Sweet Sorrow: The Happy Root of Holy Living

The Jonathan Edwards Institute | Annapolis, Maryland


No dead teacher outside the Bible has influenced me more than Jonathan Edwards. His fingerprints are on everything I write and preach. My debt is huge. It is theological and spiritual and deeply personal. So my aim here is to honor him in this year which marks the 300th anniversary of his birth (October 5, 1703).

I think he would be most honored if I helped you see his great God and savor him and thus so show him supremely beautiful and valuable. And I think he would want me to say that when he and I speak of the supreme beauty and value of God, we mean all that God is for us in Christ. When I say God, I do not mean the Allah of Islam or the God of Christ-rejecting Israel (John 8:44). I mean the God you do not know and do not have if you do not have his Son, because he and his Son are One.

The greatest lesson I learned from Edwards was that God is shown to be most beautiful and valuable when his people delight in him above all else. So God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Which means that you never have to choose between your greatest joy and his greatest glory. And it means that you should always pursue your greatest joy-for the glory of God.

My question today is: How does this relate to the necessary sorrows of the Christian life? How does it relate specifically to the sorrow of repentance and self-denial and reproach for Christ? Edwards addresses this question directly and gives answers that take us deeper in our understanding and experience of the good and holy sorrows of our lives.

The Foundations in the Religious Affections

To set the stage, we need to go to Edwards's main book on the Christian life and see how he argues for the central importance of delight in Christian living, and then relate that to the sorrows of repentance, self-denial, and reproach.

In the third part of the Treatise on Religious Affections, Edwards gives twelve signs of the authenticity or sincerity of Christian affections-signs that they are real, that is, that they are truly the work of God's saving grace in the heart and have the spiritual sight of Christ as their foundation, not merely natural sight. The twelfth sign of authentic spiritual affections is Christian behavior. He puts it like this:

Gracious and holy affections [that is, true Christian affections] have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice. I mean, they have that influence and power upon him who is the subject of them, that they cause that a practice, which is universally conformed to, and directed by Christian rules, should be the practice and business of his life. 1

In fact, he goes on to say that Christian practice is "the chief [!] of all the evidences of a saving sincerity in religion."2 In other words, the reason a changed life of practical love and godliness is the chief and necessary evidence of gracious and holy affections is that these affections "have that influence and power . . . that they cause that practice." True Christian affections have such power and influence that they must change our lives. If they don't, they are not real. (Don't press this to perfectionism. Edwards knows that transformation is a process and that often in the truly converted person, grace begins to work as a seed that must grow.)3

Now, Edwards knows that there is such a thing as hypocrisy and that people who are not truly Christian can often look like hypocrites. He says, for example, in a sermon in 1738 called "Wicked Men Inconsistent with Themselves":

The outward show of wicked men disagrees with their hearts. They very often make an appearance that is exceedingly different and contrary to what they really are inwardly. They have the clothing of sheep, but the nature of wolves, Mat. 7:15. They are like whited sepulchers, which indeed appear beautiful outward[ly], but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.4

This means that the true Christian practice must rise from authentic, holy affections. Practice that is not the fruit and evidence of spiritual affections, and affections that do not result in a life of love, are not authentic.

The implication of this is that Christians must fight for true religious affections, not just external change in behavior. The behavior that pleases God must come from spiritual affections, and affections that please God will certainly cause a pattern of Christ-exalting love in the believer. In other words, our spiritual affections-our Spirit-enabled, Christ-exalting emotions-are essential to what it means to be a Christian.

This is why Edwards maintains the central thesis of his book on the Religious Affections. His text is 1 Peter 1:8, "Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory." Then he states his thesis (doctrine) for the book: "True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections."5

He tells us what he means by the religious affections: "The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affection; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal."6 Among all these, he says, love is the fountain of all the others. But it is crucial to understand that "love" in this context means "delight"-we love God with all our heart when we delight in him above all else. That is what he means by love as the root of all the other emotions.

You can see this when he says, "Love is not only one of the affections, but it is the first and chief of the affections, and the fountain of all the affections. From love arises hatred of those things which are contrary to what we love, or which oppose and thwart us in those things that we delight in."7 Notice how "delight in" is interchangeable with "love."

What this means is that the battle for joy8 -that is, the battle to delight in God above all other things, the battle to be satisfied in God above all competing satisfactions in the universe-is the main battle in the universe.

