How to Love Your People

The Gladness of Your People and the Glory of God

Christian Supply Clergy Appreciation Breakfast | Spartanburg, SC

What I’d like to do is go to the word with you and encourage you to love your people in a way that brings them the most joy and brings God the most glory. Those are the two things that I care most about: I want to be happy, and I want God to look great in my life, and I want my people to be happy, and I want my people to live in such a way that God looks great in their lives.

This means I don’t believe in the prosperity gospel because when you live for the prosperity gospel, you make things look great. And when you live a lifestyle that looks like prosperity doesn’t count as much to you, then you make God look great because something else besides stuff is giving you joy. It seems to me that what I see in the New Testament is that the way God gets glory is that he satisfies souls in the midst of suffering, and so I don’t encourage people toward a prosperity gospel.

So I want to encourage you and help you and inspire you to love your people in such a way that their joy is maximized in terms of its intensity and its length, which means it should last forever and be maximally intense. I don’t think you should care much about producing any other kind of joy in their lives. But you should care infinitely about producing that kind of joy in their lives: joy that lasts forever and that it is as deep as possible, and joy that magnifies God — that is, makes God look really great.

That’s why we’re on the planet: to make Jesus look great. Paul said, “It is my eager expectation and hope that now as always Christ might be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:21). So his whole goal in living and dying was to make Christ look magnificent. That’s why we’re pastors. We want to make Christ look magnificent, and we want to produce a kind of people that make Christ look magnificent. So those are the two things I want to encourage you in: (1) love your people in such a way as to increase their joy, so that it lasts forever and is as deep and as strong as possible; and (2) do it in a way that God gets maximum glory off of their lives.

Work for Joy

Let’s go to 2 Corinthians 1. We’ll start here and spend most of our time circling around this text in 2 Corinthians but launch out into a few other texts as well.

But I call God to witness against me—it was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. (2 Corinthians 1:23–24)

That’s my main text. It’s clear as a bell. It doesn’t take any exegetical finesse to massage that into making my point. I get my point from there. I didn’t come looking for the point; I saw this text ages ago and got shaped by it. So, Paul said, literally, “We are workers with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” He continues,

For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Corinthians 2:1–4)

So in that text, we have two of the things I’m after. He ended on the note of love. He says, “I’m writing this letter because I want to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” So what he’s been describing here since verse 23 is how he loves them. And the way he loves them, according to 1:24, is “not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” That’s the way you love people. Become a worker: You stay up late, you get up early, you labor over your books, you get in the car and you go. You do what you got to do to make them glad in God.

This is a very complex text, extremely complex. The emotional ins and outs of 2 Corinthians 2:1–4 take a while to sort out, so work on it with me for just a few minutes. We got clear in verse 24 that he considers his apostolic mission to be a laborer for the joy of his people. Paul says that clearly.

But then, 2 Corinthians 2:2: “For if I cause you pain” — if I make you unhappy — “who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” I think that means: “I don’t want to make you pained. I don’t want to bring misery into your life, because who’s then going to make me happy?” Because evidently, I mean, the assumption there seems to be: “Your joy is my joy. If I ruin your joy, my joy goes down.” Isn’t that the implication of verse 2? That’s what I see. “If I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” I don’t want to do that. So add now to the fact that he works for their joy that their joy is his joy. You got that? Their joy is his joy. He delights in their delight.

And then he flips it around and gets complicated again in verse 3 like this: “I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all.” So now, it’s not that their joy is his joy (verse 2), but his joy is their joy. He says that flat out in at the end of verse 3: “I felt sure of you all, that my joy would be the joy of you all.” Okay, now we’ve got a description of what love looks like.

Verse 4 says, “I want you to know the abundant love that I have for you.” He’s been describing the emotional dynamics of love. First, “I labor for your joy. And your joy is my joy, so I’m laboring for my joy too, because if I make you glad, and your gladness is my gladness, my gladness goes up when you’re glad.” And then 2:3: “I want to be glad, because I have the deep conviction that my gladness is your gladness.” That’s what it means for people to love each other. When you’re glad, I’m glad, and when I’m glad, you’re glad, and our gladness goes up together. That’s love happening. That’s an amazing description. His whole apostolic passion in this text is: “We are workers with you for your joy.” Yours is mine, mine is yours, and that’s the way love works.

