The Practical Sin-Killing Power of Christian Hedonism

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

Thank you, John. I do feel the same way. I knew John through one of his writings, though I can’t remember which one, before I met him personally. It may have been The Justification of God. I don’t know if he remembers this, but we actually met face to face for the first time at Wheaton College at a Jonathan Edwards conference. Do you remember that? I think it was 1984. And it’s just been great ever since. I’m so grateful to the Lord for bringing you into my life and it’s just been an incredible blessing.

Well, I hope it’s been a blessing to all of you this week. I know it has been to me just to get to meet so many of you and to hear what God is doing in your life and your ministry and to put faces with names. So many have corresponded by email, and it’s nice to finally get to see what you look like. It’s just been a real thrill and a real delight.

I just want to say since it’s the last time I’m up here by myself, how appreciative I am for Desiring God and Scott and John and everybody associated who has made this possible and asked me to come and participate. I want to thank Chuck and the worship team and all those who have given of their time and have led us in such glorious singing to the praise of the Lord Jesus Christ. It has been a tremendous blessing, so I want to thank all of you for that and thank them with me.

In the Battle Against Temptation

The Practical Sin-Killing Power of Christian Hedonism with a little help from Jonathan Edwards, that’s what I want to talk to you about tonight. A question that I’m asked many, many times, all too frequently is, “How does Christian Hedonism work? How does it actually help me and the people to whom I’m called to minister wage war with the world, the flesh and the devil? What does Christian Hedonism do in the trenches of Christian living? Given all the temptations that I face and all of the struggles that I must endure, is it of any practical value in helping me resist sexual temptation and pride and envy and so many other temptations that I face every day?”

I think you’ll agree with me if you just give it a little thought that Christians have typically employed one of three tactics in responding to the temptations that we all face — one of three tactics in their efforts to help others face this battle and this war. There are those who, on the one hand, labor to portray sin in the ugliest possible terms, in the most unappealing ways imaginable, hoping and praying that that will frighten people into righteous living.

An analogy would be something along the lines of how some pro-life advocates — and by the way, in using this I’m not denouncing their tactics nor speaking a word of judgment — carry very large placards and signs with graphic portrayals of what an aborted baby looks like. Again, I’m not passing judgment on the value or the effectiveness of that, but I suppose the intent is if you can just simply see even with your physical eyes the horrific nature of that, it will frighten you or drive you to protect human life, and I hope it does. Others will describe in graphic detail the horrors of sexually transmitted diseases hoping thereby to convince you to walk in purity of life. Maybe they will suggest that if you embezzle funds, you’ll eventually end up in prison, and so they describe the horrors of that kind of life.

Or they might say that if you commit adultery, you may destroy your family and your reputation, or if you take drugs, you may fry your brain. And those are just a few examples. By the way, all of which are largely true. Those are horrific and ugly consequences to sinful behavior. But I’m not convinced that they are sufficient to sustain lifelong commitment to purity and godliness.

A second approach, a second tactic, is a reversion to legalism, which in my opinion really is a testimony to their lack of confidence in the sufficiency of Scripture. Because they create long lists, as John described this afternoon (regulations, taboos, prohibitions), that lack any explicit biblical support which they believe are necessary to corral and control your impulses. It’s not unusual for them to add to this list a grim prediction of what will happen if you fail to abide.

I can still remember hearing a man preach once, and it broke my heart because he happened to be a friend of mine. The title to his message was God’s Prescription for Holiness, and he proceeded to give 20 issues, I think 18 of which as I recall were nowhere found in Scripture, that he believed you must abide by and obey if you are going to be holy and please God.

And then of course the third option is, rather than constructing elaborate and graphic images of the horrors of sin together with extra biblical prohibitions and taboos, they just simply argue that the problem is the very presence in the human soul of desire, the yearning for pleasure. And so they argue that this yearning, this longing in the human heart for joy and happiness and fascination and excitement, is itself the problem, and if we could just simply eliminate it, suppress it, and exorcize it somehow, we would be set free.

Something Stronger Than Fear of Consequences

I’ve shared this story on a couple of other occasions, so forgive me if you’ve heard it, but it illustrates I think the ultimate futility of these methods. Several years ago I received a telephone call from a lady. I’d never met her, but she had heard me speak or read a book and we just engaged in conversation during the course of which she described a very tragic situation in her home church. She described how her pastor had gone back to his 20th high school reunion in the absence of his wife and had reconnected with his high school sweetheart, and had allegedly fallen in love with her. He returned home, announced to his wife and family that he was divorcing her and leaving them. He resigned from the church and he was going to run off with his high school sweetheart. I said, “Wow, what did you do?”