I mean that quite literally and cosmically and universally. There is no greater battle than the battle to delight in God above all else-all that is good and all that is evil. The primary battle of the devil is to deceive humans into embracing other things as more satisfying than all that God is for them in Jesus. It is the main battle in the universe and makes all other human warfare look small and insignificant by comparison.

There is one great reason for this, which can be expressed in two ways. The reason the battle for delight in God--the battle to be satisfied in God and love God--is infinitely important is that delighting in God is essential to glorifying God, and glorifying God is why the universe was created.

Edwards wrote (what may be his most important book in my life) The End for Which God Created the World to make this one point: "The glory of God is the last end for which he created the world.9 "All that is ever spoken of in the Scripture as an ultimate end of God's works, is included in that one phrase, the glory of God." 10

The truth that God created the universe to display his glory and that he does all the works of redemption and providence to magnify the fullness of his glory in the universe is not known and loved in the church today the way it ought to be. But the corollary truth is known even less, and is just as important for living the Christian life. It is probably the most important biblical insight that Edwards taught me. It is the truth that delighting in God is essential to glorifying God.

God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understanding; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it; his glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, his glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.11

Now we have seen two reasons why the battle for delight in God is the greatest battle in the universe. First, we have seen that this delight is the fountain of all other holy affections and therefore the fountain of all God-exalting behavior. In other words, the battle for delight in God is the greatest battle because all God-glorifying behavior flows from it. And second, we have seen that the heart's delight in God is itself one of the two ways that the human soul was created to glorify God.

So the battle for delight in God is the supreme battle of the world because delight in God glorifies God both directly as the response of the soul that signifies best his worth, and indirectly as the fountain of the affections and behaviors that make God's infinite worth more visible.

The implications of this for preaching and counseling and personal devotions and missions and worship and every other aspect of life are enormous. Edwards spells out one of the most basic implications for evangelism and sanctification. Our aim is to put people out of taste for the pleasures of sin, and in their place waken in them an irresistible delight in all that God is for them in Christ. Amazingly, he says bluntly that we fight fire with fire, pleasure against pleasure. Here is the way he puts it:

We come with double forces against the wicked, to persuade them to a godly life. . . . The common argument is the profitableness of religion, but alas, the wicked man is not in pursuit of profit; 'tis pleasure he seeks. Now, then, we will fight with them with their own weapons.12

In other words, we persuade them that superior and lasting pleasures are found in Christ and not in sin. This is central to evangelism and to ongoing sanctification. It's why Paul expressed his apostolic charge in these very terms. 2 Corinthians 1:24, "Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy" (see also Philippians 1:25).

How Does the Battle for Delight Relate to Our Good and Holy Sorrows?

Now here a question arises that Edwards addresses in a sermon from 1723 entitled, "The Pleasantness of Religion."13 The question he raises is this: How does this central insight-about the centrality of delight in glorifying God and producing holiness-relate to three necessary sorrows of the Christian life?

He raises this question in one of his five arguments for the pleasantness of Christianity. He knows that for most people Christianity is not seen as a path of pleasantness. Many unbelievers think that all the real pleasures must be denied, and many believers think that the troubles and sorrows of the Christian life outweigh the pleasures. Therefore, Edwards states the opposite in two amazing (and convoluted!) assertions.

First, to the unbelievers who say that the best pleasures must be denied, he says, "There is no pleasure but what brings more of sorrow than of pleasure, but what the godly man either does or may enjoy."14 In other words, there is no pleasure that godly people may not enjoy except those that bring more sorrow than pleasure. Or to put it in the astonishing way that makes it understandable: Christians may seek and should seek only those pleasures that are maximally pleasurable-that is, that have the least sorrows as consequences, including in eternity.

And secondly, to those who think the Christian life brings too many troubles and sorrows, Edwards says, "Religion [Christianity] brings no new troubles upon man but what have more of pleasure than of trouble."15 In other words, there are no troubles that befall the Christian except those that will bring more pleasure than trouble with them, when all things are considered.

Here is where he addresses the question: What about the necessary sorrows of the Christian life? How does the centrality of delight relate to these, namely, to repentance, self-denial, and reproach? If repentance, self-denial, and reproach for Christ are essential parts of being a Christian, can we really say that the fight for joy is the supreme battle of life? What about the battle for repentance?

