Our Joyful Father's Call to Be Joy-Filled Children

Bethlehem College & Seminary | Minneapolis

It’s good to be with you all this morning. I’m surprised that so many of you would get up so early on a Saturday to be here. It means that you’re serious about joy, so I’m glad that you are. If you have your Bible, would you take it and turn with me to Psalm 37? I’d like to open with Scripture this morning. I’d like to read Psalm 37:1–7. It says:

Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
     be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
     and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
     dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
     and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
     trust in him, and he will act.
He will bring forth your righteousness as the light,
     and your justice as the noonday.

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
     fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
     over the man who carries out evil devices!

Christian Spirituality

I think most of you would agree when I say that perhaps never before in the history of the Christian Church has the subject of spirituality been so much in the forefront of people’s thinking. I think that this is both good and bad. I think it’s good on the one hand because surely, we want to be spiritual rather than carnal, but it’s also bad in one sense because so much of what passes for spirituality today has very little to do with God. It is oftentimes pursued in utter disregard for God, disconnected from the person of Christ, and it’s not rooted in the Bible and has nothing to do with life in the context of the local church.

When you talk to people about spirituality they’ll say things like, “Well, I’m trying to get in touch with my true self,” or, “I’m trying to connect with the transcendent realm of reality,” or, “I’m forging a new concept of my personal identity.” Whether or not God is involved is entirely a matter of choice, and in most instances, he is largely ignored. But what we are contending for this weekend in this seminar is that at the very heart and core and center of biblical spirituality is joy, specifically joy in God.

Now, if it’s merely joy that you’re after, Oprah will do well enough, but we’re not merely talking about joy; we’re talking about joy in God. That’s why there is an eternity of difference between the psalmist saying, “Delight yourself,” and, “Delight yourself in God.” The former is pagan secular hedonism; the latter is what we are calling Christian Hedonism. So David’s point in this passage is that our delight, our joy, is to be in God. And the question is, why?

The Ground of Our Happiness

Let me back up to the title that I was assigned, and I’m glad that I was given this theme. The title is Our Joyful Father’s Call To Be Joy-Filled Children. Such a call to be joy-filled is meaningless if God himself is not in fact a joyful Father. So I’m going to argue and try to put before you the position, the viewpoint, that the foundation and the basis for our pursuit of joy is the fact that in himself, God is immeasurably joyful.

Now in order to answer this question, I want to direct your attention to a footnote. I am a very strange person. I love footnotes and endnotes, and I have a confession to make. When I pick up a new book, I will typically read the footnotes before I ever read the body of the text. I’m just weird about that. Sometimes there is more truth in footnotes than you’ll find in the text of a book itself. In the 2000 edition of The Pleasures of God on page 26, footnote three, John writes this:

The truth that God is infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity is the ground of our ever-increasing happiness.

That’s the ground, the basis, the foundation. It’s not a corollary, not a consequence, and it’s not merely somehow related to it. AGain, he says:

The truth that God is infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity is shown there to be the ground of our ever-increasing happiness, as God grants us the unspeakable privilege of enjoying God with the very joy of God.

His point, I believe, is that if God is not infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity, we forfeit and lose all hope of ever experiencing lasting, eternal, full joy. The foundation of Christian Hedonism is that God is himself a joyful and infinitely happy God who, to use John’s language, grants us the unspeakable privilege through Christ of enjoying him in the same way he enjoys himself. His joy in himself becomes our joy in him through the gracious, redemptive work of Christ. Let me say that again. The way God delights in himself becomes our joy in him through the work of Christ.

The Joy of Our Rejoicing

Now, I assume that everyone here is familiar with the most basic foundational texts — John mentioned many of them last night — that affirm the importance of the pursuit of joy in God. I want you to hear just a handful of those again this morning, and I’m going to ask you as I’m reading these to you, to ask yourself the question, is there an underlying theme that unites them? Is there some sort of assumption apart from which these texts make no sense? The answer is yes. Listen to them:

  • Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
  • Psalm 21:6: “For you make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence.”
  • Psalm 36:8: “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.”
  • Nehemiah 8:10: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
  • Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
  • Matthew 25:23: “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’”
  • John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
  • John 17:13: “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”

Did you hear the underlying assumption, sometimes more explicit and sometimes more implicit in others? I think the underlying assumption apart from which none of this makes any sense at all is that God in himself is infinitely joyful. He is, in himself, pure, unadulterated delight. He is holy happiness.