She said, “Well, we staged an intervention. We gathered in his living room and we brought in his parents and his in-laws and his best friends and his relatives, immediate and distant. We brought in the elders of the church, friends in the community, people that he knew well, and we had his kids there. For three hours we pleaded with him. We begged him not to do this, and we described in the most graphic language we could of what would happen, how he would destroy the name of Jesus, at least as that could be humanly done, in the community. He would bring reproach on the gospel. His children would be alienated. The damage that this would cause would reverberate throughout the entire city.” And I said, “Well, what happened?” She said, “He stood up after three hours, said, ‘Thank you very much’, and he walked out of the room and ran off with his childhood sweetheart.”

And it dawned on me, although of course there are a lot of other factors that go into this kind of story, that what was transpiring there was that in his case, the immediate gratification and pleasure of sin was more powerful than the fear of its long-term consequences. All of the warnings that they issued were true, most of which probably came to pass. But in the final analysis it had little effect on his decision. Something more is needed. I want to share with you a little bit tonight what that something more is and how it works, and I will appeal once again to Jonathan Edwards.

Eat Honey

In May of 1734, he preached a sermon that not many have read entitled Youth and the Pleasures of Piety. He preached it on several occasions throughout Colonial New England, and as you know, Edwards was fully capable himself of describing the horrific consequences for sin. But he was far more adept and far more given to appealing to the superior pleasures of joy to be found in what he called “true religion”.

Just so you know, religion for Edwards was a good word. It hadn’t taken on the bad connotations that it does in our day. It really meant devotion to God, purity of life, biblical spirituality. Edwards believed that the greatest objection voiced by the young people of his own day — and you’re going to be surprised to see how little human nature has changed in 300 years — was that they were living in fear that religion would undermine their pursuit of pleasure. As far as they were concerned it was either Jesus or joy, but certainly not both. He said:

This is what they aim at to spend their youth pleasantly, and they think if they should forsake sin and youthful vanity and give themselves to a religious course of life this will hinder them in the pursuit. So, they look upon religion as very dull and melancholy, and think if they embrace it, they must have done in a great measure with their pleasures.

Edwards’s principle argument in this little known sermon was that religion, far from being a hindrance to the experience of genuine pleasure, is in fact the most direct and effective way to attain it, and he based this sermon on Proverbs 24:13–14, which says:

My son, eat honey, for it is good,
     and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.
Know that wisdom is such to your soul;
     if you find it, there will be a future,
     and your hope will not be cut off.

Edwards’s point was that we eat honey because it is sweet and pleasant to the taste. Nobody has to compel us, nobody has to pay us or bribe us, nor do we eat it to attain some pleasure beyond the joy that comes from tasting its sweetness. And he said, “It’s the same with biblical piety or godliness.” “Holiness”, he said, “ought to be pursued for the sake of the joy and the pleasure that is found in God through it.” The approach Edwards took in this sermon I think is incredibly instructive. It shows us how a Christian Hedonist should preach. Edwards argued in this message that the problem isn’t the pursuit of pleasure, but the willingness of uninformed minds to settle for comparatively inferior joys when God offers us unsurpassed and far more durable delights.

A More-Than Theology

Now, before I get into this message that we’re going to look at for just a few minutes, you need to be aware of something upfront. If you’ve ever read Edward’s Personal Narrative, and I hope you have, it’s the closest thing we have to his own personal testimony — although interestingly, he never intended for it to be published — his favorite word is “sweet”, or some variation of it like sweetness or sweeter. He uses it dozens of times in this very short work. Well, in this sermon, his favorite word is more. You will find as you listen to some of his statements that Edwards does not argue or plead with the youth in his own congregation and community on the basis of what I would call an “instead-of” theology; it’s a “more-than” theology.

So here’s what I want you to do. I want you to relax, sit back, close your eyes, and don’t fall asleep. Try to envision me a lot thinner than I am with a black robe and a powdered wig. Edwards said:

The pursuit of God brings delights of a more sublime nature, pleasures that are more solid and substantial, vastly sweeter, more exquisitely delighting, and are of a more satisfying nature that exceed the pleasures of the vain, sensual youth — as much as gold and pearls exceed dirt and dung.

