The Pleasures of God

Session 3

God's Delight in Being God

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
     the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
     his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
     and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
     and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
     they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
     they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28–31)

That’s an amazing promise. He doesn’t faint or get weary ever. He never, ever goes from a hundred percent to ninety percent in strength, excitement, engagement. The implication, then, is that those who will wait for him, look to him, bank on him, live in him will have their strength renewed — whether you’re young or whether you’re old. And he’s talking about battles in life, so this is a real promise. So you didn’t get enough sleep last night? You can make it through this seminar. You really can. You think you can’t but you can. Let’s pray and ask God to fulfill his promise.

And just by way of review a little bit, here’s where we’ve been and how it all fits together. Scougal said that you measure, you determine the excellency of a soul — the greatness, the beauty, the rightness, the wonderfulness, the excellency of a soul — by the object of its love, its delight, its passions. What satisfies your soul defines the excellency of your soul. So if you’re satisfied with sordid things, you have a sordid soul. And if you are satisfied with noble, glorious, great things, your soul is noble, glorious, and great. And the greatest object of all is God. And therefore, the soul that has a well-positioned affection mainly on God and is satisfied with God is the noblest, the greatest, the most excellent soul of all.

And I took that idea and I applied it to God and asked, “Might we learn something about the excellencies of God if we studied the objects of his delight?” And then I wrote this to say what I found. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re looking for Bible verses properly understood in their context that tell us what God delights in, trying to let that be a beam that our eyes run up into his excellency. That’s the idea. That’s what we’re doing.

So we’re not just interested in what he delights in. We want to know: What does it tell us about him, because I at least agree with Scougal that you can know the excellency of God’s soul by the objects of his delight. So we’ve [been through] how he delights in his Son — God’s delight in God, his reflection, the full panorama of his perfections reflected back to him in his Son: “I love you, Son. In all your majesty and meekness, you are my chief delight.” And then that love overflows, that trinitarian delight spills over, in making his glory known in the universe, in history, in everything he does.

3. God’s Pleasure in All That He Does

Now we get more specific: God’s pleasure in all that he does. This is a very, very difficult point — very controversial, very jarring, very painful. And then if you can work your way through the frightening parts of it, it can become for you a rock under your feet. Many of you are on the front side of those struggles, I presume. And others of you are on the backside resting in the truth. We at Bethlehem do not begrudge you of the struggle, because any of us who hold to the truth of God’s pleasure in all that he does got there not easily but through our tears. So let’s tackle it for a little while and then see if it can become a rock for us.

An essential aspect of God’s glory is his freedom to do all that he pleases, being totally self-sufficient in the joy of the Trinity and being uncreated and beholden to none. He’s never constrained by any force outside himself. We are all the time; he never is. That’s what it means to be God. He is never coerced, never constrained. He can be influenced if he wills to be influenced. That’s what prayer is. But nothing forces him to do anything he doesn’t want to do. There are no constraints outside himself to keep him from doing what he ultimately delights to do.

This is a very powerful text. This text, in a sense, brings the first eleven chapters of Romans to their consummation and issues in the “practical” part of the book of Romans. But the grand argument of the greatest book in the Bible comes to a consummation with this text. Paul’s ending on worship. This is doxology. He’s just soaring into what he’s just seen for the last eleven chapters:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
     or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
     that he might be repaid?”

For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33–36)

So what’s glorious about God specifically in that passage? There are two things.

No Negotiating with God

“Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” Nobody has ever given God any counsel. The answer to that question is nobody. You need counsel. I need counsel. All the time I’m desperate for counsel: “Help me know what to do next. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know how to deal with this daughter. I don’t know how to relate to my wife in a wholesome, life-giving way. In this very moment I don’t know what she needs.” I don’t know so many things. I just live one constant life of need. I just need all the time. And God is exactly the opposite. Never does he need anything. He never consults with anyone. He knows. He’s the origin of all wisdom.

Paul applies it another way in verse 35: “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” I just read in our family devotions from 2 Chronicles 29 where they collected money for the temple and the people gave. We used to sing a song based on this text at Bethlehem years ago. After every offering, the ushers would walk forward (we don’t do this anymore) and sing:

We give thee but thine own, whate'er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.

