Thank you, especially the bicentennial committee and Gordon, Pastor Gordon, and any others who had any hand in my being invited. It’s an honor to be here. Not many churches are able to celebrate 200 years of steadfastness. That’s amazing, so it’s great to be with you.
I’m here in Boston for these four services to remove, if I can, by God’s help, two obstacles to your embracing Jesus as the Lord of the universe and the treasure of your life and the forgiver of your sins and the provider of your righteousness and the guide of your family and everything that he wants to be for you.
There are obstacles that stand in the way of people coming to that yieldedness and that reception and that embrace of Jesus Christ. There are two of them that I wanted to address — one this morning, one now this evening.
Is God a Megalomaniac?
One big obstacle that stands in the way of some people is that God in the Bible, if you read carefully, sounds like a megalomaniac, meaning that all over the Bible God is demanding that people praise him. C.S. Lewis said it sounded like an old woman demanding compliments, saying, “Praise me, praise me, praise me.” Read it all over the Bible. If I were to act like that, you wouldn’t like me, and rightly so. But if God stands here and says it, we’re supposed to like it, and a lot of people don’t. Should they?
“For God to be self-exalting is the highest virtue and the most loving act.”
What’s the solution? How can that not be an obstacle if God behaves all day long in ways that we don’t like among humans? Why would we want to go there? The answer I gave this morning is captured in a phrase: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And I argued for that from the Bible this morning. Here’s the way it solves the problem. If that’s true, if God is shown to be most magnificent because I’m most deeply satisfied in him than I am in anything else, that’s the way God is seeking his glory, then for him to seek his glory and my maximum joy are the same, which means for God to be self-exalting is the highest virtue and the most loving act.
For you to do that would be vicious — cruel. For you to say, “Praise me. Look at me. Know me. Be satisfied with me,” would be sick, because it would be distracting from where true joy can be found. Therefore, what we do to love others is to say, “Look at him. Praise him. Know him. Enjoy him. Be satisfied in him.” And if that’s what we say, that’s what God says, “Look at me. Know me. Be satisfied in me, because you’re made from me. You want to know joy? Know me.” God is the one being in the universe who is stuck with being infinitely admirable. I must direct your attention to him in order to be loving, and he must direct your attention to himself in order to be loving.
If he were to direct your attention any other or to call you to admire or praise anything else above him, he would be cruel. That’s my solution to the obstacle of God seeming like a megalomaniac. If God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, then for him to seek his glory in your life all the time is not megalomania. It is love.
Now, the implication of that that I spelled out this morning briefly was, if that’s true, then you should devote your life 24/7 to pursuing maximum joy in God, because that’s the way he is most glorified. He is most glorified in you when you’re most satisfied in him. So if you’re not at the moment most satisfied in him, you should be pursuing that.
Are We Self-Centered Hedonists?
Here’s the obstacle I said I wanted to address tonight. It sounds like when you make that your goal — for example, as a pastor like me, I’ve been in Bethlehem for 29 years and my goal has been to be used by God to create a people like that who are satisfied in God — isn’t that going to produce a people who are all wrapped up in themselves and don’t love other people? That’s the concern that I have. That’s the obstacle.
If somebody hears this morning’s message without hearing it related to horizontal love — how we love each other — a person could very easily conclude: If you produce a kind of people who are always pursuing their joy, then they’re just going to step on other people on the way to their joy. Nobody cared about other people. They just care about themselves.
So that’s the obstacle that seems to me has to be addressed and overcome because I frankly don’t think you should embrace a religion or a faith that doesn’t awaken love in other people and for other people. If it doesn’t produce love, then we know intuitively something is wrong.
Has what I’ve done this morning gotten me into a pickle so that I’m really producing a bunch of self-centered people who care only about their own satisfaction and the rest can go to hell as far as they’re concerned, as long as I’m happy? Or, is it the case, and I made the statement this morning, not only is it not an obstacle that seeking your own joy produces love for others, but that’s the only thing that produces love for others. If you don’t get on a quest to maximize your joy in God, you won’t love other people. And how in the world can we defend that?
What Is Love?
Here’s the way we’re going to go about it. I’m going to go to 2 Corinthians 8. What I’m after in this text is I have to know what love is among people before I can start making pronouncements that this way of pursuing joy in God gets in the way of that. It’s an obstacle. We’re just kind of using the word love like we know what we’re talking about, and my guess is we don’t. I don’t really care what Boston or Minneapolis thinks love is. I care infinitely what God thinks love is because he’s going to call me to account someday. Did you love your people? It’s the main question after, Did you believe my Son? He’s going to say, “Did you love people?” That’s the first fruit of the Holy Spirit. Do you have the Spirit of my Son? If you have the Spirit of my Son, there’s going to be love in your life. I need to know what that is. Do you know what that is? How would you define it?