Awakened to Glory

Here’s the missing piece so far. It’s in the text, but I haven’t drawn it out yet. That sounds like one big, colossal mutual admiration society, and it has nothing to do with Jesus. We haven’t even mentioned Jesus. Where’s Jesus, where’s the cross, where’s the gospel? Any group could be talking like this. So let’s go back and not leave out a few pieces in verse 24 that I did leave out.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

That’s really strange, because he’s got these two mentions of faith on either side of this joy piece, and it sounds like the middle piece should also be faith. Let me read it that way. That’s the way I would’ve written it if I’d been flowing like this. I would’ve said, “Not that I lord it over your faith, but I work with you for your faith, for you stand firm in your faith.” But instead, Paul substitutes the word joy where I would have expected him to write faith.

I’m drawing some help here from Philippians 1:25, where Paul says there that he wants to go to heaven and be with Jesus, and he wants to stay here and work in the churches: “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” So, I think here, if we were to ask Paul, “Why did you substitute ‘joy’ where we expected you to say ‘faith’?” he’d say, “Because that’s part of the very essential nature of trusting Jesus.”

The place that joy will have in what you pursue in your people will hang on whether you agree with what I’m about to say — namely, that joy is not only a fruit that follows faith — love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, meekness; the fruit of the Holy Spirit — it is also, in its essential nature, part of what faith in Christ is.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:8)

Now, that’s a problem verse. Don’t you gain Christ by faith? He didn’t mention faith. What do you mean by “in order that I may gain Christ? I think all he’s doing there is simply expressing the nature of faith. Faith is an awakening to the supreme value of Jesus over all other ways of salvation and all other treasures in life.

And so faith is not one thing and enjoying Jesus another thing; faith is what the heart does when the Holy Spirit awakens the heart to no longer look on him as boring or stupid or false or a waste, but see him for who he really is — namely, the glory of God: infinitely satisfying, infinitely beautiful, infinitely wise, infinitely strong, infinitely everything that will satisfy the human heart forever. Faith awakens to that. We don’t experience it all the time. A little baby Christian wouldn’t have the fullness of that enjoyment, but the seed of it is there, or it isn’t saving faith.

If that’s true, then when I say our goal should be to maximize the joy of our people, I’m not talking about an icing on the cake of Christianity — like, “Christianity’s one thing, and wouldn’t it be nice if we had a happy people?” That’s not the way I think about it because I don’t think about happiness in terms of a response to circumstances, I think about happiness in terms of an awakening of the dead heart to see Christ for who he is and find him the resting place for your soul. “

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.” (John 6:35)

When you analyze those two halves, you see that having your hunger and thirst satisfied are synonymous with faith. So, coming to him to have your hunger stilled and believing in him to have your thirst stilled are the same. This is the way John writes: with these parallels.

So I’m arguing that what I just described in verses 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:4 is not a simple mutual admiration society where your joy is my joy, my joy is your joy, and let’s all get together and be happy with each other without Jesus even in the picture. That’s not what’s going on here, because when he says, “Not that we lord it over your faith,” he means faith in Jesus. So, when Paul says that he works for the people’s joy, he means that joy is what faith is as it attaches to Jesus in the awakened heart.

Impossible Joy

So, brothers in the ministry, in the pastorate, let’s labor for the joy of our people. I preached from Philippians 3:1–16 this past Sunday, and verse 1 says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And I paused, and I said Paul was in prison when he wrote that. In fact, he says, “I am about to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith.” So he was back and forth as to whether he was going to die or get out. And we know from 2 Corinthians 8 and Acts 16, as well as parts of Philippians, that this church is poor, and they’re afflicted. They’re being persecuted.

So he’s writing from prison to a persecuted people who are poor. They haven’t gotten out of their poverty by this gospel; it wasn’t an immediately effective prosperity gospel. And he says, Rejoice in the Lord. That must mean, then: So value Christ, that whether your circumstances are good or bad, your joy stands, because it’s in him, not in your circumstances. So that’s what I mean, and that’s what Paul means by joy: It’s not circumstantially rooted; it’s Christ-rooted. It’s a spiritual sight of Christ — “the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). So we’ve seen Christ — we’ve seen who he is and what he’s done and how he reigns and how he’s coming and how he’s with us — and that’s where our joy comes from.

So when you labor, you’re always thinking, “How can I maximize my people’s joy in Christ, in the glory of God? How can I wean them off television? How can I wean them off pornography? How can I wean them off wanting to be rich? How can I wean them off their love affair with their family? How can I wean them off their commitment to security? How can I make radical, risk-taking lovers of the poor and the lost and the suffering, so that they don’t cave to the American lifestyle but pour themselves out so that, once upon a time, we start looking like the church, and the world takes notice, instead of looking just like the world?” That’s the goal.

