Our Passion for the Supremacy of God
PDI Celebration East Conference | Indiana, Pennsylvania
Let me try to summarize just briefly where we were this morning and then link it to where we’re heading tonight. The simple point this morning, at least for the center of the message was that God does everything for his own glory. I came to an end with the cross and why he died, and argued that he died there so that his righteousness might be vindicated.
And I posed you this pointed question: What is at the bottom, the foundation, of your experience of the love of God? I gave you two alternatives: one is the pleasure of being made much of by God, and the second one was the pleasure of God enabling you to make much of him. And I say it carefully — “the pleasure of making much of him” — because that leads into where we’re heading tonight. Because I know that when I speak on God’s God-centeredness around the country, the most common stumbling block for people to grasp it and love it is that it doesn’t sound loving for God to be so self-exalting, because he has said things about humans that are self-exalting, which are very negative.
We ought not to be self-exalting. If you want to imitate God’s self-exaltation, you must engage in God-exaltation: join him in doing what he’s doing — and what he’s doing is exalting God, so join him in exalting God. If you compute (and this is a very easy mistake to make): “He is exalting himself, I am to imitate him, therefore, I will exalt myself.” That’s a profound mistake. But why is it loving for God to be self-exalting and unloving for us to be self-exalting? Because it doesn’t sound loving to people. I’ve had people with tears raise their hands and say, “What ever became of John 3:16?” And other familiar passages that they grew up with, never hearing anything like I’m telling them, and it sounds like these truths are being torpedoed by what I’m saying.
New Capacity for Joy
So, let me try to give a brief answer to that as we move into tonight’s message: I think at the root of that misunderstanding is, I hope, an unwitting sense that the only way God can be loving is to respond to your value and affirm it. It’s the way we’ve been taught; that’s the air we breathe. If you hear a message and the emotionally laden word is not there that God recognizes your value and builds his affection for you on it, then you don’t feel loved and he doesn’t seem loving. And therefore, where that framework has gripped the heart, a God-centered message like I’m delivering is unintelligible in terms of a loving God. It just doesn’t compute. He doesn’t feel loving.
Now, I could just be a hard-nosed Reformed person and say, “Take it or leave it; he’s God.” I could do that. I think that’s why a lot of Reformed churches are small. I think there’s a better way. I think there’s a more biblical way to respond to that person’s heart and cry. I think it is mistaken at best, or a corrupt heart cry, but giving people the benefit of the doubt, I will say their heart is better than their theology, and it’s mistaken. What has to be corrected is this: we are loved not when God builds his affection for us on our value, but we are loved when God, for reasons only known to him, he chooses an unworthy, godless, rebellious, dead sinner, and grants to them, by his sovereign grace, capacities for joy and satisfaction in him that are greater than anything they could have building on their own value. And that satisfies. Now for the average therapeutically driven person, it doesn’t seem to satisfy at first because the only categories in their head is that happiness must be built on my value. That’s the only category in their head; it’s the only category operative in American culture. And therefore, the message we bring, while feeling at first destructive and negative, isn’t. It is liberating, and we must quickly then put what I call Christian Hedonism in its place. There is a message of joy, and a message of pleasure, and a message of incomparable satisfaction that we can put in place of that when it begins to crumble, and they wonder whether the twenty years of recovery that they’ve been in in all their groups has anything to put in his place.
So, I don’t think you need to be a hardliner and say, “God is God. God has authority. You do what God says, and shut up.” God comes to us with gospel — good news. And the good news is destructive at first. I’ve been reading Galatians lately, and Galatians is one of the most destructive books in the New Testament. He is laying waste to people right and left who are building on their pride and their works. “You who circumcise each other, go ahead, keep the whole law.” I mean, Galatians is one mega-destructive book.
But oh, what it puts in its place. The desires of the Spirit are against the desires of the flesh, in order that we might not do what we would. The Spirit triumphs over the flesh by satisfying us with his desires, and all the desires of the flesh are crucified, and that’s a negative message. I am crucified with Christ. You’ve got to bleed before you can rejoice. If you’ve never tasted the pain of your old ways of being happy being destroyed, you may have deceived yourself and are still building on the flesh. Having begun in the Spirit, are we now going to be completed in the flesh? Having been shown by the Holy Spirit that we have nothing to bring and we can only rest upon God for the satisfaction of our souls, are we now, later on in the Christian life, going to begin to rebuild that which we tore down and make Christ a transgressor? It’s a very powerful book; you should read it sometime, and be slain and raised again by it.