There are three verses in this chapter which I think give us a beautiful, helpful, powerful obstacle-overcoming definition of what love is. So let’s read 2 Corinthians 8:1–3. Let me set the situation for you, otherwise it won’t make any sense.
Paul, writing to the church in Corinth in Southern Greece, is going to refer to the churches in Macedonia, and Macedonia was Northern Greece. That’s where Philippi is, Thessalonica. Then Paul went there and he was raising money for the poor in Jerusalem. He was going to go with all his money to Jerusalem and give it to the poor. He’s raising money.
He had an amazing experience in Macedonia about that and he’s telling the church in Corinth about that experience in order to motivate them to give money to the poor in Jerusalem. So this is a fundraising chapter, and I wonder how you would do it. I wonder if you would go in to Corinth when you wanted to raise money for the poor in Jerusalem. What would you tell them? What do you say to awaken this kind of love? It’s going to be called love in verse eight, but let’s read the first three verses.
“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 8:1). The first thing he remembers is something happened in Macedonia and what it was God’s grace, God’s mercy, God’s undeserved power and favor came down on that church and changed people. Made them into weird, radically crazy Christians. You’ll see that in a minute. Grace appeared and was given in verse one in Macedonia. Now let’s read verses 3–4:
for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord.
In other words, no coercion is going on here. Paul’s not threatening them or bending their arm. He’s just motivating them with the Macedonians, or he’s motivating the Macedonians with the grace of God.
Now, here’s the word love down in verse eight: “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.” You see what he’s saying? He’s saying, “What I just described to you of those Macedonians’ response to my plea for the poor in Jerusalem, that response is love. Now, I want the same genuine love to show up in Corinth when I get there, so I’m sending this letter ahead of time with this kind of motivation.” Now we know that verses 1–3 are a description of love. That’s what I want. I want to know what love looks like. I want to know how it works, where it comes from, because I’m called to be that way.
Grace Has Come
Let’s go back and watch it happen. It’s so obvious. The pieces are right there in those first three verses. The first piece in the origin of love is that the grace of God is given. I’ll just bear testimony, without the grace of God in my life. I would be the most selfish person on the planet. There’s no doubt about it. He’s having a hard time with me as it is. I am wired like you are because of my inbred sinfulness. We don’t need to explain the doctrine of original sin in order to know that it’s true. It is the most experientially demonstrable doctrine in the world. Everybody is selfish. Everybody loves the praise of man. Everybody is looking out for himself unless some amazing thing has happened.
“There is no correlation between wealth and generosity.”
So the grace came, and that’s what has happened. Jesus Christ came into the world. He loved us. He died for us. He forgives our sins if you’ll have it. He provides us with a perfection that we can stand before God with and he gives us power by the Holy Spirit. He transforms our mind to think the way God does. Grace comes through Jesus and it came in Macedonia and that’s the beginning of love.
Abundance of Joy in Affliction and Poverty
Now look at verse 2 again: “For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty.” Now take those two words — affliction and poverty — and just ponder them for a moment. Evidently, Paul did not preach the prosperity gospel because when he’s done and he’s through, that the grace of God is at work, affliction is rising and poverty is remaining. So he says there’s a severe affliction and there’s serious poverty. They didn’t go away.
A lot of people think that I’d become generous, I’d give to the poor if I ever stop being poor. You know as well as I do there is zero correlation between becoming rich and becoming generous. Zero. In fact, it goes backward. Jesus said so and so does the Internet. Just go online.
If you compare Massachusetts with Mississippi, here’s what you find. Mississippi, lowest per capita income is highest per capita giving. Massachusetts, one of the highest per capita income, seventh in giving. There is no correlation between wealth and generosity. It goes backward. Jesus said, “That woman over there who put in her two pennies gave more than all those rich people because she sacrificed.”
Don’t ever think that if I could just get over this bump, I’d become a certain kind of person. You won’t. Why do you think there’s white-collar crime? Where did Ponzi schemes come from that are devastating thousands of people? They came from people who have about four billion dollars and it’s not quite enough. You can’t ever get enough. It’s creepy.
Now, look at these Christians in verse 2 again: “For in a severe test of affliction,” with extreme poverty, it says, “their abundance of joy,” we can just stop there. So we’ve got poverty, affliction, and not just joy, but big joy — abundant joy — which came from where? Verse one: It came from the grace of God. It’s not coming from the absence of affliction. It’s not coming from getting well. It’s not coming from getting over financial difficulties like we just heard about.
