The Pursuit of Joy in Life and Ministry

Session 4

Desiring God

8. Love Comes from the Overflow of Joy in God

Number eight: Love for people is the overflow, or expansion, of joy in God.

Here’s why we’re going to linger on this for a few minutes. In the previous session, we talked about how I was excited in the early days of my discoveries about vertical Christian Hedonism — being satisfied in God and glorifying God because my soul was deeply satisfied in him. When he sees that he’s made much of, and the vertical is working. But I thought, “Is this going to have any effect on my life in relation to other people? Or am I just going to go become like a Buddha? Cross-legged, sitting under a tree, experiencing Nirvana?” Would it just be me experiencing God, or nothingness, and the world can go to hell. But we’re really happy. That’s scary.

There are a lot of churches that feel that way, I suppose. It can feel like, “We like each other so much and we have our vertical worship going and we’re surrounded by pagans that are perishing, and it doesn’t make any difference.” Well, if that’s what happens, then you can just throw Christian Hedonism away. Just throw it away. If you go to church and that church says, “We’re Christian Hedonists,” and they don’t do evangelism and they don’t care for the suffering of the world, you should say, “That’s not real.” You will know them by their what? Fruits (Matthew 7:16).

And what’s the first fruit mentioned in Galatians 5:22–23? It’s love. So here we are. This has to be in the service of love or it’s just not real. Love has to work better in Christian Hedonism than it does anywhere else, or you better check in another church, another theology.

Grace, Proverty, and Abundant Joy

Here is a text that has been hugely helpful for me in understanding how Paul understands love and where it comes from. He’s writing to the Corinthians — Corinth is in Southern Greece — and he wants to raise money in Corinth to give to the poor in Jerusalem. That’s the whole thing he’s doing over and over again as he moves around from church to church. He’s collecting money because there’s problems in Jerusalem, and he is trying to do it in the most upstanding way so that he’s not distrusted. And he’s trying to motivate the Corinthians to be very generous, to give when he gets there and take it to Jerusalem in order to help the poor.

To do that, he uses the Macedonians. Now those are the folks who live in Northern Greece up around Philippi. He wants to use them as an example of what happened in their generosity. That’s what is going on here. In 2 Corinthians 8:1–4, he says:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia . . .

So he’s going to tell the Corinthians about what happened in Macedonia. Here’s what happened:

The grace of God . . . has been given among the churches of Macedonia (first thing to note), for in a severe test of affliction (there’s the second thing to take note of), their abundance of joy (there’s the third thing to take note of) and their extreme poverty (there’s the fourth thing to take note of) have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (there’s the fifth thing to take note of).

Now, stop. That’s amazing. The reason I have the rest of this passage included as well is just to get down to 2 Corinthians 8:8, which says:

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

Ah, look a that. This is love. Now I know what love looks like to Paul and where it comes from if I analyze this, because he just said, “I’m not trying to twist your arm. I’m not trying to put down my apostolic authority on you. I’m trying to stir you up so this comes from your heart and it will be love,” which also means the act of the Macedonians was love. So what is this? What is love?

Love is when the grace of God is given. He preached the gospel and they got saved. Their sins were forgiven. Heaven was open. Guilt was taken away. The wrath of God was removed. They were planted in grace. They were heading for glory. This is awesome. I hope you feel it’s awesome to be forgiven by God, accepted by God, loved by God, and destined for glory by God. It is grace beyond imagining. So, that happened. Grace came down and afflictions came up. Grace didn’t make affliction go away. It increased it.

Do you want to be a Christian? Count the cost. You’re going to have more trouble than you did before — not less, more. It’s not the same kind. You won’t get drunk as often, crash your car that way, or lose your job that way, but you might get fired for being a Christian. So would you rather get fired for being a Christian or get fired because you’re drunk all the time? Things don’t necessarily improve.

Joy That Overflows to Meet the Needs of Others

For them, it didn’t. There was this ordeal of affliction as the grace came down, but as the afflictions came up, there was an abundance of joy, which means this joy right here was not rooted in circumstances, as if to say, “I have to have things going well for me or I can’t be happy.” Well, you can forget Christianity then. Things are not going to go well. They never have. Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom (Acts 14:22). And Jesus says:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household (Matthew 10:25).

As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you (John 20:21).

There’s no promise that things go well for Christians. It’s just the opposite. Things go badly. Through many afflictions we must enter the kingdom. So their joy is abounding. It isn’t joy based on circumstances nor on prosperity. Their poverty has remained. This is not a prosperity gospel text. It’s the opposite. And what happens?

In spite of affliction and poverty, this joy overflows. What’s the subject of the verb overflow? It’s the phrase “their abundance of joy and deep poverty.” That’s what overflowed. Poverty is overflowing and joy is overflowing. That’s a very strange way to talk. Poverty is overflowing, along with generosity and joy. Joyful poverty is overflowing with a wealth of generosity.