How God Loves
So, the implication is, then, that God is loving in being self-exalting. He’s the only being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the only loving way to live. Because if you happen to be a person (and there is only one in the universe) whose glory, whose character, whose beauty is infinitely satisfying for all who behold you, you would be cruel not to exalt yourself in the midst of others. And you would be loving to exalt yourself for their enjoyment in the midst of others. Nobody can copy God in this. Nobody is like this. All we can do is point to another.
That’s all we can do if we want to evangelize and do missions. We point to another, we deflect off of ourselves, we have nothing in which others can be satisfied. If we draw attention to ourselves, we are cruel. If God draws attention to himself, he is loving. If you can’t compute that, you’ve got to get it. You’ve got to pray, you’ve got to seek, you’ve got to meditate till the self-exaltation of God becomes the sweetest, most loving kind of God you can imagine. He is God; there is no other way for him to be. He is stuck with being glorious. He can only love you by commending himself to you. He cannot humble himself and deflect to anyone without killing you and destroying you. So we develop little ways of saying this; namely, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. And if you ask then: Given this understanding of the centrality of God, in God and in life, how then shall we live so as to magnify him? The answer is on the face of it, isn’t it? Namely, pursue joy in him. Pursue joy in him. And by that joy in him, sever the root of all other competing joys. This is the secret of sanctification in the Christian life. It is such a positive message: that the only way to conquer lust, for example — or bitterness, revenge, or covetousness, or pride — the only way to sever the mighty gushing root of those competing promises of satisfaction that come up through our brain or our groin is to sever it with the power of a superior promise — namely, God’s offer of himself for his enjoyment — that is, our enjoyment of him.
By Enjoying Him Forever
Now, the Westminster Catechism gets it almost exactly right. They do get it right, but they’re not explicit. Question 1 is: “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Now, did you notice the absence of the S at the end of end? Man’s chief end, not ends, is to do two things. Why? Two things, one end. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him. But it’s one end. How is it one end? These divines didn’t throw away words. They didn’t throw away letters for no reason. They threw that S away for a reason. And the reason is the end means by. Man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. They are not two ends; they are one end.
Now when you see that, then God’s passion for the glory of God will not feel like it is in competition with his loving you, because in pursuing his glory in and through you, he will be pursuing your joy in him. Because your joy in him is precisely where his glory in you comes to consummation. If you get that, then you will never feel like God’s passion to be glorified and your passion to be satisfied are in competition with each other — which is what so many evangelicals feel. We’re wired by our fallenness to feel like if there’s a God, and if that God is God-centered, he’s got to be against my joy, and the only way to get in good graces with him is to forget my joy, and somehow begin to serve and dutifully follow this God.
Well, I got a phone call from a person that I was supposed to do a seminar with on an issue. They asked me to give a title to the seminar. So I said, “Pursuing Joy in Mission.” And this person phoned and said, “I don’t think I like that title because I think that we should pursue obedience, not joy. Joy will be a byproduct.” My whole staff got this phone call, gathered around and said, “Do they know who they’re doing this seminar with. Why did these people ask for these two to do a seminar together?”
So here’s what I wrote back. I wrote back and I said, “Now you say we should all pursue obedience, not joy, and joy will be the unpursued byproduct. Isn’t that like saying we should all eat fruit, not apples?” You didn’t understand what I just said, and you’re not alone. Pursue obedience; don’t pursue joy. Eat fruit; don’t eat apples — meaning this: An apple is a fruit. Pursuing joy is an act of obedience to about a hundred commands in the Bible:
Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” That’s the command.
Psalm 100:2, “Serve the Lord with gladness.”
Psalm 32:11, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Matthew 5:12, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Romans 12:15, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
1 Corinthians 13:6: Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
Philippians 3:1, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.”
Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
1 Thessalonians 5:1, “Rejoice always.”
1 Peter 4:13, “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
So, now here this person writes to me and says, “Pursue obedience,” and I say, “To what commands?” Just the negative commands that begin with “thou shalt not”? “The Bible commands me to rejoice. Do you want me to obey those commands?” I ask. And she says, “I suppose so.” So, it’s OK to pursue joy because we’re commanded to pursue joy. I mean, God is God right? Obedience is doing what he says, right? Any disagreement so far? He said, “Delight yourself in the Lord,” therefore, this is simple Aristotelian logic. Therefore, be obedient: pursue joy. So don’t ever, ever, ever let anybody commend to you obedience over and against the pursuit of joy in God. Don’t ever let that happen in your life.
Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of the eighteenth century got us into big trouble by saying that things like duty, doing what you’re supposed to do because it’s right to do it with no thought of any interest coming back to you whatsoever — no joy, no delight, no pleasure, no reward — is the essence of virtue. That thing is in the air of Christianity. It just hangs in the air: that the degree to which you want some blessedness through an act of worship or obedience, you contaminate the act of obedience or worship. You contaminate it; you ruin it to the degree that you want delight, joy, blessedness in it. That’s in the air.
It took me years to break through this. I’ve been working on this for about twenty-five years, trying to break through that for the evangelical church, because it absolutely destroys worship. If you believe that the higher the moral act, the less you should pursue your own delight in it, you cannot worship as you ought. Nor I would argue (though this is another talk somewhere down the line), you can’t love each other either. You can’t love each other if you don’t pursue your own delight.
If you go to visit somebody in the hospital — this is a loving thing to do. It’s late and you’re tired, and you didn’t want to go at first. You prayed and asked for forgiveness for your disinclination, asked God to restore to you the joy of your ministry. You walk in there, and she opens her eyes; she just had a heart attack or something. She sees you there at 10 o’clock at night and she says, “Oh pastor, you didn’t have to do that. Why did you come across town?” And you say, “It’s my duty. I’m a pastor.”
Now, that’s not the right answer. The reason it’s not is that people know themselves more loved when the act of sacrifice or blessing is done joyfully rather than begrudgingly. So the pursuit of your joy in the elevator on the way to the fourth floor of Abbott Northwestern hospital is a loving thing to do (Kant notwithstanding). It’s a loving thing in the elevator to repent and say, “Oh God, I’m so sorry I’d rather be at home. I’m sorry that I’m disinclined. I’m sorry that I’m grumbling and murmuring about this cost of the ministry. Would you restore to me the joy of love?” So that when you walk in there and she opens her eyes and says, “Oh Pastor, you didn’t have to drive all the way. Thank you. Why did you?” You can say, “I really enjoy being with my people in need.” Never in a million years would she say, “All you ever do is pursue your joy, pastor. So leave the room, and bring somebody who loves me.” Never in a million years.
‘No Place I’d Rather Be’
My wife, Noël and I have will have been married thirty years this December. And I arrive at the door and I ring the doorbell on our thirtieth anniversary, say,, this December 21. I never ring the doorbell to get in. She comes, looks funny at the door, “Why are you ringing the doorbell?” I pull the roses out from behind my back, thirty long-stem roses — broke the bank. I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël!” And she says, “Oh Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you?” And I say, “It’s my duty.” It’s the same illustration. Do you see the similarity?
Let’s back up and run the tape again. Ding-dong. “Happy anniversary Noel.” “Oh Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you?” “I couldn’t help myself. I love buying you roses. In fact, why don’t you go change your clothes because I’ve arranged for a babysitter. We’re going out tonight because there’s nothing I’d rather do than spend the evening with you.” And never in a million years would she say, “Nothing you’d rather do? All you ever think about is you, you, you.”
Now, the reason she wouldn’t say that is the same reason that on Sunday morning when God comes down to your church and bows and stoops to see what you’re doing and says, “Why are you here? Why are you here doing this?” If you say to him, “Christians are supposed to do this; this is our duty. We read it in the book: ‘Praise the Lord.’ It says, ‘Praise the Lord.’ We’re being obedient people. We do our duty. We’re Reformed; Reformed people obey God.” That’s the wrong answer. The wrong answer.
