Jesus Christ and the Rescue of Joy

Part 1

Park Street Church Bicentennial Celebration | Boston

My plan is to try to remove two obstacles from your embracing Christ and his understanding of the world — one this morning and another later this afternoon. I’ll tell you right off the bat what the one is this morning, and then later I’ll tell you what the one is that I’ll try to remove this afternoon because the obstacle that I want to remove later today is created by the way I remove the one this morning.

The Massive Problem of Megalomania

The one this morning that I want to remove is one I have felt in my own heart. I’ve seen it hinder C.S. Lewis from coming to faith, and then he got over the obstacle. I’ve also seen it hinder another man in London from coming to the faith, and he hasn’t gotten over it. It goes like this: One of the clear, obvious truths about the Christian faith is that God is majestic, glorious, powerful, wise, just, holy, and good. And he made the world, he made you and everything else, in order to put all of that majesty on display for you to praise and magnify. And that strikes a lot of people as a very unattractive case of megalomania.

Let me read a quote from the London Financial Times by this fellow that I mentioned. Michael Prowse is his name, and you’ll hear what I mean by calling this an obstacle to faith. This is from the March 30, 2003 London Financial Times:

“God, everywhere in the Bible, does what he does for his own glory.”

Worship is an aspect of religion that I always found difficult to understand. Suppose we postulate an omnipotent being who, for reasons inscrutable to us, decided to create something other than himself. Why should he . . . expect us to worship him? We didn’t ask to be created. Our lives are often troubled. We know that human tyrants, puffed up with pride, crave adulation and homage. But a morally perfect God would surely have no character defects. So why are all those people on their knees every Sunday?

C.S. Lewis said that, when he read the Psalms in his twenties — he was converted when he was 29 — and saw their continual litany of “praise God, praise God, magnify God, extol God,” and he knew the Christian doctrine that this book is inspired by God, and so understood that God saying, “Praise me, praise me, praise me, praise me.” And he said it sounded like an old woman needing compliments.

So you have C.S. Lewis, who eventually did get over the obstacle. And you have Michael Prowse who I don’t know whether he’s gotten over the obstacle. I wrote him a long letter when I read this, to sum up this message. I didn’t hear back from him. For him, he’s not even going toward Christianity because Christianity is ruled by a megalomaniac.

We don’t like people that — megalomaniacs. If I stood in this pulpit and said, “The reason I came to Boston is to get your praise, so would you please applaud a little bit, stand up and say nice things about me? Come on, talk about me,” you would all say, “This fellow’s sick, he should go back to Minneapolis.” But if God stands here and says it, we’re supposed to like it.

This is not a straw man. People stumble over this. I was talking to Don Carson a few weeks ago, and as he does what he calls these university missions around the country, he said that there’s been a shifting of the gears in people’s brains from 40 years ago to today. The kinds of questions that are often asked are ones like, “How do you prove that Jesus was raised from the dead?” That would be 40 years ago. “How can you worship a megalomaniac?” That would be a question today. So that’s the obstacle I would like to help you over in these next few minutes.

Created for His Glory

Let me underline the fact that it’s not a straw man in that it is really a biblical problem. It’s in the Bible, it’s not like these guys are making this up. Let’s look at a few passages. In Isaiah 43:6–7, God says to Israel, “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” What does that mean? “I created you for my glory.” It doesn’t mean God created you to make him more glorious than he was before, like you’re now a component, and without you he’s defective. That’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying, “I’m creating you to display my glory, to magnify my glory.” And that word magnify is tricky because microscopes magnify and telescopes magnify. They do something very different.

Magnify with a microscope, you make a tiny little thing look bigger than it is. If you try to magnify God that way, you blaspheme. He’s not little. You can’t make God look bigger than he is. You try, you blaspheme. A telescope, on the other hand, is designed to make things that are enormous, but look little, look more like they are. That’s the way you’re supposed to magnify God.

God created us to display his glory, to make it look more like it really is. You are in God’s image with the gifts that you have for that reason. Believer or unbeliever, that’s why you’re on the planet: in order to put to people’s eyes, with the lens of your life, a telescope that helps them see God for who he really is. Most people think he’s little, or totally insignificant. Now that’s one text (Isaiah 43:6–7).

Lacking His Glory

Almost all Christians have learned Romans 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Isn’t that strange, that he would virtually define sin as falling short of the glory of God? What does that mean — fall short? It’s not a very literal translation. A very literal translation would be “lack” — “All have sinned and lack.” What does “lack” mean?

