How Do We Love God?

God-Centered Love, Part 3

Biola University | La Mirada

What I tried to do on Monday was to persuade you from John 11, John 17, and 2 Corinthians 12 that to be loved by God is not to be made much of, but to have God remove every obstacle of sin and Satan and the world and the flesh, so that you enjoy making much of God forever. God doesn’t love us by coming to the inner city to distribute mirrors to the children. He comes to lay down his life in the city, to take the children on a vacation with him, forever.

It would not be love to distribute nice, clean mirrors, so that we can really see ourselves and really like what we see. That would not be love. Love would be to go with him, to be with him, to behold him, to play with him, work with him, live with him, create with him, and enjoy him, forever. He will be the center in his love for us, or it isn’t love. And that was the point on Monday. God’s best, all-satisfying, most loving gift to you is God.

What It Means to Love God

Now, what would it mean then for you to love him? It would mean joining him in his zeal to magnify his glory. And I have spent the last 25 or 30 years trying to understand, explain, and herald the good news that one essential way for you to join God in magnifying the worth of the glory of God is to be satisfied in God. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

If he offers himself to you as the highest value and the most precious treasure and the all-satisfying object of your heart, the way to love him is to count him as most valuable, to feel him as most precious, and to be satisfied in your heart with him as your all-satisfying object. That’s what love would be, to join the apostle Paul in saying, “I count everything as rubbish compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Philippians 3:7–9). That’s loving Jesus.

Now here’s the crazy, radical, controversial implication of that. It means that for the rest of your life, indeed for eternity, your top priority and full-time vocation is the pursuit of joy in God. So I want to take 30 minutes or so to argue for that because it seems like wherever I go and argue that your main business in life is to be happy in God, and that it is a very dangerous quest and will probably cost you your life, people misunderstand. But don’t shrink back from this radical pursuit of your maximum and everlasting happiness. Don’t let anybody dissuade you that this is somehow unbiblical or not God-honoring. If you try to abandon your pursuit of maximum and everlasting happiness in God, you can neither be virtuous nor worship.

Pursuing Joy in Christ at All Costs

Now first let’s start with Philippians chapter one to lay the groundwork for the structure of this thought. This is Philippians 1:20–21. Paul is in prison in Rome and what he does in these few verses is to give me a structure of thought by which I understand how he believes he magnifies God or Christ. Because I’m asking, if you want to join God in this omnipotent passion to magnify his glory, how do you do it? And I’m arguing the answer is to be satisfied in him and pursue joy in him above all other joys. Count every other joy as sheer refuse compared with the joy there is to be had in God, and go for broke, lose everything if you have to, in order to maximize your everlasting joy in God. And that’s the way Christ will be made much of. That’s my argument and I get it from this text. So if you wonder whether that’s biblical, I’m going to try to show you now in these two verses that it is.

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed (that’s the negative side, and here’s the positive side), but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored (made much of, magnified, glorified) in my body, whether by life or by death (Philippians 1:20).

Now just stop there and make sure you get that really clear, because I’m asking you to love God by joining God in his passion to make much of God, especially God in Christ. Here’s Paul saying that’s what he wants to do. He’s saying, “I want my body, my bodily existence, to count to make much of Christ. I want Christ to look good on me. I want to live to make him look really good, and I want to die that way.” And he says, “I know it’s going to happen. I know it’s going to happen. Christ is going to be honored in my body whether I live, and he’s going to be honored in my body, whether I die.” And now the next verse comes in with a ground clause explaining how it is that Christ will be made much of in his living and in his dying. So let’s read Philippians 1:21:

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Now notice that the word “live” in verse 21 corresponds with “life” in verse 20, and “die” in verse 21 corresponds with “death” in verse 20. So he’s explaining the end of verse 20. Philippians 1:20 says, “I want Christ to be honored in my body whether by life or by death.” And then he picks up on those two things, life and death, and he explains how that’s going to be. He says, “If I live, Christ will be magnified by being my life, and if I die, Christ will be magnified by being my gain.” Now think about that. Let’s just take the death pair and read it like this, “It is my eager expectation and hope that I might not be ashamed, but that now as always Christ might be made much of (made to look really good, honored, magnified) in my dying because to me, to die is gain.” Do you get it? Do you see it? How do you make Christ look really good as you die? You count it gain to die.

