The God Who Strengthens His People

Part 1

EFAC National Conference | Melbourne, Australia


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

Thank you so much for inviting me. This is a tremendous honor. I’ve never been to Australia before, and I’m not sure why an Anglican group would invite a Baptist to come. But I’m thrilled to be here, and I hope that the truth that I announce among you will be approved, because it’s biblical. That would be my goal anyway.

All About God

When I saw the theme that was suggested, “the God who strengthens his people,” and contemplated whether I should make a 25-hour trip over here, and turn around and go right back at the end. I took note of the way it was articulated. The theme does not say “the strength which God gives his people,” and it does not say “the people whom God strengthens.” It says “the God who strengthens his people.”

Now, I’m alert to things like that. The mission statement of my church is: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all people. And that’s my own personal life mission statement: John Piper exists to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples. So, when I look at opportunities to speak, I try to get onto the wavelength of the people who are putting on the program and ask, Is that what they really want me to do? Do they want me to come and so speak as to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples?

And when I see a topic that says “the God who strengthens his people,” not “the people whom God strengthens” or “the strength which God supplies” — which are all true and all biblical — I take heart that maybe there’s a group that really wants to hear what I have to say. Because I want to talk about God. I don’t want to talk mainly about strength. I don’t want to talk mainly about the people. I want to talk mainly about God because my own personal experience teaches, and I believe the Bible teaches that the way to be strengthened in God is to talk about God and not strength, to talk about God and not us. So, I hope the note that you hear struck tonight and for the rest of our four times together will be a note about God.

For God’s Sake

Now I want to put this topic in relationship to a question that might be a little bit startling. But I find that posing questions like that help in getting at the heart of what a topic is about. The topic “the God who strengthens his people” implies that God is interested in you. It implies that God has a heart for you. It implies that God has a treasury of strength to share with you, and that he has some orientation on you. That seems to be implied. And if you would like to take your Bibles and look at a passage with me, I’m going to turn in my Bible now to Isaiah 48, and build the rest of my reflections on those verses, as well as some others that say similar things.

Now the question I’m posing is: Is God for you or is he for himself? The topic, “the God who strengthens his people,” seems to imply that God is for you. And no doubt we’re far enough along in our Christian walk and our biblical studies to know that that’s true. But if you take that truth as a given, as very obvious — “Well of course he’s for us — it could have a very wrong ring to it. So, I want to get the ring right by posing the question: Is God for us, or is he really for himself? Or how do those two things relate to each other? Now in Isaiah 48, God is indicting his people for their rebelliousness, and their corruption, and their hard-heartedness and necks of steel. But God relents in his judgment, and he does so for a particular reason and that’s expressed in Isaiah 48:9–11:

For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
    for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
    that I may not cut you off.
Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver;
    I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
    for how should my name be profaned?
    My glory I will not give to another.

I wonder how you would answer the question on the basis of those three verses: Is God for you, or is he for himself? Over and over — “For my name’s sake, for my own sake, for my own sake. How should my name be profaned? My glor, I will not give to another.”

The God-Centeredness of God

That seems very clear: God is for God. Unmistakably, God is very God-centered in this text. Uppermost in God’s affections is God. And yet, the upshot of that is that he is deferring his anger; he’s not cutting them off. And therefore, he is for Israel, and he is for his people.

So I want to reflect with you tonight on how that is. What’s the relationship between those two things: God being very God-centered, and God being a God for his people? Because I find in American evangelicalism, as it was said today, without exaggeration, that it’s 3,000 miles wide, and I’ve heard, one inch deep — not six. And by and large, I would say that’s an accurate statement about American evangelicals. And you should be familiar with the works of David Wells, if you’re not: God in the Wasteland, his book on truth, documenting why that is and what might be done to change it. And I think even Australian evangelicals could profit from David Wells’s books.

