Preserving Your Joy in God (with Portuguese Interpretation)

FIEL Conference for Pastors and Leaders | São Paulo, Brazil

Let me very briefly review the first three evenings and then move into tonight’s session. Our first night together, we stressed that God’s goal in all that he does is to exalt his name. God is not only the center of our hearts; he is the center of his own heart. He is the most ultimate and wonderful value in the universe, and he would be unrighteous if he did not value himself above all things. God would be an idolater if he did not magnify God.

The other part of the first night was this: that we give glory to God by enjoying him, and that led us to the second evening. If enjoying God brings him glory, then for God’s sake, we should pursue our joy. So, the point of the second evening was to pursue your joy in God with all your mind.

On the third night, we raised this question: If I pursue my joy, am I a loving person toward other people? And what we found was that if you don’t pursue your joy in God, you won’t have the strength to love. So, not only for the sake of God’s glory but also for the sake of loving other people, we must pursue our joy in God.

Now the question that leaves us with tonight is this: How do you cultivate and maintain that kind of joy in your heart? So I want to give several suggestions for how you go about maintaining joy.

1. Recognize the Lifelong Battle for Joy

Number one: Realize that your whole life will be a fight for joy. You don’t ever reach a point in your life where you don’t have to fight for joy anymore. So I’m going to use these not to fight feminists. No, I’m going to use these to fight unbelief. Anything that sin or Satan or the world would use to destroy my joy, I’m going to fight them.

But these kinds of weapons will not help. We’ll talk about the weapons that will help, but let me demonstrate for you that joy is a fight to be won. In 2 Corinthians 1:24, Paul says this, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy.” Isn’t it remarkable that Paul describes his ministry as working with them for their joy? Joy takes work.

In Philippians 1:25, Paul says, “I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith.” He was in prison and he wondered whether he would live or die. And the Lord persuaded him he would live, and he said the reason that he lives is to advance the joy of their faith. So in one place, he says, “My life is a work for your joy.” And in another place, he says, “I live for the advancement of your joy.” And if Paul devoted himself to work for my joy, then surely, I should join him in that fight.

Another way to demonstrate this from Scripture is to recognize that joy is an essential part of faith. In fact, one way to define faith would be this: faith is being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus. I get that from John 6:35. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Notice that last phrase. If you believe in Jesus, you will not thirst. That means believing in Jesus is receiving him in such a way that he satisfies your heart’s thirst.

So, an essential part of faith is joy or being satisfied in Jesus. But the Bible teaches that faith can only be maintained by fighting. For example, in 2 Timothy 4:7, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Right to the end of his life, he had to fight to maintain faith.

He said in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life.” So my first point is to recognize that maintaining joy takes fighting. Satan is against your joy. Sin is against your godly joy. The world is against your joy in Christ. Enemies are all around. To maintain joy, you must fight for it.

Now in my church, sometimes I preach this way. Recently, several women came up to me after a service and said something like this. They said, “You talk about the Christian life as being a fight or a war and it makes us feel tired. Isn’t Christianity a resting? Does it always have to be a fight and a struggle?” I showed them two passages of Scripture that have been a great help to me in balancing the warfare and the resting. The one is Matthew 11:28–30. Jesus says,

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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.

So I said to them, “Yes, coming to Christ is restful. Come to me and you’ll find rest for your soul.” In fact, I have this image in my mind of this text. You know what a yoke is? You put a yoke on the shoulders of cattle and then in the old days, you hooked a plow to the yoke and then you plowed the field.

Now, Jesus says his yoke is easy. It sounds like it’s heavy and it sounds like hard work. So here’s the way I think Jesus plows his field. He puts the yoke on my shoulder, and he hooks his plow to this yoke, and then he takes his mighty hands and puts them on the handles of the plow and he lifts the bull off the ground. So I’m just hanging in the yoke like this, and then he pushes the plow through the ground. That’s my Jesus. It’s an easy yoke.

But there’s another passage of Scripture, namely Matthew 7. This one I don’t know by heart, Matthew 7:13, and this one sounds very different than that one.

Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13–14)

So is it hard or is it easy? What is Christianity? Here’s the way I bring those two texts together. We are saved by faith, and we are sanctified by faith. The Christian life is to be lived by trusting Jesus to provide all our needs and give us the strength when he asks us to do. Nothing is easier than faith. Faith is stopping working and resting in someone else’s power.

Faith is easy unless you are proud. Faith is easy unless you want to rely upon yourself. Faith is easy unless you want the credit for all your accomplishments — and all humans are proud. All humans are self-reliant. All humans love the praise of men. Therefore, faith is very hard. Does that work? It is very easy, but if you don’t like it’s very hard.

So when I call Christianity a fight, I mean it is a fight to rest. It’s a fight to be humble enough to rest in the grace of God and not in ourselves and in our own accomplishment. Well, that was a very long point number one. To maintain joy in the Christian life is a lifelong battle.