That’s a Puritan preaching for you. “Don’t abandon your desire for pleasure,” said Edwards. By the way, he said you couldn’t even if you tried to. Rather, he said you should seek those pleasures that are greater and more satisfying. Can you hear by the way already that there is a pastoral strategy in his use of language? There is an underlying theological principle that accounts for his use of this more-than approach. Edwards points to the way in which the youth of his day were obsessed with fashion and physical appearance. I said human nature hadn’t changed. He said:

By embracing true religion, you would have the graces of God’s Spirit, the beauty and ornaments of angels, and the lovely image of God . . . Don’t abandon your desire for beauty, but seek the beauty that would render you far more lovely than the greatest outward beauty possible — the beauty that would render you lovely in the eyes of Jesus and the angels and all wise men . . .

A More Excellent Affection

To the youth of his church, he said:

True religion will bring the sweetest delights of love and friendship.

How much of the sin of our young people is simply because they can’t bear the thought of being alone? They’re so desperate for the fellowship and the embrace of their friends, which of course is a perfectly legitimate desire. Edwards said:

Loving God is an affection that is of a more sublime and excellent nature than the love of any earthly object. Such love is always mutual and thus the love one receives from Christ vastly exceeds the love of any earthly lover. Pursuing true religion by young people will enable them to obtain the sweetest gratification of appetite; not carnal sensual appetites, but those that are more excellent of spiritual and divine appetites, holy desires and inclinations. Those that, as they are more excellent in themselves, are more suitable to the nature of man and are far more extensive, so are capable of gratification and enjoyments more exquisitely sweet and delighting.

Do you hear what he’s saying? Are you beginning to grasp how a Christian Hedonist preaches? He doesn’t say, “Instead of pleasure, seek God,” as if they were mutually exclusive. No, he says, “Seek your pleasure in God because God is more exquisite, more extensive, more excellent, more sublime, more solid, more substantial, and more satisfying.” He appeals to the superior pleasures rather than merely trying to frighten people into holiness by pointing out the ugliness of sin.

A More Excellent Fellowship

Another ground of appeal is the company and friendship one gains in the pursuit of true religion — namely, intimacy with God. He said:

The Father and the Son, according to John 14, come to make their abode with young people to manifest themselves to them. Those who embrace true religion with a spiritual eye do see Christ and have access to him to converse, and Christ by his Spirit communicates himself to them. And would this not be the most pleasant and happiest company possible? Is not the God that made us able to give us more pleasure in intercourse with himself than we have in conversation with a worm of the dust?

Again, there is some fear that pursuit of God will deprive them of the enjoyment of things in this world, but Edwards is quick to point out that religion doesn’t forbid the use of outward enjoyments, but only the abuse of them. Outward enjoyments are much sweeter and really afford more pleasure when regularly used than when abused. In other words, he said that temporal delights are better and more satisfying when they’re experienced virtuously. Again, Edwards points out that so much sinfulness in our young people, then and now, comes because they hate the idea of being alone. They’re terrified of solitude. But true holiness, he said, sweetens solitude. He said:

Many are afraid of solitude for they have nothing to entertain them when alone, but those who pursue God enjoy times of solitude. For then they have the better opportunity to fix their minds on divine objects, to withdraw their thoughts from worldly things and the more uninterruptedly to delight themselves in divine contemplations.

He goes on and applies the same principle to the pursuit of leisure activities, what he calls “diversions”. His whole point again is that there is a powerful vice grip that sin exerts on the human heart, that mere shouts of denunciation and religious scolding and the intimidation of ecclesiastical authorities cannot dislodge. The promise and allure of sensual gratification must be countered, must be overcome, by the promise and allure of a gratification in God that is sweeter and more beautiful and more exquisite and more satisfying.

Before you quickly dismiss Edwards as a advocating some outdated, puritanical strategy, ask yourself this question honestly: when was the last time in your preaching or in your teaching that you focused on explaining to your people in depth what those joys are and how they are full (Psalm 16:11), and what those pleasures are and why they last forevermore? When was the last time you unpacked that in light of the biblical revelation? Ask yourself the question, how have I made it known to my people? If they were asked today, “What are the pleasures that never end that are found in a relationship with God through Christ?” how would they respond to that? Would they have a good answer? So, let me just suggest before you cast aside Edwards as ineffective, as ancient, when was the last time you expounded passionately from a biblical text the nature of fullness of joy and pleasures that never end? Do you preach, do you counsel, and do you exhort people about the superior beauty of God?