Well anyway, the point is that one of the reasons that’s so is that the God who strengthens his people would be preached on, typically I think at an American evangelical conference, all about strength and all about people, with very little attention given to the Godness of God — very little pausing over the God-centeredness of God. I don’t think we’ll ever be a God-centered people in evangelicalism until we come to terms with God’s God-centeredness

Our Lives in the Solar System

Now, I have an image. I want to begin with an image that I have in my mind. And I have it in my mind because of something that happened back in April. But let me give you the image first, and then as I unfold it, I’ll tell you what happened back in April in regard to one of my sons. I have four sons and a new little daughter who’s eight months old, whom we adopted in December. I have a 23-year-old, a 20-year-old, a 16-year-old, a 13-year-old — all boys — and an 8-month old girl. So, I’m starting all over again at age 50 and loving it. My wife prayed this into reality for 13 years. She wanted a girl. But no girl came. We gave up, and 13 years later we decided not to give up, and adopted our little girl.

So, one of these boys, something happened in April. And I’ll tell you about it in just a minute, but let me give you the image. The image I have in my mind, to get at the God-centeredness of God in relationship to his centeredness in your life, is the image of the solar system. I asked the question: Is God central in my life? Or I said to my son, my 23-year-old in Boston: Is the center holding Karsten? Is the center holding? And I had in my mind that the solar system, with the sun at the center and planets.

And you all know that there are differences between the planets and the sun. There’s a quantitative and a qualitative difference. The quantitative difference is that the sun is very big. The sun is a 1,000 times more in mass than Jupiter, and Jupiter is 300 times more than the earth, and 99.86% of the mass of the solar system is in the sun. So, it’s appropriate to think of God at the center of our lives on the analogy of the solar system.

But the main difference is that it’s qualitatively different, right? The sun is a star. And all the planets are not stars. And God is God, and we are not God. And the difference between a star and the planets is that the sun gives energy; it’s a flaming ball of energy: 3.9 times 10 to the 33rd power ergs per second from all the fusion of hydrogen to helium. I get amazed when I read things like that. That’s a long number: 3.9 times 10 to the 33rd power.

In other words, the sun is different from the earth. It’s giving off this energy that diffuses through the solar system as infrared and regular light and enables, on earth, you and me to live. So, I asked the question to my son: Is the center holding. The planets are supposed to, and do keep their proper orbit, when the sun is at the center. If you try to put Jupiter at the center, it’s big. But it won’t hold; the center won’t hold.

Life as a Planet

Let’s compare the planets to our lives. I just want to get all of my son’s life on the table, and all of your lives.

  • Let’s let Mercury stand for material things: cars, stereos, computers, CD-ROMs, television.
  • Let Venus stand for sex and relationships and friendship and so on.
  • Let Mars stand for food and culinary delights.
  • Let Neptune stand for leisure and parties and vacations.
  • Let Jupiter stand for travel and excitement, and big things like the Grand Canyon or the Alps or the Himalayas or things like that.
  • Let Saturn stand for career, vocation, advancement, success.
  • Let Uranus stand as good books, arts, advancement in literature, and so on in your career.
  • Let Pluto stand for sports and recreation. (Although in America Pluto would have to be Jupiter in order for it to be sports and recreation and entertainment. I put it way out there because that’s my opinion.)
  • And let the Earth stand for life and health.

Those are all good things. I didn’t mention any evil things. But they are planets, and they assume their proper orbit when sun is at the center. If you take any one of them, even ministry in the name of Jesus Christ, and put it at the center where God belongs, there will be a brief manifestation of power and spirituality and holding — and it will fail you; the center will not hold.

Does the Center Hold?

My son just graduated from Boston College with a master’s in literature and wants to teach, and he thinks he wants to get a PhD. And he wrote me a long letter in April, expressing uncertainty as to whether to go on in school. He’s been accepted at the University of South Carolina, University of Alabama, Purdue. He has some financial help, and he could swing it. But this long letter was just a lot of soul-exposure about, “Is this the time, is this what I want to do for the next five years? The master’s hasn’t been what I thought it would be. I think I might want to take a year off to go to Vancouver and just work and be with some friends. And what do you think?”

I wrote back to him a long letter, and the gist of it was: “I couldn’t care less whether you go to school next year; that’s like stripes and plaids to me.” But what concerned me was: I didn’t detect in this letter that the center was holding. I didn’t see prayer, I didn’t see talk about the will of God, I didn’t see counsel from godly people. And my heart was aching as I read the letter. My boy’s a believer, I assume. And how do you, as a dad, respond to a 23-year-old boy who’s grown up in the church, and who’s heard his dad preach for 15 years? And what do you say? Do you call his faith into question and have him become indignant and say, “What do you need me to drop the right evangelical language in every letter?”