The Unparalleled Gain of Christ

There’s a missing premise in the argument, isn’t there? I mean you’re supplying it because you’re biblical people, but it’s missing and it’s stated in Philippians 1:23. Let’s get that premise in here so that the logic is complete. Paul says:

I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.

There’s the missing premise. Now let’s add it. How am I going to make much of Christ and cause him to look really good in my dying? By counting my dying as gain, because in dying I get him as gain, which I paraphrase like this: Christ is most magnified in Paul’s dying when Paul is most satisfied in Christ in his dying. And that’s my whole theology. If you don’t see it there, I doubt if I can show it to you, that the way you make Christ look really good is by being so satisfied with Christ that when you die and you lose everything on this planet except Christ, it’s gain. Your friends are gone. Your dreams of a career and marriage and grandchildren are gone, and all you have to look forward to is Jesus. At that moment, how do you make him look really good to your friends? By saying, “Gain. Farewell friends. Farewell Biola, farewell food, farewell dreams of marriage. Jesus is gain.” That’s the way you make him look good. Now, if that’s the way Christ is magnified, what is your life’s vocation?

And my answer is, pursue complete and full gain in Christ, satisfaction in Christ, and joy in Christ. Spend your whole life reading things, studying things, thinking about things, avoiding things, doing things, and embracing things, all of which will cultivate a deeper longing and delight in Christ. Be a hedonist, be a radical Christian Hedonist. Don’t settle for the two-bit, short-term, un-guaranteed interest rates of this world. Don’t be a fool.

Biblical Arguments for Pursuing Joy in God

Now what I want to do is test biblically the implication that I’m drawing out because there’s so many people that hear this and they just shake their head and say, “Oh, it just can’t be. You can’t be right to tell us that we should really devote all of our energy, morning, noon, and night, to pursuing our joy. That is so foreign to the Christianity that I inherited that it just has to have a flaw in it somewhere.”

So let’s take the last minutes and I’m going to give you a marathon, eight arguments from the Bible. Actually I’ll probably run out of time and leave it off at five or six or seven, but we’ll just go as fast and as far as we can get. I want to give you biblical reasons for why when you leave this chapel, you should spend the rest of your eternity seeking to maximize your joy in God. Of course some people are going to walk out of here and distort what I said and say that I said you’re supposed to be a hedonist and go get as much happiness from basketball and houses and cars and sex and whatever. Of course there will be people who say that. You try to say something in public that’s true and exciting and wonderful and somebody will always go out and say you said the opposite.

Just know I’m calling for martyrs here. I’m recruiting martyrs here who say with the apostle Paul, “I’ll let America go. I’ll let marriage go. I’ll let houses go. I’ll let the next degree go. I’m going to lay down my life down in” — you name the hard place wherever God is calling you — “because that’s where I’m going to find Jesus. That’s where I’m going to enjoy the sweetest fellowship.”

I remember John Paton, the missionary to Tana in the New Hebrides who died about a hundred years ago, was being driven off the island by about 1,400 vicious people who had come to hate him. And one man would help him escape and he said, “You’ve got to climb up in this tree here and I’ll lead them down that path. And when they’re gone, you go over there to the harbor and find a little boat and go to the next island.” And he said, sitting in that tree with 1,500 machete-carrying enemies underneath him, “I enjoyed the sweetest fulfillment of the promise ‘I will be with you to the end of the age’ that I have ever known, and I would happily spend many sleepless nights in that tree on Tana to know the sweetness of that fellowship with my Lord Jesus.” That’s what you’ll find in the hard place when you lay down the good life in America.