2. Fight with Gutsy Guilt

Suggestion number two: Let’s all learn the secret of fighting this fight like justified sinners. What I mean by that is we fight not as those who are losing, but as those who already have victory in Jesus. Let me try to describe this fight in a way that’s hard to transfer into Portuguese. In English, I say we need to learn to fight with gutsy guilt.

To see what I mean by gutsy guilt, turn with me to Micah 7:8–9. I mentioned this verse because several years ago, it rescued me from a very dark time in my life. Many Christians, when discouragement comes, believe that God is against them and they tend to sink into a depression because they feel so guilty, and I want Christians like that to learn gutsy guilt. Now let me read about gutsy guilt with you.

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;
     when I fall, I shall rise;
when I sit in darkness,
     the Lord will be a light to me.
I will bear the indignation of the Lord
     because I have sinned against him. (Micha 7:8–9)

Now, stop there. Here’s a person who has sinned badly. God is frowning at him, looking with disfavor at him. He’s underneath the indignation of God because he’s genuinely guilty. Now, does he just give up and say, “I’m guilty and God is against me?” He has already said, “When I fall I will rise.”

Now, let’s keep reading. “Until he pleads my cause” So, the very God who is now angry at him is going to become his advocate “until he pleads my and executes judgment for me.” Not against me. For me. “He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication” (Micah 7:9). Isn’t that great? That is gutsy guilt.

In the midst of your darkness and your sense of guilt, you say, “This is not God’s last word toward me. Though he is angry with me, he loves me. He has given me his Son to pay for this sin. And after I have sat in the darkness for a little while, I am coming out. And do not rejoice over me, my enemy.” You see what I mean by gutsy guilt? That’s the way I want you to fight for your joy. Even in the darkness, hold on to the great mercy of God.

3. Cultivate a Clear Vision of God

Suggestion number three: Let your fight be a fight to see God more clearly. If we don’t see God more clearly, our joy will cease. Second Corinthians 3:18 states, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

So how do you become more and more transformed? By looking at Christ and at God and seeing them more clearly. In English, I would say beholding is becoming. And so, devote yourself in this battle to see God more clearly. Now let me talk in the rest of my time about ways that we see God more clearly.

4. Meditate on the Word of God

So, suggestion number four: Meditate on the word of God day and night. Our joy is totally dependent upon the word of God. Psalm 19:8 says, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” It’s the precepts of the Lord that make the heart glad. Or Jeremiah 15:16, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name.”

Now, why is it that the word of God produces joy? It’s because all of those things that bring joy are brought by the word of God. Let me mention several of them.

We can’t have joy if we don’t have life, and life comes from the word. For example, in 1 Peter 1:23, “We are born again through the living and abiding word of God.” My life in God depends upon the power of the word within me or consider the fact that faith, which is essential to joy, also comes by the word.

Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ..” If we don’t hear the word, we will not believe. And if we don’t believe, we don’t have joy. So we fight for joy with the word.

Another example is the power and the fruit of the Holy Spirit come by the word. Galatians 3:5 states, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” The Holy Spirit is poured out in power when we hear the word of God believingly. And we cannot have joy without the Holy Spirit, and therefore, we fight for joy with the word.

The word also brings hope. Romans 15:4 states, “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The whole Bible is written that we might have hope. Since I cannot have joy without hope, I fight for joy with the word of God.

And there are many other examples that I’m going to pass over. You remember the hymn by Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”? Luther was a great fighter against the devil. You remember how one of those verses ends: “One little word shall fell him.” So Luther had learned the lesson that the way you fight to maintain joy against the devil is with one little word.

5. Pray for Joy Preservation

Here’s my fifth. Suggestion number five: Pray earnestly and unceasingly that your joy would be preserved. There’s a connection between meditating on the word and praying earnestly. I read a book by a man named Wesley Duewel. He’s a man of great prayer. He told the story about how when he took a prayer retreat one time, he had to read fifty chapters of the Bible before his heart was in tune with God to pray.

And so, there’s a very close connection between meditating on the word and praying. We must pray for those things that bring joy. For example, we must pray that our faith would be sustained and strengthened.

You remember the man in Mark 9:24? He cried out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” That was a prayer that Jesus would do something to make his faith stronger. I pray that prayer every day. “Sustain my faith, O Lord, make my faith stronger.” Joy comes from faith, and therefore, joy comes from prayer. We should pray for our hope.

In Ephesians 1:18, Paul prays for the church like this, “Grant the eyes of [their] hearts enlightened, that [they] may know what is the hope to which he has called.” If we don’t pray, our hope will begin to become smaller, and there are many, many other things on which joy depends that we should pray for. So, give yourself to the word and give yourself to prayer.

6. Preach to Yourself

Suggestion number six: Learn to preach to yourself, not listen to yourself. Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a chapter in one of his books on preaching to yourself. We have an example of it in Psalm 42:5. The psalmist preaches to himself like this. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.”