So you can give God a gift, but he had it already. You have it on trust. You’re a steward. You’re a manager. That’s what life is — like the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14–30). You get five, you get two, you get one. Now go out and do business for the Master. But he owns it, and it’s his. When we bring our tithes and offerings, “we give thee but thine own.” That beautiful passage in Chronicles is just David exalting in God doing that. And then there’s this great line: “Keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you” (1 Chronicles 29:18). So even the will to give was a gift from God.

This text is saying, yes, we give him prayers; yes, we give him praise; yes, we give him our lives; yes, we give him our tithes. And he owns it all already so that there is no negotiating here, no badgering, no trading, no buying him off. This is what’s so wrong about legalism. This is what’s so wrong about works religion. “I’m going to do, do, do for you, and now you do for me because I did for you.” You can’t ever put him in your debt. You’re always in debt to him — always, forever. And you go deeper every minute of eternity. He’s that glorious. “Oh, to grace how great of a debtor daily I’m constrained to be.” And it never changes.

If you want to have the score squared off with God, forget it. You never get out of debt. Getting out of debt would mean becoming God, and that’s what people want to be. They don’t like grace. They don’t like a religion that puts us in a position of a welfare recipient, where we have to spend the rest of eternity depending on grace. Well, sorry. If you want to be self-sufficient, be a Muslim, be whatever. But if you want grace, if you want to live in grace and deserve nothing the rest of eternity and get everything, welcome to Christ, because that’s what Christianity is. So this is very humbling and, in the end, unbelievably good news.

What’s glorious about God is that he is self-sufficient. That’s what we’re getting at this verse. He’s totally self-sufficient. He doesn’t need us. He’s completely content and full and satisfied in his trinitarian fellowship, and we are dependent on him. He’s not dependent on us. Therefore, he’s free and unconstrained by anyone or anything, so he delights ultimately, when all is taken into account, in all of history from beginning to end, in all that he brings to pass.

Orchestrating It All

Now that is a very controversial and offensive statement. I’m going to qualify his delight in pain. He delights ultimately, when all is taken into account, in all of history from beginning to end in all that he brings to pass — and he brings to pass everything. This is heavy. He delights in all that he does.

For I know that the Lord is great,
     and that our Lord is above all gods.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
     in heaven and on earth,
     in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:5–6)

Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
     for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness!

Why should the nations say,
     “Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
     he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:1–2)

So everything God does he’s pleased to do, and everything that comes to pass he does.

Remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
     I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
     and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
     and I will accomplish all my purpose.”

I noted the Hebrew here: “purpose” translates the Hebrew word chephetz, which is almost always translated “pleasure” or “delight.”

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will. (Ephesians 1:11)

Now that’s a very sweeping statement: he “works all things according to the counsel of his will.” God is not a disconnected God from the universe. We’re not deists. Most of our American forefathers were deists — many of them anyway. Which means, of course, we have God in our founding documents, but, by and large, he was not the Christian God. He was a deist God; that is, he had made the clock, he wound it up, he put it out, and he went away, and it runs on its own. So he’s not immediately running the world. There wasn’t a healthy doctrine of God’s providence in deism. And this text says that he’s working all things as he counsels with his own will. He’s not counseling with anybody else. He’s counseling with himself about how to run the world.

He does according to his will among the host of heaven
     and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
     or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:35)

So according to his will, he’s acting “among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and nobody can say to him, ‘What have you done?’ That is, nobody can call him into question or take him to account.

Is a trumpet blown in a city,
     and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
     unless the Lord has done it?

I mean, to feel the weight of this, you can’t think in generalities. You just have to think of Binghamton, New York, where fourteen people were slaughtered yesterday, and then the guy who killed them killed himself. That’s happened four times in the last month in our country. It’s like an epidemic of mass shootings. Where was God? That might be the way the newscaster would put it. The answer is: “Our God is in the heavens, and he does whatever he pleases.” So God was not on vacation. God was not out of touch. God was in control. If calamity occurs in a city, has not the Lord done it?

The heart of man plans his way,
     but the Lord establishes his steps. (Proverbs 16:9)

What does that mean? You get up in the morning and you have a plan, and you ought to. You ought to have a plan. And then you start out in your plan, and your plan may or may not happen. But God’s plan will happen. God will guide your steps.