So, I wrote this long email letter, and called him before I sent it, because I wanted there to be a personal touch to it rather than just words. And he wasn’t there, so I sent it anyway. And decided to call the day after I knew he would receive it. With a kind of fatherly trembling inside, I wondered: How would my son respond to a letter that said, “My son, my son, is the center holding? Where’s prayer? Where’s the word?”

And I called. I make a lot of hard pastoral call, but very few compare to a call to your own son, wondering if he’ll say, “Well Dad, I’m really not interested anymore.” And you just fear the worst. So, he answered the phone and I said, “Hi, it’s Daddy. I just wanted to follow up on the letter.” And at the other end you hear the warmest, most affectionate, “Thank you. Yes, Daddy, the center holds. And yes, we needed your letter. Yes, there’s been neglect. Yes, we’ve drifted and I thank you.” I’ll take that phone call over a million dollars. So, this image of the center holding, and the supremacy of God at the center, is very precious to me because of the role that it played in that little interchange.

Self-Centered God?

But there’s an obstacle between people putting God, a supreme God-centered God at the center of their lives, where all those things in ministry, in family, in leisure can hold in their proper place. And the obstacle has come out in our text already — namely, the obstacle that God is a very self-exalting God:

  • He enhances his own reputation. *He loves to be praised, and he demands that he be praised.
  • He makes a name for himself at every turn.
  • He is angry when he is ignored or dishonored.
  • He puts himself forward as the wisest and best of beings.
  • He says that there is no treasure above himself.
  • He is relentlessly God-exalting.

And this is a great obstacle for people putting him at the center of their lives, if you present him that way. Very few evangelicals in America do — hardly anybody does. It’s not considered to be seeker-sensitive or coming to touch people where they have felt needs to tell them God is a very self-exalting God and you should welcome him into your life.

C.S. Lewis stumbled tremendously over this. He wrote his Surprised by Joy, and explained in that little autobiography that he found tremendous difficulty in coming to terms with the God of the Psalms. Because the God of the Psalms is, in his judgment at age 29, vain. He said that the God of the Psalms who constantly demanded that he’d be praised, and complemented, and blessed, and honored, sounded to him like an old woman wanting compliments. He was vain, demanding of others that they constantly praise him. So, it is an obstacle. The reason this note is not struck very often is because even evangelicals find it hard to come to terms with a God-centered God, a self-exalting God.

Why God Acts

Let me give you some other texts. Jonathan Edwards is my hero, and he has taught me more than any other dead teacher outside the Bible. There are some live teachers who have taught me perhaps as much, but no dead teachers have taught me more than Edwards. And hidden in his book, Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, he changed me. That book revolutionized my life. Because the end for which God created the world, he said, is the glory of God. And he piles text upon text — hundreds of texts from the Bible — to show that not just we should be God-centered, but that God himself is God-centered. Let me just give you a little teeny smattering of this from the texts that he gives.

  • Isaiah 43:6–7: God created us for his glory: “Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” So, you are created to reflect, enhance, magnify the glory of God — magnify like a telescope, not a microscope, mind you. Our language is very susceptible to abuse. When you say magnify, you might mean make something small look big, which would be blasphemy if you tried to magnify God in that way. But if you use your heart like a telescope, you don’t try to make something small look big; you try to make something unimaginably big look like what it really is. You are created to magnify God like a telescope, not like a microscope.

  • Or why did he elect Israel? Jeremiah 13:11: “I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory.” He chose them and made them cling to him that they might be his glory.

  • Why did he save them from Egypt in their rebellion? Psalm 106:7–8: “Our fathers, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wondrous works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea. Yet he saved them for his name’s sake, that he might make known his mighty power.” He saved them for his sake. Is he for you, or is he for himself?

  • Why did Jesus come into the world? If you ask that question to a typical evangelical in America, they only have one answer; it’s the right answer: John 3:16: God loves the world; therefore, he sent his Son. But that’s not the only answer of the Bible. Romans 15:7–8: “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, . . . and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” Is he for us? Mercy. Or is he for himself? Glorify God.