Have you immersed yourself in his attributes and the depths of his glory? How often do you preach on the infinite complexity of the divine mind and personality? When was the last time you spoke on the attributes of omnipotence and omnipresence and omniscience, of God’s kindness and sovereignty? When was the last time you really went in depth on the majesty of Jesus — his humility, his authority, his healing power, his kindness, his tenderness, his goodness? How often do you explore with your people the incomparable blessings of forgiveness and adoption and redemption and justification and sanctification? When was the last time you went on an expository exploration of the Holy Spirit with them and talked with them about his indwelling presence, his sin-killing, sanctifying power, his sealing of your soul, his infilling, and his work in directing your attention to the beauty of Christ?

The point that Edwards was making — granted, in his own unique way — is that the vice grip that the pleasure of sin exerts on the human soul will only be dislodged and broken by trusting God’s promise of superior pleasure in knowing Christ. The only way, ultimately, in a lasting and effectual manner, that you can conquer one pleasure is with another greater and more pleasing pleasure. So, Edward is telling us as forthrightly as he knows how, that the only way to liberate our hearts from servitude to sin, the only way to break the bondages in which our people find themselves, those what I call low-grade daily addictions that keep us mired in spiritual mediocrity, is by cultivating a passion for the joy and delight of beholding the beauty of Jesus.

I wish I had time tonight to talk about some of the very explicit, practical ways this can be done. I really feel like I’d just be repeating something that I hope you have already read. If you haven’t, please do. If you’ve already read it, read it again. In John’s book [When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy] there is a description of how we wield the power of the word of God, worship, prayer, and creation — the many weapons that God has given us to fight this battle.

Laying Ourselves in the Way of Allurement

In that sermon from Song of Solomon that I’ve mentioned many times, Edward says that our responsibility is to “lay ourselves in the way of allurement”. In other words, to posture our lives in those activities, in those places, at those moments in the life of the body of Christ, when it is far more likely that we will encounter the power of the Spirit in a life-changing way. It is God’s responsibility to allure. We can’t do that. It is our responsibility to lay ourselves in the way of allurement.

There are so many things that you already know — the use of Scripture, meditating, memorizing, reflecting on the glories of creation, coming to the Lord’s Table regularly instead of some sort of quarterly or annual ritual. I hope it’s no less than monthly. I would even prefer weekly, seen in the elements of the bread and the wine, the nourishment that comes to us through the cross of Christ in the giving of his body and his blood. Obedience is another, since disobedience will kill delight in the Lord Jesus. It’s like injecting novocaine into our spiritual nervous system. It dulls and anesthetizes us.

Prayer and worship are other aspects of this. I have to tell you that in my spiritual journey, nothing has been more a place in which I have been allured by God and entranced by his beauty than in times of singing. That, by the way, is why we sing rather than merely speak. Have you ever wondered why we do that? Why do we lift our voices in singing? Why do we employ music and instruments? We could have just projected the words on the screen and recited them in a talking voice, and that would have been okay. There’s nothing wrong or sinful in that, but God has given us music. He has given us instruments. He’s given us voices with which to sing precisely because they have a capacity to awaken and arouse affections. And no, that’s not manipulation, as Edwards said, so long as our affections are awakened by and for the truth of what we sing.

Reading books on God, experiencing community with others who have a like passion, eliminating distractions in life that would fill us and thus dull our sensibility to the presence and the glory of God, and so many more things could be said about that. But I want to close our time together by just spending the last few minutes that we have with some practical suggestions.

Five Ways to Cultivate Desire for Christ’s Beauty

I want to give you five ways to do this for yourself and your people. This will be very simple, again, nothing necessarily creative or original. These are things that I hope that you will take with you as you leave here this week and return home.

1. Expanding Our Capacity of Joy

Number one: Weave into the spiritual and intellectual fabric of your people the awareness that God’s designs and the moral commandments of Scripture are to expand their capacity to enjoy him and not to inhibit it.

It’s stunning to me how many Christian men and women think of the commandments of Scripture as God’s attempt to suppress, quench, and deprive people of true joy. I want you to follow with me one citation from Edwards. I hope it’s going to be projected on the screen. It comes from that sermon I’ve mentioned many times, Christian Happiness. Look at what Edwards says is God’s intent and design in the commandments that we find in Scripture. He writes:

How much the goodness of God shines forth even in his commands.

Did you see that word goodness, not stinginess or meanness? It’s his goodness. He continues:

What could the merciful Being have done more for our encouragement?