Now, here’s my conclusion. Where does love come from in the Christian life? That’s love. I mean, listen to how liberal they are. Paul says:

For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints . . . (2 Corinthians 8:3–4).

They begged. Paul took an offering, and when they were done they said, “Oh, would you please take another offering from us?” That comes from the statement “begging us for the favor (the grace) of participating in the support of the saints.” That’s crazy. Christians are gloriously crazy people. In the midst of a recession, budgets should go up at the church.

God Loves a Cheerful Giver

I tried to argue this at the staff meeting anyway, with a teeny bit of success. We will have some challenges for you this year if you’re a Bethlehem person. This text says that recessions overflow in liberality. That’s what it says. Recessions overflow in liberality, because love is rooted in joy in God. So my definition of love is this: love is the overflow of joy in God.

Second Corinthians 9:7 says:

Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

This is 1 Corinthians 9, and the other text was 1 Corinthians 8. He’s spending two chapters on this issue. He’s spending two chapters to try to get them to be lovingly generous. And his arguments are all hedonistic. He says, “God loves a cheerful giver.” Well, how does he feel about a non-cheerful giver? It doesn’t say, but it’s not encouraging, right? God loves a cheerful giver.

So when I stand in front of you at this campus or wherever, and I want to say something encouraging about giving, I’m going to say, “If your heart isn’t in your giving, keep it. God doesn’t want it, and I don’t want it, because what pleases the Lord is cheerful giving.” He doesn’t want the other kind. Now, I will pray for you that your heart change, otherwise we’re going to go out of business. You can’t do church without money. But I’ve never felt like saying that to people takes us backward. If your heart is not excited about this ministry, you need to find a place where your heart and your pocketbook can be excited. Because, if you’re begrudging tithing, God is not excited about that.

When the Plate Is Passed

Let’s get this now. Let me put it provocatively. If you say that emotions don’t matter and all that matters is the obedience of tithing, or the obedience of writing the check, then you are saying you should be indifferent to what pleases God. And to be indifferent to what pleases God is the definition of sin. Therefore, you’re sinning if you’re not pursuing pleasure in giving.

So let’s say you have your checkbook in your pocket and some nice offertory is happening, and you’re sitting eight rows back, and you’ve got a minute to get ready, and you don’t want to give. It would be less than ideal to say, “It doesn’t matter if I want to or not. I should, so I will.” Far better is to say, “God, I’m so sorry that my heart is so disinclined to let my money go for the sake of your kingdom. I’m so sorry. I repent of my lack of cheer in this giving. And I ask, Lord, that you would restore to me the joy of generosity because of how much grace you have given me, how my sins are forgiven, and how you provide all my needs according to your riches and glory in Christ, Jesus.” That’s the proper response to the lack of joy.

Now whether you write the check at that moment is neither here nor there in my judgment. I think you can be a non-hypocrite at that moment by writing the check. But if you write the check without any respect for your heart, I don’t think the Lord is pleased.

God Loves a Cheerful Pastor

It’s the same thing with pastors. First Peter 5:2–3 says:

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly . . .

This is like, God loves a cheerful pastor, right? He says, “Shepherd the flock of God, not under compulsion, not for money.” So if I was a pastor and I said, “I hate this ministry, but it’s my job. I make a living at it, and I feel compelled by duty to do it. But I’m not eager for it,” then I’m disobeying 1 Peter 5:2, and I’m producing a sick church, as this verse implies.

The Need for Pastors to Pursue Joy in God

Now, this next text sounds like he’s talking to you, the people, but really, look at it:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls (he’s talking about pastors), as those who will have to give an account (Hebrews 13:17).

And then it tells pastors to do something:

Let them do this with joy and not with groaning (not with this kind of compulsion or for money), for that would be of no advantage to you.

Think that one through with me. I am supposed to love you as a pastor, which means I should want and I should pursue, in everything I do, your greatest good, whatever it costs me. And this text says that it would be unprofitable for you if I do my work with grief and not joy, which means, if I would love you I must pursue my joy in ministry. If I become indifferent to whether I am happy in the ministry, I become indifferent to your profit, your good.

How many people go just the opposite way? I was doing a seminar one time and I was talking to someone, though I won’t name the person because you all know her. We love each other so much, and we were doing the seminar together, and she said, “I don’t like your emphasis on pursuing your happiness. I think you should pursue obedience.” And I said, “That’s like saying we should pursue fruit, not apples.” Because, what is obedience? Obedience is doing what God says to do. Well, what does God say to do? He says, “Serve the Lord with gladness (Psalm 100:2). So I’m going to be indifferent to that and you call me obedient?

God says, “Do the ministry with gladness.” And you tell me to choose obedience over that? How can I? That is obedience. See the problem? So that effort to say that pastors should strive for obedient ministry, to do what the Lord says to do in ministry, is true. It’s absolutely true. And one of the things he says to do is, “Don’t do the ministry with grief. Do it with joy because you’re going to make a sick church if you don’t. It will be profitable for your people if you love the ministry.” That means that if I get into a season — and these come — where there’s a slump of discouragement and emotional flatness and I don’t even want to show up, my job at that point is not to gut it out and think that God will be pleased.