The Substance of God’s Joy

Now, what constitutes this joy? What accounts for this joy in God, which is the foundation and the ground of the call that we should be his joy-filled children? I think the answer is that it’s the joy and the delight that God takes or finds in beholding himself. No one, in my opinion, has expressed this with greater clarity than Jonathan Edwards, as you might expect. And he did so in his attempt to explain the mutual relationships within the Godhead. Now, typically, whenever anybody starts quoting directly from Jonathan Edwards’s discourse On the Trinity there’s just kind of this glaze that comes across most eyes and this sense of, “I have no idea what in the world you just said.” So just be patient with me a little bit this morning and let me try to unpack for you what I think Edwards is saying. He says:

When we speak of God’s happiness, the account we are inclined to give of it is that God is infinitely happy in the enjoyment of himself, in perfectly beholding and infinitely loving and rejoicing in his own essence and perfections. And accordingly, it must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself.

It’s not as if God was just kind of disengaged and then at a point in time started thinking about himself. No, this is eternal and unending. It never had a beginning and will never have an end. Edwards continues:

It must be supposed that God perpetually and eternally has a most perfect idea of himself, an exact image and representation of himself, ever before him and always in view. And from this arises a most pure and perfect energy in the Godhead, which is love, complacence, and joy.

So what Edwards is saying, if I understand him correctly, is that this perfect idea, this exact image of himself that he eternally has, is the Word of God, the Son of God, the second person of the Godhead. He, that is the Son, is the eternal, necessary, perfect, substantial, and personal idea that God has of himself. That’s Edward’s language. And then he goes on to say that between the Father and the Son, there is this infinitely holy and sweet energy of love that arises eternally — not at a beginning, at a point in time, nor does it at any time come to a conclusion — and that, Edwards says, is the Holy Spirit. So he then draws this conclusion:

This I suppose to be that blessed Trinity that we read of in the Scriptures. The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated, and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity eternally generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of himself, and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Spirit is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence, flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in himself.

Mutual Love and Joy in the Trinity

Now, at this point you’re probably thinking, “And I gave up Saturday morning for that? Is it really that important?” Only if you want to experience eternal happiness. If you don’t, then just disengage and write this off as abstractions that mean nothing. But if you really long for eternal happiness, you need to understand the foundation and the ground of it, and it is in God’s mutual joy and delight and fascination with himself. So what Edwards is saying is, the eternal, unending inner life of God is that the Father gazes upon himself, beholds the perfect idea of himself, which is the Son, and the Son gazes back, and in this mutual admiration and enjoyment, they together breathe forth perfect happiness, love, and delight, which is the Holy Spirit.

And thus, God is eternally happy in that he perfectly and infinitely beholds himself, which is the perfect idea of God, and love arises in this mutual beholding, a love or delight that Edwards believes is the Holy Spirit. Such is the Trinity. Now, I believe that this dynamic of delight and mutual joy and sweet energy — as he calls it — in the Godhead is the foundation and the pattern for what God’s saving grace produces in us.

In other words, again, to use Edwards’s language, our religious affections are the same experience of God that God has of himself. In his sermon, “Nothing Upon Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heaven,” he sums it up this way:

How good is God that he has created man for this very end, to make him happy in the enjoyment of himself?

Now, the “himself” there is not man; it’s God. Let me say that again:

God has created man for this end, to make him happy in the enjoyment of himself (the Almighty), who was happy from the days of eternity in himself, in the beholding of his own infinite beauty.

And then he unpacks what he means by that:

The Father is happy in the beholding and love of his Son, his perfect and most excellent image, the brightness of his own glory. The Son is happy in the love and enjoyment of the Father.

And then Edwards goes on to say that this was the ground upon which God created. He didn’t create because he needed more happiness. No, he created that he might make something else happy, that he might make us blessed in the beholding of his excellency, and in that way, he glorifies himself.