  • Why is he coming back a second time? Second Thessalonians 1:10: “He comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.” Jesus is coming back to be marveled at; that’s why he’s coming: he’s coming back to be glorified and to be marveled at.

Now, this is an obstacle. This is an obstacle to people. They need to hear this. They need to know this. Otherwise, we build a self-centered evangelicalism. People are willing to embrace God as the center provided God makes them the center. And when that happens, you do not have biblical religion. Millions of American evangelicals, I believe, embrace God because they believe God makes them central. And therefore, they don’t embrace the biblical God; they embrace themselves magnified in God. It’s an obstacle.

Now, we need to both present it and then answer it. All of my life is devoted to answering this question. All of my books are written to help people embrace this God for God’s sake. There’s a way to do that biblically, which is very winsome, very winsome. I want to try to answer that with you: How do you get over this obstacle of God being God-centered?

It does not sound to people that a God who exalts himself continually, who does everything he does in order to display his glory and to preserve his honor, is a loving God. First Corinthians 13:5 says “love does not insist on its own way.” “And you’re telling me, Piper, that God seeks his own glory in everything he does”? And I am. So how can he be a God of love if he’s so unremittingly self-exalting? That’s the challenge of biblical faith.

Praise Completes Joy

Now the answer came from C.S. Lewis again. It actually came from the Bible, through C.S. Lewis, to me. Some of us are hardheaded and need to be clobbered with these things in order to get them. Lewis, in his struggle with the vanity of God, said in his book on the Psalms, something very remarkable about praise. This was a powerful influence on me back in the late sixties, when I was struggling first with these things and trying to come to terms with them. Here’s what he wrote about praise, and God’s demand that we praise him — that is, God’s God-centeredness and his self-exaltation in the Psalms. He said,

The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . . The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars.

My whole, more general difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (Reflections on the Psalms, 109–11)

In other words, genuine heartfelt praise is not tacked on dutifully to delight in God; it is the consummation and completion of delight in God. Now, therein lies the solution to our problem. Let me illustrate how important praise is to the completion of our enjoyment. I’ve been asking at the dinner table downstairs about the sports here in Australia. Because I wish I knew enough to use a good illustration here. I wish you were in the World Cup or something, but I don’t know enough to use a good illustration. I’ll probably make a fool of myself trying to figure out Australian football rules or anything like that.

But I did hear that the NBA finals are televised in Australia, so you know who Michael Jordan is and your Australian hero on the Chicago Bulls as well. So, let’s just use that for an example, because I know the NBA and you know the NBA. You went to that last game between the Sonics and the Bulls in Chicago. It’s 3-1. You need to win four to win the tournament. The Bulls are on their home turf now. Suppose you were a Chicago Bulls fan, and you were coming to this arena on the last night when they could win the national championship of the National Basketball Association, and beat the Sonics.

And as you went in, they were giving out very authoritative little pieces of paper, with big words at the top that said, “Tonight, enjoy yourself to the full. However, there will be no sounds allowed out of your mouth tonight. No standing, no lifting of the arm. But enjoy yourselves, Bulls fans.” There would have been a great rebellion, not because these fans dutifully say hooray when Michael Jordan sinks a three corner or jumps from the foul line and dunks it; it’s because their enjoyment is not complete until it is expressed. You all know that. If you see something glorious, something beautiful in this world, and you are not allowed to say wow . . . If you’re a poet, you might write a poem. If you’re a lover, you might take her by the neck and say, “Look at that.” But if you’re not allowed to say anything, the joy stops. So, Lewis’s point is that praise expression toward God completes the delight that we have in the perfections of God.

God Gives What’s Best

Now ponder this: If God loves you, what must he give to you? He must give to you what is best. And what is best? God is best. There’s no greater beauty, no greater power, no greater wisdom, no greater love, no greater goodness, no greater justice, no greater anything good and beautiful in the universe than God himself. If he were to give you all the health, all the wealth, all the prosperity, minus God, he would not love you as he could love you. He must give us himself for our enjoyment if he is to be a God of love to us fully.

