Go Deep in His Greatness

How a Pastor Keeps His Joy in God

Leicester Minister's Conference | Leicester, England

Since this is my last time speaking to you, I want to thank you so much for being a responsive group and an affirming group to me, and again for allowing me to come. It’s been a great privilege. My regret is that just about this time in a conference we’re close enough that we begin to understand one another and good things could start to happen, and then we have to go home. Well, that’s the way life is, but the Lord will turn it all for good, as we love and trust him.

Spreading a Passion

My mission has been to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through your ministries and your churches and your missionary efforts. My angle on this effort to spread a passion for the supremacy of God has been the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I’ve tried to unpack the implications of that for worship on the first night and holiness or radical obedience on the second night. And we could do it in relation to many other things, as I’ve tried to do in everything I write.

Except tonight, I didn’t want to do that, but rather step back and ask the question, all right, if that’s true, what kind of preacher must you be? Or really, more practically, how do you become and remain the kind of person who might preach in such a way as to not only make God supreme but portray him so alluringly that you wean people off the breast of sin and onto God as the one who satisfies their deepest longings? What kind of preacher can do that? I can give a summary answer. I’ve already hinted at it.

The answer is that we must go deep in our grasp of the greatness of God. We must be passionate in our love for the glory of God. We must be unwaveringly confident in the sovereign triumph of God. We must have a God-entranced view of all things, so that from the path of the electron to the paths of the galaxies, we believe everything in life — past, present, future, seen, unseen, in heaven, on the earth, under the earth — has to do with God, as its ultimate governor and goal. We must be men who are besotted by God from the crown of our head to the bottom of our feet. Or to use Paul’s language in that great prayer that I revert to again and again at the end, we must seek to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge and be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19).

All the Fullness of God

I heard a charismatic named Jack Hayford at Lausanne II in Manila deliver a message in the late 1980s, which I thought was one of the best efforts to find a bridge between these large, massive groups of Christianity. And he said, “Maybe we could drop that word and use the word plerōmatics,” taking the word from Ephesians 3:19, where it says, “Lord, grant me to be filled with the fullness of God.” And he said, “I wonder if there wouldn’t be people who could fellowship around the passion to be filled with all the fullness of God, whatever that text means.” I like that. I find in my own city that when we have prayer gatherings, it’s the people with a passion for the plerōma of Ephesians 3:19 with whom I resonate in prayer. It’s a remarkable thing.

And that would be for people who are non-charismatics and for people who are charismatics. Because it seems to me that if you take that prayer in your hand — what Paul prays Ephesians 3:14–19, which terminates on God and his fullness, whatever that means (and I think it’s the same as Ephesians 5:18 probably, which says, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit”) — and you can pray that we might be filled with all the fullness of God, surely you would find yourself in deep, deep sympathies with a broad range of godly people today. We must be that kind of person, I think, in order to unpack the beauties of God. We must be filled with him, in other words, if we would overflow with him.

You must be so deep in God, passionate for God, confident in God, God-entranced, God-besotted, and full of wonder to know him and to make him known and to enjoy him. If you want to make God’s supreme for you people, he must be supreme for you. If you want them to taste and see that God is good, you must have tasted and seen that God is good. And that must be seen in a kind of what I’ve called expository exultation. That’s my definition of preaching — expository exultation. That’s what distinguishes it from teaching, because pastors preaching exults in the message. The word kerusso has the idea that the herald came to town and he said, “Hear ye. Hear ye. Hear ye. Thus sayeth the king. Either prepare to die or he’s coming and prepare to meet him.”

Then teaching was if somebody raised their hand and said, “Excuse me, what does ‘hear ye’ mean?” That’s teaching when you do that. And of course, preaching overlaps and you do both. But if you don’t have that expository exultation, the people will probably be taught and they will be bored, or they will be, if they’re a certain ilk, happy about being taught. But average people need more than information. They need exultation, and they are inspired by it.

Expository Exultation

I have a text tonight and we’ll be more textual tonight than ever. I invite you to take your Bible now, as I pose the question of what kind of preacher shall we be? Or more particularly, how should we become this kind of preacher? My text is Isaiah 12. I invite you to turn with me and I’ll read it, and then we’ll look at two or three verses of it together in some detail. This is Isaiah 12:1–6:

​​You will say in that day:
“I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
​​     O Lord, for though you were angry with me,
your anger turned away,
     that you might comfort me.

Behold, God is my salvation;
     I will trust, and will not be afraid;
for the Lord God is my strength and my song,
     and he has become my salvation.”