So the point Edwards is making is that religious affection — if you’ve ever read the volume, and I hope you have — doesn’t start with us. It starts with God. God experiences immeasurable, unfathomable delight and joy and satisfaction in and with himself, which in turn, by saving and redemptive grace, the elect experience. We experience this as we delight and find joy and satisfaction in God. So what I think Edwards is saying and what I think is reflected in these biblical texts, is that we, in our affections, mirror God’s own inner life. In other words, there is in us a correspondence to the very life of the Trinity.

Just as God understands himself — that’s the Father and the Son — and finds joy in it — that’s the Spirit — so we, by his grace, understand and find joy in him, and in this he is most glorified. That’s why Edward’s Religious Affections is not merely about what happens in seasons of revival. It’s not merely to give us a guide for discerning true versus false professors of faith. It’s not merely an attempt to analyze the psychological makeup of human beings. It does all that. But more than that, religious affections are nothing short of the primary way in which God’s purpose in creating the world is realized.

The Gift Is the Giver

So when I come to a passage like Psalm 16:11 and I’m told that there is fullness of joy in God’s presence, I understand that it’s not because joy is a thing — like stuff, an object out here to the left or to the right that God creates, and we come to his presence to get it. No, joy is not a creation of God, it’s an attribute of God. Joy is not something that God gives, joy is something that God is. The pleasures that are forevermore (Psalm 16:11) that never lose their capacity to enthrall and delight and fascinate, are not pleasures that God thought up and then called into existence out of nothing. They are the pleasures that God himself experiences in being God.

So let’s get something straight about this joy that we’re talking about. It’s not like the billions and trillions of stars in the galaxies. It’s not like an apple tree or a beam of light or a quark. Joy is not a product of creation. Joy is not something external to God that he brought into existence out of nothing. Joy is not something extrinsic to God that he gives; it is something intrinsic to God that he is. And it makes absolutely no sense for us to hear this call in Psalm 37:4 to delight ourselves in the Lord if he himself is not a delightful person.

Who would ever think it a good idea to delight yourself in an ogre, or a stern taskmaster, or a sourpuss, or somebody who’s perpetually depressed or has a melancholy personality? The underlying assumption of this exhortation is that there is immeasurable blessing and delight in delighting ourselves in God only because God himself is eternally delighted in the inner realities of his own being as God. So when I read Psalm 16:11, I don’t read it just as a statement of fact:

In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Rather, I read it as an incentive to pursue God. It is in God’s presence that we’ll find fullness of joy. Therefore, come to him. Drink from him. I don’t think David is merely saying that we come to God because he creates and distributes and gives joy as a gift. Now, does he do that? Well, of course he does. But I think the primary point is that God is himself characterized by and filled with joy. God is himself sheer pleasure, unparalleled delight. So he’s not so much to be viewed as a giver of gifts, but rather, he is the gift he gives.

So what is it that accounts for this unparalleled joy in God himself? The answer is God himself. The ground of God’s joy as God is God’s joy in God. You see, if God only creates joy and then he imparts it, if it’s something other than what is intrinsic to his own being, then he could just as easily withdraw it. But since God can always and only be true to himself, this is a solid foundation of which we can always rely and depend.

God’s Joy Within in Us

Think about Jesus. I quoted that passage from John 15:11. He says, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” So again, the underlying motivation in all that Jesus says is that the joy that he himself experiences as God incarnate might be reproduced and imparted to you. Think about that. It’s his joy. It’s not his joy because it’s in his back pocket or he puts it in a nicely wrapped box with a ribbon under the Christmas tree. No, it’s his joy because it’s what is true in his own heart, in his own mind, and in his own affections. It’s his experience of joy in being God in mutual fellowship with the Father and the Spirit. John 17:13 says:

But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.

So Jesus obviously is not talking about the joy of the world, the casual joys that all of us feel, the kind of joy that I feel when my University of Oklahoma team wins, or the joy you feel when the Vikings prevail, because that joy will only last as long as they keep winning. And invariably, they will lose, just hopefully not today. Jesus is praying that the same love that he has would be in us. He’s praying that this fullness of joy, this delight, this affection that exists in his heart in the fellowship of the Trinity might somehow be reproduced by the Spirit of God in our own experience. It’s fullness of joy, not partial or incomplete, here a little, there a little. But it’s fullness of joy, because it thrives even in the midst of suffering. It thrives when your 401(k) is in the tank. It thrives when your health deteriorates.

