Let me begin with two passages of Scripture to try to help you know what I’m eager to have happen here in this seminar. The first one comes from Psalm 63:1–4.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
Now it seems to me that in the church there are so many people who cannot say with authenticity, “Your steadfast love is better than life.” I mean, chalk up what life is: It’s wife and husband, it’s children, it’s vacations, it’s beautiful sunny days, it’s all of your favorite computer stuff: Facebook, Twitter, blogging — whatever you do on it eight hours a day. It’s everything you enjoy here, and the psalmist says that God’s love — which has, by the way, given you all that — is better than all that.
Anything that life can offer you here, if you lose it like Les did at about 11:00 this morning when he went home — it was a real good preparation for my soul tonight as I stood beside a lifeless body for about an hour today. It was real good preparation. It’s so good to be near death, especially when it’s a good death, it’s a ready death — “an old man and full of years” type of death (Genesis 25:8). But now all that that body enjoyed here is gone, and “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
So I’ve got this burden that as I watch the church, as I see the evangelical church, we just love the world so much, and we are so entertained, and we’re so distracted, and we’re so given up to things that this world offers, which are not evil, by and large; they’re just not God. So my burden is: How can I live, how can I teach, how can I pray, how can I preach, how can I visit, how can stand with the dying, how can I visit a woman tomorrow morning as she goes in for surgery, how can I do this in such a way that those people, when I leave their life, will say, “I love God more than I love life”? That’s what I live for. So I’m always trying to think, “How do you do that? How do you so live, how do you so talk that that happens in people’s lives?
So I’m not playing games here. There are people here who can’t say that with any honesty. My goal is when I’m done, you will. Now, that means we need another text. I can’t make that happen. There’s absolutely zero possibility that John Piper can effect that miracle in your heart. It comes from Psalm 90:12–14:
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.
Return, O Lord! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Now that is the psalmist saying to God, “I’m not, and I need to be, and you’re my only that I could be satisfied.” You wouldn’t pray that if it were just a done deal, would you? I mean, would you go to God and say, “God, satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love,” if every morning you got up and felt that way? You wouldn’t. None of us do. This is war till the end of our days.
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7–8)
So what I’m saying with that second text is, I’m praying for you and me that the miracle would be done by God. I cannot awaken heartfelt satisfaction in your soul in God to the degree that you would day with authenticity, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than being alive.” But God can.
And he uses means: he uses his word, which means I have a lot of Bible passages. So what John Piper thinks about the pleasures of God is relatively unimportant. What God thinks is infinitely important. And this seminar is based on the conviction, and I think it’s warranted, that the Bible is God’s word. So if I cannot show you what I’m going argue for from the Bible, you do not need to be concerned with it. It’s just another man’s opinion; it may be right, may be wrong, but it has no authority. But if I can show you that what we’re going to talk about on the pleasures of God is here, then may God give it power in your life. That’s my burden, my desire, my prayer.
The Story of Pleasures
This seminar is an effort to summarize and clarify and defend what’s in this book: The Pleasures of God: Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God. There’s a way that this book came to be back in 1987 and subsequently published in 1991. I want to tell you that story.
That story involves the book The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. I recommend it highly. You will not regret reading those hundred pages or so. There was a sentence in this book that in the fall of ’86 begat a sermon series that began in January of ’87, which was the nine chapters or so that formed the structure of this book originally. So it’s a book of sermons. (Almost everything I write is sermons originally.) So I want to tell you that story.
So how was the book born? The Life of God in the Soul of Man was published in 1677, and Scougal died the next year. He was 27 years old, so he died early. He taught at the University of Aberdeen. After going there when he was fifteen, he was appointed to faculty at nineteen. He taught for four years, left, and when to the pastorate. He was called back to King’s College, Aberdeen to teach, and then died of tuberculosis on June 13, 1678, having written (the only thing he ever wrote) this book. It was a letter to a friend trying to help him know God.
Now, I put myself on pause here because every time I think about young men dying I wonder whether our lives would count if we died so young. His really counts. He wrote one thing, a letter. He didn’t plan to publish it; it wasn’t published in his lifetime. It’s one of the dark strings in the melody of God’s providence, that the likes of Henry Scougal, died at 27; David Brainerd, died at 29; Henry Martyn, died at 31; Robert Murray M’Cheyne, died at 29, they all died so early. Those are all men who profoundly have influenced the world.
