One Life: Enjoy It

Campus Outreach National Conference | Chattanooga, Tennessee


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

“One Life: Enjoy It.” Or you could say, “Joy: The Most Serious Pursuit in the World.”

I know that for a lot of people, the term joy and the term serious don’t go together. They feel like alternatives, you can either be serious or you can be happy. That’s not true because the opposite of joy is not serious. The opposite of joyful is silly or trivial, at least the way I see joy.

So I’m serious in my quest for joy, and I want you to be serious in your quest for joy. It’s not silly, this quest, this pursuit of your maximum happiness in this life and forever. It’s not silly, it’s serious. It’s not marginal, it’s central. It’s not optional, it’s necessary.

The Chasm Between Fear and Joy

I was thinking yesterday that there’s an infinite qualitative chasm between those who are glad, happy, and joyful that they’re not going to hell, and those that are glad, happy, and joyful that they’re also going to be with Jesus forever. There’s an infinite chasm between those two groups of people, because joy in Jesus — joy in God — is not the same as being glad you don’t have to go to hell. There’s nothing spiritual about not wanting pain, and there’s everything spiritual about being satisfied with God. A miracle has to happen for that to come true. No miracle has to happen to be afraid of hell.

So there’s a chasm between people who are scared to death of hell and want out and “sign on” for salvation. And then there are those who have also had the miracle happen of, “No matter what, Jesus is everything to me!” Those are radically different human beings, which is why the pursuit of that is so serious.

Personal Journey to Joy

Let me give you some background on why I’m talking about this and where it came from. You heard some in the previous answer to the question over there. I used to, when I was your age, for whatever reason — I don’t think it was my parents’ fault, probably not my church’s fault, probably my own sin’s fault and my not listening well, and certainly not reading my Bible well — I was almost afraid to be happy.

“If you try to stop pursuing joy, you can’t worship God.”

I had this vague, amorphous sense that if I wanted to be happy, if I did anything in order to be happy, it was defective. It was just inferior, because there was, in my mind, many texts like, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). So the call is to deny myself and take up my cross.

And so the thought of going along a road toward joy, going along a road toward happiness, just felt like something’s wrong here, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it, which meant that all worship and all virtue seemed to be selfless. In other words, you had to somehow divest yourself of what felt like an indomitable desire for happiness. You had to divest yourself of that, get rid of it, in order to worship as you ought or be virtuous and care about people.

And today, I think exactly the opposite. If you try to stop pursuing joy, you can’t worship God. And if you try to stop finding joy, fullest and longest, you can’t love people. That’s what I believe now.

A Pilgrimage to Change

And the change between those two ways of viewing life and the world came between the ages of 22 and 25, the years 1968 and 1971 in Pasadena, California. Everything changed, and I want to take you with me on a little pilgrimage of change so that if by any chance you are perhaps where I was, I could hasten your biblical discoveries that might change everything in your life as it did for me.

I was standing in a bookstore on Colorado Avenue called Vroman’s Bookstore in the fall of 1968. I wasn’t married yet. I’d be married in December of 1968. I was madly in love. I was engaged. My wife-to-be was in Wheaton still. I was in California. We were going to be married December 21, 1968.

I had a lot of emotions inside of me. I was just in seminary for the first semester, and it was a free afternoon, and I was feeling pensive and moody and in love, and I needed a bookstore or something, or a walk in the mountains. So I took a bookstore — it was closer.

The Paragraph that Changed Everything

I was standing there. There’s a square table, and my eyes fell on a little, blue paperback by C.S. Lewis called The Weight of Glory. I picked it up. I had fallen in love with C. S. Lewis in college, but I had never read this book, and I had never read this page that changed everything. Books don’t change people. Paragraphs change people. So, let me read you the paragraph that was life-altering.

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Immanuel Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, God finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

“God commands you to be happy. This is not icing on the cake. This is not a suggestion.”

I had never heard anybody say that, or if they had, I just wasn’t listening. The problem with the world, the problem with me, is not that I want to be happy, but that I don’t want nearly enough to be happy. Your problem is not that you want to be happy. It’s that you settle for mud pies in the slums because you can’t imagine what is meant by a holiday at the sea. That’s the problem with the world. That was a whole new diagnosis to me. If that was true, everything was changing.