1. Commands to Pursue Joy

Argument number one: You are commanded by the Bible to pursue your joy.

Serve the Lord with gladness!
     Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:2)

It doesn’t say, “Serve the Lord with sadness.” It says, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” That’s a command.

Psalm 37:4 says:

Delight yourself in the Lord . . .

Psalm 32:11 says:

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous,
     and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Philippians 4:4 says:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

This is a command just like, “Thou shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), or, “Flee fornication” (1 Corinthians 6:18). It is a command. Pursue joy. That is not icing on the cake of Christianity. That is Christianity. Get after it. Go after it. Grind your teeth, get a gun, shoot it down, bag it. Get it whatever it costs.

2. Threats Against Joyless Service

Argument number two: *We are threatened terrible things if we will not be happy.

Deuteronomy 28:47–48 says:

Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies . . .

I tell you, you should tremble. You should tremble if you’ve been taught that joy is optional, because this text says, “If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy, you will serve your enemies.” That’s God saying, “You think I’m a slave master? You think I’m the kind of God who can only be served with teeth-gritting duty? Out of here, if you want to discover what that kind of a master is. We have plenty of those in the world. Go serve them if you want to. That’s not me. I’m your Father. I adopt children. I don’t hire slaves. Love me. Enjoy me. Delight in me. Don’t be begrudging towards me. I have everything for you.”

If children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Romans 8:17).

3. The Nature of Faith

Argument number three: The very nature of faith teaches that you should pursue satisfaction in God. What is faith anyway, saving faith?

John 6:35 says:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

I think the parallelism of that verse — “I’m the bread; he who comes to me will not hunger and he who believes in me will never thirst” — means that believing in Jesus is a coming to him so as to be satisfied in him. Eating the bread, drinking the water, and saying, “Oh, I have found the end of my journey,” that’s faith. We have so decisional-ized and mechanized and volunteer-ized faith, that I think we can scarcely grasp how affectional the biblical notion of saving faith is. There is a feeling component to faith. It’s not fact, faith, then feeling, with feeling as the optional caboose on the end of the train. That’s not the way it is. There is, in saving faith itself, a coming so as to rest, a coming so as to taste, a coming so as to eat, a coming so as to enjoy, and a coming so as to be satisfied. You don’t have saving faith if Jesus is a burden to you.

Jesus says, “My burden is light, my yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:30), so lay it down or you don’t know him. Saving faith involves coming to Jesus for satisfaction. We say it this way at our church right now because everybody in my neighborhood is saved — drunks are saved, prostitutes are saved. Everybody’s saved. It’s a burned over district because there’s a Bible college in the area, so everybody has been witnessed to a hundred times and it doesn’t do any good to say you trust in Jesus as your Lord or you trust in Jesus as your Savior. Everybody does. So you have to find new language when you’re talking to these folks, and one of the languages that we use now is, “In order to trust Jesus savingly, you must embrace him as Savior (sin-forgiver) and Lord (one who guides your life) and treasure.” Do you trust him as your treasure? That’s saving faith.

4. The Nature of Evil

Argument number four: The nature of evil teaches the pursuit of satisfaction in God.

What is evil? I wonder how you would define evil in view of the last several sessions together. Here’s Jeremiah’s definition of evil. This is God talking:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
     be shocked, be utterly desolate,
     declares the Lord,

for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
     the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
     broken cisterns that can hold no water.

That’s evil. There’s evil. What is evil? Evil is being offered by almighty God, an everlasting fountain that satisfies the soul forever and ever and ever, and sniffing at it and saying, “No, thank you,” and turning to the world and carving out cisterns of our own making, broken cisterns that can hold no water, putting our mouth to the dirt and sucking on it as hard as we can and saying, “Oh, satisfy me world,” and persuading ourselves that it tastes good. That’s evil.