Edwards's answer is extremely important for understanding the nature of repentance and the kind of preaching and counseling that God uses to produce it. Here is the key section. After saying that "religion brings no new troubles upon man but what have more of pleasure than of trouble, he says:

There is repentance of sin: though it be a deep sorrow for sin that God requires as necessary to salvation, yet the very nature of it necessarily implies delight. Repentance of sin is a sorrow arising from the sight of God's excellency and mercy, but the apprehension of excellency or mercy must necessarily and unavoidably beget pleasure in the mind of the beholder. 'Tis impossible that anyone should see anything that appears to him excellent and not behold it with pleasure, and it's impossible to be affected with the mercy and love of God, and his willingness to be merciful to us and love us, and not be affected with pleasure at the thoughts of [it]; but this is the very affection that begets true repentance. How much soever of a paradox it may seem, it is true that repentance is a sweet sorrow, so that the more of this sorrow, the more pleasure.16

This is astonishing and true. What he is saying is that to bring people to the sorrow of repentance, you much bring them first to see God as their delight.

True sorrow over not having holiness is sorrow over the sin of not enjoying God. It is sorrow for not having God as our all-satisfying treasure. But to be sorrowful over not having something in a way that honors it, you must really want to have it because it is precious in itself. It must have become a delight to you. This means that true gospel repentance must be preceded by the awakening of a delight in God. To weep savingly over not possessing God as your treasure, he must have become precious to you.

Edwards later drew this out in his publishing of the experience of David Brainerd's preaching to the Indians. Here is Brainerd's experience that illustrates Edward's point about joy and repentance. On August 9, 1745 he preached to the Indians of Crossweeksung, New Jersey and made this observation:

There were many tears among them while I was discoursing publicly . . . Some were much affected with a few words spoken to them in a powerful manner, which caused the persons to cry out in anguish of soul, although I spoke not a word of terror, but on the contrary, set before them the fullness and all-sufficiency of Christ's merits, and his willingness to save all that come to him; and thereupon pressed them to come without delay.17

Again on November 30 he preached on Luke 16:19-26 concerning the rich man and Lazarus.

The Word made powerful impressions upon many in the assembly, especially while I discoursed of the blessedness of Lazarus "in Abraham's bosom" [Luke 16:22]. This, I could perceive, affected them much more than what I spoke of the rich man's misery and torments. And thus it has been usually with them. . . . They have almost always appeared much more affected with the comfortable than the dreadful truths of God's Word. And that which has distressed many of them under convictions, is that they found they wanted [=lacked], and could not obtain, the happiness of the godly.18

This is exactly what Edwards was preaching twenty-two years earlier. It seems very strange at first. One must taste the happiness of knowing God before one can be truly sorrowful for not having more of that happiness. There is no contradiction between the necessity of repentance and the necessity of pursuing delight in God as the great battle of life. The experience of delight in God is, in fact, a prerequisite of repentance which shows how much we delight in God by how grieved we are that we do not live more consistently with that delight.

The implication for preaching and counseling and spiritual conversation is that one must preach and counsel and converse to awaken delight in the glory of God if one would produce true grief over falling short of the glory of God.

Edwards makes the same point in regard to self-denial and reproaches for Christ. I will only mention these briefly. He says:

Self-denial will also be reckoned amongst the troubles of the godly. . . . But whoever has tried self-denial can give in his testimony that they never experience greater pleasure and joys than after great acts of self-denial. Self-denial destroys the very root and foundation of sorrow, and is nothing else but the lancing of a grievous and painful sore that effects a cure and brings abundance of health as a recompense for the pain of the operation.19

So there is no contradiction between the centrality of delight in God and the necessity of self-denial, since self-denial "destroys the root . . . of sorrow." In other words, self-denial serves the fullest delight in God. And the beginnings of delight in God will enable us to deny ourselves the things which seem pleasant (what Hebrews 11:25 calls "the fleeting pleasures of sin"), but in the end will destroy our joy (which is precisely the way Jesus argues for self-denial in Mark 8:34-35).