Romans 1:23 says, “We exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” So you all lack, you’ve all made that exchange. I make it every day. My emotions get more excited about a new program on my computer than about God. I am dishonoring God every single day of my life because my emotions do not rise to the level of approval, joy, delight, praise, and admiration that he is worthy of. And so I’m falling short of magnifying his glory all the time, which means I am under his wrath, worthy of judgment — and so are you. And he, according to the Christian gospel in the Bible, sent Jesus Christ, his Son, to fix that.

Sent for Glory

Here’s another text that makes the problem more significant. Roman 15:8–9: “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

So Jesus comes mercifully to lay his life down in our place so that all of this failure to glorify, honor, magnify God the way we should could be forgiven, our righteousness of perfection could be provided by another, counted as mine if I would trust him. And then you get this ruinous phrase at the end of verse nine, “in order that we might glorify God for his mercy.” So there you are back again with the self-centered God. Even his Son is sent into the world to get praise for him. And that is absolutely right.

“Love seeks the greatest joy of the beloved, and God is the greatest joy in the universe.”

So, wherever you turn in the Bible, C.S. Lewis was stumbling, Michael Prowse is stumbling, and they’re stumbling over a real stone. We’re not making it up. It’s not a straw man that I’ve stuck up here that has some easy way to knock over. God, everywhere in the Bible, does what he does for his own glory.

We don’t like people like that. I don’t like people like that. If I’m talking to you after this service, and I get the impression you’re trying to get me to say something nice about you, or know a little more about your savvy, or pick up on your intelligence, I don’t like you. You don’t like people like that either. And I’m telling you, that’s the way God is. He is. If you were to talk to God after this service, his main agenda would be, “Praise me.”

Not a Megalomaniac

There’s the obstacle. What is the answer that would cause anybody to want to really be with him, spend a day, let alone eternity with him? Let me put it in my words, and then I’ll put it in C.S. Lewis’s words, and then I’ll get it from the Bible so you can see the real authority behind it.

Here’s my answer. The reason God is not a megalomaniac in calling for all of his creatures to praise him is because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Meaning, if God’s glory is shown to be what it really is through my enjoying him, being satisfied in him, then his pursuit of his glory is his pursuit of my joy, which means that God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the most magnificent act of love. That’s my answer. Here’s Lewis’s answer. He wrote a book on the Psalms where he was describing this stumbling block of his, and then he wrote this:

My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy not merely because it expresses, but completes the enjoyment. It is its appointed consummation.

When I read that back in the late 60s, it absolutely changed everything. This is sort of like why you go to the Grand Canyon. Why do people go to the Grand Canyon? It is not to increase their self-esteem. You feel small at the edge of the Grand Canyon, you feel vulnerable, your knees wobble, especially if you walk out on that crazy new gizmo they have out there that you can see through, one mile down under your feet. Nobody goes there to say, “I just want to feel big.”

So why do they go? Because we’re not made to feel big, we’re made to admire big. You all know it. Some of you have books on your coffee tables because you can’t get there. You just go look at it in a book, seeing rivers and mountains — these glossy, big $40 books that you put out there. Why do you do that, what’s that about? It’s about substitute worship. Not a sin, just you would like to be at the river, at the mountain, at the canyon, and you can’t get there so you’re going to look at the book.

We are made to delight in God, and Lewis says in calling us to praise the canyon, he’s not adding on some little rule, he’s saying, “Bring your joy to consummation,” which means that all these statements in the Bible, “praise me, praise me, praise me,” are really translated, “Come to fullest joy in me. Come to complete, consummate delight in me.” That’s what they’re saying. This means he’s not a megalomaniac, he’s after your infinite good!

God is stuck with being the most admirable being in the universe. He can only love you well by having you know that. If he tries to do some kind of mock humility, and direct you, say, to me, that is stupid. That would be really wicked. If he’s going to direct you to that glory and beauty and magnificence that will satisfy you, and why you’re made, he must direct you to himself.

This is what love is. Love seeks the greatest joy of the beloved, and God is the greatest joy in the universe. So he has to be calling people to himself if he would love them. Nobody can copy him in this. Nobody else may love this way. I love you by telling you to look to him, and he loves you by telling you to look to him. If he was to tell you to look to me, or if I was to tell you to look to me, he and I wouldn’t be loving. We would be cruel. So that’s my answer, and that’s Lewis’s answer.