There’s very little correlation between a long life and big influence. Influence correlates with kind of person, not length of life. Most people live very long lives with very little impact, and others live a short life and have huge impact. I don’t mean you have to be a writer; I mean you have to care about people, be in people’s lives, be the kind of person that when they’re around you, they change. There’s something about you that makes people different when they hear you or watch you or just hang out with you. There’s an energy coming out of you. This is what the Holy Spirit is: he’s life, he’s power. This is what the word of God does when it goes out from a person. It’s sharp; it changes people. So I just wanted to linger a little bit over the implications there and connect it to this text.
The righteous man perishes,
and no one lays it to heart;
devout men are taken away,
while no one understands.
For the righteous man is taken away from calamity.
he enters into peace;
they rest in their beds
who walk in their uprightness. (Isaiah 57:1–2)
If you ever lose somebody you love real young — like, maybe one hour old or ten years or twenty — what’s going on there? Here’s one possible thing that’s going on: they were “taken away from calamity.” I’m not sure the fullness of what that means — maybe world calamity, or maybe a personal calamity, maybe a horrible collapse of faith calamity. I mean, 1 Corinthians talks about Christians being taken out of the world by God, so they won’t be damned later. “Whoa, that’s heavy. Don’t you believe in election, and perseverance?” Yes, and I believe in means. He shortened the days lest the elect not even be saved (Mark 13:20). God knows how to save his select: kill some of them. So I’m not sure what that right there means. “He enters into peace.” That’s good news. “They rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness.”
I was studying with Leonhard Goppelt in Germany from 1971–74, a godly Lutheran, moderate theologian and New Testament scholar in Germany. He was a good man. I spent personal time with him and listened to him pray. I believe he was genuinely born again even though not a few of his views I wouldn’t have shared, and he dropped dead while I was there at age 63. That’s how old I am right now. And Rudolf Bultmann, who ruined a lot of lives and taught a lot of heretical things and believed that Jesus said about six sayings in the Bible, and Ernst Käsemann both lived into their nineties. I just kind of look up to the Lord and say, “Why don’t you let Leonhard Goppelt live to ninety and take those guys out early? They’re messing up so many people.” And I just shut my mouth, just like we all have to do when we look at the world. This world is really quite puzzling in who lives and who dies and who suffers and who gets well. This is God’s business. His ways are above our ways, and we just best bow before his authority. He knows what he’s doing. We’ll know better later why Leonhard Goppelt wasn’t allowed to finish his New Testament theology. (It did get finished after his death by a student of his.)
So these men all did more for God’s kingdom in their short lives than most others have done with threescore and ten. With God’s unusual blessing, we can do more in five minutes than without him in five years. Have you tasted that? I taste it in ministry again and again. I get so panicked sometimes about my schedule: How am I going to do this? How am I going to fit that funeral in? And fit that preparation in? And fit that talk in? I can’t do that. I’m not even ready. And when I’m under pressure, I’m not creative. And you’re supposed to be creating something to do at this conference. I will find myself, having forgotten that panic for a moment, on my knees over the Bible. And on a platter in five seconds, an entire outline for a talk is handed to me — out of the blue. I was not thinking about it. I wasn’t desperately saying, “Give me an outline. Give me help for that talk that’s coming.” It just showed up. “Oh, that’s what that is.” I’ve got the notepad there; I know how to prepare for these things, and I write it down. Now, without that ten-second gift, I would had to have labored a long, long time. I would have probably gotten something done, but he can do it.
You’ve got impossibilities facing you in your life right now, and you just say, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it.” I just long for you to believe that just like God can take a 27-year-old, a 28-year-old, a 29-year-old, a 31-year-old and change the world with them, he can take any given five-minute portion of your life, even if it’s the eleventh hour, and give you exactly what you need. So beyond all expectations, he wrote this little letter, not for publication, to a friend in spiritual need. The friend began to circulate it privately, and then Bishop Gilbert Burnet published it, and it’s been in print ever since 1677 changing lives like George Whitfield’s. George Whitfield chalked his conversion up to reading this little, teeny book.
A Sentence That Sparked It All
The key passage in the book is in a section titled “The Excellency of Divine Love.” It’s a single sentence that riveted my attention in early ’87 and became the center of my meditation for about three months. And what he said in that sentence was the key that opened up and created The Pleasures of God. So here’s the sentence:
The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.
That sentence created The Pleasures of God. That’s the power of a sentence. I’ve said before that I don’t read many books all the way through. And when I do, I hardly remember anything I’ve read. So I say that books don’t change lives, paragraphs change lives, or sentences change lives. Something so profoundly said, something gathering things together, something penetrating through everything in its way in your life, never forgotten. There are a few of those in my life — like, Augustine’s, “He loves thee too little, O God, who loves anything together with thee which he loves not for thy sake.” That changed everything, opened up wonders, solved so many problems. So sentences are big for me. I wish I was the kind of person who could remember books, but I’m not. So I go with sentences, and there’s the one that created this book.