You mean God issues prohibitions and forbids us certain things to encourage us? Yes. Edwards continues:

All that he desires of us is that we would not be miserable, that we would not follow those courses, which of themselves would end in misery, and that we would be happy. And God, having a great desire to speak after the manner of man that we should not be miserable but happy, has the mercy and goodness that he forwards us to it to command us to do those things that will make us so. Should we not thank him to be a prince of extraordinary clemency? He, a master of extraordinary goodness; he, a Father of great tenderness, who never commanded anything of his subjects, his servants, or his children, but what was for their good and advantage. But God is such a king, such a Lord, such a Father to us.

Happiness in God’s Commandments

Is that how you think when you read the word of God, when you see his commandments? Is that how your people think? Dear friend, this is the only thing that can account for Psalm 119:1–18, which says:

Blessed are those whose way is blameless,
     who walk in the law of the Lord!
Blessed are those who keep his testimonies,
     who seek him with their whole heart,
who also do no wrong,
     but walk in his ways!
You have commanded your precepts
     to be kept diligently.
Oh that my ways may be steadfast
     in keeping your statutes!
Then I shall not be put to shame,
     having my eyes fixed on all your commandments.
I will praise you with an upright heart,
     when I learn your righteous rules.
I will keep your statutes;
     do not utterly forsake me!

How can a young man keep his way pure?
     By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
     let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
     that I might not sin against you.
Blessed are you, O Lord;
     teach me your statutes!
With my lips I declare
     all the rules of your mouth.
In the way of your testimonies I delight
     as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on your precepts
     and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
     I will not forget your word.

Deal bountifully with your servant,
     that I may live and keep your word.
Open my eyes, that I may behold
     wondrous things out of your law.

How do you account for that apart from the fact that an extraordinary God, a King, a Lord, a Father such as this has spoken those testimonies, those precepts, those commandments, those statutes, and those rules for our good.

2. The Bigness and Beauty of God

So the first thing to leave you with is that you should begin to inculcate, instruct, and weave into the fabric of the thinking of your people that God’s commandments are a prescription for good health, not an attempt to suppress or deprive them of true joy.

Secondly, preach often on the bigness and the beauty of God. Let me tell you what my preaching philosophy is all about. It comes down really to one thing. This applies to whether you’re doing a Sunday school class, you’re teaching in a small group, or you’re in a one-on-one discipleship situation. In the case of a corporate gathering, most of the people who walk in on a Sunday morning are convinced that all their problems are bigger than God. And my purpose is to persuade them by portraying God as bigger than all their problems.

It’s really that simple. They are under the delusion that all of the struggles, all of the temptations, all of the disappointments that they face are bigger than God. They think, “What can he possibly do? What relevance does he have?” And I have one aim, one goal to portray God in such a way that they will see that he is bigger than all their problems. I don’t mean to pick on that pastor from Houston. After all, he is leading the largest church in our country. Let’s pray for the man. But folks, the most pressing need of your people isn’t how to become a better you. The most pressing need of your people is how to know and love and enjoy a really big and immeasurably beautiful God. And guess what? If they do that, they will become a better “you”.

3. Turn Their Eyes Upon Jesus

Number three: In order to work for the joy of your people, you must labor to turn their eyes from the pathetic, little transient pleasures of what can be seen and touched and felt, and fix their faith on the profoundly grand and eternal pleasures of the glory that is to come. You must labor to turn their eyes, to divert their focus away from those pathetic little transient pleasures that they’re convinced they can’t live without. I love Augustine’s confession:

How sweet it was all at once that those sinful, fruitless joys that I once feared to lose were driven from me, and Lord, you took their place. You were sweeter than all pleasure.

Do you realize that most of our people are clinging to these “fruitless joys”, as Augustine called them, these transient little pleasures that they just can’t even envision facing life without? Divert their attention from them and fix their focus on the grand and eternal pleasures of the glory that is to come. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” What do people do when they start to lose heart? I’ll tell you exactly what they do. When discouragement and disillusionment begin to suffocate their souls, they will immediately and instinctively turn to anything that will anesthetize the pain. And our world only serves to reinforce that decision.

My point is that the way that you wean people off a regimen of rancid, spoiled hamburger isn’t by telling them to repent for being hungry. The way that you get them off of rancid ground beef isn’t by talking at length about the nutritional deficiencies of eating that sort of stuff. It isn’t by reminding them of how horrific it stinks, turning up your nose at the odor as if that alone is going to enable them to say no to continuing to fill their belly with this stuff that the world offers. As I said earlier today, it’s by offering up to them a daily regimen of filet mignon, a divine feast of truth, so spiritually delicious, so theologically delectable that they soon refuse to settle for anything else.