But now we have just learned from C.S. Lewis, and from our own experience, that praise does not get added on dutifully to this delight that we have in the God who’s just given himself to us; it is that delight in consummation. Therefore, if God really loves you, he dare not be indifferent to whether your joy in him comes to consummation or not. Therefore, he dare not be indifferent to whether you praise him. Therefore, his being eager for you to praise him is love, and the essence of self-exaltation.

God is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the most loving act. If you and I tried to imitate him in this, we will sin. That’s exactly what Satan tempted Adam and Eve to do. You will be like God: independent, able to decide for yourselves what is good and evil. You will be able to put yourself forward as worthy of admiration. And they should have said, “We’re already in the image of God, thank you. We don’t need to be like God the way you say we should be like God. We’re not to be like God in this way.”

God is sui generis; he is in a class by himself. He is God. To put it very bluntly: he is stuck with being glorious — infinitely glorious. And the only way an all-glorious God can love is to offer himself to us for our enjoyment and then seek the consummation of our enjoyment in praise to himself. He must be self-exalting in order to be loving. If he were to cease to exalt himself, he would rob us from that very reality that brings own joy to consummation.

Now, that to me was the greatest discovery I’ve ever made, I think: that the God-centeredness of God is the ground of his love and the essence of his love — not in competition with his love. Here’s the way I put it now. The implications of this are just stunning. I’ve written a half-a-dozen books trying to figure this out, trying to come to terms with this, trying to spell out the implications for our life as evangelicals and family and church and preaching ministry. But here’s the way I put it: If it’s true that your joy is an expression, and your praise is an expression, of God’s worth, and God’s value, and God’s delightful glory; then God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s the sentence that captures the essence of my theology, and it’s easy to remember because it rhymes: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

God Works For Your Joy

Now, let me mention two implications of this. It means first that all the divine energy (and that’s a lot of energy at the center of our solar system), that goes into upholding and displaying the glory of God, also goes into upholding the joy of his people. Because your joy is the highest expression of God’s glory and worth in your life: he is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. Therefore, if his energy is employed in the upholding of his glory and the upholding of his value, it must also be employed in pursuing your satisfaction in him and your joy in him.

I do have the theme of this conference in mind at this point, because Nehemiah 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” The God who strengthens his people must be a God who brings joy to his people. And what I’m telling you right now is that the energy and the commitment and the zeal with which God upholds your joy, and your strength through joy, is the very energy and the very zeal with which he pursues his own glory in this world. That’s an amazing thought.

The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

God’s whole energy and zeal is looking all through Melbourne, all through Australia, all through America, to exert its power on behalf of people whose hearts are engaged in delighting fully in him.

Duty-Bound to Delight

Here’s the second implication. The first one was that if God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, then all of his divine energy is going into upholding your satisfaction in him. I could spell this out with the new-covenant promises of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, but we’ll leave that. Here’s the second implication. This is why I created the term (which I’ve already been told once in this conference is not a good term, and I know that the people I love most in this world don’t like this term) Christian Hedonism. It sounds like the health and wealth and prosperity gospel, which I loathe. But I tell you, when you start seeing things like what I’m seeing right here, what I’m telling you, you grope for language to help people wake up to it, because the church is deaf to these things by and large.

The second implication is: you are, therefore, duty-bound to pursue your happiness in God. Sin is being indifferent to what magnifies God. And I have just made a case that God is most magnified when you are most satisfied in him. Therefore, if you are indifferent to your being satisfied in God, you sin.

Now if you believe that, then you have to invent some language to help people get it, to help people not just say, “That’s another little nice sermon here on Sunday.” But this is startlingly awesomely good news. It’s Christian Hedonism in John Piper’s vocabulary; you don’t have to use that term if you don’t like the term. That’s OK. Find your own language to help people get this glorious reality. But I find the need to use language that startles people, that makes them scratch their heads and say, “Whoa, should we say that?” Well, most of the things I’m saying right now, people would say, “Whoa, should you say that?” And they’re straight biblical. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

Commanded to Be Happy

Have you ever wondered why the Bible, hundreds of times, commands you to be happy?

  • “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). It’s not a suggestion; it’s a commandment: “Delight yourself in the Lord.”
  • “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4)
  • “Serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2).