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
     call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
     proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
     let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
     for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

Drinking Deeply and Preaching Powerfully

Now I want you to see, especially, the connection between verses three and four. Isaiah 12:3 says, “With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” And then the effect — I think that’s the connection here — of this deep drinking at the wells of salvation is, “And you will say on that day, ‘Give thanks to the Lord.’” And what I want you to see is the relationship between drinking and saying, or drinking and preaching. The connection here clues us in to where preaching comes from.

We’ll notice the kind of preaching that comes here, but we’ll spend most of our time drinking at the wells of salvation. It says, “You will drink at the wells of salvation. You will draw water and you will say . . .” So when you stoop down to the wells and you drink, you stand up to say something. So the drinking yields a saying, and the saying is determined and fed and shaped by the drinking.

Wells of Salvation

Let’s focus for a moment on the “wells of salvation”, and then we’ll look at the kind of preaching that it yields there. Now, it’s remarkable to me that he says “wells” and not “well”. I think if it weren’t inspired, I would correct the theological student. I would say, “That’s misleading. You shouldn’t do that.” Let’s talk about the “well of salvation.” You don’t get salvation from any other place but one well, do you? So what’s this “wells”?

Well . . . that was wholly intentional. Everyone in this room knows that salvation is both past and present and future. You can think of the texts, can’t you? Ephesians 2:8 says, “By grace you have been saved (perfect tense) through faith . . .” And you can think of 1 Corinthians 1:18, which says, “To those who are to those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness. But to those who are being saved it is the power of God, or the wisdom of God.” So there’s a “have been saved” and there’s a “being saved”. And then your mind can go to Romans 13:11, which says, “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” but it isn’t here yet. So salvation has happened to us, salvation is happening to us, and salvation has not and yet will happen to us. And if we let ourselves think that broadly about it, it might not cause us to stumble, if we say there are wells of salvation. It says, “You will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

Wells in the Wilderness

Now here’s a picture in my head as I talk about imagination. This is the way I think as I’m preaching this. I think for my people, how can I get a picture out of this for them? And I picture the wilderness. You could picture, if you wanted to keep it biblical, the wilderness between the Red Sea and the promised land. And when you have a wilderness to cross, if it’s a long wilderness, which life is, you better have more than a well at the beginning and a well at the end, or more than just a well at the beginning or just a well at the end. There better be wells along the way to get you through the wilderness.

I believe that’s exactly the way we are to conceive of it here, that as we move through life as pastors, we’re moving through a wilderness and we need wells, and there are many. How many? Where are they? A clue is given in Isaiah 12:2, “Behold, God is my salvation.” So he’s talking in Isaiah 12:3 about wells of salvation (plural), and now he says, “God is my salvation.” Now how do you put those two together? God is my salvation, and I’m supposed to drink at wells of salvation. The way I put them together is to say that as I walk through life, anytime I pause and draw near and drink in God — his promises, his character, his perfections, his assurances, his beauty, and his glory — I’m at a well.

There are as many wells as there are meetings with God. That’s my interpretation of the connection here. There are many wells of salvation for you to drink from, as there are meetings with God in your life, and there should be many. You should practice the presence of them and drink from them hourly. Perhaps you’re at the point where you drink of them minute by minute. What a wonderful place to be if you can retreat to God moment by moment while still working on a sermon or fixing a car or relating to your wife. It’s a profound thing to be able to do that.

So salvation is not just past and it’s not just future, it is present. It is everywhere God is, because God is our salvation. And so to drink from these wells is to draw near to God.

The Space in Between

But now let me back up a moment and notice something else. If this is true, if the image is one of a wilderness and multiple wells, and if we’re weaving our way through life going from well to well, what about the spaces between the wells in life? Sometimes, owing to our own sin or to very harsh providences, the wells seem very far apart.

Is that a place where God is also making a preacher? In other words, the explicit connection is, we will drink and we will say from these wells. But I want to make a case for the fact that between the wells, something is happening for the sake of the saying as well. You’re going to have to tolerate that pun all night long, I suppose. That’s completely unintentional. So let me talk about the space between the wells.

There are a thousand ways God has to humble us in the ministry, to take the foam of shallowness off of us. I drive on a freeway to go to a school near our Church, and one time there was a huge advertisement for beer, one of these gigantic billboards we have. And there was a big beer stein that was really wide and really high with a big mound of white foam. And the beer was just a little, small place that it was advertising. In big print it said, “Free foam.” It comes with the beer. That’s my interpretation. It said, “Free foam.” I’ll tell you, did I make much of that the next Sunday. That’s exactly what the world offers — free foam. And many of our people eat it like it’s steak.