4. Suffering in the Service of Joy

Fourth: Build into the mental, emotional and theological framework of your people and understanding of how suffering serves joy.

Eric expanded on that this morning in such a way that I almost think I can just skip over this, but it’s just too important to do that, so let me say a few words about it. This is really difficult to communicate in the 21st century — the idea that suffering and tribulation and trial actually sustain, deepen, and nourish joy in the Lord Jesus Christ. People are so badly misinformed that everything we’ve been talking about this week, everything you’ve heard me say, is perceived by them to be irrelevant to their lives because of the profound and prolonged suffering that they’re enduring. They’ve been told that Christian Hedonism and the pursuit of joy in God are incompatible with the agony and anguish that is so prevalent in the world today. How can we speak about the pursuit of joy in the face of so much soul-numbing suffering that they have to endure and face?

I’ll tell you a good place to begin. Go to the Village Church website and watch Matt Chandler’s videos as he talks about what God has been doing in his heart and his mind while he’s facing brain cancer and radiation and chemotherapy. That’s a good place to start. What we have to teach, what we have to constantly reinforce in the minds of our people is that the joy that we are to pursue in our lives and in the lives of others is not tied to and is not dependent upon circumstances or physical convenience. And that is so hard for people today to swallow. Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4) is almost deleted from their vocabulary, from their minds. The moment they turn and see their diminishing levels of their 401K, or they have to deal with the distress of a rebellious child or an adulterous spouse, they conclude that any talk of joy in God is a sham. It’s a joke, it’s a charade.

The reason is simply that in a very unbiblical but Western way, they’ve bought into the lie that genuine joy is linked to and inextricably bound up with material prosperity and physical health and relational success and all the comforts and conveniences that Western society provides.

Let me ask you a question. It’s just rhetorical: am I exaggerating when I say that most professing Christians today have failed to grasp the simple truth, the almost trite truth, that infinitely more important and of immeasurably greater value than our physical comfort in this world is our spiritual conformity to Christ? Am I exaggerating when I say that most professing Christians have no grasp of that?

The Cancer of Prosperity Teaching

Allow me a minor, short but very important digression. It has to do with the health and wealth gospel, the prosperity message that is proclaimed in our land. Hear me when I say this. That is not some minor aberration. It’s not some secondary doctrinal deviation. It is a corrosive and disintegrative pox on the church. It is a disease far more infectious and ultimately fatal to the soul of a human being than the worst bubonic plague and the effects that it might have on the human body. And yet as shocking as it may seem, and as exaggerated as you may feel my language is, I am convinced traveling the land as much as I have in the last four to six years that the majority of evangelicals are infected with at least some measure of this disease.

And dear friend, so too are you and I. If you think you’re not, you’re deluded. Most professing Christian people in America have no concept of a love that does not eliminate hardship and heartache — no concept whatsoever. It just does not register in their minds. They have no concept of a joy that exists simultaneously with suffering and deprivation, none. For most professing believers, if God is love, he must promise to minimize my struggles and maximize my pleasure. For those people joy makes no sense unless my pains are diminished, and for some people, altogether eliminated.

Do you realize how difficult that makes ministry in our preaching, in our teaching, and in our shepherding? You’re dealing with men and women who’ve heard incessantly from the world, from its power brokers, from those who shape the culture, and perhaps most of all from TV evangelists and bestselling authors, that the love of God in filling your soul with genuine joy is indirect proportion to the degree that he minimizes your suffering and enhances your comfort and convenience. It’s your spiritual birthright to experience it and it’s God’s divine obligation to provide it. That’s what we’re dealing with.

And again, if you think that you and I, just because we attend a conference like this on the subject of joy and Christian Hedonism are somehow insulated against that kind of thinking, just ask yourself how you responded in the last crisis that you faced. Was there bitterness? Was there resentment? Was there doubt? Was there fear? Was there anger? Was there an inwardly clenched fist against God, as Eric described this morning? Was there the thought, “I don’t deserve this. I deserve better.” We have to fight this infection in the body of Christ. It is rampant.

God’s Purpose in Our Suffering

The reason why I think it exists to the degree that it does — and let’s be honest, I don’t want to put the blame at the feet of TV evangelists; I want to lay it at our feet — is that the pastors and leaders of the church today have failed to explain from the biblical text how hardship and tribulation are actually used by God to expose the superficiality of all the human material props on which we rely. We have failed to take the text and show repeatedly how hardship and persecution and slander compel us to rely upon the all-sufficiency of everything that God is for us in Jesus. We fail to explain how it is that oftentimes in the darkness of difficulties that the light and the beauty of Jesus shines brightest of all. Let me just really quickly point out a couple of texts to you that affirm this.