Jeremy Taylor once said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy. And I thought, the first time I read that in C.S. Lewis, it was so clever. But I wondered: Is that biblical? And I found it in Deuteronomy 28:47–48:

Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything.

He threatens terrible things if you will not be happy.

Your Strength, His Joy

So, let me draw this to a close now. I’m just going to try to sum up tonight. Nehemiah 8:10:

The joy of the Lord is your strength.

This conference is about the God who strengthens his people. And I’ve been making a case now under the question: Is God for us or for himself — deeply, deeply, ultimately for himself? He does everything for his own glory. Isaiah 48:11:

My glory I will not give to another.

And yet, growing out of that massive commitment to his own glory is:

  • “Therefore I defer my anger.”
  • “Therefore I send my son.
  • “Therefore I cultivate praise in you as the consummation of your joy in me.”

So, his self-exaltation is the ground and essence of his love toward us. And he does strengthen his people: he strengthens them by committing himself to work for their joy, because their joy is both their strength and his glory.

Now, what we’ll do tomorrow morning is pose the question: If that’s true vertically — if my joy in God magnifies God, and therefore, I’m a sinner not to pursue my joy in God — how does that work itself out horizontally in ministry, in love towards people? Can I look somebody in the face and say, “My main motive in ministry is my happiness?” I do believe that, and you need to come tomorrow if you think that won’t work biblically and find out if that’s biblical enough.

More Blessed to Give

How does this affect my own quiet times and my own personal relationship with God? It means that I view my Bible meditation every morning, and on the plane from America to Australia, as a quest for pictures, evidences, and promises of God’s beauty, and his delightfulness, and his promises to me. In 2 Corinthians 1:24 Paul is giving his apostolic mission, and I take it as mine toward my people and toward myself. He says,

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

A pastor is a worker for joy. It means that joy is hard work; joy is hard work. Reason? Satan hates it. Your flesh hates it. You think your flesh loves joy? Your flesh loves joy in pornography. Your flesh loves joy in success. Your flesh loves joy in pride. Your flesh loves joy in family. Your flesh loves joy in success in ministry. Your flesh does not love joy in God; it hates joy in God. That’s what it means in Romans 8:7–8 where it says,

The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

The flesh is in diametric rebellion against God’s loveliness and beauty as a joy in himself. So my battle (I’m just describing it) is a fight. My quiet times are war, and I am looking for artillery against my flesh and against the devil. And I’m looking, I’m on the lookout, for texts that will enable me to thrust lust through. I mean, you sit on a plane like I did, for I don’t know how many hours. I’ve been on four flights; one of them was 14 hours long. I’ve sat under four sexy movies. I didn’t buy the headphones, didn’t pick up the headphones. But you can’t help but glance up every now and then. And they say they’re just family movies; they’re not. Every movie and every TV advertisement has an innuendo to it. So, what do you do?

The simple answer is: I’m very intentional about my Bible reading in that I’m looking for evidences of God’s value to me. Because the world is constantly presenting alternative values that I should live for: money, sex, power, prestige. Get the latest thing; do the latest thing, because otherwise you won’t be happy. And if we don’t fight that, if you don’t fight fire with fire — happiness with happiness, pleasure with pleasure — you lose. Or you become a legalist. The question is to put obedience to God — difficult obedience, hard obedience — in relationship to Christian Hedonism, which is pursuing pleasure.

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matthew 16:24)

To follow Christ is to die to self. The cross is an instrument of execution. So, when I am confronted with that text, I generally just say to people, “Just read the rest of the verse.”

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

In Acts 20:35, Paul says to the elders at Miletus,

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.”

A very point of that text is to answer your question, I believe. Paul said to the elders that faithful eldering is toiling late night, getting your TV program interrupted, being called in the middle of the night with a suicide problem, having to go to the hospital when you’re playing with your kids; it is hard work. You’re constantly being stressed and pressed beyond your limit. So, how does he help them with that? He tells them to remember something that Jesus said. Now, this is exactly the opposite of what many philosophical ethicists would tell you to remember. Because many philosophical ethicists say that the morality of your act diminishes in the degree to which you do it for your own reward.