In the context, its people he’s talking about. This is a human soul here, not God’s soul. We’ve got to figure our way there. So the question is: If this is true for man, if that’s true (I’m going to argue that it is) then would it be true for God that the worth and excellency of God’s soul is to be measured by the object of his love?
The first objection that comes to mind, of course, is that you can’t even talk about God having a soul. That’s not even a right way to talk; it’s theologically weird. Does God have a soul? Well, here is what I mean when I say he does. In Jeremiah 32:41 God says,
I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.
I’m sure that’s a loose way of talking. That’s human language. God is God; he’s not man. But it means something. It means something. It means his profoundest inner being. And of course, he has no inner and outer like we do. So whatever soul corresponds to in God, that’s important. And it’s got passions and longings and angers and joys and fierceness and tenderness. So yeah, I’m going to go with it and try to figure out whether that sentence will work for God.
Now, here’s another objection: Is that sentence, that you can discern the excellency of a soul by the nature of its loves, is there another way? And I suggest, well, what about what it thinks? You can tell the excellency of a soul by what it thinks. Well, clear and accurate thought is beautiful only in the service of right affections. The devil himself is quite an evil intellect, but he loves all the wrong things. And therefore, his thinking serves evil. And his soul is therefore not excellent; it’s squalid.
What about determining the excellency of a soul by what the soul wills? Not thinks only, not loves, but wills. Well, yes but there is halfhearted willing and wholehearted willing. You don’t judge the glory of a soul by what it wills to do with lukewarm interest, or with mere teeth-gritting determination: “I don’t want to, but I have to, so I will. I’ll make myself do it.” That doesn’t make a soul look excellent if they are doing the right that way. To know a soul’s true excellence, you need to know its passions — that is, what it wills energetically, wholeheartedly, whole-souled. Not what we dutifully will but what we passionate want reveals a deep nature of our excellence or our evil.
Now the question is: Is that what Scougal meant by love? “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” What does he mean by love? I’m leaning toward the fact that he meant delight, passion for something — not love in the sense that he just does nice things for you whether he wants to or not. So I’m equating it with passion, delight, treasure. Is that okay, Scougal? Can I do that with your sentence?
And my answer is yes. Now keep in mind he’s talking about man’s soul. This is what he says. He’s thinking that God is now the object of the love of the soul we’re trying to measure the excellency of. And he’s going to argue that the object, being God, would make the soul excellent. If the object were adultery, then it would make the soul look: “Oh, what’s wrong with you? How can you just be satisfied with that instead of God?”
The love of God is a delightful and affectionate sense of the divine perfection . . .
So yes, love, in Scougal’s vocabulary, does not mean the will to do good to somebody merely; it means
delightful and affectionate sense of the divine perfections, which makes the soul resign and sacrifice itself wholly unto him, desiring above all things to please him, and delighting in nothing so much as in fellowship and communion with him, and being ready to do or suffer any thing for his sake, or at his pleasure.
I’m going to conclude from that paragraph, therefore when love is well-placed (has the right object) the soul’s pleasures are unsurpassed pleasures. Here’s Scougal again:
The highest and most ravishing pleasures, the most solid and substantial delights that human nature is capable of, are those which arise from the endearments of a well-placed and successful affection.
What a strange way to talk. I just love the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They just helpe me so much because nobody talks this way today. Do you know what we talk about? Fun. “That was a fun ministry. I had fun at church today. That was a fun seminar.” It’s an adjective. As soon as it became an adjective, I knew something was wrong. So these guys, they’re way beyond fun — not behind, which is where a lot of people think the Puritans are. They’re way into and beyond fun.
When the substantial delights of a well-placed affection (meaning, placed in God in this case) are unsurpassed, its excellency is revealed. So when we are having substantial delights, because our affection is placed in God, then our excellency is revealed. You will someday be exceedingly excellent. You’re growing into excellency now as your affections for God are enlarged and things that are ungodly start to fall away in your life.
I visited Les, who passed away this morning, a few days ago, and we were talking about this and what it would be like for him in a matter of hours to be with Jesus. Just think of it: you’re standing beside a human being who’s about to see Jesus. It was incredible. He’ll never, never, never sin again. His emotions will never fall short again, of what the Lord is worthy of. What a gift. What an absolute glory, that all of my crummy, no-good, half-baked delight in God is going to be replaced by spectacular completeness of joy in him, and that will be my excellence. Oh, how we will admire each other in heaven. C.S. Lewis said we will be tempted to fall down and worship one another, because of how much of God is going to be radiating off of our delight in God. More on that to come.
