The Blazing Center

Part 5

Bethlehem Baptist Church Youth Retreat | Minneapolis

The theme is God’s glory and man’s gladness. Can they really be one? And I’ve argued, yes, they can be one, and that the key to bringing them together is that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. So, God gets glory — God is shown to be great — when you find satisfaction in him. So, you’re getting the satisfaction, and he’s getting the glory.

And those are the two things that I wanted most as a teenager. I knew I wanted to be happy. I knew from my parents and from the Bible that God wanted glory. But I felt deep in my bones that they were at odds with each other. And God opened the windows of heaven, so to speak, and showed me they’re not at odds. They come together.

And so we looked first at God’s passion for his glory, and then we looked at our passion for joy, and I gave you eight reasons from the Bible that you should pursue your joy in God all the time — radically and passionately. Even if it costs you your life, you should pursue your joy in God. And argument number seven, you remember, was that if you pursue your joy in God like this, you will be a loving person to other people. Or to put it negatively: you cannot be a loving person to other people unless you pursue your joy in God.

Sacrificial Joy

So, that’s where we are in our development of this argument for Christian Hedonism. I’m arguing that, contrary to all expectation, unless you are engaged in a rigorous pursuit of your joy in God, you can’t love other people. If you are engaged in a passionate pursuit of your joy in God, experiencing significant measures of that joy now, you cannot help but be a loving person. And that’s what I want to defend from the Bible.

Let’s go to 2 Corinthians 8. Let me give you the setting here. Paul is on a missionary journey, and he has passed through the upper regions of Greece, which are called, in those days, Macedonia. That’s where Phillipi is and Neapolis and Thessalonica.

He has passed through there and preached. Amazing things have happened there. And then he’s gone on to Corinth, and then he’s moved on and he’s writing a letter to Corinth to tell them what happened in Macedonia as a means to motivate them to give for the offering that he’s taking up for the poor down in Jerusalem. That’s the situation. Paul is collecting money for the poor.

“You cannot be a loving person to other people unless you pursue your joy in God.”

Evidently, there’d been some terrible crisis and tragedy in Jerusalem, and those Christians were in great need, so Paul is going through parts of the Roman empire and saying, “There’s a great need in Jerusalem. Would you contribute to their need?”

And he’s motivating the Corinthians to give by what happened up in Macedonia. So, what I want you to read with me is what happened in Macedonia and what he calls it. And I’m going to show you that what he calls it is love. Look or listen closely as we read 2 Corinthians 8 and be thinking in your mind, “Now, what would be a good definition of love on the basis of this text?”

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.

Then, drop down to verse 8.

I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.

I only bring in verse 8 to show you what he’s calling this behavior of the Macedonians in verses 1–4. He’s calling it love. “I’m saying this to you, Corinthians, to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also, like theirs, is genuine.”

What Is Love?

So, now we’re in a position to say, “Okay, Paul. What is love?” Let’s go back and take it a piece at a time and see what are the elements that go into what Paul calls a behavior which he designates love.

Grounded in Grace

The first thing to notice in verse 1 is that it originates in the grace of God.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia. (2 Corinthians 8:1)

So, what they’re about to do started with grace — powerful grace — moving in on the Macedonians, and doing something amazing inside them that unleashes something amazing. You’re going to see in verses 2–3 a staggering change of heart in human beings, but it all originates in grace.

Tonight, as we are gathered here, we are praying, “O Lord God, unleash love from the hearts of these young people. Make us a church filled with loving people — people who get outside themselves, people who go towards others’ needs instead of going toward their own comfort. Make us a people like that.”

Now, we know where it comes from. Grace has got to come — divine grace — which is why we pray, “O God, come! Let your mighty grace move in this room!”

Affliction and Poverty

Because in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty . . .

Now, let’s just stop there right in the middle of the sentence. Poverty has not gone away when they became Christians and affliction has increased. This is why a lot of people do not become Christians. The Bible is very realistic. It’s not a health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. “Become a Christian, you get healthy, you get prosperous, everything goes better!” That is not true. That is absolutely not true, and you know it’s not true from your own experience.

“Love is the grace-enabled impulse to expand your joy in God by extending it to others.”

So these people in Macedonia are being afflicted. We don’t know what it was. It could have been sickness, but very likely was persecution. Things are going hard in Macedonia. And then it says, “their extreme poverty.” So they’re still poor. They didn’t suddenly become prosperous.