It’s the foam of television, the foam of money, and the foam of prestige. Life is just bubbles and it looks so substantial. It looks like cream cheese, but it’s just foam. It’s so deceptive. Now the way God gets the foam out of our lives is suffering. He blows the foam off with winds of adversity, and we need that to happen.

Now, this group doesn’t need it to happen as much as many other groups. You’re a serious lot, I have discerned. But perhaps even here it might be a relevant thing to say. It certainly is culturally, both I would think in Britain and I know in superficial America. You know what they say about evangelicalism in America. It’s 3000 miles wide and a millimeter deep. It is deeper than that, but it’s foam. It’s about two feet of foam, and then a millimeter of substance.

Well, let’s think about the way God does that, because it’s absolutely crucial that we not begrudge the wilderness between the wells. I’ve heard the wilderness being expressed here a lot. In the prayers it’s expressed, and everybody acknowledges that there’s the high and the low times in ministry. So I want to give a testimony for my life that will be very unique to me probably, but the principle behind it will, I hope, help you. I’m going to describe an extended time between wells.

Gripped by Fear

This story is told in the chapter on anxiety in my book Future Grace. If you want more detail, there it is, but I’ll give you more detail than you’ll probably even want here. When I was a teenager around the eighth grade, for some reason I had such nervousness about speaking in front of any group larger than two or three friends that I would freeze up. My throat would close up so that I would cut off. My hands would shake terribly. And it’s nothing like the jokes you make about people’s knees knocking. Everybody talks about nerves, but it was incapacitating. I couldn’t do it. Now, this was absolutely humiliating and I would weep over this.

My dad was an evangelist, so he was going away from home most of the time, and mother would deal with this with me and we would weep together. In the 10th grade, I can recall being required to give an oral book report, and I told Mr. Vermilion, “I can’t.” And he said, “Well, John, it’s part of the expectation of the course.” I said, “I can’t do it.” He gave me a C for the course, though I had done A work, and that was one of the little prices. I remember in the eighth grade holding a firm board because we were supposed to do a science project. I had to read one paragraph, which would take about 30 seconds. And I said, “If I write it down and I put it on a firm board, the paper won’t shake so bad and maybe I could get through it.”

So down the row we came. One student stood up, went to the front, and read their paragraph. The next student went to the front and read their paragraph. And about four people in front of me, my heart was beating so hard, I looked down and my shirt was moving, and I thought I was going to die. I got up and I walked out of the room, and went to the restroom and just wept. This is a trauma I dealt with between eighth grade and sophomore year in college. That’s roughly six years.

My mother took me to a psychologist. And the psychologist, after one hour of dealing with me, hinted that it was my mother’s fault. And I never went back to this psychologist because if there was one person who was helping me and getting me through life, it was my mother. So I was very angry at this psychologist and never darkened the door there again. It was awful. It was just terrible. I was asked to run for president of the class or vice president of the class and I said, “Thank you, no.” Because what do you have to do? Speeches. You have to give a little speech. And so I never was any kind of officer. And God mercifully, my sophomore year in college, did a miracle.

The Making of a Preacher

Now I’ll just give you a little piece of it so you’ll know how the transition happened. I was asked by the chaplain of Wheaton College in the summer of 1966, between my sophomore and junior year, to pray at the summer school chapel. And that’s a group that’s about this size, maybe 500 students during the summer. When he opened his mouth to ask me, a shudder went through my whole body. And I found myself saying, “How long does it have to be, the prayer?” He said, “Well, 15 seconds, 30 seconds, five minutes, whatever you want to pray. That’s up to you.” And I’m not sure why God moved me at that moment, but I said, “Yes.” And then began one of the greatest wrestling matches of my life with Almighty God.

This sounds like such a little thing, doesn’t it? It was not little to me, and I swore I would never make light of anybody’s struggle in this regard. Nothing makes me more nervous now than to watch a child choke up in front of people. I can hardly stand it. I just want to reach up there and rescue them. And I’ll never require it of any kid who doesn’t want to do it. I went out on front campus and for the first time in my life, I made a vow. I made a vow to the Lord. I said, “If you will get me through this on Wednesday, just get me through it so that my voice doesn’t completely stop, I will never say no to a speaking opportunity again out of fear.” That is a scary vow, and he did it and I think I’ve done it.

Now, what was God doing during that wilderness? I don’t mean to imply there were no wells, but it felt that way to this teenager. Do you know what I think God was doing? I think he was making a preacher. I think he clogged my mouth to fill my heart, because what I did in those six years was become very reflective and introverted and thoughtful in my struggle about why this was. And where was the God who did not answer the thousandth prayer of a preacher’s kid, who just wanted to read a note card in front of a Church training group and couldn’t do it?