I just plead with you. Learn to preach to yourself. So many people read the Bible passively. We just read a paragraph and then we close it and don’t do anything with it. When you read a passage, preach it to yourself, say, “Soul, why are you downcast? Soul, hope in God.”

You see, our fallen nature is constantly telling us bad things. All kinds of wrong messages come up out of our sin. God can’t be trusted. You’re going to be a failure. Church is no good, and on and on. We’ve got to stop listening to ourselves and start preaching to ourselves. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Preach it to yourself.

7. Exhort One Another Daily

Suggestion number seven: Exhort each other in this fight every day. Hebrews 3:12–13 state:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

The point is clear. We must help each other in this fight against the deceitfulness of sin. If you’re a loner, you’re in big danger. We must teach our people to get into relationships where they don’t depend on us once a week. This text says every day, exhort each other. Our people need to be in relationships where someone is encouraging them daily to be strong in the faith.

An example of how we strengthen each other in Scripture is 1 Samuel 23:16. David is feeling very discouraged, and Jonathan goes to him. “And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God.” Somebody has to do that for me again and again and again. Maintaining joy in God is a community project.

8. Be Patient in the Dark Night of the Soul

Suggestion number eight: Be patient in the dark night of the soul. People listen to me talk about joy, and sometimes they get very discouraged. They say, “Well, we hear you talking about joy and how it’s supposed to be. That is not where I am.” Now, what do you say to people like that? Psalm 40:1, David talks like this:

I waited patiently for the Lord;
     he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
     out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
     making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
     a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
     and put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1–3)

Now, don’t miss where this text begins. Where is David at the beginning of this text? He’s in the mire or the mud. He’s very low. He’s very discouraged. How long was he in this condition? He doesn’t say, but he was waiting patiently.

Sometimes we meet with people who are in such darkness, they can’t do any of these things that I’ve just described. They are so weak and so depressed, they can’t read the Bible, and they can’t pray. And you sit with them, what do you say to them? The marriage is about to break up. The teenagers are on drugs. There’s some pain in their chest. A parent is dying of cancer. “God doesn’t care about me.” What do you say?

One of the things you can say is this: “I know that it’s hard right now to believe and to pray and to read. I understand that. I don’t want to add to your pain. I’m going to believe and trust and hope for you. If you can’t pray, I will pray. If you can’t meditate on the word, I will seek the word for you.” And the Bible teaches that there are dark seasons when we can only wait. So on behalf of the Lord, I plead with you, do not run from him now, wait for him. Just wait.

Weeping will last for the night, but joy will come with the morning. And those words will come with healing. Many of us are in too much of a hurry to fix people. We say you’re supposed to be joyful if you’re a Christian. John Piper said so. But reality is we go up, we go down, we go up, we go down. And when you’re down, you don’t need somebody to beat you over the head with a truth you already know. You need a good Brazilian hug.

9. Prioritize Rest and Exercise

Suggestion number nine: Very practically, in fighting for joy, get the rest and the exercise that you need. Now, this may not sound very spiritual, but we are beings who are both body and spirit, and there is a close connection between this old body and this heart. And when I don’t get enough sleep, my joy goes down. I am more vulnerable to depression and discouragement and sin.

I remember a time in graduate school in Germany, and I was wrestling with my own sin of irritability, and I noticed something that didn’t make sense to me at first. In Galatians 5:22, it says that patience is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. But my experience taught me that patience is a fruit of sleep. If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m more impatient. If I get a lot of sleep, I’m less impatient. So is it the fruit of the Holy Spirit or is it the fruit of sleep?

Now, here’s what I believe the Lord taught me. The main reason I don’t get enough sleep is that I like to play God. I like to think that I must stay up to get this done and taken care of. If I don’t stay up late and get up early, why the church and my family will collapse. The Holy Spirit is in the main business of helping people not play God.

So, one of the ways that the Holy Spirit produces patience is by making me humble enough to go to bed and realize somebody else can do the work. Psalm 127:2 says, “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” God never sleeps, therefore I can. He’s God, not me. It’s pride that keeps me up. And the Holy Spirit overcomes that pride and puts me to bed.

10. Make Proper Use of Nature

Okay, we only have a minute left and I’m trying to decide which of my suggestions to leave out. I can at least mention them all.

Number ten: Make the proper use of nature. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge” (Psalm 19:1–2).

In other words, God put you in a beautiful land called Brazil, so that you would open your eyes and hear the glory of God. I guess you should open your eyes and see the glory of God. And when the glory comes in from nature, it refreshes the soul.

I was standing outside the hotel over there, and I know you haven’t had rain, and so the grass is brown, but that flower over there on the hill, whatever it is, is gorgeous. And God spoke to me through the flower. The last two points are simply read great books about God and read Christian biography.

So let me close tonight by just saying there is a fight to be fought. God has already won the victory in Jesus Christ. Therefore, you can fight even in the dark with gutsy guilt. Sometimes the joy is high, sometimes the joy is low, but our God never changes.