Let Joy Soar

Now, out of those two things, affliction and poverty, something absolutely spectacular and inexplicable happens, namely, an abundance of joy. Grace came down in power. It did not take away poverty. It brought affliction, and in that, extreme joy happened. Clearly then, the joy is not in things, and the joy is not in comfort. The comfort is being attacked by affliction, the things are being taken away by poverty, and joy is still soaring.

That’s what I want for you. Oh, how I want that for you: that your joy would be rooted in Jesus Christ in such a way that if poverty came and affliction came, joy would rise.

For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.

Now the picture is complete. Grace came down from God in power to do a heart work first, before there was any circumstantial change at all. Poverty remained. Affliction increased. Joy in grace abounded. “I’m forgiven! I’m accepted! I’m a child of God! I’m heaven bound! I know the King of the universe!” And joy just surged. And the effect was it overflowed in “a wealth of generosity on their part.” In fact, look at the generosity described in 2 Corinthians 8:3:

For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord.

They gave more than they could, more than they should! In fact, it’s even better than that! They did it without any compulsion, without any constraint. Nobody twisted their arms. They did it of their own accord, of their own free will.

Begging to Give

And then in verse 4, there is the most amazing statement of all:

Begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints . . .

Picture it. They’re poor. They’re afflicted, so a good, natural, human way to respond would be to say, “You’ve taken up enough offering from us. Go to the rich people and take up more offerings. We’ve given all we can give.” And these people are saying, “Please, take another offering.” Isn’t that what verse 4 says? “Please, we beg of you: take another offering from us. We know we’re poor, we know we’re under affliction, but would you please take another offering from us?”

That’s amazing. You can’t explain that on human terms. That’s pure divine grace. That’s what I want to happen in your hearts. I want you to be that kind of people. I want Bethlehem Baptist Church, and all the churches out there to be the kind of churches that are filled with the kind of joy that, when there’s poverty, and when there’s affliction, there is an overflow of generosity.

An Overflow of Joy

Now, remember verse 8. What does Paul call this? He calls it love, which is not hard to imagine. But now, let’s define love. Let’s take what we’ve seen, and if Paul in verse 8 says he’s using the earnestness of the Macedonians to motivate the Corinthians’ love, then what’s the definition of love now? This would be my effort: Love is the grace-enabled impulse to expand your joy in God by extending it to others. Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.

I get that straight out of 2 Corinthians 8:2. Love is the overflow. Their abundance of joy overflowed in a wealth of generosity, and it all came from grace. So, here’s my definition of love. Love is the overflow of abundant joy in God that meets the needs of others. I just think that’s really clear from this text.

Motivational Power

Now, if that’s what love is, do you see how it links up with the first two messages? If you don’t have that joy in God, it can’t overflow to meet the needs of others. You’re going to have to fish around for some other kind of motivational power in order to be good to other people. And you’re probably going to become a legalist in the process. “Well, John Piper says you’re supposed to be good to people,” or “God says you’re supposed to be nice to people,” or “The Bible says, our moms and dads say I’m supposed to be nice. I don’t feel like being nice. I’m not about to overflow, but I’ll do it by my willpower.”

“Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.”

Believe me, God is not impressed by that behavior. The Bible does not call it love. Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. Have you ever wondered why 1 Corinthians 13:3 says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. ”

You read that and you say, “How can you give your body to be burned and how can you give away all that you have and not be a loving person?” Answer: it comes from the wrong heart. What kind of motive we have, what kind of longings we have, what kind of overflow we have, defines love. This is really risky business what I’m talking about here, because I am building into the very fabric of horizontal love, vertical affections for God and saying that if these vertical affections for God aren’t there, you can’t be a loving person. I don’t care what you do for people! Lay down your life for people or give away all that you have, you are not a loving person unless it’s flowing over from this vertical delight in, satisfaction in, rest in God. That can really get you in trouble.

‘Just Do It’

I can remember 1967, I was a senior in the fall of 1967, I was taking an apologetics class from Millard Erickson at Wheaton College and reading the book Situation Ethics by Joseph Fletcher. It’s not a good book. I don’t recommend it. But we were reading a whole string of bad books, and then Millard Erickson was assuming the role of the author, and we were having battle in the classroom. It’s a great way to do education, I think. So, you read a book that’s not good, you learn how to understand another person’s worldview, and the teacher assumes the role of that person, battles, and then if you don’t win, he turns around and becomes the defender. That’s what was going on.

I can remember it so clearly. Almost all the class was swept away by this argument. I couldn’t quite figure out why I didn’t like it, but the argument was that love cannot be a feeling, that it can’t have essential components that are feelings. It’s got to be sheer action. His argument is that it’s commanded in the Bible and you can’t command emotions. And that went into the heads of my classmates like a revelation: “Whoa! That’s good! Right! Just help people! You don’t feel like it? Well, if you don’t love God, just do it!”