The right answer to God on Sunday morning when he opens the door and finds you with a bouquet of roses called worship, the right answer is: “There’s no place I’d rather be. “Because where can I go? You have the words of life, you have the bread of life, you have the water, you have the healing, you have the beauty, you have the glory, you have the hope, you have the treasure. Whom have I but thee? Where would I go? I’m only here because I want to be happy in you. I’m turning away from every alternative. I’m not going golfing this morning, I’m not watching TV this morning, I’m not taking a walk around the lake this morning; I’m here because you are my only hope for this cavernous longing that I have for joy.”
And God will say that, “That’s a good answer. That’s right. That’s who I am. That’s who I am, because I am most glorified when you turn from all those things and find yourself satisfied in me.” Do you see the connection? Do you get it?
Foundation for Joy
Now, this is very controversial. I mean, it sounds like you don’t think it’s controversial so I could just go home now I think. But there are a few other things to say, and you need to be prepared as a people. If you love that truth that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, you need to be able to defend it biblically. You need to be able to go to the Bible when people lift up objections, which they will. I mean, this does not land on people easily. And so let me try to give you a little broader foundation than what we’ve developed so far. Let me give you other supports for whether the Bible teaches that you should pursue your joy all the time, in everything, in God. One would come from the nature of faith, and one would come from the nature of sin.
Let’s take Hebrews 11:6. This is a real familiar verse. It says
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.
Without faith it is impossible to please God. Everybody who’s a believer certainly wants to please God. God says, “The only way you can please me is coming to me in faith,” and faith has at least two components to it: First, the confidence that God is; and here’s this amazing second one: the confidence that when you come, you’re coming for reward. You cannot please God unless you come to him for reward. That’s the end of Immanuel Kant. It’s exactly the opposite of what he says. He says, and so do tens of thousands of ethicists, both scholarly and popular, that you cannot please God if you come for reward.
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on “love your enemies,” and a whole big section of the book was on motivation. So I read ethical treatise after ethical treatise on motivation for radical love. And over, and over, and over, and over again I would read, “Well, you can’t love with a view to reward because then it’s not love. And now I find God saying, “The only way you can please me is by coming to me with a believing confidence that I am a rewarder to you.” I mean, nothing jars a student more than that.
So after this long list of commandments that you should be happy in God, my second argument for why you should pursue joy in God relentlessly is that if you don’t, you’re not a believer. You don’t have faith that pleases God, because faith must come to God believing that he’s a rewarder.
Do you know what most ethicists do with the dozens and dozens of unblushing promises of reward in the Gospels? They say, “Well, they should be unanticipated results of your obedience; not the thing that you want when you obey.” Now, there’s a problem here; there’s a huge problem here. The problem is: God is a very bad teacher to introduce to us these contaminating incentives upfront, where they just mess us up and ruin our mind.
More Blessed to Give
Now, there is a verse that really makes that plain. It’s Acts 20:35, where Paul is pleading with the elders on the beach in Miletus and he says to them, “I want you to labor for the weak, spend yourself for your people.” He’s talking to pastors and say, “Just give yourself away like I do. I work late at night, knitting these tents together so I could teach all morning and not charge anybody anything.” Labor like that; love your people. He says,
In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Do you know what the most controversial word in that verse is? The word remembering. Because had Paul believed what most ethical theorists today believe, he surely would’ve used the word forgetting. “Labor for your people, love your people, forgetting the word which the Lord spoke, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ because if you remember it, you will ruin your acts of love for your people because you’ll do it for the blessedness that there is in it.”
And so very calmly and very confidently, I put the Bible over all the ethical theorists and say “Sorry, I’m following the Bible. The Bible says, “John Piper, when you’re in your car or in the elevator not feeling like giving, but feeling like going home and receiving from your little girl and putting your feet up and reading a good book — when you are wrestling like that — the Bible says, ‘Remember, it is more blessed to be at the hospital than to be at home.’”