Gain — All Gain

Now let’s get it from the Bible. Here’s the text, and I’m sorry it’s not from Psalm 16, I’ve changed my mind. Psalm 16 has those two verses at the end, “You show me the path of life; in your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” There it is. Now I’m going to go to Philippians 1:20–21:

“The major quest of the Christian life is, ‘Can I find satisfaction in him at every point?’”

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Now, logic in the way propositions fit together in the Bible is absolutely crucial. So get this one. First statement: “My passion is to magnify Christ like a telescope, to magnify Christ with the way I die,” I’m just going to leave off the living half and just do the die half, “that I might so die as to make him look great.” Is that your goal? It’s one of my goals. “I want to die in a way that makes him look majestic, supremely valuable, glorious, worthy,” and then he adds, “for to die is gain.”

Now, if I were teaching a class, I would just stop here and give you a test: finish the logic for me, work that out. This is Boston. You’re supposed to be smart. I read the statistics in the history of the church. So how do you work it out? “My passion is that Christ will be magnified in the way I die, in my death, for,” and then he explains and underpins, “to die is gain.”

And the gain piece is explained two verses later in verse 23 where he says, “I would rather depart, die, and be with Christ, for that is far better.” So the gain here is gaining more of Christ. So now let’s put it together. “My passion is to magnify Christ in dying, for when I die I will get more of Christ, and that will be gain.”

This means Christ is made to look really good if I get a lot of gain in him. Christ is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. You will make Christ look magnificent on the day you die when you look at your family that you’re leaving, you look at your house that you’re leaving, you look at the planned retirement that you will not have that you’re leaving, you look at the grandbabies that you will not see grow up, and you look at Christ waiting, and you say, “Gain.”

That will make him look better than family, better than house, better than retirement. And if you don’t, he won’t, which means your quest for satisfaction in him is the means by which he will be glorified in you. There’s the biblical warrant for saying, “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him, whether I live or whether I die.”

The Quest of the Christian Life

The major quest of the Christian life is, “Can I find satisfaction in him at every point?” This leads me to a stunning application that absolutely blew me away in 1968. The stunning application of that truth is, “Well, if that’s right, if God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him, then you’re saying I should devote all my energy and all my time, in every circumstance, to being as happy as I can be in God.” And I’m saying, “Yes.”

I grew up hearing my dad say, absolutely rightly, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And I knew that. I wanted that. But inside, I’m saying, “I want to be happy. Can I be happy? Is it okay to want to be happy?” I don’t think you cannot not want to be happy, any more than you cannot not get hungry, unless you’re sick.

So, Bible: “Everything you do, make God look glorious in it.” Piper’s heart: “I want to be happy.” And now, they’re coming together when I’m about 23 years old. They’re coming together, that not only may I in some kind of inadvertent result be happy, I must pursue happiness because God is glorified that way. If I am indifferent to him emotionally, he’s going to look cheap in my life. And I don’t want him to look cheap. I want him to look expensive. He’s rich, he’s glorious, and he’s great.

Pursue Joy — Always

So what we should do for the remainder of our minutes, I think, is spell out biblically this implication. Because this is so shocking to people, I don’t know if you’ve stumbled like I stumbled. “You mean joy, or happiness, or pleasure, is not optional? It’s really required?” That has a double whammy. It’s utterly liberating and utterly devastating.

“We’re commanded to pursue joy, not to be indifferent.”

It’s liberating because “You mean it’s okay to want to be happy? It’s okay to pursue joy with all my might?” And then it’s devastating because we’re talking God, God as the source and object of that joy, and none of us feel that way about God until we are born again. A miracle happens in us, and all of our love affair with the Internet, and our family, and our food, and our work, all of that just switches places, and God becomes our supreme treasure. That’s what the new birth is, when the Holy Spirit turns your world upside down and your affections are now fixed on your Creator, and not his creation. So let me spell out for you biblical reasons why this shocking statement is true, that you should, all day, every day, in everything you do, pursue the maximization of your joy in God.

We Are Commanded to Be Happy in God

First, the Bible commands you to be happy — it’s not optional. I’ll just let you finish the text for me. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” that was a good word, joyful, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:1–2)! There it is. Serve the Lord with gladness. God does not like begrudging, duty-laden service. Here’s a New Testament form of it: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 8:7).