I frankly think that “just do it,” even when it refers to ethics is atheistic. But I couldn’t figure out what’s wrong with his argument. Love is obviously commanded in the Bible. But you can’t command the emotions, can you? I mean, they just come and go, right? You can’t turn on emotions. They’re there or they’re not there. You can’t turn a switch to make them be there. Therefore love, since it’s commanded, can’t have emotions in it as essential.

What the Bible Commands

And now I know what’s wrong with that argument. The Bible commands emotions everywhere.

  • Gratitude is an emotion and it’s commanded: “Enter his gates with thanksgiving” (Psalm 100:4).

  • Hope is commanded: “Hope fully” (1 Peter 1:13).

  • Joy is commanded: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

  • Sorrow is commanded: “Weep with those who weep.” You can’t just turn weeping on, but you’re commanded to (Romans 12:15).

  • Compassion is an emotion, and you’re commanded to do that (Ephesians 4:32)

  • Fear is an emotion, and you’re commanded to do that (Romans 11:20).

  • Contentment is an emotion and Hebrews 13:5 says, “Be content with what you have.”

My father and my mother served me so well for eighteen years by just saturating my mind with the bible that when I smelled argument, I couldn’t articulate what the problem was. I just smelled something’s not right here. And I’m so glad for a nose, a theological nose, that can run ahead of my theological brain and sniff out error before my brain can figure out error. Some of your wisest, dearest, old saints at Bethlehem, who have very little patience with John Piper’s theological bent, can sniff out error real quick just because they’re so saturated with the Bible, certain things just don’t sound right.

And now I know why the argument wasn’t true. Love involves more than sheer willpower. Love is the overflow of joy in God that reaches out and draws people into that joy and is willing to die in the process.

Joy in Sacrifice

Let me give you an illustration. This illustration is on my notes here, because I experienced a conflict with somebody about the interpretation of this story. This is a true story. I don’t have all the details and the sources for you, but it comes from World War II. I forget which theater of the conflict it was. I think it was the South Pacific, but Americans were in a concentration camp.

“Love involves more than sheer willpower.”

Americans were prisoners of war, and they were being treated very badly, so I won’t tell you who captured them, because I’m not sure and I don’t want to put anybody in a bad light. They were captured and they were being sentenced to hard labor every day. They went out in squadrons of twenty with shovels, and had to shovel heavy rock all day, doing nothing with it, just shoveling. They would come in, and then they would count the shovels, make sure they were all there, and send them back to their barracks. And that was their punishment.

Lives on the Line

One day, twenty of these American prisoners of war come in exhausted with their shovels, and lean them up against the wall. The sergeant in charge, the enemy who’s watching over them, counts the shovels, but only finds nineteen. He turns around and he says, “Who broke his shovel? Who lost his shovel?” Nobody moves. He takes out his pistol, and he says, “I’m going to shoot five of you if the person who broke his shovel doesn’t step forward.”

There was this moment of silence, and a young marine steps forward, the sergeant takes him aside, shoots him in the head and kills him. And then before he sends them away, he recounts the shovels and there are twenty. He miscounted.

Now, I want you to get inside the head of this kid. He’s probably nineteen or twenty. He’s standing there and the application is that he’s a believer. I don’t know the whole story. Let’s just make him a believer and make my point, or you can see the two points that you have to choose from.

He contemplates, “Five of my buddies, or four plus me, are going to be shot. If I step forward, only one person gets shot and I save four lives, maybe five.” What pushes him forward? That’s a very loving thing to do — maybe. “If I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). It might not be love.

What Makes Love?

What would make it love? I don’t think the answer is, “It’s his duty, and what we need is more people like that who are willing to sacrifice and do their duty!” I don’t think that’s the way to handle this illustration. I think the way to handle this illustration is to go back to this morning’s message and say, “Father, you have taught me in your word that to live is Christ and to die is gain. You have satisfied my soul by the forgiveness of my sins and the providing of a perfect righteousness. And though I am a sinner, I know that if I die, I will be with your forever. Therefore, for the joy that is set before me, I would like now to save my brothers.” Boom!

That’s the way I think love acts: for the joy that is set before me. This is the overflow of joy in God or it’s not love. It’s not biblical love, at least. And that’s the way I want you to be. I want you to have such radical, deep, unshakable, restful contentment in Christ, so that when that kind of issue comes to you, you’ll be able to be like that 19-year-old.