Remember it, remember it, remember it, remember it. Don’t forget it and try to rise in your own heroic strength and say, “By virtue of my moral commitment to duty, I will do what pastors are supposed to do.” Because when you’re done with that, you know who’s getting the glory: the hero gets the glory. The desperate child who has no resources at 10 o’clock at night, and cries out to God, “O God, restore to me the joy of my ministry, so that I delight to do what you called me to do.” When that child is done with that ministry and gets in his car at 10:30 and breathes a deep sigh, God will get the glory; God will get the glory — not him.
That’s my second argument: the nature of faith calls us to pursue God as a rewarder constantly. We are bankrupt; he’s rich. We’re hungry; he’s got the bread. We’re thirsty; he’s got the water. We’re empty; he’s got the fullness. He gets the glory when we cry for more, more, more. When we get up in the morning and pray Psalm 90:14, “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love, that I may rejoice and be glad in you all my days,” he gets the glory then — not if we get up in the morning and say, “Keep your joy for yourself; I’m supposed to do it out of duty.” Don’t do that to the Psalms. Don’t do that to the Psalms. Let them stand.
Here’s another reason on the nature of sin. I get this from Jeremiah 2:12–13. God, through Jeremiah, cries out like this:
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.
Did you know what he just called this? He called it evil. “My people have committed two great evils.” First, turning away from a fountain. It’s wicked not to pursue the satisfaction of your thirst in God. Wicked, wicked, wicked to pursue your joy in the broken cisterns of the world with your back to the fountain. You feel what’s at stake here in Christian Hedonism. We are not playing word games. My theology is not a word game. We are dealing with wickedness that defiles the living God by a refusal to be happy in him.
God is so shocked by this that he says to the universe, “Be appalled; my people have looked at the fountain of living water and have said, ‘No, thank you; no, thank you,’ and spent the rest of their life shoveling in the sand of the world trying to find a rock to lick to satisfy the longings of their heart.” Money, career, a spouse, children, power, vacations, a few more megahertz on the computer. What’s your broken cistern? Watch out; we are not playing games, folks. Not to pursue joy in God relentlessly and all the time in all you do is wicked; it’s wicked. And to substitute anything for God for your ultimate satisfaction is wicked.
Not Served by Human Hands
I think I want to give you one more objection that’s raised, and then close with a few practical helps on how to become the kind of person we’re talking about here, because a lot of people, when I’m done with this radical call to delight in God, feel absolutely helpless, devastated. Because you wanted to be at the Bulls Game and watch them finish, and you had to come worship, and that’s tormenting you right now. Why don’t you delight more in God? Now that may not be true for many given what I heard coming out of your mouths about an hour ago, but there is something else, probably, that’s pulling at you, and you feel like, “I could never measure up to what John Piper just said. I could never measure up to pursuing God like that.” So I want to close with some practical helps.
But let me give you one more objection that is thrown up, and the objection goes something like this: “You talk relentlessly about pursuing joy in God, but it just doesn’t sound like the noble concept of serving God. I mean, isn’t a huge motif in the Bible to serve God, serve God like a slave? I mean, Paul called himself a bondservant, a slave of God.” God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). So don’t serve God as though he needed anything. God’s the giver; you are the getter; don’t serve him any other way.
We’re not talking about erecting a ladder here for you to climb to heaven, folks. If you feel like I’ve erected a ladder and you now have to perform to get to the top or God’s going to be dissatisfied, you have not heard me. You are hearing me through a legalistic grid that the devil and your own flesh is putting in your brain because I’m not putting it there. I’m tearing down ladders and putting you under a waterfall. The waterfall is free, and your job is to open your mouth and lie on your back, which is very hard to do if you want to be the talker in this affair. If you want to design salvation, which is what the world wants to do — they want to design it, not receive it like a little child — then you’re going to use your mouth to tell God how it ought to be, and then you will not lie down under his waterfall and receive freely what he has to give. So it may sound easy to lie down, which it is.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:29–30)
So, why did he say that the way is hard that leads to life and few there be that find it four chapters earlier? (Matthew 7:13–14). There’s something worth meditating on. Just put Matthew 11 which I just quoted, over against Matthew 7. The weight is easy and light; they way is narrow and hard, and few there be that find it. Here’s my solution to that: proud people, self-determining people, find it hard to lay down under a waterfall. These texts are not contradicting each other by one erecting a ladder on which you climb to heaven, and the other saying there’s no ladder; there’s a waterfall to get under. This one, the hard one, is simply saying that until you humble yourself and realize you’re broken, you’re empty, you’re starved, you’re bankrupt, you’re poor, you’ll never lie down under the waterfall. It’s not hard to lie down under a waterfall; it’s easy.