When I think joy, I’m not thinking of a little layer of happiness on top of the American lifestyle. I’m thinking of subterfuge. I’m thinking of sedition. I am moving into these people’s lives to break the back of their love affair with what the world loves. The only way to liberate people from their love affair with everything the world loves is to give them a stunningly superior satisfaction in a radically supernatural reality.

That’s an impossible job. You have an impossible job, you know that. Getting people saved and getting people radically different, you cannot do. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. But he uses people, and he wrote a book. This is a very, very radical book. We so domesticate this book. I don’t understand pastors who leave this book because they want to somehow interest their people. This is not interesting? If this is not interesting, nothing is interesting. If this is not radical, compelling, life-changing, then nothing is radically compelling and life-changing. How any pastor can read a verse and then mainly use the newspaper or Newsweek or the internet, and try to get some relevance here — I don’t get it. I am totally not computing with such a pastor. He is out of touch with reality. This is stunning reality, and if you can just make it plain to people, they will be stunned. They’ll be awakened. This is the book that will do it.

So that’s what we’re after. Don’t think, “Oh, Piper came here to tell us, ‘Let’s just make our people happy,’ and it just kind of rests like a little feather on top of all their materialism.” I’m here to sever roots. I want roots to be severed because the roots of our people are sunk down in the world so deep that if we don’t start chopping at these roots, then they won’t ever have life flowing from another source. And what severs the power of the pleasures of sin is a superior pleasure in Christ.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

So now, from that little parable, how would you get your people to sell everything they had to follow Jesus? You show them a treasure. That’s the only way. You live for their joy. From joy (apo tēs charas) he sold everything that he had. From joy in the treasure found in the field, he sold everything that he had. My job as a pastor, week after week — every board meeting, every wedding homily, every funeral message, every banquet, every pastor’s talk, every Sunday morning message — is to make Christ look like a treasure, superior to every single thing your people look for, live for, or enjoy. That’s an impossible task.

Advantage to Your People

Hebrews 13 gets really close to home with a pastor. I want you to see this in another place besides 2 Corinthians 1. I want you to see what love is here for your people. What is love for your people?

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. (Hebrews 13:17)

That’s an amazing verse. What an amazing verse! I mean, don’t you just love the Bible? I just love to explain things like this to my people. This is incredible, what’s here. It says, “Let the pastors, let the leaders watch over us with joy.” This is good for Pastors Appreciation Month. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, because that” — namely, doing their ministry with groaning instead of joy — “would be of no advantage for you.” Now, I’m not preaching to the people, I’m preaching to the pastors. And so, the implication of this for pastors is: if you do your ministry with groaning and not being thrilled at what God has called you to do, your people won’t profit from you. Isn’t that what it says?

It would be unloving not to be an advantage to your people, not to be a profit to your people, not to be a blessing to your people. You should want to be a blessing to your people, and this text says you won’t be if you do your ministry with groaning instead of joy, which means at the top of your agenda for blessing your people is to keep your heart happy in God. If you go down, everybody goes down.

George Müller, a great pastor and orphanage builder in Bristol, England, said that his main task every morning was first to get his heart happy in God. And that wasn’t because of some kind of superficial little add-on to the real guts of Christianity; it was because that was the way he could love his kids — ten thousand orphans over his lifetime. And then he said, “After I got my heart right and happy and restful and content in my King, then I rolled sixty burdens onto the Lord every morning.”

So 2 Corinthians 1:24: “We work with you for your joy.” Your joy is mine, mine is yours, and the kind of joy we’re talking about is joy in Christ. And so when I say that your joy is my joy, I mean that when I see in you a treasuring and a valuing of Christ, I’m glad, and when you see in me a treasuring and a value and a contentment in Christ, you’re glad. Our mutual joy in each other is a radically Christ-centered, and, I would add, it is a Christ-exalting joy, which brings me real close now to my last, third issue of glory.

Glorified Through Joy

Remember, I said I wanted you to love your people in a way that maximizes their joy and shows God to be great. Here’s the way that works. They’re not two separate things. When you delight in something, enjoy something, are satisfied with something, you make it look valuable. That’s the way Philippians 3:8 reads: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.”

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. And she was an atheist and hated God — didn’t believe he existed. And she said admiration was the rarest of pleasures. She couldn’t see anything anywhere to admire. She hated humanity. The tragic thing is: Christ is infinitely admirable. She was right that admiration is a rare pleasure. He is infinitely admirable. And so, when Paul talks about the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, he meant: here’s where the greatest joy is found, and when your joy is found in the infinite admirableness of Jesus, that admirableness is magnified.