This is not a small thing to me. This is a devastating thing. When I get up in the morning, and I hear a statement like, “The Lord loves a cheerful pastor, a cheerful giver, a cheerful counselor, a cheerful preacher, a cheerful husband, a cheerful father,” I’m devastated. I’m helpless. I realize Christianity is not a do-good religion. It’s not a list of rules, “Okay, I’ve got my list, I’m going to go through them today, and the first one is be happy.” I’m not feeling happy. I wake up sad every day. I’ve got to go to the Bible, I’ve got to go on my knees, I’ve got to preach the gospel to me, I’ve got to plead with the Lord, “Open the eyes of my heart that I may see wonderful things out of your word because I’m low this morning.” Every morning, I’m wired that way. I’ve got to get saved every day.

So we’re commanded: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) and many, many others. So argument number one: we’re commanded to pursue joy, not to be indifferent to this.

Threatened to Be Happy in God

Second, we are threatened with terrible things if we will not be happy. Listen to this frightening word from Deuteronomy 28:47 where God talking to his rebellious people: “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 whom the Lord will send against you.”

The Lord threatens terrible things. “If you will not be happy in me, if you insist on finding your chief happiness elsewhere, you will pay.” That’s what sin is, that’s what judgment is, it is so right, and our own consciences are going to confirm God’s judgment on us for our finding our chief joy in something other than God.

The Nature of Faith

Third, the nature of faith shows us that the pursuit of joy is mandated — the nature of faith. Here’s one verse. In John 6:35, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”

Now, notice the two halves of the verse: (1) come, never hunger; (2) believe, never thirst. So you lay them on top of each other in order to understand what believe means, because that’s what we’re trying to define. What does believing in Jesus mean? We throw it around, we Christians, all the time. We throw around, “believe in Jesus, believe in Jesus.” What do you mean?

And Jesus says, he’s talking about your soul here, not your body, that it’s a coming to him to have your soul hunger satisfied. That’s what believing is. It’s not a believing of a fact merely, it’s a coming, “I come to you, I’m desperate. I’m needy. I’m longing. I want to be happy. I want to get rid of my guilt. I just hate the way life has gone. I don’t like the prospect of an eternity of a bad conscience. I pray, O God, help me.” That’s coming. “You have bread, you have water, satisfy me.”

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy” (Isaiah 55:1–2). This is the way God talks to the world. Come. So the very nature of saving faith is embracing Jesus as the all-satisfying treasure of your life. That’s what faith is.

The Nature of Sin

Fourth, the nature of evil teaches us that we must pursue our satisfaction in God all the time. What is evil? I wonder what your definition would be. Give me a definition of evil, get it in your head, and I’ll tell you what the definition is in the book of Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah.

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. (Jeremiah 2:12–13)

So what’s evil? Evil is being presented with a fountain, a fountain that if you drank from it would give you life forever, and satisfy you with a river of delights, that’s presented to you, and you smell it, and you say, “Nope, not interested.” And you turn to the dirt and you start scraping and scraping to make a cistern. “I’ve got to have water, my soul is thirsty, I’m a human being, I’m not a porpoise, I’m going to dig until I get something that satisfies this longing in here,” and you dig and you dig, and you suck and you suck on this dirt. That’s evil.

“The very nature of saving faith is embracing Jesus as the all-satisfying treasure of your life.”

Isn’t it amazing? I’m just so thankful that God defines evil as turning away from joy. That’s evil. Do you want a definition of evil? Evil is a flight from joy. That’s what evil is. Of course, evil people think they’re doing just the opposite, but that’s why the Bible is written, to open our eyes that this scraping away, whether it’s a scientific scraping, or a sexual lust scraping, or a food scraping, or a marriage scraping, “I’ve just got to satisfy my soul,” and it’s all dry because there’s one fountain of living water, and it’s called God.

Converted to Joy

Fifth, what is conversion, conversion from not being a Christian to being a Christian, not following Jesus to following Jesus? I’m going to give you one picture of it from Matthew 13:44: it’s one of these old teeny-weeny parables that Jesus gives. 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 he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

What’s the meaning of that parable? It means that the kingdom of God, that is the saving rule or reign of God in your life, provided for sinners by Jesus Christ, is like a treasure. And it is discovered to be, when the eyes of our hearts open, so valuable it’s worth more than everything in the world.

Find Your Life

Sixth, people say to me, they have for years anyway, “You’re calling people to pursue their joy all the time in God doesn’t fit with Jesus’s teaching about self-denial. ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross,’ which is an instrument of execution, ‘and follow me.’ There, so much for your sermon.”

And my response to that is always, “Just read the rest of the verse. You’re stopping halfway through.” The rest of the verse says, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). What’s the argument? This isn’t an argument. It’s an argument on the basis of your desire to save your life. Jesus has zero desire for you to avoid that premise. You want to save your life. So do I. So lose it.

