor

Let’s go to 1 Peter 5:2. These next two texts are a special word for pastors. I’m still arguing that you can’t be a loving person if you forsake, or try to forsake, the pursuit of your own joy in God. If you say that the pursuit of joy in God is neither here nor there, it’s just icing on the cake, and it doesn’t have any essential bearing on my life of love, I’m saying you will not become a loving person. That’s my argument. So here’s another support for that in relation to pastors:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly

Pastors, is that not a restatement of 2 Corinthians 9:7 applied to pastoral ministry? Second Corinthians 9:7 said, “God loves a cheerful giver. Do not give under constraint or reluctantly. Cheerfully give.” Here he says, “Pastors, exercise oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly. Don’t do it for shameful gain. Don’t do it just to make a living, but do it eagerly.”

Now, consider that word eagerly. Isn’t that the same idea as cheerfully? Can you be eager in the ministry and not joyful in the ministry? Here is my paraphrase: God loves a cheerful pastor. I think that’s exactly what 1 Peter 5:2 is saying. I’ll tell you why that is essential to love from the book of Hebrews.

Indispensable Joy

In the last 26 years, this has proved to be one of the most powerful pastoral exhortations for my life, because here’s the question it answers: Does a pastor have to pursue his joy in order to be a loving shepherd? The answer is a resounding yes. Hebrews 13:17 says:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.

Think backward through this text. When he says, “That would be of no advantage to you,” the issue is focused on what will be an advantage to the people. That’s love. As a pastor, I want to be an advantage to my people. I want to bless them and help them and live and preach and lead in such a way that they get help from me. I don’t want to be a disadvantage to my people. I want to be an advantage to my people.

Well, this verse says something will be of no advantage to them, and what is it? If I don’t do my work with joy, but do it with groaning, I will be of no advantage to them. He is saying, “Let them do this with joy, not with groaning, because if you switch it around and do it with groaning and no joy, that will be of no advantage to them.” Do you see the implication? If you would love your people, if you would be an advantage to them, you must pursue your joy in ministry. This verse says if you don’t pursue your joy in ministry, you don’t pursue the advantage of your people.

You know this is true if you are honest and think about all the sick churches that you know of that have sick pastors. What produces sick churches? There are many things, and I don’t want to blame the pastor for everything, but many sick churches are produced by pastors who don’t understand this verse. Their whole ministry is conceived of as a way they make their living, or as being under constraint because God is making them do this, or as not being able to do anything else but this, or as hating the work but their kids are in school in that place, or whatever else. They’re not being driven by the thought, “I love God and his work. I love this, even the pain of it, even the late nights of it, even the hospital calls, and even with the breaking marriages. I love to be here doing this work. This is my joy under God.”

A pastor that feels that way will probably not have a sick church. Something will be happening. An advantage will come to the people. They will feel something. And you know what they’ll feel? The truth of the gospel. The truth of the gospel will be embodied by their pastor. Pastors who do not delight in God and then overflow into the good of their people are a living contradiction of the gospel. They are saying, Sunday after Sunday, “Why would you come here? I find this boring, why don’t you? I wish I weren’t in this job, why would you want to be in this church?” That really does come through. I’ve been to churches where I just wonder, “Why does anybody come here? It looks like this man does not at all want to be here.” That’s very sad. I hope you see this in Hebrews 13:17.

I admit this is talking to the congregation and how the congregation can help their pastor do that with joy. So all you who are not pastors, read this for yourself. However, the implication for pastors is that if you groan in the ministry all the time, if this is just one mega burden that you can hardly stand, then you should probably do your people a favor and either have a revolution in your experience, or do another kind of work.

Looking to the Reward

Let’s go to Acts 20:35. There are only two or three sayings of Jesus outside the Gospels and this is one of them. Paul is talking to the elders from Ephesus, saying goodbye to them and giving them final exhortations. Listen to the way he exhorts them in verse 35:

In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ’It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

You get more blessing when you give than when you receive. You get more deep, spiritual satisfaction in God when you give than when you receive. This is an argument for being a generous person because you want to be more happy, is it not?

Here’s the sealer of this verse. What’s the really offensive word in verse 35? Before I tell you what I think it is, let me illustrate a setting here. Thirty-two years ago I was in Germany, and all I was doing for three years was reading my Bible and reading highly technical scholarly literature about love, because my doctoral dissertation was called Love Your Enemies: Jesus’s Love Command in the Synoptic Gospels and Early Christian Ethical Teaching. That was the title of my dissertation.