Evil is the abandonment of hedonism for mud pies in the slums, as CS Lewis says, when we’re offered a holiday at the sea. All day long, every day on television, billboards, magazines, newspapers, and radio ads, the world devotes its most creative energies to making the poison look good, even the innocent poison. It’s anything to keep you turning away from the fountain. So if you want to know what evil is in the Bible, evil is turning away from joy and substituting it for broken systems.

5. The Nature of Discipleship

Argument number five: The nature of discipleship demands that you pursue satisfaction in God. I chose one sample text: Matthew 13:44. This is probably the verse that 25, maybe 30 years ago now, arrested me and stopped me in my tracks and began to make me a Christian Hedonist. It’s a one verse parable and it goes like this:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy (there’s the word we often read over so quickly) he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Wedding ring? Sell it. Heirloom grandfather’s clock in the living room? Sell it. Nice big house on the hills? Sell it. New car, new motorcycle, new computer? Sell them. Why? To get the field where the treasure is, which is the kingdom of Christ, the rule of Christ. The presence and the power and the beauty of Almighty Christ is in this field. Do whatever you have to do to get it. And notice the key word. It says from joy he sold everything he had. You want to call that duty? No way. It’s like putting a big hot fudge sundae in front of your teenager and saying, “It is your duty to eat this. Eat it.” They would think, “Well, yes, yes. Okay.”

When he sells everything he has to buy this field, it says here, lest we miss it, “from joy over it, he sells everything he has,” which is why the missionaries write the best biographies. David Livingston and Hudson Taylor both said something similar to this, one in a lecture to Cambridge students and one in Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. They both said at the end of their lives, having lost health, having lost spouses, having lost a life of ease in England, “I never made a sacrifice.” What can that possibly mean? It means that for joy they sold everything they had to have that field. If you get Jesus and lose everything, you gain; you’re rich.

That’s why Jesus got bent out of shape about what Peter said. After Jesus sent the rich man away and said it’s hard for the rich to get into the kingdom, Peter said, “Well Lord, what about us? We’ve left everything and followed you.” Do you remember what Jesus said to him? He was really quite upset at this fellow at this point, I think. He said, with disbelief on his face, “Peter, nobody has left houses or lands or mother or father or children or homes for my sake who will not get back a hundredfold in this life and in the life to come, eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). In other words, “What do you mean you’ve left everything and followed me? You’re thinking, ‘Oh, poor me. What about me? What kind of rewards am I going to get?’ Peter, I am God almighty. You get me. Do you expect me to feel sorry for you?”

That’s the way we are because we’re so afraid to pursue our maximum joy in the treasure of God almighty.

6. The Nature of Self-Denial

Argument number six: The nature of self-denial demands that you pursue satisfaction in God. This is implicit in argument number five. If you say, “Well, wait a minute, don’t you believe in self-denial? This does not sound like self-denial,” then you’re not listening. You’re just not listening. You’re just not listening if that’s what you’re feeling right now, because everything I have said so far is “sell it all”. I quoted Paul, who says, “I count everything as rubbish for the surpassing value of having Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Philippians 3:7–9).

That is radical and real self-denial, but it’s not ultimate self-denial. Jesus never called you to ultimate self-denial. He called you to ultimate satisfaction and to deny yourself tin, that you may have gold; to deny yourself some brackish water that you may have a lake in the mountains; to deny yourself fickle friends that you may have one who sticks closer than a brother. Yeah, there’s such a thing as self-denial in the world. Deny yourself dung. That’s what Paul said — “I counted all this dung and refuse to have Christ.” That doesn’t exactly sound like self-denial, does it? No. Because when Christ is your treasure, he’s magnified and all those other things are made to look like what they really are, namely, small and insignificant by comparison. So yes, I do believe in self-denial. Deny yourself everything it takes in order to be maximally happy in God.