The Bible says exactly the opposite. Jesus says that if you contemplate going to the hospital tonight after the phone call, leaving your kids behind right in the middle of playtime (which we have after supper at night) and you’re feeling a little bit grumpy or discouraged, or tired, or resentful that the providence of God should lead to your having to break off and go to do this ministry, you should remember something; don’t forget it, don’t sweep it under the rug as though this truth would corrupt your morals, but remember: it is more blessed, more joyful in the long run, more deeply satisfying, to give than to receive. So, my answer is you do hard obedience because you believe that promise. It is more blessed to go to the hospital and leave your kids behind, and walk in on a suffering person who may die before the morning comes — more blessed then if you had stayed at home and been comfortable, easy with your kids.

And the same thing is true of martyrdom. Why? Paul said it one way and the psalmist said it another way. Paul said, “To die is gain.”And the psalmist said in Psalm 63:3, “Your steadfast love is better than life.” I don’t need my life in order to be happy; I’m a Christian. Kill me; it’s gain. The steadfast love of the Lord, the fellowship with Jesus is vastly superior than anything this world could offer. So, the hardest obedience — namely death, martyrdom, you do for the joy that is set before you, exactly the same way Jesus did in Hebrews 12:2.

What God ‘Needs’

Does God need us? The word need is ambiguous. But given its ordinary connotations, the answer is no. And I base it on Acts 17:25:

[God] is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.

That’s as clear as you can get, I think: God doesn’t need you. But why did he make us? I mean, this is one of the most ultimate questions in theology that theologians have struggled with. If God is infinitely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity from all eternity, as I believe he was and is, and therefore, regard it as blasphemy to do the Sunday school thing and say to our little children, “God was lonely and needed fellowship, and therefore he made you.” I think that’s dead wrong. Why did he make you? And I think the answer is that you might share in the joy that he has in himself. I get that from John 17, at the end of the Lord’s High Priestly Prayer, where he says,

Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:24–26)

Let me paraphrase that: I made them and I redeemed them so that the infinitely satisfying, joyful, divine love that you, Father, had for me from all eternity, now might, by the Holy Spirit, be in them, that they might love and enjoy me with the very energy with which you have loved me from all eternity.

I mean, aren’t you frustrated that you only have a human power to love Jesus right now? You see in him, when you do your devotions, infinite worth that ought to call forth an energy of devotion and delight that you fall so far short of. And don’t you cry out, “O Holy spirit, fill me that I might rise up to something corresponding to your value.” And you never get there. And that text says that someday you will love Jesus with the very love with which the Father loves the Son.” I think it’s mercy. He created us out of mercy, and does not create out of need. Jonathan Edwards said, “ It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain that it is inclined to overflow.”

Pursue Joy in God

How do you avoid the danger of worshiping worship, worshiping experience? That’s a very, very profound question in relation to what I’m saying, because sometimes people will fault me for saying, “John, don’t say ‘pursue happiness’; say ‘pursue God.’” And it’s absolutely right by saying: don’t pursue worship, pursue God. But the reason I stay with the language of pursuing joy, and pursuing happiness, and pursuing pleasure, and pursuing delight is because to say pursue God is open to as many misunderstandings legalistically as pursuing pleasure is open to misunderstandings, emotionalistically.

“Let us pursue our joy in God” is the best way to talk. But I sometimes emphasize the one, and I sometimes emphasize the other. I think practically, we preach with a radical God-centeredness, and we weave rigorous, thoughtful, theological reflection and exegetical effort into our Sunday morning enterprise, so that the people know they’re going to have to use their heads as well as their voices and their stomachs and their feet and their hands and their hearts. Now, I believe in feet and hands and heads and hearts; I just want to put it all together. I want head and heart; I want hands lifted and I want heads engaged.

So, I think theology and exegesis is the answer. Now you can worship that too. Our flesh and the devil are so against authentic, intimate communion with the living God, for who he is in himself, that they will bless Bible reading, Satan will bless exegesis, and he’ll bless the theology, and he’ll bless charismatic worship — if we just don’t get through it to God. To be aware of that is the main solution, I think, and to test yourself over and over: Am I now really just delighting in this nifty contemporary tune, or is it mediating something of God to me?