Is your heart resting in job or God? Because one of the reasons you may not have a job is because God’s trying to get your attention. He’s got something so much more important, and I’m not minimizing the difficulties of these days. But I don’t think these days are worse than that.
Look at verse two again. An abundance of joy is coming from God — not stuff and not the situation. And now what happens? It says it overflowed: “For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Where does generosity, that is love, come from? Answer: overflowing joy in the grace of God.
An Impulse Free from Constraint
So what’s my definition of love on the basis of those two verses? Here it is. Love is a God, grace-enabled impulse. I’m choosing that word, to get out the inner freedom rather than external constraint. These chapters are all about: don’t give under compulsion. The Lord loves what kind of giver? A cheerful one.
The Lord doesn’t want you constrained by rules out here — 10, 20, 5 percent or whatever, rule, rule, rule. It’s not what love does. Love doesn’t say, “Check the rule. Keep the rule. Get it,” and go, “I’m a lover.” It’s not true. It comes from inside. I’m using the world impulse, so now we’ve got a grace-enabled impulse to expand my joy in grace to include you in it. That’s my definition of love. When grace comes down, when you know God, when you’ve seen God, when you’ve been loved by God, and God’s revealed himself to you, you’re blown away by the majesty and glory and mercy and grace and holiness and justice and patience of God in your life. And that’s what you were made for, that comes inside.
I’m going to use a weather analogy. I don’t know weather. This is probably a terrible analogy. But I’ll risk it. Just pretend it’s true. It doesn’t even work like this. There are high-pressure zones in the world during weather systems and low-pressure zones. And when a high-pressure zone gets near a low-pressure zone, wind is created. I hope that’s true. If it’s not, pretend. And that the high-pressure zone is moving, the wind is drawing into the low-pressure zone to fill it up to equalize the zones. That’s the way I picture love.
So grace is coming down and creating what Christians call high-pressure zones. I hope God is making me into a high-pressure zone lover, which means I’ve got this impulse inside of me. He’s been so good to me. He’s filled me up. He’s satisfied me. He’s given me a hope of everlasting life and he’s turned all my pains into stepping stones to work good in my life and it’s a high-pressure zone building up in here.
So there’s this impulse. Now what does the impulse do? This is where love happens. The impulse wants to grow. This is why I said this morning you must always be on a quest to increase your joy in God. Maximize your joy in God. You’re never satisfied, not on this planet. You’re never satisfied with how much pleasure you have in God. It’s never full. You never love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. You’re always 10, 20, 30 percent behind full, so you’re always on a quest in order to maximize your joy in God. Why? Because the impulse of love is the impulse of that joy that wants to get bigger. I want to be happier and happier and happier.
“What will give you joy will be the expansion of your joy in God into the lives of others.”
I have learned now from this text and many others that the way this joy grows into its fullness is by reaching others and drawing them into it so that my joy becomes their joy and our joy in God is bigger when we’re doing it together. That’s my answer to the obstacle for tonight. I do not believe that it’s true that if you set your face to maximize your joy in God you will become a selfish, unloving person. Rather, the thing that will give you joy will be the expansion of your joy in God into the lives of others, and you’ll be able to die in that process.
One of the ironies of my understanding of ethics, my understanding of love, is that even though I’m telling you 24/7 break your neck to find maximum joy in God, I do mean it. It might cost you a broken neck. That’s what Paul said in Philippians. He risked his neck to complete your ministry. Honor such a man. That’s love.
More Blessed to Give
I know I said this morning somebody’s going to walk out of here and say, “Piper said, ‘have as much sex as you can. Drink until you’re crazy blue in the face and get as much money as you can because that’s the way you could be happy.’ And he said, ‘be happy, feel nice all the time.’” I know somebody’s going to say that. I just know it because the natural man cannot receive the things of the spirit. But maybe if God were merciful, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “No, no, no. He didn’t mean that.”
Let’s look at Acts 20:35. Paul is concluding his message to the elders in Ephesus on the beach in Miletus. He had an emotional moment and he says, “I want you to serve the weak.” Then he adds this motive, “Remembering the words of our Lord.” This is one of the very few quotations of Jesus outside the gospels. “Remembering the words of our Lord, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” It is more blessed, more happy, more satisfying to give and to die than to receive.
Now, here’s the illustration. You know this. Deep down in your heart, believer or unbeliever in this room right now, you know this, and I’ll show you how you know it already. Do you feel more loved when a person does a good deed for you begrudgingly out of a sense of duty or cheerfully with a deep longing desire and finding satisfaction in doing good to you? Which do you feel more loved?