Would you turn with me to 1 Peter 1:6? Peter says:

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials . . .

And then again, go down to 1 Peter 1:8, which says:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory . . .

And the amazing thing is that these two statements about delight and joy sandwich, as it were, this description of trial and suffering and hardship in the life of the believer. The very things that most of our people are convinced are incompatible with joy Peter describes as actually facilitating it. And I look at that and I say, is it all a ruse? Can he be serious? It’s amazing, by the way, what the smallest words in the biblical text can do to change your life. It is just a very simple purpose clause. Look at 1 Peter 1:7. He says:

So that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Gentlemen, let me tell you something. I hope you have the opportunity to study the biblical languages. I think it is very valuable and important, but if you don’t, and if you have a really good translation like the ESV or the NASB, your life can be turned inside out and that of your people as well by just stopping and meditating on a simple purpose clause — so that. Because that immediately alerts you to the fact, “You mean there’s design in my distress? It’s not just chaotic, it’s not just random? You mean this didn’t catch God by surprise? You mean God didn’t see what happened to me and go, ‘Oh man. Sorry, I missed that one.’” Is there in your vocabulary about your heavenly Father a word like “oops”? I hope not.

Refined Like Gold

Peter says that these trials by which you are grieved are there for a purpose: to refine your faith as fire refines gold. Approved faith, he tells us here, is more valuable than gold because gold is temporary. It’ll ultimately be destroyed, but faith is also compared with gold because both are refined and purified of their dross and heir alloy when in the fire. The gold is melted, and all the impurities, all the dross in the alloy, floats to the surface and is eliminated. Your faith, your relationship with the Lord, goes through hard times and all the insincerity — well, I wish I could say all; let’s hope that it’s most — all of the superficiality, the murmuring, and the pessimism is burned away. These impurities in our faith hinder our fullest experience in the goodness and greatness of God. They hinder joy.

Let me tell you, you better preach this regularly. You better come and sit on these purpose clauses and these kinds of statements because your people are hearing precisely the opposite every single day from a multitude of sources. Most important of all, isn’t it amazing that at the end of 1 Peter 1:7 that Peter says that what this kind of suffering does to our faith is that it actually provides a platform, a stage, on which the majesty and glory of God are most clearly revealed.

If somebody sees me singing with my hands raised and a smile on my face and they know it’s in the midst of great financial prosperity, they may or may not take much note of my God. If people take note of my reliance upon Jesus Christ during a season of remarkable physical health and personal comfort, they may or may not think much of my God. If they hear me preach or speak in a place of safety and comfort and protection, they may not think much of my God. But if they should see me singing or take note of my faith or hear me speak in a season of intense suffering while experiencing severe physical anguish, where I may be subject to persecution, imprisonment, and even martyrdom, I assure you they will think much of my God. They will say, “What kind of Being is this who can sustain in that heart, in that life, in that body, and elicit the kind of affection and joy and confidence in the midst of so much difficulty?”

I wish we had time to go into it to show you more closely how exactly it is that this suffering works in refining the faith in the human heart and leading to joy inexpressible and full of glory. If you’ve never read the opening chapter of Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections, please do so. It’s all based on 1 Peter 1:6–8, and Edwards argues — and I think convincingly — that what verse eight is describing for us when it portrays joy inexpressible and full of glory and a love for Jesus, even though we do not see him with a physical eye, is the result of what happens to your faith when it passes through the fire of suffering and hardship. It’s just a beautiful portrayal.

All Things for Our Good

A second passage to turn to quickly is 2 Corinthians 1:8–9. It’s another purpose clause that’s life-changing, world-shattering, and theology-shaping. Listen to what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8–9:

For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.

Paul is saying, “I was standing there with one foot in the grave and feeling a push in the small of my back, and it was over. We just despaired of life itself.” Nobody knows what he’s talking about. There are a lot of theories. Then he says:

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death (literally, the next statement is in order that). But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9).