And amazingly, when you look at the context for these statements in the Upper Room Discourse, the people to whom he spoke these words directly — now they apply to us, but those who were physically present with him — are the very people who in the same breath he says are going to be hated and persecuted, thrown out of the synagogues, and even martyred.

God’s Love Within Us

Now, I would be remiss if I let you think that the only affection in the experience of God himself, the only affection in his heart, was joy. There’s also spiritual communion. I almost want to call it a mystical intimacy of sorts, this union that exists among the persons of the Godhead, as well as the love that they feel, one for another. And here’s the great good news of the gospel, that saving grace draws us into the fellowship of the Godhead insofar as we are now enabled to experience the same union with God that Father, Son, and Spirit have with each other. We enjoy the same love that the Father and Son have for each other. We experience the same joy and delight that the Father and the Son have in one another.

Remember also in the Upper Room Discourse, Philip came to Jesus, said, “Just show us the Father, and it will be enough” (John 14:8). And of course you know Jesus’s response. He said, “Philip, have I been so long with you, and you haven’t figured this out yet? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Now, we typically assume that he says that because he’s trying to tell Philip and the others, “In my incarnate state, in my life as a human being and what I’ve said and how I’ve acted and all the things I’ve done, you see the nature and the character of my Father.” Now that’s true, but I’m afraid that’s not primarily what Jesus has in mind, because in the very next verse he says:

Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me . . . (John 14:10–11).

In other words, the reason why Jesus says, “When you see me, you’ve seen the Father” is that he and I share this mysterious, deep, mystical, spiritual union and fellowship and love and intimacy with one another. And then if that weren’t good enough, he says:

In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you (John 14:20).

And if that weren’t enough, he goes on in the High Priestly Prayer in John 17:23 to say to the Father:

[You have] loved them even as you loved me.

In other words, the eternal affection of love that the Father has for the Son is the same affection of love he has for us, his children. John 17:26 says:

I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them . . .

Hear that. He is saying, “The love, Father, with which you have loved me, the Son, may be in them and I in them.” Jesus is praying, I think, that the same love he has received from the Father might be in us, which is to say that he’s saying, “Father, love them with the same affection, the same divine supernatural energy with which you love me.”

Enjoined to God’s Triune Life

So again, we’re seeing how the affections of love and joy and delight and intimacy and communion that exist among the persons of the Godhead are, by God’s grace, reproduced in and imparted to us so that we in turn love, commune with, and delight in God in the same manner as God delights in himself. I think this must be at least in part what C.S. Lewis was talking about at the end of that very famous quotation when he said:

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 a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased

I think what Lewis is saying is that the great sin of humanity is that we strive for union with, love for, and delight in mere finite creatures, earthly pleasures, when there is set before us an endless feast in which God is not only the servant but is himself what he serves up for our satisfaction. I think Joe has summed this up beautifully in his book, The Things of Earth. He says this:

What this means is that when we think about the glory of God, we ought not think merely about the display of God’s attributes, as though God were simply a big fireworks show off in the distance. The glory and fullness of God includes the display of all his perfections, but it also includes our knowledge of his perfections and our love for his perfections and all the thoughts and affections and actions that flow out of that knowledge and love. In fact, our knowledge of God is simply God’s knowledge of himself in us. Our love for God is simply God’s love for God in us. Our delight in God is simply God’s delight in God in us. In a word, when God glorifies himself, he invites us to participate in his triune life.

That’s the underlying assumption behind all of these exhortations, to rejoice in the Lord always, to come into his presence, to drink at the river of his delights, to enter into that place at his right hand where there are pleasures forevermore.

Be Not Envious of Wrongdoers

Now, look with me again more closely at Psalm 37:4. I want you to think about this verse in the broader context of the passage. Sometimes we just kind of extract verse four and don’t look at what has preceded and what follows, because to delight in the Lord is closely related to what comes in Psalm 37:3 when David calls on us to trust in the Lord, and what follows in Psalm 37:5 where we are called on to commit our way to the Lord, and again in Psalm 37:5 to trust in him, and in Psalm 37:7 to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him.