We Want to Be Happy

It is true, it is true. It was liberating to me at first because it said that Jesus thinks my desires to be happy are too weak, and I’m settling for mud pies. It was calling me to a quest to maximize and grow this thing, so that you will not be satisfied with inferior pleasures. Get your capacities for joy big, as they ought to be, so that they will be satisfied only by the big, glorious, true things. That’s what life becomes.

C.S. Lewis is telling me to want to be happier, not less happy. And it was devastating. Liberating and devastating because I think he’s saying that the holiday at the sea is God.

I didn’t think in those categories of being happy and God. You worship God. You serve God. You obey God. You submit to God. But a holiday at the sea? “In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11). Somehow I missed that text. So it was devastating. It caused me to ask: Am I a Christian?

Test Everything

I was very confused. I was very excited. I was very scared. I had to go back to my Bible. I don’t care what C.S. Lewis says; I care what God says, and I believe the Bible is where God talks. So I wanted to go back to my Bible and find out whether this was true. Does the Bible diagnose the world that way, that its problem is not that it wants to be happy, but that it is far too easily pleased and it is not nearly jealous enough, zealous enough, passionate enough for its own joy? That’s the problem with the world? Is that what the Bible teaches, that we should be on a daily quest for maximum, longest lasting joy? Is it that essential? Is it central?

The Pursuit of Happiness

I’ve got ten arguments that C.S. Lewis is right, that your problem is not that you want to be happy, but that your capacity for happiness has shrunk to the point where you think that your maximum happiness is found elsewhere than in God. That’s the main problem of the universe.

1. We glorify God when he satisfies us.

It is a serious quest because if we don’t delight in God, enjoy God, be satisfied in God above all things, we dishonor God. God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s the first and the main argument. I’m going to begin with it. I’m going to end with it.

“If you try to stop finding joy, fullest and longest, you can’t love people.”

I used to think that God called me to glorify God. My dad taught me 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whatever you do, Johnny, in word or deed, or whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God.” I knew God meant to be glorified, and I felt like I want to be happy, but can they go together? And here’s Lewis saying, “Yes.”

Now, here’s the text. If you have a Bible, you can look at it with me. I’ll just treat it very briefly because we could spend the whole half hour on Philippians 1, but I want you to see this because this is really crucial.

Jesus Satisfies Even in Death

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. (Philippians 1:20)

“My passion,” he’s saying, “is that Christ be magnified, made to look great in my life.” I knew that was what the universe was about. So what about satisfaction? How does that relate to that?

It is my eager expectation . . . 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. (Philippians 1:20–21)

Now, the connection between that sentence and the one before is an explanatory ground. I want Christ to be magnified in my body, even if I die, for to die is gain.

Now, how does that argument work? Christ will be seen to be magnificent in my dying body, if as I die, I count death gain. What kind of argument is that? Philippians 1:23 gives the missing premise:

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

So Paul is saying, “I want Christ to be magnified in my body, and he will be if in my dying I count death gain because I get Christ.”

Jesus Satisfies More than Life

Now, put it together. What happens when you die? Some of you could very well die this year. This is a big room. Some of you might be sick right now and don’t even know it. We never know when God will take us.

So you’re going to die. You’re all going to die unless Jesus comes, and some of you soon, so Paul says, “I want Christ to be magnified as I’m dying, in my death.” How? “For to me to die is gain.” What happens when you die? You lose everything on the planet. All your dreams here — gone. Wife — gone. Kids— gone. Retirement — gone. There’ll be no marrying or giving in marriage in the age to come. It’s over.

And when you stare that in the face, the loss of everything you’ve known and enjoyed here, and all you get is Jesus, and you say, “Gain,” then who looks good at that moment? Jesus. That’s the way it works, which is why I say Christ is most magnified in me — in my dying — when in my dying I am more satisfied in Christ than I am with everything on the planet, even what is most dear to me.

That’s what it takes to magnify Jesus. Christ is most magnified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s what Philippians 1:19–21 is saying. Work it out for yourself. It’s really there. It’s really powerful.

2. God commands us to be happy.

God commands you to be happy. This is not icing on the cake. This is not a suggestion. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:1–2). It’s not an option. It’s a command. “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Those are commands.

So argument number two: God commands it. I had a friend one time who said to me, “John, I don’t think you should go around the country telling people to pursue their joy. I think you should tell them to pursue obedience.” And I said, “Well, that’s like telling me, ‘Don’t tell them to pursue apples, pursue fruit.’” Obedience means do what God tells you to do, right?