So day after day after day, all I did was read articles and books about how love looked, and how it was motivated in the first century and in the Bible. Do you know what I found? Ethical teacher after ethical teacher argued that if you do an act of kindness for the benefit you get from it, you ruin it ethically and turn it into selfishness. They said love may not be motivated by any desire for reward. If you desire reward you are not loving people, you’re just loving you. That is all over the literature.

There I was, 26 or 27 years old, back on my mother’s knee thinking that didn’t smell right. Something was wrong with that. The thing that’s wrong with it is that Jesus motivates love with rewards everywhere, like here in Acts 20:35. Do you know the most controversial word in verse 35? It’s the word remember. Let’s read it again:

In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’

You get more blessing when you love and give than when you just try to use other people for your own benefit. You get blessing when you love people. He is saying, “Remember that.” Do you know what all these ethical teachers would have to say? They would say, “Forget that. Forget that. That’s very harmful information. That is going to ruin your motives. Get that out of your head.” They all would say, “Of course reward comes when you love, but you can’t do it for that reason. Keep that out of your head. Don’t let it be part of your motivation.” But Paul says, “Keep it in your head. Keep it in your head.”

Remember the Blessing of Giving

Why does he say that? I’ll give an illustration. Let’s say it’s 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. on Monday night (my day off) after I fly away from here, having spoken nine times with six Q&As. Let’s say I go home and put my feet up, and the phone rings. I’m a pastor. That’s my job. I was just settling in, reacquainting with my wife, and I’ve got a good book in my hand, but there’s a crisis somewhere. Almost everything in me says, “I don’t want to do this. I want to rest.” That’s not the most loving response. Evidently, the call came to me because others are not available.

And so I say, “Okay, where is it? Okay, Regions Hospital. Thank you. I’ll be right there.” Then I look at my wife and say, “I need to go to the emergency room over at Regions Hospital. I’ll see you a little bit.” Noelle is great about this. She never gets upset. I’m the one that gets upset. So I’m in the car and it’s about nine miles over there to Regions Hospital. Now, what should I do in the car? What should I do with this verse? Forget it or remember it?

I should remember it. So I pray, “Lord, please, help me to remember that if I really reach out, care, love, and feel some sense of affection and compassion here, blessing is going to be all over me and my marriage in this. I’m going to come home so full of God, so full of joy, so full of you; please, don’t let me forget that it’s a blessed thing to serve other people.” It’s a blessed thing to pour your life out when you’re tired. That's the way Jesus lived all his life. He was just always exhausted, because he loved other people so much.

Is It Selfish to Seek Joy?

I’ll say one last thing before I stop. Somebody could legitimately ask, “Let me get this straight; why isn’t it selfish to think that way? How is it not just using the person in the emergency room to make you happy, if that’s the way you’re thinking?” The reason is this: The joy that I want to maximize in going there is a joy that will be maximized if I can include them in it. I want to know God in my drive to the hospital and have something spiritually happen to me as a pastor, so that there begins to well up inside of me an abundance of joy, ready to overflow. The overflow is intended to draw them into it.

Let’s say the person I’m going to visit had a heart attack, and the wife is there and she’s scared to death. He’s a 42-year-old man, and he just keeled over. She doesn’t know if he’s going to come out of it. They’ve got three kids and she’s there, and her faith is wobbling. What’s my goal there? My goal is to spill over with the all-sufficiency of God, who’s meeting my tiredness right now, and then spill over onto her to lift her up, put a rock under her feet, give her something to stand on with the word of God, and get her with me under this waterfall of grace, which will make my joy bigger and her joy bigger, and maybe in that faith, we just might pray him through this.

So it isn’t selfish. It is hedonistic. I want my joy to be bigger. If I were to stay at home and say, “To hell with the folks at Regions Hospital,” my comfort would go up, but my joy would go down. So I’m dragging myself into the car and I’m remembering, “It is more blessed to give. I’m out for blessing tonight, Lord. Oh, fill me up, I pray, so that I can not use this person, but include them.”

All that was to argue point number seven, that if you say joy doesn’t matter, you won’t be a loving person.