7. The Nature of Love

Argument number seven: The very nature of love demands that you pursue your joy. By this I mean love for people. This is very hard for people to grasp. They think, “Here you are telling all these students now to go out and pursue their joy. How in the world are they going to be loving people if all they’re ever thinking about is their joy?” Well, that’s not what they’re thinking about. They’re thinking about the one who gives them joy and they’re finding complete satisfaction in him. And when they find complete satisfaction in him, they can let goods and kindred go and spend their lives for other people, rather than trying to protect themselves with comforts and securities and luxuries all their life which makes them indifferent to the needs of other people, especially those in the hardest places of the world.

In Acts 20:335, Paul says:

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.”

Why is it more blessed to give than to receive? Because it shows where your heart is. If you are full and grace is flowing down and you are filling up, then the giving of your life is the spillover of joy in God and the pursuit of drawing others into the experience of that joy. And when you are spilling over and they’re filling up, it doesn’t get any better even if it costs you your life, and it may cost you your life. If you want to love other people, you must pursue joy in God and you must pursue their joy in God, and you can’t pursue their joy in God if you don’t have joy in God. You’re an absolute hypocrite if you think you can pursue others’ joy in God and you don’t have joy in God.

And if you try to love people without pursuing their joy in God, you’re a cruel person, putting band-aids on cancer. If you do not give people the best gift, and only give them little teeny gifts with no desire that they get the best gift and do everything that you can through the small gifts to get them to the big gift, you don’t love them.

And so, if you’re going to sell them on the infinite value of God, you have to feel it, which means for love’s sake, you got to pursue it. And if you don’t feel it right now, you have to cultivate it.

8. The Nature of the Glory of God

Argument number eight: The nature of the glory of God demands that you pursue your joy in God. This is where I started with Philippians 1:21, and I’ll use a story that I love to tell. I’ve told it a hundred times, some of you have heard it and I don’t mind telling it again because it’s my favorite story and it makes all kinds of lights go on for me. I hope it will for you.

My argument here at the end is that your pursuit of your joy will glorify God most. I’ve been married to Noël for 34 years this December. So let’s say I come with 34 roses behind my back on December 21st and ring the doorbell, which I don’t usually do. Ding-dong. She comes to the door, looks at me like, “Why did you ring the doorbell?” and I pull the roses out and say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” And she says, “They’re beautiful, Johnny. Why did you?” And I say, “It’s my duty. I’m a good husband. I’ve read the book. This is what you’re supposed to do.” Every time I tell this story, people laugh at the word “duty”. Why do you laugh at duty? Duty is a good thing, I thought? Why do you laugh at duty? I’ve never told that story where people don’t laugh at duty. What’s wrong with duty at that moment?

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It does not honor her. It might honor me because I’ve got the willpower to do duty. I could think, “I can do husband things, so recognize my qualities.” It might accomplish my honor, but that doesn’t honor her.

Rerun the tape. Let’s just do it right this time. Ding-dong. She opens the door and I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” She says, “Oh, Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you?” And I say, “Because nothing makes me happier than to buy you gifts. And in fact, why don’t you go change clothes because I’ve arranged for a babysitter because we’re going to spend the evening together because there’s nothing I’d rather do tonight than be with you.” Not in a million years would she say, “Oh there’s nothing you would rather do tonight. All you ever think about is you, you, you.” I think you’re getting it. You know there’s a problem with duty and you know there’s something absolutely right about hedonism.

Why is it so right for me to say to her, “There’s nothing I’d rather do than spend the night with you”? Because it honors her so much. It makes her square at the center of my affections. Yes, I’m pursuing my joy, big time, but it honors her. It honors her. I’m saying, “I have chosen you. You are the satisfaction of my life.”

Now just bump that up about a million times. When God asks you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” don’t say, “I did my duty.” Say, “There is no place I would rather spend eternity. And I have trusted in your Son who paid the debt so that I might enjoy an eternity with you. And I have turned away from every other value. I’ve turned away from every other possible solution to my problems. And I want to be with you forever, in and through your Son, Jesus Christ.”