Then in regard to necessary afflictions and reproaches Edwards says that a believer who is reproached

ordinarily can . . . return into the arms of Jesus, his best friend, with the more delight . . . Reproaches are ordered by God for this end, that they may destroy sin, which is the chief root of the troubles of the godly man, and the destruction of it a foundation for delight.20

I conclude, therefore, that Edwards's fundamental insights-that the universe was created to display God's glory, and that God is glorified most when we are most satisfied in him, and that we should therefore seek our delight in God with all our might all the time as the great battle of the world-are not undermined but confirmed by the necessary sorrows of the Christian life, especially repentance and self-denial and reproaches.

Questions of Application

There are several applications we should draw from this. Let's ask ourselves these questions:

  1. Have we truly repented? Are we now truly repentant? Have we seen and savored and desired the glory of God in Christ so much that we grieve over not cherishing it as we ought? Does our delight in God waken sorrow for our how easily we desire other things more?

  2. Is our the sorrow of our repentance a "godly sorrow" that does not produce the death of discouragement and paralysis (2 Corinthians 7:10), but produces a life of hope that God will be merciful to us because Christ died for us, and will forgive us and help us make progress in putting to death the old self with its evil desires (Colossians 3:5)?

  3. Are we practicing daily self-denial by making war on all desires that threaten to compete with God for our supreme satisfaction? Are we engaged in the great battle of the world-the fight for supreme joy in God and God alone?

  4. Are you willing to embrace reproaches for Christ's sake because he is your best Friend and the smile of his welcome outweighs ten thousand frowns?

May God grant us the grace to know and experience what Paul described as his own life in 2 Corinthians 6:10, "sorrowful yet always rejoicing."

  1. Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise on the Religious Affections, Part III, Section 13. 

  2. Ibid., Part III, Section 14.2 

  3. "There never will, in this world, be an entire purity, either in particular saints, by a perfect freedom from mixtures of corruption, or in the church of God, without any mixture of hypocrites with saints-or counterfeit religion and false appearances of grace with true religion and real holiness." (Religious Affections, Author's Preface) 

  4. Electronic sermon, "Wicked Men Inconsistent with Themselves," 1738, section IV. 

  5. Edwards, The Religious Affections, Part I, Section 1. 

  6. Ibid., Part I, Section 2.4. 

  7. Ibid., Part I, Section 2.5. 

  8. I am aware that Edwards includes "joy" as one of the affections that is produced by love. 

    From love arises hatred of those things which are contrary to what we love, or which oppose and thwart us in those things that we delight in: and from the various exercises of love and hatred, according to the circumstances of the objects of these affections, as present or absent, certain or uncertain, probable or improbable, arise all those other affections of desire, hope, fear, joy, grief, gratitude, anger, etc. From a vigorous, affectionate, and fervent love to God, will necessarily arise other religious affections; hence will arise an intense hatred and abhorrence of sin, fear of sin, and a dread of God's displeasure, gratitude to God for his goodness, complacence and joy in God, when God is graciously and sensibly present, and grief when he is absent, and a joyful hope when a future enjoyment of God is expected, and fervent zeal for the glory of God. And in like manner, from a fervent love to men, will arise all other virtuous affections towards men. (RA, Part I, Section 2.5)

    So Edwards says "complacence and joy in God, when God is graciously and sensibly present," will arise from love to God or delight in God. I don't think this means "joy arises from joy." I think Edwards means, by adding the words, "when God is graciously present," that delight in God for who he is in his manifold excellencies gives rise to a special delight in his gracious approaches when he communicates himself to us in more immediate and familiar ways.

  9. Found in John Piper, God's Passion for His Glory, Paragraph 161. 

  10. Ibid., Paragraph 264. 

  11. Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” ed. by Thomas Schafer, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 495. Miscellany #448; see also #87, pp. 251–252; #332, p. 410; #679 (not in the New Haven Volume). Emphasis added. 

  12. Jonathan Edwards, "The Pleasantness of Religion" in The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 23-24. 

  13. Ibid, p. 15. His doctrine in this sermon is: "It would be worth the while to be religious, if it were only for the n, based on Proverbs 24:13-14, is pleasantness of it." 

  14. Ibid, p. 18. 

  15. Ibid. 

  16. Ibid. pp. 18-19. 

  17. Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, ed. by Norman Pettit, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 7, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 310. 

  18. Jonathan Edwards, The Life of David Brainerd, p. 342. 

  19. Jonathan Edwards, "The Pleasantness of Religion," p. 19. 

  20. Ibid.