If I walk into a hospital room where one of my parishioners has just had a heart attack and I put my hand on her arm and she opens her eyes. She’s older, so she talks like this. She says, “Oh, pastor. You didn’t need to come. Thank you so much. You’re so busy.” And if I say, “It’s my duty. I didn’t really want to come. But I’m a pastor and I have to come,” she won’t at that moment feel loved, will she? I mean, not as much as if I were to say, “Mabel, I struggle sometimes with going to the hospital late at night, but I have learned something. I have learned that when I stand beside a member of my church and share a little of my weak faith to build yours up and to help you either live or die, I go away so blessed. I just go away so blessed. So it’s not hard for me to be here. I’m loving being here because the payback for me. You minister more to me than I minister to you.”
Now, at that moment, she could either accuse me of being selfish, “The only reason you’re here is because it blesses you,” or she could say, “I understand. I understand that I’m getting blessed, you’re getting blessed because God set it up that way.” I do believe that our joy is maximized because our joy becomes the joy of others. That is their joy becomes what makes us happy. If I could see her take heart, faith grow strong, defeat the devil, die well, I tell you, we’d have a great funeral. I’d love it. I love funerals. I love funerals way more than marriages. I’ll tell you why. Everybody’s happy at a marriage, and therefore, God isn’t needed. Everybody’s sad at a funeral, and therefore, God is desperately needed, and therefore, people are wiser at funerals.
“It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) because at a feast, your stomachs fall and you don’t need God. When you’ve just lost the most precious thing in your life, then you have to decide what’s that most precious or is God most precious. And that’s what you have to decide.
A Better and Lasting Possession
I now want to point to you that Hebrews 10:32: “But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings.” It’s just like 2 Corinthians, right? Affliction is not going away when they got saved. It’s getting worse. Your life is getting worse, not better — externally anyway. Let’s continue reading: “you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated” (Hebrews 10:32–33).
Sometimes it’s coming at you directly, people mocking you or throwing stones at you or painting graffiti on your house, “Go home, Christian. Get out of here. We don’t like Christians.” Or sometimes it’s not you, it’s them, and you’re a good friend of theirs. What will you do? Go on the ground and say, “Deal with that. I don’t want to get my kids in trouble.” Or you go beside them and you stand with them in prison and get yourself in trouble. Well, that’s what they did. So let’s read that.
“If your mind is satisfied with what God has in store for you in heaven, you will be the loving person on the planet.”
Verse 34: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” Now that’s crazy. That’s why I came to Boston. If I could be an instrument in your life to help you act like that, the world would turn upside down. So they’re burning your house on your way to prison and you’re looking over your shoulder and singing, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, your kingdom is forever.” I’m going to the jail. That’s what love is. I’m going to Afghanistan. I’m going to Indonesia. I’m going to the curbs. I’m going to the hard places in Boston. I’m going to my family member I haven’t talked to for ten years because I’m so fed up that they never would respond. I’m going there tonight or next year. I’m going to do the hard thing and I’m going to rejoice in it. That’s love.
Now, where did that come from? Next phrase in the end of verse 34: “Since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” This is not maximum self-sacrifice. This is maximizing your joy in heaven. You knew you have a better possession and an abiding, and it lasts forever. So if your house goes up in flames, if they burn all your wedding dishes, you have a better possession.
I had a woman walk up to me after the service this morning and point to her engagement ring and she said, “I came to hear you this morning, and either on the way or here in this room, my diamond fell out, and it’s gone.” Then she said, “I just want you to know it’s worth the loss of my diamond to hear what you said. I could die and go to heaven. I think that they found it, so I think the story has a double good ending. But that’s this text. You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, the confiscating of your stuff, since you knew you have a better possession and an abiding one.
The Most Loving Type of Person
I just don’t buy it when people say, “You can love God too much or you can be too heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good.” A person who is no earthly good is most definitely not heavenly minded, because if your mind is satisfied with what God has in store for you in heaven, you will be the freest, most dangerously risk-taking loving person on the planet. You simply will not need money that you thought you needed. You won’t need the praise of men that you thought you needed. You will be radically free, and that’s why I came.
I would love to see unbelievers moving to that process of growth. I’d like to see believers make strides, and I’d like to have stories come back to me like the one from about an hour and a half ago where a family said to me, “We’ve just got to see you and pray with you because we’re going to Yemen because of you.” I said, “Yemen, that’s not a safe place. There was a Southern Baptist missionary who got killed in Yemen a few years ago.” “We know that, five sons.” That’s why I’m here.