And what did he tell me to do? Be happy. So yeah, there’s more than that, but he did say it. Delight yourself in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, serve the Lord with gladness. He said it, so I’m going to obey. I’m not going to put obedience and the pursuit of happiness in alternative categories. They come together hand in hand. They overlap.

3. God threatens terrible things against joylessness.

He threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.

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, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. (Deuteronomy 28:47)

That’s a threat. In essence, God is saying, “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness, you will serve your enemies.” If you don’t find me satisfying in your service of me, then go serve your enemies. See what happens. God is not playing games with this.

4. Faith teaches us to pursue joy in God.

The nature of faith teaches us to pursue our fullest joy in God. The nature of faith. Listen to this word from Hebrews 11:6:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

I want to please God. Without faith, I can’t please God. Then he says that faith believes two things: God is there, and he satisfies. “You reward. You bless. You are what I need, God.” If you come to give rather than to get, you blaspheme.

God’s not a trough waiting for the bucket of your service. He is a spring waiting for your thirst. You honor a fountain by drinking and saying, “Ah,” not by hauling the buckets of your labor up the mountain and dumping them in. Faith means coming to God, confident that he is and that he will be for you the reward you’ve been longing for all your life. That’s what faith is.

Heart, Not Just Head

Jesus says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So what does believe mean in that verse?

“God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.”

So coming to eat and believing are parallel. So if you put the parallels together and say, “So what does believe mean in this verse?” It means coming to Christ so as to be satisfied with him as your sole bread and your sole drink.

That’s what faith is. We have so intellectualized faith. We’ve turned faith into such decisionistic, mechanistic stuff. There’s just so many people who aren’t saved who think they’re saved, because they made some choice, which has nothing to do with their gut, heart, and reality. Who do they love? Who do they delight in? What do they treasure? No difference at all, just like the world, but they signed the card. They believe a doctrine like the devils. It’s so sad. Faith is being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. That’s what it is.

5. Evil teaches us to pursue joy in God.

The nature of evil teaches us to pursue our joy in God. What is evil? Jeremiah 2:12–13:

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

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.

What is evil? Evil is tasting the fountain of life called God, turning to the desert sands, and spending your life digging and sucking on the dirt in the confidence that it’s going to taste good someday — that it’s going to satisfy. God says, “Be shocked, galaxies.” It is shocking. It is shocking. And so many of you are there with your face in the sand, unable to imagine what a holiday at the sea called God is like. My prayer as I talk is that God would awaken you. Come, Holy Spirit.

6. Conversion teaches us to pursue joy in God.

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. (Matthew 13:44)

The Kingdom of God — that is God’s rule manifest in Jesus Christ, the King, coming into your life to exert his kingly authority — is like this: You’re walking along outside that rule, and you stumble over something, and you dig around and you open it. It’s full of gold and silver and jewels, and according to the law of the day, if you own that field and you found it, you’d have it It’s yours.

So, he shuts it, covers it over, and he says, “I’ve got to buy this field. I’ve got to buy this field at any cost. I have to have this field because of that treasure in it, which would satisfy my soul.” This is like the Kingdom.

He sells everything. He sells his wedding ring. All of the heirlooms. All his books. Sells his car, sells his computer, sells everything. All he has in his hand is something he can exchange for God. And how does he lose all that stuff? With joy, it says.

That’s conversion. Living your life at the front end with a treasure in stuff. A change happens, eyes are opened, joy is awakened. The Treasure, King Jesus is welcomed. “I count everything as lost for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

7. Self-denial teaches us to pursue joy in God.

Jesus’s teaching about self-denial leads us to the conclusion that we should pursue maximum, longest lasting joy in God. That’s counterintuitive, but let me read you a text:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

So Piper, you’re going to Chattanooga, and you’re going to ruin these young people because you’re telling them to pursue their own joy when Jesus told them to pursue self-denial and cross-bearing. And my response to that objection is this: Read the next verse. Verse 35 gives the argument for why you should deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Jesus.

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

What is Jesus saying? He’s not telling people, “Be an ultimate loser of your life. Be an ultimate loser of joy in God.” He’s not saying that. He’s saying, “Be a temporary loser of tin so you can have gold. Be a temporary loser of brackish water so you can have choicest wine. Be a temporary loser of mud pies in the slums so you can have a holiday at the sea.”

There is no such thing as ultimate self-denial in Christianity. Ultimate self-denial is blasphemy, because it is saying, “I’ve come finally to God, and I want none of him. I want none of him. I will deny myself forever any pleasures from God. Don’t you dare make me happy. I don’t want to enjoy your glory.” That’s blasphemy.