That was the making of a preacher, the wrestlings. God spared me from the fast track of popularity. He spared me from that in order that he might make a reflective, introspective, thoughtful preacher, I believe. That’s my interpretation in retrospect of what happened. So I do believe he was answering my prayers in the way he had planned to answer them, and that I wouldn’t see it for about 20 years. Because when I finished college, there was no way I was going to be a preacher. That was not my plan at all — embarrassment, humiliation, loneliness, crying out to God, and the thought of being psychologically unfit.

It also carried over into dating. I never dated girls. My whole fear was that nothing would go right and that I would always say things wrong or choke up in the wrong situation. And I believe that God was doing something with this preacher’s kid. I ask myself now, what would I be like if there were no weekday afternoons when everybody else was off doing things, and I was sitting on the front lawn under the dogwood tree composing poems of gratitude to my mother for being the one person who understood?

Or what would I be if I had not at night gone out and looked over the Dellwood Valley to Piney Mountain, and listened to the trains off in the distance and wondered what it would be like to just get on one of those trains and disappear out of this church and this high school, where they wonder why the preacher’s kid can’t even read a note card. What would I have been like had I not lay there and wrestled through whether God is good or not?

I think that God was, between the wells, making a preacher, not an orator. I don’t think I’m an orator. I’m not a polished speaker, but I’m a thoughtful speaker. I reflect, I think, I ponder, I wonder, I feel, and I think that’s what the Lord was doing. I believe that those of you now who are between the wells should not begrudge this to the Lord, and that you should not lose the benefit through murmuring, but rather with your theology, which is perfectly suited to sustain you through these times, trust that God is making something significant through blowing the foam off of your life. He won’t let you be a frothy person. He won’t destroy your sense of humor and he won’t destroy your capacity for joy, but he’s not going to let you be superficial and glib and trite and trivial. But he will draw you down deep, so that when you get to the well, you will drink like very few people drink.

Afflicted for Your Comfort

Here’s the way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 1:6. He says:

If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer.

In other words, the Pauline theology of how a pastor becomes a comforter is by the time between the wells. He says, “If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort.” That’s because if you just take this one little piece of my adversity and what it has done for the way I assess people’s struggles with that particular thing, that text screams with relevance off the page to me. And you have your own stories you could tell about how God fitted you to identify with someone in your congregation.

Let’s use Richard Baxter as an illustration of the wider principle. Baxter, as I’m sure all of you know better than I do, suffered immensely in the ministry. The little I’ve read says that he had a constant cough, a frequent nose bleed, migraine headaches, digestive ailments, kidney stones, and gallstones. When he was 21, he said, “Seldom an hour goes by that I’m free from pain.” And then as you know, when he was 35 years old, he had a total collapse and became bedridden. He thought he was dead. He began to think about heaven. And lo and behold, he didn’t die. He preached for 40 years, but he wrote The Saints’ Everlasting Rest because of that.

That’s just an illustration in a nutshell of how thousands are ministered to and prepared to die by a man who had to be brought to his brink in order to see heaven and become a pastor, and what a pastor he was. He was the pastor’s pastor. There’s nothing like The Reformed Pastor for making everybody feel guilty and setting us on the road of love for our people. So between the wells, do not murmur. Avail yourself.

I look back and I wish I’d had the grace to be more patient in those days, and less involved in grumbling against the Lord and calling him into question, but I have learned a deep lesson. And it has helped me because in our Church we have walked through some incredibly deep waters. And I’m so thankful that God has done it.

World Evangelization

Now back to the wells. Isaiah 12:3–4 says, “With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation and you will say . . .” Before I analyze what the drinking is, what will you say? What kind of saying comes from drinking and walking between the wells, when you can’t be drinking? And there are two things I see here in Isaiah 12:4. The first thing is that you will become the kind of preacher who mobilizes your people for world evangelization. I wonder if you see that. Isaiah 12:3–4 says:

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day:

Give thanks to the Lord,
     call upon his name . . .

And here’s the next phrase:

Make known his deeds among the peoples,
     proclaim that his name is exalted.

That’s what you will say to your people or to anybody. You will drink at the wells of salvation and you will say, “Make known his deeds among the peoples” (Isaiah 12:4). You will become a world Christian pastor. You will say to your people, “There are three kinds of people in the world. 1) goers, 2) senders, 3) disobedient.” That’s all. There are only those three kinds. And if they don’t have a mindset of “I’m going or I’m sending,” they’re disobedient, because we are called upon to make known his deeds among the peoples. And there are several thousand peoples in the world who are not yet praising the name of our God. Calvinists of all people should be the most life-laying-down world missionaries, and they have been historically. We need to get over this awful apprehension, in America at least, that Calvinists somehow are not evangelistic or are not missions-oriented.