So joy in him and glory to him are the same. They’re not separate things. You can’t undertake to glorify or magnify Christ and leave out delighting in him, being satisfied in him, resting in him, enjoying him, being content in him, because this is what does this. He is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

Never Arriving

So my two goals for my love of my people are not two goals; they’re one goal. I want to love my people in such a way as to maximize their joy in Christ, and I want to love my people in such a way as to maximize the effectiveness with which they make Christ look great — glory of Christ, joy of people. Now I’m saying that if they really did delight fully, deeply, powerfully in Christ, that would be the way that he looks good. If your people so loved Christ, so delighted in Christ, so rested in Christ, that their worldly loves began to fall away — a man would sit in front of his computer, where he has for years been addicted to looking at naked women. God has now awakened a passion to enjoy Christ. He’s tasted it, and then he remembers, “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). “If I go here, I defile my heart, I won’t see him. I want to see him. I will not do it.” That man is going to start making Jesus look incredibly good.

People will wonder, “How did you get over that? How’d you get beyond that? Pornography is a pretty powerful thing. That’s a powerful thing, and it doesn’t have the power it once had, and how did you do that?” And his answer’s not going to be: “I obey Jesus.” That’s true, but that’s not the way it feels. It’s: “I want to see him. I want to know him. I don’t want to lessen, I don’t want to minimize my experience of joy in Christ. And I know that when I do this, it goes down instead of up, and so I want it to go up. And now I’ve tasted enough, it’s going up, and I don’t even feel the power I once felt there.”

And right on down the line: it’s money, it’s career, it’s the praise of men, it’s having to have the approval of people — all these bondages our people live in. If those start being broken by the supreme beauty of Christ because our hearts have come to delight in him, he’s going to look really good. He’s going to look really good. So, he’s going to get the glory, your people are going to get the joy, and you will be able to lay down in your grave with a sense of having lived well.

So the implication for your own personal life, very simply, is: you need to be there yourself. And, brothers, it is a battle. You don’t arrive. You don’t say, “Now I’m one who delights in God. Now I’m one who enjoys Jesus. Is there another thing I could do?” You’re not there. “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12).

You know, I write books, and you have to look at the titles carefully. They’re not called Having Arrived at Fully Delighting in God; they’re called things like Desiring God, When I Don’t Desire God, because I’m just after it. I don’t have it fully; I just want it. “Taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34:8). Taste, and once you’ve tasted, you’re on a track, and you’re going after it, you’re going to maximize this joy, this satisfaction, because you know it’s the liberating power of your life. It’ll get you to the mission field. It’ll break the power of pornography. It’ll break the power of the love of money. It’ll break your craving for the approval of your people that’s keeping you from preaching the truth. It’ll do all kinds of stuff in your life.

Get over the Book

I’ve said the main point is that I want you to love your people in a way that maximizes their joy and glorifies God, but I really want to leave you with: Go for it yourself. Get up in the morning and go for a walk, or get on your knees, or go wherever you have to go. Get over this book for about an hour. Maybe you could use my little acronym: I.O.U.S.. This is the way I do it. I go to my Bible, and I say:

I — “Incline my heart to your testimonies (Psalm 119:36). Isn’t that an amazing prayer for the psalmist? You mean, psalmist, you don’t incline already? “No, I don’t. I feel like reading the newspaper, going on the internet quick. That’s what I feel like. Would you please change that? I’m a pastor. I’m supposed to love the Bible. Help me.”

O — “Open my eyes, that I may behold wonderful things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). So here you are. You’ve got enough inclination to at least get here. You’re staring at the Bible, feeling nothing, seeing nothing, thinking about your wife and the argument, and you plead, “God, open my eyes. Don’t let me be blank here. If I go blank, everybody goes blank. Please, God, I need you for my own soul. Open my eyes to see glory and beauty and worth and value here.”

U — “Unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11). What does that mean? That means my heart is just fragmented; it’s all over the place. I’ve got a piece of my heart over here thinking about grits. I’ve got a piece of my heart over here thinking about bookstores. I’ve got a piece of my heart thinking about Talitha and her relation to me as my daughter. “My heart’s just everywhere, Lord. Unite it around you, right here.”

S — “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14).

So there’s my battle strategy, morning after morning. Sometimes I do add another S — “Send me. When I get up from my knees here with some measure of contentment in you, don’t let me just drift. Send me to be useful today to somebody.”