Therefore, this text is not teaching ultimate self-denial. It’s teaching that he who would hate his life in this world, will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25). I believe in self-denial. I really believe in self-denial, but only as a means to maximizing my joy.

I know where maximum joy is to be found because it was just read by that young woman a few minutes ago. “In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Fullness and forever are important words. So I’ve said to people all over the country and around the world, if you can come up to me and show me where I can find joy fuller than full, longer than forever, then I will cease to be a Christian instantly and go with you there. I mean it.

You are offered in God’s presence fullness of joy. There is no such thing conceivable that’s fuller than full. You are offered pleasures forever. There is nothing longer than forever; therefore, it cannot be improved. God cannot be improved as a source of joy. Why would you go anywhere else with that kind of offer?

8. God offers himself to us in our pursuit of joy.

God himself offers to us the fullness and the longest pleasure. I already said it, so I’ll just repeat it. “In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Why would God ever say such a thing, except to entice you out of the slums of sin and into the holiday at sea in his presence? God himself offers himself as the source of full and lasting pleasure.

9. The call to love others teaches us to pursue joy in God.

The call to love people teaches us to pursue joy. Now, this is perhaps the most counterintuitive of all. The call to love other people — to live for others, to live for the joy of others, to live for the good of others, to live to relieve the suffering of others all over the world — is a call for you to pursue maximum joy in God.

Tomorrow I will argue that the way not to waste your life is love, and I’m going to argue that love is the capstone of the experience of joy in God that spills over onto others and meets their needs.

10. We glorify God when he satisfies us.

I said I would begin and end with the argument that if you pursue your fullest pleasure in God, you glorify God. You magnify Christ. And hundreds of you, perhaps, have heard my favorite story on this. I’m going to tell it again for the hundreds who haven’t, because the testimony I get everywhere I talk about this is that this little story makes lights go on.

Honor Comes Through Satisfaction

So I’ve been married 43 years now as of ten days ago, and I can’t hold 43 roses in my hand anymore. The story is that I’m going to come home to my wife on the evening of our anniversary, and I have this evening all set up.

Let’s pretend I have little children, they need a babysitter, and I’ve taken care of that. I don’t ever ring the doorbell at my own house, but I’m going to ring the doorbell and surprise her with the roses that I have behind my back. And so I ring the doorbell, and she opens the door, and with a puzzled look on her face, she says, “Johnny, why’d you ring the doorbell?” I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” She says, “Oh, Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you?” And I say, “It’s my duty.”

Now, that’s the wrong answer, and you know why it’s the wrong answer? She’s not honored by that answer. Duty is a beautiful thing. It really is. Doing your duty is a beautiful thing, but at this moment, that’s the wrong answer because it does not honor her as much as she should be honored at a moment when I’m trying to make much of her. So let’s rewind the tape and ring the doorbell and get it right this time.

“Faith is being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus.”

So you ring the doorbell, and she opens the door, and I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” She says, “Oh, Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you?” And I say, “Can’t help myself. Just makes me happy to buy you roses. In fact, I’ve got this whole evening set up. I’ve got a babysitter. Why don’t you go change clothes? We’re going out because there’s nothing I’d rather do than to spend the evening with you.”

Never in a million years would she say, “Nothing you’d ever do? All you ever think about is yourself. Nothing you’d ever do. You just want to be happy all the time.” Why wouldn’t she say that? Why wouldn’t she call me selfish? You know why: because when I’m satisfied in her, I make much of her.

Jesus Died to Bring You Joy

God is most glorified in you when you’re most satisfied in Him. A wife is made much of when a husband doesn’t say, “It’s my duty to take you out on you anniversary, so we’re going out tonight. I read the book. That’s what you’re supposed to do.” What would she feel?

How does God feel when you do that? You’re supposed to go to church on Sunday morning. That’s what you do. You’re supposed to witness. That’s what you do. I read it in the book. Go witness. They say that at Campus Outreach. Life on life. Get it done. Put in the time today. Got some life on life.

That’s not going to honor this unbeliever as a creature that God is after with his blood. God is after you, and nothing need stand in your way because he sent his Son into the world to shed his blood so that your guilt could be removed, your righteousness could be provided, your condemnation could be borne and taken away, and you hear him saying, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). God sent Jesus into the world to get you to the holiday at the sea, at the cost of his Son’s life.