And all of this, he says, is set over against the temptation you might feel to fret yourself over evildoers and be envious of them (Psalm 37:7–9). He says, “No, don’t you realize that the things that they have gained for themselves, that you’re envious of, are transient and fleeting and cannot answer the cry of your heart? Delight yourself in the Lord. Trust him. Commit your way to him.” And all of that only makes sense if there is more gladness, peace, joy, comfort, and delight in God than there is in all the riches amassed by human effort.

The Desires of Our Heart

He probably wouldn’t remember this, but several years ago when I was in this passage, I wrote John an email, and I said, “How do we avoid reading this text as an endorsement of the prosperity gospel? How do we avoid reading this passage and understanding the gospel as simply a way to use God to get goodies?” It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Someone could say, “Well, I have a desire for more money and a healthier body and a bigger house and a better computer and a nicer car and a second vacation home and a really, really, really big boat.”

So how do we avoid concluding that’s what David is telling us will be ours if we’ll just delight ourselves in God? In other words, what prevents us from seeking our joy and satisfaction in God as a pathway to laying hold of other desires of the heart? How do we avoid making God a tool, an instrument, a means for the pursuit of joy in something other than in him? That’s the question.

John graciously wrote back. He said that the desires of the heart must be desires that are satisfied in more of God and in more and more ways. And if that were not the case, we would not really be delighting in God as an end in himself, but only using God to get what we enjoy more than what may be found in him alone. And then he said this:

I often say that the desire of the heart that we get is God himself, true, but the text implies plurality. Did you notice that? It’s not, ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and he’ll give you the desire of your heart,’ but desires. So I’m willing to say that we get more of God in more ways when we delight in him. It does not promise that all we can conceive of enjoying will come to us, but that our desires to taste more of God in many ways will be arranged according to God’s wise and loving plan.”

I think that makes sense. The point is, if your delight is wholly in God, then your desires will not be for anything that would diminish his centrality in your soul. You won’t want anything that has the potential of turning your heart to trust in anyone but himself. If your desires are for the stuff of this world that would detract from your complete satisfaction in God, then you aren’t truly delighting yourself in him, but rather in them.

The Significance of Joy

Now the question that often comes up is, why joy? Have you ever asked that question? Why is joy so central, so all-consuming, so much of a focus of all of these many biblical texts? Why is it not just “obey God,” or, “fear God,” or, “believe in God”? Why joy? Why delight? I mentioned last night in our panel that I recently read a blog article by a certain Baptist theologian who does not share our Reformed faith. He said, “We just ought to worship God because he deserves to be worshiped.” Well, of course he deserves to be worshiped, but one question is, why does he deserve to be worshiped?

Is it not because he alone can satisfy the hunger of our hearts, that he is in himself the sort of God who has the capacity and the inclination to reproduce in our hearts the same joy in us that he has in himself? You see, we’re talking not just about the reality of worship, but the how. In what way, by what means is God most honored and glorified in the worship of his people? And we’re arguing, it’s when they experience in themselves, by God’s grace, the affections of joy, delight, and satisfaction that God himself experiences in God himself.

That’s why Edwards would often write in his miscellanies that God is glorified not just by his glory being seen. That’s the point Joe was making a moment ago. It’s not just in the display of God’s glory, but rather by that display being rejoiced in. Edward says, “When those that see that glory delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.” In another miscellany, Edwards said, “It’s not the ultimate goal of all creation just that we would understand God’s glory and all the manifestations of his beauty, because what good is it to understand it if it doesn’t awaken and sustain joy in what is understood?” Edwards continued, “It’s not merely so that we can declare that glory to others, because why would we bother declaring it to others unless we want to awaken in them joy in what is being declared?”

I’ve used this illustration many times before, but it always resonates with my heart. When I was younger and my daughters were younger and I traveled, I always looked forward to my return home, because invariably, when I would walk in the back door, whatever they were doing, if they were watching Sesame Street on TV, or playing with a toy, or hanging out with their friends, they would stop it instantly.