Now, this is coming real close to where we’re going this evening, and here is where I said I would tell you the obstacle that I’ll try to remove tonight because now I’ve created it. Here’s the obstacle I’ve created: at this point in your thinking, laying out all these Scriptures, it sounds like you’re creating a whole church full of selfish people. They’re pursuing their joy all the time, their joy. “Make me happy, make me happy. Everywhere I go I’m going to step on you, squash. But I’m happy. I’m going to use you to do what John Piper said I’m supposed to do. I’m supposed to pursue my happiness, my happiness. You get out of my way because I’m on the way to joy. And if you’re in the way, squash.” Why is it that my summoning people to pursue their joy, their joy in God, all the time doesn’t produce unbelievably self-preoccupied people instead of loving people?

So the obstacle for tonight is: The only faith I would even remotely consider is one that produces loving people. And you don’t, you just created selfish people, self-preoccupied people, people after their own joy only. And here’s my thesis for tonight. Not only is that wrong, it is totally wrong, meaning the only people who can love others are those who pursue their joy in God. Period. That’s weird, I know, over the top. You can’t be saying that, not in Boston anyway, you can’t just say wild and crazy things like, “The only people who can love others are those who are pursuing their joy in God all the time.” Well, that’s my thesis for later tonight.

No Place I’d Rather Be

Let me close like this. Let’s go back to where we began at the beginning. I’m arguing that God is not a megalomaniac in pursuing our praise. God is glorified when we delight in him, enjoy him, and are satisfied in him, so that his glory and my joy come to consummation in the same act. Call it worship.

“The only people who can love others are those who pursue their joy in God.”

So here’s my closing illustration. We are against, I am against, a duty-driven religion that says, “God is glorified if I do the right thing, do the right things.” I’ve been married 40 years, as of December 21 last year.

I did this one time, on the 40th anniversary of the day we met, I’ve really done this, it’s on video. I haven’t put in on YouTube, but I have it at home. I said to my twelve-year-old daughter at the time, “Okay, you’re going to video this. Mommy and I are going to walk through this,” because I’ve told this story so many times, I want people to know I really did it. This is make-believe though, the one I’m going to tell you.

So it’s really cold outside, I’ve got 40 roses behind my back. I don’t know if you can hold 40 roses, it costs $120. You ring the doorbell. I never ring my doorbell, so Noël’s going to be surprised. She comes to the door, opens the door, looks at me funny like, “Why did you ring the doorbell? This is your house.” And I pull the roses out, and I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” And she says, “Johnny, they’re beautiful, why did you?” And I say, “It’s my duty.”

Now, I’ve told that story a hundred times, and people always laugh. Why did you laugh at duty? This is serious. You should laugh, but you need to know why. It’ll change your life if you know why. To know why, we’re going to rewind the video, do it one more time, then we’ll be done.

Ding dong. She comes to the door, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” “Oh Johnny, they’re beautiful, why did you?” “Because I can’t help myself. In fact, I got a babysitter for Talitha, and you and I are going out tonight because there’s nobody I’d rather spend the night with than you.”

Now, not in a thousand years would Noël ever say, “Nobody you’d ever want to spend the night with? All you ever think about is yourself. You just want to have a good time tonight, you are so selfish. You just think about yourself all the time. Nothing you’d rather do than be with me!”

Now, why would she not say that? And why did you laugh again? What’s going on here, what’s at work in your hearts? Something is written on your hearts very deeply here that’s producing this appropriate laughter. And I’ll tell you what’s written there. You know that the highest tribute I can pay to my wife is to tell her that she makes me happy.

Nobody else on the planet touches me and causes me to be more delighted, more pleasurable, than you. Why doesn’t she call me selfish at that moment? Why doesn’t she accuse me of being all wrapped up in me? The reason is really clear: I’m wrapped up in her. The way I’m experiencing it is that she’s making me happy. And that’s the way it is with God.

If you want to magnify God and glorify God, don’t you dare come in this room on Sunday morning and say, “It’s a duty. This is just what we do at Park Street. We go to church on Sunday morning. We do the stuff. We do the right thing. We’ve got the list, we’ve got it down, and God is honored.” He’s not.

But if you walk into this room and somebody says, “Why are you here?” And you say, “There’s no place else I’d rather be, this is God’s house. I intend to meet God here, enjoy God here, magnify God here, delight in God here, encounter God, fellowship with God.” God will look good when you talk like that, just like my wife looked good when I said, “There’s nobody else tonight I’d rather be with.” God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied with him.