What God Delights In
Now, is it true that we can know the excellency of God by what he delights in? That’s the point of The Pleasures of God. If we think of God’s love as his powerful and prevalent passion (which is what Scougal is saying love means in his sentence, and I’m trying to ask whether that sentence will work for God), the omnipotent energy of his approval and enjoyment and delight, then the pleasures of God are the measure of the excellency of his soul.
I believe that’s true. The whole seminar, you might say, is a biblical underpinning of watching this happen. I don’t want to overstate the case. I don’t mean that this is the only way to discern the excellency of God’s soul. I mean, good night, thousands of good books have been written in the history of the church about the excellency of God that probably have not asked this kind of question. It’s not like I’ve written all those off and now I’ve got the right way to do it. Well, that’s not at all what I’m thinking. I’m saying, “Lord, is there another way to see you? Isn’t there another lens to put on the word of God here so that I don’t miss anything?”
I’m reading John Calvin’s Institutes right now just because this is his five-hundredth birthday year, and lots of people are reading through the Institutes, and I decide, “Okay, it takes me forever to read things like that, so I’ll do four or five pages a day, Lord willing.” And not in a thousand years would I want to minimize the magnificence of the God that Calvin portrays in the Institutes of the Christian Religion by saying, “Well, he didn’t ask this question. He didn’t see it this way.” So please don’t hear me saying more than I mean. This is just one more way to come at the excellency of God.
Why do I care that it matters that God’s excellency consistent is well-placed pleasures? Why am I asking this question and pushing on this? And the answer is that viewing it this way helps me do the two main things that I’m after in life: I want to be happy, and I want to glorify God. God’s happiness being well-placed — namely, in him; God’s happiness in God — helps me do these two things.
Hungry for Happiness
There’s not a person in the world who doesn’t want to be happy. You do. You’re born that way. It’s not evil any more than it’s evil to get hungry when you’ve missed a meal or two. It’s as natural as hunger to want to be happy, so don’t feel guilty when you want to be happy. You’re made for that to drive you to the fountain of living water. What’s evil in the world is:
My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)
That’s evil. Evil is turning away from the source of happiness and finding it anywhere but in God. So don’t feel guilty that God wired you to enjoy him. Glut it; don’t prostitute it.
So here we are, wanting to be happy. How might we be maximally happy for the longest amount of time? And these texts simply say it’s when God’s delight in God becomes our delight in God. And I mean that in a profound way: I mean that God’s actual delighting in the Son by the Spirit moves into me, so that it is the delighting in God in me. I think that’s what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
I was meditating yesterday morning — very powerfully, very preciously — for my own soul because of the struggles I live with on two verses in Romans 5.
Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (verse 5)
Now, I paused right there. I said, “Is that like a pipe, Lord? Like a copper pipe from heaven to Piper? And the Holy Spirit is the pipe, and your love for me is flowing through the Holy Spirit and lands on me, and then when it’s done you put the pipe away?” No. No. No. No. That’s obviously not what it means, and you know it’s not because of the phrase in the text: “who has been given to us.” The way I understand that is the Holy Spirit is God’s loving me. That’s what he does here. We’re going to trace that right up into the Trinity in a minute, but this came to my mind right now. Finish it with the next verse:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (verse 6)
Now, what’s the difference between the ground of verse 6, and the ground halfway through verse 5? The ground of verse 5 is that the love of God is poured into my heart by the Holy Spirit. That’s an experience. That’s an experience. That’s not an idea — like, “I believe that is in the Bible.” No. No. That’s real. That’s the love that God has for us. The Holy Spirit is coming in. He’s doing it in here. That’s what it means to be born again. You have that. “For . . . at the right time Christ died” for you. Which means the ground of my sense of being loved is mediated to me by the Holy Spirit within me, directing my attention to the objective realities of Christ crucified.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Paul knows himself loved because he ponders the death of Jesus. So how does that work? I thought the Holy Spirit was doing that. Yes. Do you see the connection? One is objective, and we’re looking at it. And one is subjective. We don’t have anything to do with it. It’s a gift. It’s a miracle. The Holy Spirit moves in, and he opens your eyes to see Christ loving you, God loving you in Christ. And therefore, the objective ground and the subjective ground are one; it happens together.