They would just turn from it. They would cast everything aside, and they would run into my arms, holding their arms up to embrace me. They would say, “Oh, Daddy, we love you. We miss you. You’re the best daddy in the world, and your absence here this past week was horrible. We’re just so glad that you’re with us now and we’re with you.” Now, what if I had said — I never did this by the way — “Hey, settle down. Just dial down those affections of joy and love and delight, and let me ask you a question. Why are you all doing this?” What if they said to me, “Okay, we’ll come clean. It’s because you deserve our praise and gratitude as our father, and mom said it was our duty as your children. And she reminded us that you paid for the toys, and you paid for the roof over our heads, and you put the food on the table”?

Now, at one level, am I not at least grateful that they’re grateful? Sure. I would rather they be grateful than take it for granted. But how am I most honored as their father? It’s when they find in me out of the spontaneous affection that arises in their heart that satisfies them in a way that no other human being can. And I think that what we are being told in Scripture is that this is the most effective way, not only to honor God, but to enter in our own experience to the very experience that God has in the enjoyment of himself.

God Made Us to Be Happy

Very quickly, let me wrap this up about why joy is so crucial and critical. I don’t claim to be original in this, but this is how it makes sense to me. Joy in God matters profoundly because more than any other human experience, joy most clearly reveals and discloses and shines a light on the worth and the value and the splendor of whatever it is that has evoked it.

Now, I’m not selling short understanding God when I emphasize joy. All of us here would agree that excitement uninformed by truth is pretty useless. In fact, it’s dangerous. It either leads to idolatry or fanaticism. If we don’t know the God we enjoy, we’re going to probably end up enjoying the wrong god. But knowledge alone isn’t enough. As Edwards said, Declaring God’s glory to others isn’t enough unless our aim is to awaken joy and satisfaction in their hearts in the one whom we declare. Edwards made this point again in that sermon, “Nothing Upon Earth Can Represent The Glories Of Heaven.” It’s one of those statements by Edwards that is utterly devoid of nuance. You almost wish someone had said, “Jonathan, tone it down.” He says:

God created man for nothing else but happiness. He created him only so that he might communicate happiness to him.

You read that and you say, “Nothing else? Only? Come on. Moderate your terms a bit.” Now, I think what he’s saying is that the happiness for which God created us consists of enjoying, communing with, and loving God with the very joy, fellowship, and love that God himself experiences in God himself. The reason why that kind of statement bothers us is because we think our happiness is wrapped up in goodies, and it’s not.

Our happiness in God mirrors, or corresponds, to his eternal happiness. The happiness for which we are eternally destined is a state of soul in which we experience and express the same optimum ecstasy in God that God experiences and expresses in himself. So again, I know I sound like a broken record, but let me just say it again: God created you to reproduce in your heart the same joyful and loving affection for God that God has for himself.

Our Victory Over the Empty Promises of Sin

Here’s another reason why joy is important: apart from joy, we don’t stand a chance in the battle with the world, flesh, and the devil. There’s no hope for victory. I’ve often said — I don’t know if I heard it from somebody else or not — that the key to living a successful, Christ-exalting life is not trying harder, but enjoying more. That doesn’t mean you can live a successful Christian life without trying harder. You must. It’s a battle. It’s a war. The point simply is that enjoyment empowers effort. Pleasure in God is the power for purity in life.

A number of years ago, I was at a conference in England. A pastor there by the name of Dave Smith had just read my book, Pleasures Evermore, and he said, “I want to just summarize Sam’s book in one sentence: When it comes to living a successful Christian life and resisting the power of temptation, simply saying, ‘No, no, no,’ won’t suffice. We must first learn to say, ‘Oh, oh, oh.’” His point is, as I said last night, fear has limited capacity to deter our hearts from sin. It must be combined with fascination. Resisting is empowered by rejoicing. Yes, we need to be warned, but we must first be wooed. The biblical strategy for blessedness is not mere avoidance, but allurement.

Some of you, if not most of you, are familiar with a letter that C.S. Lewis wrote in 1933 to his friend, Arthur Greeves. Every time I read this, it makes me nervous, and you’re going to hear why. Listen:

God not only understands, but shares the desire which is at the root of all my evil.