Many are the plans in the mind of a man,
     but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21)

That’s how fragile and fallible I am. God wants to plan. Paul had an ambition: “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named” (Romans 15:20). “I’m going to Spain.” I think God was very pleased with the plan, and I don’t think it ever happened. I don’t think he got to Spain. Got took him out. He was probably beheaded by Nero, and God was not letting one hair of Paul’s head fall to the ground.

The lot is cast into the lap,
     but its every decision is from the Lord. (Proverbs 16:33)

You roll dice, or whatever game you’re playing, and it comes up according to God’s will. I remember my grandmother. I feel so bad because I don’t think she was a believer. She lived with us for two years as we tried to care for her after my mother died. So we took my grandmother into our house for two years. We brought her up from South Carolina Minneapolis. And she scoffed. She just scoffed at the Lord. She scoffed in her mind from a moral high ground of: “God is too great to be interested in little things.” She didn’t believe in prayer: “Why would I bother God with my little concerns?” It sounded humble. It was arrogant to the core. We couldn’t take it for more than two years. It was so bad for my children growing up. This was more than thirty years ago. So I asked my cousin to take her for a while, and she went to Pennsylvania. It’s not a beautiful thing when your family members look at the truth of God’s detailed involvement in our lives and, from a position of moral height, make pronouncements like, “God is too busy to worry about dice.”

God is not taxed in the least by keeping every electron in every molecule in the universe spinning in precise orbit. It is not the least taxing for God to manage the electrons at the micro-level or the billions and billions of stars at the macro-level. He does this with his left hand and one eye closed, and spends the rest of his time taking care of you. It’s such a low view of God to say things like, “He’s too busy to bother with lots being cast in the lap or managing the roll of the dice at Reno or Vegas or Atlantic City.” He’ll decide if you win or lose. He’ll strip you down. He’ll give you all the money in the world and send you straight to hell if you’re that rebellious. He’s not taxed. This is a glorious statement about God’s freedom and power to do all that he pleases because he governs and runs the whole world.

I don’t know if I have it in the text, but Jesus said, when he was trying to encourage us to not be afraid because of the persecuting forces around us,

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. (Matthew 10:29)

Well, what’s the point of saying that? He picked the most insignificant little flitting bird out there in the middle of the Judaean Desert that would just one day run the course of its life and die. And Jesus said, “That didn’t happen apart from God.” Are you not of much more value than they? So don’t be afraid: not one hair turns white or black apart from God. So the point of these teachings is not speculative sovereign stuff. It’s about you walking out of here in a little while and feeling massively confident that a good, righteous, holy, loving God totally runs the world on your behalf. All things.

I stooped down, I took Carol’s hand this morning and I said (she’s in surgery right now), “We know all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I’ve had one big surgery in my life. I said, “I chose the doctor. Did I choose right?” I don’t know. I said, “The top-flight, world-class, best surgeon at Mayo Clinic can slip, and the most average, no-count, get-your-education in the lousiest medical school on the planet can have a spectacular day.” I don’t know who I’ve got. I just know God holds the knife. You don’t need to worry and ask, “Did I choose the right doc?” So what? He can have a bad day. I always get these letters from people. Once you’ve had prostate cancer, you get letters because every fifth man gets it. And you get these letters that say, “I’ve found the best surgeon in the city.” How do you know that? And what if he gets drunk the night before? What if he has a bad night with his wife? What if he had too much caffeine? God is our hope. You better believe in God.

What About Evil?

Now we get to evil. The controversial, horrible thing about this is not just Binghamton and fourteen people dead but evil. It’s the pain and it’s the evil. So what about evil?

As for you, you brothers of mine who sold me into slavery, you meant it for evil against me, and God meant it for good,

And this two meants here are the same word, and they’re both really there. This is not use. He didn’t say, “You meant it for evil. God used it for good.” That’s true. It’s just not what the text says. The text says, “You had an intention, and in that God had another intention. Yours is evil. His wasn’t. That’s a mystery. Not everybody will be able to wrap their mind around that. Somebody is doing evil: “I’ve been abused as a child. “My husband’s been unfaithful.” “A colleague is ripping me off at work.” “And you’re telling me in that evil God’s design and purpose and intent might be holy, just, good, loving?” Yes, that’s what I’m saying because I think that’s what this text says. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

Now here he gives us God’s purpose, so we can see some of it: “to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” I just admit with you that one of the hardest things in life is to believe that about every moment of your life, especially the hardest moments where you’re just so discouraged at the way somebody is treating you or the way some circumstance is developing in your life that it just makes you so mad and so frustrated, and deep down you’re preaching to yourself, “God is in control of this. God loves me. He loves me. He’s not against me in this. He’s for me. If God is for me, who can be against me? And he has a design in this really frustrating, maddening, discouraging, painful situation that is for my good. I don’t know what it is.” At that moment, the issue is: Will we trust him? Will we rest and will we let our souls find delight in God and his purposes for us?