And lastly, you don’t need to turn there because I know you’re familiar with it. Maybe next to John 3:16, the most famous verse to Christians in the New Testament is this one:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

The “all things”, in case you aren’t aware, is primarily a reference to hardship and suffering. Go back and read Romans 8:17–18, and go forward and read Romans 8:35–39. The good that God orchestrates through these “all things” is our conformity to the image of Christ. You can see that in Romans 8:29 and what follows. But it’s not just becoming more like Christ; it’s becoming ever more satisfied in Christ, ever more enthralled with and delighted in Christ. I must confess to you, I’ve always believed Romans 8:28. I’ve preached, I don’t know, a half dozen times on that passage over the last 36 years of ministry. And it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that for some reason it really took root in my spirit, and I saw something here that just helped me in ways I can’t even begin to describe. And that is that there are obviously dimensions of spiritual growth and moral development and increase in the knowledge of God that God desires more in us than he does our financial prosperity or our physical health or our personal comfort.

Experiences that, in his wisdom, he has determined can only be attained while we are in the midst of those trials or in light of our response to them. I believe Romans 8:28, and I hope you do as well. If you do, the only conclusion we can draw is that, all of the things being equal, if I suffer it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that he and his infinite wisdom and kindness knows can only be attained by means of my physical affliction and the lessons of submission and dependency and trust in him that I learn from it. That’s how suffering serves joy.

5. An Example of Enjoying Jesus

Fifth, and finally, in order to labor successfully for your people and their joy, be an example to them of joy in your own life and relationship with God. Take seriously Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 5:3 when he’s speaking to elders and he says, “Be examples to the flock.” That has many applications, but specifically for our purposes tonight, be an example to them of what it means to delight in the glories and the beauty of Christ Jesus.

If you had asked me when I first got here, “What would be my greatest desire for myself and for all of you as a result of being here this week?” my answer would be that what I desire most for those who are listening on the internet right now is simply this, that you and I would be utterly captivated and consumed by the same spiritual energy that led the Apostle Paul to cry out:

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.

Do you know what your people need most? Do you know what my people in Oklahoma City need most? It’s for you, their pastor, their elder, their lay leader, their small group leader, their Sunday school teacher, their friend, to immerse yourself in the fountain of this joy-generating revelation of God and to be saturated to the bone with whatever it was that caused Paul to just explode. Men, where is the “Oh!” in your relationship with God? Did you feel it tonight when you were singing, or were you fixated on why some people raise their hands and why others don’t? Did you feel it tonight in the words that came forth out of your mouth, or were you wondering about the men who were leading or the instruments that either were or weren’t here, or were you kind of wrapped up in the atmosphere and the mood?

Reviving Our Sense of Awe

Where is the “Oh!”? Where is the sense of awe and amazement and wonder in the greatness of our God? People are into sin today because they’re bored stiff with God. And that’s our fault because we haven’t preached him, proclaimed him, heralded him, and lived out in our own lives as examples of the majesty of Jesus. So, I ask you, where do you think this apostolic “Oh!” came from? I’ll tell you what it didn’t come from. It did not come ex nihilo out of Paul’s soul, out of nothing. This was not a spontaneous act of will unrelated to anything else that Paul had been saying. It must have come from his reflections and meditations on the truths of Romans 1–11. It built up in him to the point where he finally just probably had to sit back and pause, and his amanuensis was wondering what was going to happen next. I can just see him saying, “Oh!”

He was stunned by the power of God for salvation that is found only in the gospel (Romans 1:16–17). He was awestruck by the revelation of God in creation of his invisible attributes and his eternal power in divine nature (Romans 1:19–20). He was struggling to catch his breath as he reflected on the display in the cross of Christ of the righteousness of God (Romans 3:21–25). He was enthralled with the notion that God’s grace has saved us from God’s wrath through the propitiatory sufferings of God’s Son (Romans 3:25). He was staggered by the simple truth that a repentant, believing sinner can be justified apart from works and by faith alone (Romans 4:3–5). He was utterly enchanted with the idea that God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

He was spiritually electrified by the experience of being indwelt by the Spirit and enabled to resist the promptings of the flesh (Romans 8). He was exhilarated by the display of divine sovereignty in divine election (Romans 9). No wonder then when he got to Romans 11, he couldn’t hold it back any longer. “Oh!”, he said, as he was intoxicated, overwhelmed, captivated, and entranced by the revelation of all that God has done for him in his Son. And if your people don’t hear you speak those truths with the same zeal and passion and energy that Paul did, if they don’t see it in your own experience with God, if they don’t sense the same exhilaration and excitement and astonishment and enthusiasm in you that was in him, they’ll just go home and turn to whatever will anesthetize their pain. They will be sitting ducks for the delusional promises of the world of flesh and the devil.

So, may God help us to serve, and to love, and to teach, and to pray, and to shepherd, and to lead by the grace of God, all the people of God into the enjoyment of God for the glory of God.