Jesus’s Joy in Me
Now, all that to say that the joy that I’m after in life, if it is merely my piddly, human, finite, now-sinful, later-perfected heart, seeing and savoring God, that’s not going to satisfy. It’s not good enough, I just can’t produce it. My heart won’t do it. I’m too little. I’m too finite. I need God in me. I need the love of God for God becoming my love for God. I won’t to be frustrated anymore. I won’t get up in the morning and say, “Shoot, I’ve got to work to be a Christian again. I’ve got to read my Bible and pray, ‘O God, open my eyes because right now I’m feeling flat.’” I won’t ever deal with that again because God will be in there. He’s in there now. He’s the reason I’m here. The only reason I have a little tiny bit of love for God. If you have an ounce of the love of God, the Holy Spirit did it. “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3)
Let’s look at texts that say this. Matthew 25:23, the parable of the talents:
His master said to him, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
What does that mean? It’s not my joy. I’m going into his. I’m diving into this ocean of joy in the Trinity. The trinitarian joy is overflowing onto me, penetrating me.
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:11)
Mine will never be full until my joy is his joy in me. Isn’t that amazing? You’re not left to yourself in this fight for joy. Some of you were raised in homes where there was so little joy. Your dad beat you up. He never smiled. He worked his tail off for you, right? Never hugged you much, hardly ever kissed you, never praised you. He didn’t seem to be excited about anything. He just did his duty. So you’re emotionally hurt; you’re crippled. Clue: everybody’s crippled. I’m not picking on you. I’m crippled. My boys are crippled. Talitha is going to be crippled. Noël is crippled. I have one crippled family.
I just want you to know that about yourself, so that (1) you’re not too hard on yourself, and (2) you look to God not yourself. God didn’t say, “Okay, I’m here as your joy, and I’m going to watch you be happy in me. Okay, go ahead: be happy in me because I’m really good. I’m really loving and I’m really strong and I’m really admirable. Now, I’m watching. Like me.” That’s now what this text says — “My joy may be in you.” We are the branches and he is the vine. Sap is flowing, and the sap is what? The joy of Jesus. And what makes Jesus happy? God makes Jesus happy ultimately.
One more text: John 17:26. Now, make sure you know this: God doesn’t love Jesus with mercy. Jesus needed no mercy. He loved Jesus with delight. Jesus is praying to the Father here.
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.
The very love that the Father has for the Son is going to be the love in me that I have for the Son. And if it isn’t, then my eternity is going to be one long, frustrated effort to love him as I am loved. That’s the first passion that you have tonight: You want to be happy, and I’m saying that the ultimate experience of happiness is found in God’s delight in God becoming your delight in God.
Glory in Whatever You Do
The second one, if you’re a believer, is that you really want to do 1 Corinthians 10:31.
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
That’s your heart’s desire; it is. Well, I guess that’d be true for almost all of you here. You really do want to make God look good by the way you think and feel and act. Seeing his excellency in his joy transforms me into a reflector of his excellency. Scougal’s key sentence here is:
He who loveth mean and sordid things doth thereby become base and vile, but a noble and well-placed affection doth advance and improve the spirit into a conformity with the perfections which it loves.
We become like what we love, delight in. You become like what you love. Just look at the kids, look at children and the things they admire — the sports people, the singing people, the movie people. They really are fixated on a star. They start to walk like him or her, they dress like him or her. We do. We become like the people we admire most. If I listen too long to a speaker that I love to listen to, I start to sound like him. I have to be real careful because I’ll sound like I’m imitating him. I used to be on a Martyn Lloyd-Jones binge years ago, and I realized I was starting to growl just like he did, and my wife didn’t like it, and I didn’t like it either. I’m a chameleon. I glom onto something, and bang, I’m yellow or brown or red or pink or whatever. So that’s true. That’s the way we are. So let’s glom onto God. If you are going to be a chameleon, attach to God — and specifically the delight of God in being God.
Therefore, seeing the worth and excellency of God more clearly in the greatness and the focus of his pleasures will help us be conformed to his likeness, and therefore glorify him.
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. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)
That’s the way it works. So if you wonder, How can I become more Christlike, so that people look at me and it calls attention to him? There’s the strategy in the Bible: look at Him. I was working on my Palm Sunday message this afternoon and last night, and I was so excited to preach again. This text in John, it just blows me away:
As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life.
You’ve got to become a snake to save sinners by just looking. This is going to be so good. I just love to preach the gospel.
Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him [passive], because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2),
Isn’t that amazing? So it’s happening process-wise right there. Right now, as you look at Christ in the gospel through the word, you start to become like him. It’s a painfully slow process here, but when he appears — we don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be good, and one of the goodnesses of it is we’re going to be like him. Partial picture, partial likeness; full-blown picture, full-blown likeness. Praise God. Come, Lord Jesus.