The second text besides Acts 17:25 is Mark 10:45:
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
So don’t serve him, because he said he came not to be served, but to serve. Therefore, my answer to the question, What becomes of the noble biblical concept of service?
Whoever serves, [let him do so] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
That’s the way to serve. Serve in the strength that God supplies; serve under the waterfall. Wherever the waterfall moves, now we can move. Go where the waterfall is. You’ll know that God’s calling you to move from Philadelphia or Gaithersburg or Indiana to another city when the waterfall of God’s blessing and outpouring begins to move, and you want to stay under it; you just want to stay under it. You want to be enriched, you want to be enabled, you want to be empowered, and he says, “My power is moving. Go with my power. Go with me; I’m moving.” You stay under that because under that, you’re the getter, he’s the giver, and the giver gets the glory. The giver gets the glory according to 1 Peter 4:11.
Five Practical Suggestions for Growth
Let’s go to practical suggestions on how to nurture this heart that delights in God, and it’s a real simple thing. I don’t have anything more profound to say here than read your Bible and pray. But I will try to be a little more specific and a little more practical than that because I think you probably feel that’s cheap and easy. I do have a lot of people who, with too much cynicism in their voice in the midst of crisis, say, “And don’t give us your pat answers about reading the Bible and praying.” I always flinch when I hear that. I really flinch because it’s my life. This is my life. I’m not belittling you, Holy Spirit, when I say that. This is your book; this is your means. My heart is always ascending and longing to the Spirit when I put my elbows on either side of this book
But this is my life. This is where I get everything I know with any assurance. and this is where I get my life. This is where my marriage stays together. This is where I learn how to raise teenagers, and I’ve done four. This is where I learn how to adopt a little African American girl. I don’t know how to raise girls. I don’t know what it is to raise a girl. I’m 52 years old. She’s going to be a 15-year-old teenager when I’m 65. That’s just confidence in this book. That’s all I have to go on: that God will be the God of this book at age 65.
1. Look for the greatness of God.
When you read the Bible, which you should do every day, read intentionally on the lookout for the greatness of God. Many of us read way too passively, looking for nothing in particular, hoping something will jump out. I think we should read with a greater resolution to see God. Ask yourself this question: If you were going to write a book, just for you or your friends or your children, and the title of the book would be 365 Reasons Why I Stand in Awe of God, read your Bible looking for those reasons.
For example, we read the Bible as a family at the breakfast table every morning. We read the Bible in the evening as a family when the teenagers are home. They have to be there, and they are glad to be there. Then my wife and I kneel and we pray, and then I have my own private devotional life. That’s my home experience with the Bible: four times with the Lord at least, and I’ve begun to build in a noon and a suppertime devotional, just a brief time just because I feel like I need more these days. But at the breakfast table, we’re reading through the Gospel of Mark.
We were reading the other day where Jesus is asked the question: “By what authority do you do these things?” And Jesus says, “I will ask you a question: The baptism of John, is it from heaven or from earth or men?” They all have a little huddle. “If we say it’s from heaven, he’ll say, ‘Why did you not believe?’ And if we say it’s from men, they’re going to stone us because they think he’s a prophet. Well, what are we going to do? Well, let’s tell him we don’t know. We don’t know the answer.” And Jesus with razors in his eyes says, “I don’t talk to people like that” (Mark 11:30–33). That’s my paraphrase. Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” In other words, “I don’t play games with truth-haters. I don’t play games with politicians who manipulate the truth in order to keep from getting stoned and to avoid the truth of heaven. I don’t play games with Washington.”
That’s one of my devotionals. That’s something I stand in awe of. I look at Jesus and I say, “I don’t want to tangle with Jesus.” Read your Bible like that. I’m trying to read the Bible this year, and that means I’m reading way too fast, so I’ve got to read a long time, and I’ve got slow down and I’ve got to say, “Is there something glorious about Jesus in Mark 14?” There is.