Well, here’s a text that says if you have a great sovereign God and you bend down to the fountain or the well and drink up his character and his supply, then one of the things you’re going to say when you stand up is, “Proclaim his name among the nations. Make his name known among the nations.”

God-Exalting Preaching

The second thing I see here is that your preaching will be very God-exalting, because it says you will say, “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name. Make known his deeds among the peoples.” And then it says, “Proclaim that his name is exalted” (Isaiah 12:4). So you say to your people, “Proclaim that the name of the Lord is exalted.” That’s what you tell them to say. Do you see the link here? You drink and say that they should say that he is exalted. That’s the flow of the text. Drink in God and then lift him up before your people, and then say to them, “Proclaim that his name is exalted.” That’s part of your proclamation. You proclaim that they should proclaim.

So there is a world evangelism focus here and there is a God-exalting focus for their local workplaces and their families. You say to fathers, “Proclaim to your children that God is exalted.” And you say to wives, “Proclaim when you have tea that God is exalted.” You say, “Proclaim at work. Find a way to say that God is exalted.” Over lunch when they say, “What did you do on the weekend?” You say, “Ah, I heard a great message about the goodness of God, and he is so good.” Say things like that. Say things like that. Say things that exalt God. You don’t have to do four laws or six laws or anything every time you bear witness. Witnessing is proclaiming the greatness of God.

May those who love your salvation
     say evermore, “God is great!” (Psalm 40:16)

Just say that God is great. Find ways of saying, “God is great.” That’s the kind of preacher you become when you kneel down at a well of salvation and drink it in.

How Do We Drink?

Now the last thing I want to talk about is, what is the drinking? This is the more practical part. And here, I risk just talking from my own experience about what drinking is for me. I know that every one of you could do exactly what I’m going to do now, so there’s nothing extraordinary about this whatsoever, except to talk about John Piper’s experience of drinking. And if it’s a little different from yours, maybe it’ll enhance your drinking or maybe it won’t. But here are five things that it means to me to drink at the wells of salvation.

Let me preface the five things with something that a teacher of mine said. In fact, I think I quoted him today. His name is Clyde Kilby, and he’s the one who talked about the oak tree. Well, here he is again. He said, “One of the worst things about the fall is that we get tired of things. And one of the meanings of becoming childlike is the capacity to like greatness over and over and over again.” It’s the same sentiment children have when they say, “Do it again, daddy. Do it again, daddy. Do it again, daddy.” I’ve never gotten to the end of the “do it again”, whether it’s throwing the child up or repeating the same story. As long as I’ve got the energy, this kid says, “Do it again.”

How often do you say to God, “Make the sun rise again tomorrow?” Did anybody pray that today? Lord, make the sun rise tomorrow. You just take it for granted. You’re all naturalists. You’re infected by naturalism. The only reason the sun is going to rise tomorrow is because God tells it too. That’s the only reason. Physical laws are simply the echo of the sustaining work of the sovereign Christ, according to Colossians 1:17 and Hebrews 1:3. He holds them in being. He makes them. He guides them on their course. And we just take it for granted. We think, “The sun’s going to rise tomorrow. Ho-hum.”

Not only does it rise tomorrow by his sovereignty, but it’s grace. It’s screaming grace, because Jesus said, “The sun rises on the good and the evil. Be like that” (Matthew 5:45). We don’t learn from that. We just take it for granted. And not only that, it’s screaming glory. Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God. The firmament declares his handiwork.” Do we see that? No, we just think, “Oh it’s coming up again.” We don’t even say, “It’s coming up again.” It’s just there. It’s light when we get up, and who thanks God for light? It’s remarkable what we take for granted.

If you were blind all your life and God gave you light, you’d thank him for about three weeks and you all know it. I was reading in the little magazine about things to do in Leicester today. One of the things is to go to the highest place in Britain, which is 912 feet. I just had to laugh. That’s not high. I thought about the Alps and I thought about the Rockies, and I thought that it’s really not much different because the same thing happens if you take a vacation to the Alps. I could see them from where I studied in Munich on a clear day. If you take a vacation down there, say a week’s vacation, the average person today probably will stand in awe the first day. By the end of the week, they’re watching television, not getting up to see the sunrise. And that’s just a little parable of the way we treat God, and why pastors are in great danger of getting used to God and just becoming accustomed to God.