Did you hear that? He says, “God not only understands, but shares the desire which is at the root of all my evil.” Now, he explains himself, because that almost sounds blasphemous. He continues:

It’s the desire for complete and ecstatic happiness. He made me for no other purpose than to enjoy it. But he knows, and I do not, how such happiness can be really and permanently attained. He knows that most of my personal attempts to reach it are actually putting it farther and farther out of my reach. I may always feel, looking back on any past sin, that in the very heart of my evil passion, there was something that God approves of and wants me to feel, not less, but more. Take the sin of lust. The overwhelming thirst for rapture was good, and even divine. That part of lust need not be rejected, but it will never be quenched as I try to quench it.

If I refrain, if I submit to the collar and come around the right side of the lamppost, God will be guiding me as quickly as he can to where I will get what I really wanted all the time. So when we are tempted, we must remember that just because God wants for us what we really want and knows the only way to get it, therefore, he must, in a sense, be quite ruthless towards sin. He is not like a human authority who can be begged off or caught in an indulgent mood. The more he loves you, the more determined he must be to pull you back from your way, which leads nowhere, into his way, which leads you where you want to go.

And then he concludes with this:

I think we may be quite rid of the old haunting suspicion — it raises its head in every temptation — that there is something else than God, some other country into which he forbids us to trespass, some kind of delight which he doesn’t appreciate, or just chooses to forbid, but which would be real delight if only we were allowed to get it. The thing just isn’t there. Whatever we desire is either what God is trying to give us as quickly as he can, or else a false picture of what he is trying to give us, a false picture which would not attract us for a moment if we saw the real thing.

That’s worth pondering. And I think Lewis is saying that’s why, apart from this joy in God, we’re really without hope when it comes to this battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil.

The Engagement of Our Whole Being

Here’s another reason why joy in God matters supremely. I think joy, unlike virtually every other affection of the human heart, requires the expression and the engagement of our whole being. You see, you can understand something and despise it. I could understand if I wanted to, which I don’t, how a car engine works, but when I raise the hood on my car because it’s not running properly, I get physically nauseated. My philosophy in life is, if it’s broken, call the man.

You could invite me over to dinner and do the very best that you can to serve decent squash. It’s not possible. The stuff is wretched. I still believe that when God cursed the ground because of Adam’s sin, squash came forth. But I can do my duty and somehow eat it, but I don’t enjoy it. But to really rejoice in something, you have to understand it. You have to comprehend it. You have to enjoy it. You have to choose it. It engages the whole of our being.

No Hypocritical Joy

Finally, I think joy in God matters profoundly because, as best I can tell, there’s no such thing as hypocritical joy. Joy is, by definition, pure and pristine. You can pretend to have joy when you don’t. You can fake having joy, but you can’t have fake joy. It is, by definition, pure and pristine.

Delighting Ourselves in the Lord

So when the psalmist says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4), how do you do it? I’ve got one minute to tell you. I put it in four categories, and I’m sure there are others.

Number one: intellectual fascination. Study God, know him, explore his ways, investigate his will, and become a student of his personality. In other words, trust God to be sufficiently intriguing that you will never be satisfied with anything less.

Number two: aesthetic adoration. You see, God made us in his image. That means that we are aesthetic creatures. We have this instinctive recognition of beauty and this revulsion to what is ugly, unless, of course, our hearts become distorted and perverted and we reverse the two. But to delight in God is to behold his beauty, to see the symmetry of his attributes, the intricacies of his handiwork, the splendor of his power, the majesty of his mercy. In other words, trust God to be sufficiently beautiful that all idols become ugly in comparison.

Number three: emotional exhilaration. Our affections are designed to find their focus and fulfillment in God — love, zeal, devotion, delight, fear, joy, passion, gratitude, and hope. So trust God to be sufficiently enjoyable that all else pales in comparison.

Number four: volitional dedication. What I mean by that is, delighting in God entails the engagement of our wills. We have to choose by his grace to do what he commands and avoid all that he has prohibited, because disobedience anesthetizes the human heart and renders it incapable of feeling the delight in the pleasures that are in God’s presence. Thus, trust God’s commandments to be sufficiently good that the ways of the world are exposed as noxious and fatal. Don’t treat this joy that we’re talking about as merely an after effect of obedience, a mere byproduct of duty. Make your joy in Jesus central in all that you do and say and think, for in your gladness in him is his greatest glory seen in and through you.