Who has spoken and it came to pass,
     unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
     that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37–38)

Whence come prosperity and calamity? These Old Testament texts, I think, show that the writers of the Old Testament, inspired by God, were simply absorbed in, swallowed up in the sovereignty of God.

God’s Emotional Life

Now let me try to help you with the emotional dimension of this. There was an interview on one news site that I looked on the web yesterday sometime about the Binghamton event. Before they notified the families of the fourteen people who’d been killed, they published a list of the survivors, which meant that all of the families were doing the math. And one man who was written about, he said, “I don’t have any hope for my brother,” because his name wasn’t on the list. That’s not the best way to do it, I don’t think. But put yourself there. It’s your wife, it’s your child, it’s your grandmother. You’re being told that God is in charge. He’s in control. He could have stopped it just like that. He didn’t. And therefore, he had a design in it. What are you supposed to do with God’s emotional life? What is he like?

This is why the Bible is so precious. If you will give yourself to the whole bible for your whole life, I promise you, you will arrive at the fullest possible understanding of reality — more than if you just take a piece of the Bible here, a piece of the Bible there, and like what you have but ignore the rest, or don’t like what you have and therefore reject the rest. If you just stay there and keep dealing with the complexities and the maddening parts of the bible that make you want to tear your hair out — “I don’t understand why that’s there, God” — and you stay with it and you go deep and you plead with the Lord, you will not regret it. I’m 63, so I’m saying this convictionally about the nature of the Bible. I’m saying it experientially about my life. If you stay with it, I don’t think you’ll regret it. You will not begrudge the complexity of the Bible in the end if you just keep at it. Here are some things that have helped me.

I’m talking about the complexity, not the simplicity, of God’s emotional life. It’s inscrutable.

Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23)

Now remember I just said that he delights to do everything he does, so it looks like I’m contradicting myself here. He’s saying, “The wicked perish, and I’m not having pleasure in it.” I just argued that he does all that he pleases, and he does everything, and therefore, he takes pleasure in all that he does. And now you read this. I’m a Bible guy. I’m not going to hide this from you. This is a problem, right? We want to see these things and we go under them and look and ask God to show us. What is it about your mind that can say both these things?

I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.

So two times in Ezekiel God says that he does not delight in the death of the wicked. How quick skeptical, carnal hearts would say, “Look at those contradictions. They’re all over the Bible.” Well, if you’re that quick to make judgments about the word of God, then you probably won’t ever see solutions.

Here’s the other half of that complexity. On the other hand, he does delight in death.

And as the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you, so the LORD will take delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you. And you shall be plucked off the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Deuteronomy 28:63)

Do I have pleasure in the death of the wicked? No. But then God says, “I will delight in bringing ruin upon you and destroying you.” Hold that tension in your mind and look at another one, and then I’ll try to give you a possible solution. On the one hand, there are anger and grief every day in God’s heart.

God is a righteous judge,
     and a God who feels indignation every day. (Psalm 7:11)

He’s angry every day. There’s something happening in the world at every moment that makes God angry, like Binghamton. Do you think God can get angry with what he ordains? He certainly does.

Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. (Ephesians 4:30)

Your mouth just drops. God the Spirit can grieve? I mean, philosophically, that doesn’t work. He’s God. He’s perfectly happy in fellowship and the Trinity. He does all that he pleases. He’s not in need, not dependent on anything outside himself for his happiness. What’s this grief business? It is not easy to be a Bible person. It’s way easier to have your little system and just go off and emphasize the parts that you like and just ignore the parts that don’t seem to fit. But you won’t ever go deep that way. You won’t ever get to the bottom of the heart of God that way.