So when I talk about drinking at the wells of salvation, I am groping for strategies to stay awake to glory. John Piper is prone to sleep, prone to be yawning during the hallelujah chorus. I’ve heard it so many times. And I’m prone to be yawning through sermons and yawning at sunrises and yawning at beautiful moons. As I came back last night from somewhere, it was dark enough that there was a half moon, and it struck me, “There’s a moon in England too. I thought we had the moon.” And then, of course, it hit me that the earth turns, and it’s the same moon that Jesus and Moses and Adam saw. And I got chill bumps like being in Carey’s Church today, or Hall’s Church, standing in the room where all this happened. Well that’s happening. This moon was looked upon by Jesus. Little things like that can wake you up. You have to find ways to wake up to glory.

1. Searching for the Greatness of God

So here are my five little strategies, and they all revolve around the Bible. If we had hours we could be like Spurgeon and we could talk about stiff breezes, walks by the sea, and all kinds of strategies for keeping your mind in heart fit, but let’s just talk about the Bible here.

Number one: as you read the Bible, which is the main well — in fact, all wells are either in the Bible or seen through the Bible, as even the nature wells are not known without special revelation — read intentionally on the lookout for the greatness of God. We are in danger of passive reading, those of us who are disciplined. I try to read through the Bible once a year with the Discipleship Journal Bible Reading plan. Therefore, I’m so prone to fall into the trap of, “I have these four chapters to get through today.” And it becomes a getting through, rather than a Sherlock Holmes kind of search for clues of greatness — specific evidences and statements of glory.

Here’s one of the ways I do it. I imagine myself writing a book. I do intend to write this book someday called, Why I Stand in Awe of God: A Page For Every Day of the Year. So there would be 365 reasons. Picture yourself writing that book someday, though you don’t have to write it. Just imagine you’re going to write it. Or imagine that you have a newsletter for your people and you want to give them a reason a week to stand in awe of God, look for them. It’s amazing.

For example, when you read the Gospels, you can pose that kind of question, saying, “What is there here that would cause me to stand in awe of Christ and God in Christ?” To pose specific questions like that helps to open the eyes, because you might (let’s say in the passage on divorce) just get all bogged down thinking, “Oh, how am I going to say this? It’s so hard. And how am I going to apply it to so-and-so?” instead of standing back and thinking, “Now what is there that would cause me to regard Christ as awesome in this text?”

That just gives a totally different angle on it. It’s not the only angle, but it’s the kind of angle that can become a well for you. That’s a well to drink the glory that you need to exalt in on Sunday, so that the people don’t just hear a rule about how to stay married, but there’s something about this Christ that the pastor saw that made him love Christ again. And it might just be his authority to say, “Moses said this, or permitted this in Deuteronomy, but it was not always so.” He’s talking, not like the Scribes and the Pharisees here, but as one who has authority. And you kind of shake because nobody else talks about marriage this way, and that may be it. Or it may just be his discernment, or the way he interacts with his opponents.

Something will bring you to say, “What a Christ. What a wonderful Christ.” So my first point is that when you stoop to drink from the well of the Bible, pose some specific questions about the greatness of God or Christ.

2. Diving Deep into One Verse

Number two: do not feel like you must cover great terrain in order to be affected by the Scriptures. I struggle so much with balancing the sinking of the shaft and the covering of the terrain. The whole terrain of Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for correction, for reproof, and for training, that we might be fit and suitable instruments. But if you just are a terrain person, a surveyor, you don’t ever hit oil. If you’re in a jet flying over a big beautiful orchard so that you can see the expanse of the orchard, you don’t ever eat fruit. You have to walk through the orchard. You have to slow down.

That’s one of the great advantages of reading Greek. Unless you’re a Greek, you read it slowly, and reading it slowly, you see things. Now you can do the same thing with English with a little less confidence, but still, you can slow down and take it a word at a time and make it like a lozenge. I often think of a verse or a piece of a verse as a lozenge that I put in the tongue of my soul, and it doesn’t melt until the end of the day. It’s melting all day and I’m just savoring it.

So I try to find a nugget every day. I’m willing to admit this. I have a doctorate in theology and I live on nuggets. This is like a little old lady who reads her Bible daily and she wants a promise to get her through the day. Me too. So last night I read with Noël before we went to bed. We read Psalm 86, and it was so luscious. I was so dog-tired last night that I couldn’t meditate on it. So I took it up this morning before I came over, and I fastened on one verse. Since my memory is not good enough to hold the whole thing in my head, I fastened on one verse, Psalm 86:5, which says:

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
     abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you.