2. Linger over small portions.
Do not feel like all your time in the word must be spent covering many chapters. Linger over small portions. I think I’ve said enough about that one. It’s almost the same as the first one. The first one was: look for specific aspects of God’s greatness. The second one is: linger over small portions and savor them.
3. Write the text and what you see.
Try writing the text and some of your ideas about it. I had a young woman come to me some years ago and she said, “I read my Bible and nothing happens. I try to read it and my mind wanders. I hear you say that it comes alive, and it’s supposed to shape your heart and bring joy, and be like honey and reward, and it doesn’t work.” And I said, “Why don’t you try this? Try, instead of reading a lot, writing out the passage. Write the passage. And if an idea comes to your mind about what you’re writing, write it on another piece of paper and see what happens.” She came back to me glowing the next week that she had seen so much.
The pen is a miracle instrument. This is a miracle instrument. There are eyes in the pen. I don’t know why. But there are eyes in the pen. It may simply be because it slows you down. I think it’s more than that though; I think it’s something more. I don’t know why, but when you write the text, you see more. John Calvin said, “I count myself to be among those who learn as they write, and write as they learn.” I know he meant more than copy texts. You will do more than copy texts if you copy texts.
I’m a writer because I am a hedonist. I do not know what I think until I write. My mind is weak. Albert Einstein, they say, could hold an idea in his head for weeks and look at it from a hundred different angles, and never lose it. I think I can last about ten seconds until I see dust on the shade. Then I’m upset at Noël, and my devotions are almost over. In all the upheaval of thirty years of living together with somebody I’m so different from, she comes in, and where did the Bible verse ever go?
So, there’s a way to conquer that: write, because while you’re writing, you’re riveted. And the mind isn’t all over the place at a little jingle or a little something, or just anything the devil uses to distract you.
4. Memorize the Bible.
Oh people, memorize the Bible. We regard this as so highly that we have what’s called the “Fighter Verse” program at our church. Every week, everybody is supposed to memorize another verse, and on Sunday morning, I go down in the congregation and I ask somebody to stand up and say the verse. Know the word of God. Do you want to be blessed? Memorize the word of God. Memorize chapters. Memorize Romans 8. Don’t die without having memorized Romans 8. If you’re over forty, you might think you can’t memorize anymore. You might think only three-year-olds can memorize — which they can. Pour it into their lives.
Now forty-plus-year olds, I’m 52. If I were to offer you tonight $1,000 for every verse that you could memorize by next week, I wonder if you wouldn’t have $100,000 by next week. Here’s the serious point: the benefits of memorizing Scripture are 10,000 times greater than the money you would get for it. You don’t believe it. You don’t believe it, if you don’t memorize Scripture; that’s the problem. And I plead with you: believe it, believe it, believe it. The benefits will be great.
5. Make a holy vow and work.
Do not despise a holy vow. Perhaps tonight, as we close, convicted you may be that you’ve not been doing this. You’ve been bellyaching about why you’re not growing. You’ve been upset and frustrated that your worship life is mediocre. You do not feel the kind of passion and desire for God that I’ve tried to call you to. And you’ve been blaming God, but not memorizing any Scripture. Why don’t you tonight make a vow and say, “God, I vow — I promise, so help me God — that before June (in six or seven days) I will memorize Romans 8:32–39.” Pick a paragraph; that’s one of the greatest in the Bible.
Then use rugged discipline to do it because God delights to cause the flowers of spontaneity to grow in the furrows of discipline. Please don’t say you’ve got to choose in life between a disciplined life and a spontaneous life. If you try to choose only spontaneity at the expense of discipline, you will destroy any worthy spontaneity. Spontaneity grows in the soil of discipline. Ask the farmer where the wheat comes from. It comes from God, the Bible says. But “I sowed and Apollos watered. And we stayed up late and got up early to do it, and God gave the increase” (1 Corinthians 3:6). And when he gives it, it’s all of him. But you can till the soil. He calls you to do it; he gives you the strength to do it.
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments! (Psalm 112:1)
Fearing God, supremacy, reverence, awe, and delight in his commandments. Make his word your delight, and he will be reverenced and magnified and glorified by you.