So things we Christians do grieve the Holy Spirit, Paul. Here’s the implication of that: I presume, if that’s possible, somebody’s doing that all the time. I mean, there are a billion Christians in the world. What grieves the Holy Spirit is sin in people’s lives. That means he’s always grieved. It’s not like there’s a little moment of grief and the rest of the time he’s really happy, so it’s really okay. He’s always grieved, and he’s always angry, and he’s always thrilled with what he’s doing. You can start to feel what I mean by the complexity of the mind of God.. He’s always angry, always grieved, and always fully happy. That’s crazy.

The Lord takes pleasure in his people;
     he adorns the humble with salvation. (Psalm 149:4)

They’re never perfect. They’re always doing things that grieve him, and he takes pleasure in them.

I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

Right now in the world and at every moment of every day, somebody is getting saved. I believe that. I can’t prove it. Statistically, the world is so big. If Christians are so many that evangelism is happening in so many thousands of places, I would stake my life on the truth that in any moment of any day somebody is getting saved, which means heaven is throwing a party all the time, and they’re grieved all the time, and they’re angry all the time.

In Perfect Totality

Okay, this is a very presumptuous word: solution. I read that after I wrote it. But this is a possible solution or suggested solution. How do we live with this? God has levels of willing, levels of delighting. He wills and delights in things in different ways, so that approval and disapproval can coexist without being contradictory. So at one level he can be disapproving of your behavior, and you are grieving him. (This is just metaphorical language in the mind of God, but I’m trying to get at the truth.) At another level you are pleasing him, and he’s so happy with you. So both in one God, one mind, simultaneously. Now here’s a text that points in that direction. I don’t want to base my solution on a logical constraint. We have to do that at times, but I’d much rather rest on a text than on deduction. Lamentations 3:22 says that God causes grief. He did that in Binghamton for sure, and he’s done it in your life lots of times; meaning simply, he orchestrates the world in such a way that it hurts you, like a parent would spank a child or speak gruffly to a child because of a behavior. The parent caused grief.

Though he cause grief, he will have compassion
     according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not afflict from his heart
     or grieve the children of men. (Lamentations 3:32–33)

He grieves the children of men, but he doesn’t do it from his heart. He doesn’t afflict us from his heart. That’s where I get the idea of levels. He’s doing it, but not from his heart. Well, then from where is he doing it? Another level — or pick a better word: from his mind, from his soul. It’s what a parent means (and these are always inadequate analogies) when a parent says, “I don’t like to spank you, but I’m choosing to spank you. It’s not my deepest joy, but it’s the right thing to do. I feel good about doing the right thing.” And God feels really good about doing the right thing, and he always does the right thing. But evidently, lots of times the right thing is a painful thing.

Now, goodness, there are a lot of people in church history who just shake their head and say, “You have a God that is so human he can’t be God. You’ve got him so conflicted. He’s just so conflicted. I mean, he’s grieving and he’s angry and he’s happy and he’s content and he’s stirred up. This is a conflicted God.”

And I thought, okay, here’s my picture. We’re talking way out of our element here, but this is the best I can do: God’s mind is like the Pacific Ocean. If you fly a helicopter five hundred feet above the water during a storm, a pretty dangerous thing to do, you’re going to be terrified. Waves could be hundreds of feet high in a big storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean — waves you never dreamed of. You thought you saw big waves in some surfing film. We’re talking waves that would wash over downtown Minneapolis. These are big. This, in my mind, is God’s grief, God’s anger. It’s deep. It’s way steady at the bottom, and on the surface these waves are rolling and breaking and the wind is blowing. And for us little humans, this is something we don’t want to tangle with. I do not want to mess with the anger of God. I don’t want to be a part of the grief of God. This is an upheaval of huge proportions compared to me.

Now you take that helicopter and you fly it up one mile — like those guys did down in Venezuela as a science project. They took their little digital camera and sent it up in a balloon ninety thousand feet, taking pictures of the earth and put them on the Internet. It’s so cool. You get up there and look at that very ocean totally, and it’s totally smooth, totally blue, glorious, beautiful. So in some sense, God is totally at peace with himself. He’s totally coherent. He’s not conflicted. He’s not jumbled up. He’s not confused. He’s totally, peacefully, coherent, happy. And inside that big, global, totality of beautiful, glorious, coherence there is grief and there is anger, but it’s all part of a perfect totality. That’s my best shot to try to think through all those kinds of texts.