And I just took those words “abounding in steadfast love,” and I called upon him, and I trusted that promise as I came over this morning and tonight. And if I face any challenge later tonight that causes me to be anxious, I will retreat to that phrase. It’s not a big theological system. My mind doesn’t work that way. I can’t in the moment of crisis call to bear a theological system. I have to have a word from the Lord. And he says it to me. By the way, this is the only kind of word I get from the Lord, if that puts my mind at ease. The only kind of words I get from the Lord are Bible words, but they come with incredible personal power.

The Lord is saying to me, “John Piper, I am good and I am forgiving, and I abound in love towards you when you call upon me.” That’s the way I live my life. When I go to the Bible, I look for those nuggets, words that are designed to help us. I really believe that’s why the Bible is written, to help us fight the fight of faith moment by moment. So you get that nugget, and if you do this a long time, you store up nuggets. And you can change the metaphor to ammunition or whatever — swords, pieces of equipment. And for every new challenge that comes your way in the ministry, there’s one of these ready to hand, if the Holy Spirit will bless it.

3. Memorizing Scripture

Oh, I made a mistake early in my ministry. Oh, what a lesson I learned. I wonder if you had to go through this. It was early on. The grand old man who loved me, Roland Erickson, was on the search committee that called me and was the great statesman of our Church. He knew Scripture by heart, loved everyone, and represented the greatest visions of the Church. And his wife had a massive heart attack and they rushed her to the hospital. I got word in the middle of a staff meeting and I beat him to the hospital, which was a good thing. And then as we were all gathered around, the family in the waiting room didn’t know if she would make it. She did make it, but they didn’t know if she’d make it. He looked at me and he said, “John, give us a word from the Lord.” And my mind went totally blank.

Now I’m onto my third point here, which is Scripture memory. I didn’t signal you that I was making a transition from looking for little things, not just big things, to Bible memory. But there I was, and my mind went blank. I think I stumbled through some kind of paraphrase of John 3:16. I don’t know what I said, but I was absolutely mortified. I went home. I was crying on the way home, and I said, with my teeth grinding, “Never will that happen again. Never will I let that happen again.” And that night, I memorized Psalm 46, cold. And I can say it in my sleep today, because at least I’ll have one psalm, one great psalm to apply. Well, I’ve got lots of other Scriptures, but that taught me that not only for myself but for others, I need to have Scripture stored in my mind. Here’s the next point.

4. Writing What You See

Number four: Consider as you go to the well of the Scriptures writing out what you see, or writing what you meditate upon as you look. Now, maybe you’re not like me, but I’ll just tell you why this is important to me. You can use your pen, or your pencil, or your keyboard, or your computer. I find that there are eyes in my pen. I don’t know why this is. I have a brain that is not very able to hold much at one time.

I was called to interview for a position in New Testament one time at Fuller Seminary. And I went out there and Ralph Martin, who was a British New Testament scholar, was on the faculty at the time. And he said, “Now, Dr. Piper, you’re one of those people who does arcing, aren’t you?” It’s a little mechanism of drawing arcs at the top of a page to symbolize propositions. It’s a way I found to help me do exegesis visually. Dr. Fuller, who taught there, taught it to me. And Ralph Martin said, “You’re one of those who uses this method, aren’t you?” I said, “Yes, I love it. It’s very helpful to me.” He said, “Well, isn’t it just a crutch?” And I said, “Yes it is. And those who are crippled like me need crutches. Not all of us have brains like yours, who can read a paragraph of Scripture and, evidently, with no particular assistance from jotting things down, hold 15 propositions connected by therefore’s, for’s, because’s, and in order that’s, and in all those, weave together to make one point, fit together in a marvelous Pauline argument without any crutch.”

Well, I didn’t get the job. And I praise God that I didn’t get the job. I wouldn’t be a pastor today if I had gotten the job, and there might be other things that I would not like to be. But I have to have a crutch. I have to have a crutch, not only for memory sake, but for seeing sake. I talked about slowing down. When I write, I generally think in terms of questions and answers. So I will, as I did in my head this morning, ask about the connection in Psalm 86:5 between God being good and forgiving and his being abundant in loving kindness towards those who call upon him.

There’s a connection there. And in my head, if not on paper, I try to make the connection. I can do it in my head with maybe four propositions, but not 10 or 15 or a paragraph. So I would write these and as I write them down, I say, “How does this relate to this?” And then, a possible answer comes to my mind. I call this meditation. This is the way I meditate. And I write down the possible answer. And as I’m writing it, I see two or three reasons why it would be objected to, and I quickly jot down those three objections.

Then I have three more questions for how to answer the objections, and I’ll try to write an answer. And I say, “There is no answer. That’s a valid objection.” So I have to back up and revise the way I was thinking about the text. Or I jot down, “This objection is not true because of this text over in Romans.” And then that sets in line another series of questions. If you have all day, you can go forever. But for me, to see Scriptures, to see God, to see glory, I write.

I would write if every publisher in the world boycotted me. I do not write mainly to publish; I write to understand. Calvin said, “I count myself to be among those who learn as they write and write as they learn.” That’s the way my mind works and I commend it to you. It has nothing to do with publishing or anything like that. I have 44 volumes of journals since 1984. They started when I was 19 years old as a sophomore in college, and it simply documents thought, just efforts to understand, because I can’t think. I’m not like Einstein. They say that Einstein could take an idea, put it before him, and hold it there for weeks, looking at it from hundreds of angles. I could maybe handle two or three angles on God. If I want to see God from many sides and understand Scripture, I have to have the help of writing it down. And so, write a journal.

I also have developed a discipline to write a weekly newsletter for my people. It’s one page. The back side is all about what’s happening in the church, but the front side is always a theological, biblical thing. And it’s John Piper’s effort to understand some text usually, and my people read those. It’s another sermon. It’s a little three-minute sermon, but what a discipline for me. Week in and week out, I have to produce for my people, because I’ve committed myself to do it. It’s a little three-minute devotional that comes off my front burner, and I use it to grow to understand God better. Okay, that’s four.

5. Making a Holy Vow

There’s one more, and it’s simply, do not despise a holy vow. I referred to vows earlier and what I mean is this. Again, this may be irrelevant to a group as disciplined as this, but many pastors as I deal with them, you would be surprised how little they read the Bible. You would be amazed, or maybe you wouldn’t, how little they read the Bible and how much they read books about the Bible, and how much they read books about Church growth and about counseling and about conflict management and about marriage and about every kind of problem under the sun. And they do 20 minutes of devotional reading like their people are supposed to do. Well, if that’s the case, we need to discipline ourselves, I think, to take a vow that we’ll do more.

In other words, if our minds are the kind that just drift and we do this and we do that, we need to buckle down and say, “All right, in order to break these bad habits, Lord, in the month of May — I won’t make it any bigger than that, lest I be unrealistic — I’ll read the New Testament or I will memorize Isaiah 53.” I made a vow. Actually, I was forced into it by my worship leader because he said, “I think one of the great things for you to do would be to recite Isaiah 53 at the Maundy Thursday Communion Service. Would you do that?” And I said, “Yes.” And then I realized, I have really gotten myself into a challenge here. So I spent four months doing it. It took me four months. My mind is not really good with memorizing, but I memorized Isaiah 53, and I’ll tell you what a wonderful thing God has done.

I did the same thing with Romans 8 one Christmas. I told the people ahead of time, “I’m going to give you a Christmas present.” I write poems for my people and other things like that and say, “This is my way of thanking you for letting me be here.” And I said, “I’m going to give you Romans 8.” And so, I memorized Romans 8 by heart. Many of you have Romans 8 memorized, the Great Eight. If you’re going to memorize any chapter in the Bible, memorize Romans 8.

To have that and to have Isaiah 53 and numerous psalms and other portions is like carrying a well. It’s like carrying a well with you through life, and so I encourage you. If you must, make a vow. When you leave tonight and you go home, and anything from Alan or Conrad or anyone else here has touched you for a needed change, get alone with God and deal with him and set yourself a time and say, “All right, I will do this for that amount of time. And I promise you, I will.” And then you keep your promise to the Lord.

Other Strategies for Drinking

I’ll stop here and we may take a little break and have some questions and answers, if you want to. I’m sure willing to stay, and I feel like that would be profitable. But if we had more time, we would of course talk about prayer, as we would pray, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:12). And we would talk about all kinds of things like good books to read. When the Bible seems like a closed book, sometimes it does help to read a book about the Bible or a biography. We would talk about the place of nature. We would talk about doing acts of mercy. We would talk about evangelism, getting out of your study with real people where you have to defend the reality of God to an unbeliever, and suddenly you come away from it believing it again.

Or we could talk about exercise and rest. One of the first questions I ask a pastor who says he’s dry is, “How much sleep do you get?” He considers that usually a very unspiritual analysis, but I know what my mind and heart do with inadequate sleep and exercise. And then, we would talk about keeping the marriage whole. Nothing will deplete your power to see God more than a broken heart over a tough marriage, namely your own, or a child who has broken your heart and runs away from home. I’ve tasted these things, and oh my, talk about distances between the wells. But we’ve said enough about that.