The point is, get on your face before the living God over his word, and cry out to him to restore your joy. Ask the church for leave if you have to. Get away. Fight this thing until you get victory over these horrible feelings of hatred for ministry and indifference to people. Pastors can get to the point where they can’t stand their people. They get beat up so much by so many that to preach is a horrible experience, just to stand in front of people. I’ve never been there. I’ve been so well-treated by this church, but oh I talk to so many pastors who say that. I was dealing in an email just the last two days with a very, very difficult situation. Maybe that’s enough on love. I’ve got lots more texts don’t I? But I think if I keep going on that it will take too long.

More Blessed to Give Than Receive

Let’s go to one more. In Acts 20, Paul is talking to the Ephesian elders now. He’s talking with pastors in Miletus. He will probably never see them again probably. He says:

In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Now here’s the controversial word in this text. The controversial word is remember. Do you know why that is? In one of the previous sessions we talked about when Jesus argued, “Have poor people over for dinner. Because they can’t reward you, you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the just.” T.W. Manton said, “The reward is there, but you don’t have them over for the reward, otherwise you’re living in the old, selfish way.”

Now, if that were true, what this text would have to say is something like this: “In everything, I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and forget the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said is more blessed to give than to receive.” Because if you remember them, the way they function is to encourage you that blessedness is coming when you give. That’s crazy. You shouldn’t forget this. That’s the opposite of what he’s saying.

Seeking Blessing in a Hosptial Room

So here’s the way this first works in the ministry and ought to work. Let’s say it’s 7:30 p.m. and I’m playing with my kids. When I had little kids, I played with Talitha. We would read, or we’d watch something on the internet, or whatever. So it’s playtime. I’ve always had playtime with my kids. And then you get a call and you’ve put in a long day, maybe many days. You are just beat, and this person, Ethel, is in the hospital. It’s a serious heart situation. They are asking, “Could you come, pastor?” Inside you’re saying, “There are other pastors. I’m having playtime,” which is not a good thing to say. So you say, “I’ll be right there.” You hang up the phone and say to you kid, “Sorry, maybe tomorrow night. I have to go.”

On your way, your heart is not in this. This is not something you want to do, and you are ticked that you had to leave your little girl again. This is a terrible mood to be in when a person might be dying in the next half hour, and you’re going to be ushering them into that, possibly. It’s a terrible attitude to have. What should you do? In the car, in the elevator, what should you do? The answer is that you do what this text says. That’s why Jesus said it. He’s whispering down in my car, “Remember something, John. Remember something.” What should I remember? “Remember that when you get there, and you start to pour out what little life is left in you, it’s going to be blessed. It’s going to be blessed. You are going to be blessed. I will see to it that it comes crashing back on you with blessing. That’s what you should remember, not forget. Remember.”

This is how Christian Hedonism works. Jesus said to do it. So you’re riding the elevator. It’s always the fourth floor, right? The fourth floor is where the serious heart situations happen. And, you’re up in the elevator, saying, “God, come. Please come. I have to have life here. I have to give. I have to be there. I have to have joy to transfer to a person who might meet you any minute.” You open the door. It hasn’t risen in your heart yet. I’m telling you a real story, all right? It hasn’t risen in your heart yet. You’re still operating on duty-pilot, which is okay to do. It’s just not the best thing. You open the door, she’s laying there with her eyes closed and there are tubes everywhere. You don’t know if she’s conscious. And you walk over and you put your hand on her arm, and she opens her eyes.

Now I called her Ethel because she’s older. That’s not a very common name among young kids today. Older people have a certain way about them. And this is what she says. She opens her eyes and sees it’s me and she says, “Oh, pastor. You didn’t need to come. You’re so busy. You’re so busy.” Now, the absolutely wrong thing to say at that time is, “I know, and didn’t want to come. I don’t want to be here. I’d rather be at home with Talitha. I’m just really ticked right now that David Livingston didn’t get called.” Because she would feel horrible if you said that.

But, what should you say? This is the same thing I said before. You should say, “The Lord showed me, Ethel, on the way here that for me to take the time to come to you, and to pray over you, and to share my hope and my faith with you, and to give you a word from the Lord will be a profound blessing to me, and I’m eager to have that blessing.” That’s this text. I don’t think Ethel would say, “You’re selfish.” She would say, “That’s what you’ve taught us. That’s right. We’re going to share a blessing here. You’re going to get a lot of blessing by just giving to me, so go ahead. Go ahead. Make your day. Pray and share the word with me, and tell me about heaven.”

I really believe that love is the fruit of Christian Hedonism. If I didn’t believe it I could not go this direction. And it’s not that I’m an ideal lover, okay? Because I’m not an ideal enjoyer of God. I believe if this imperfect pastor were more fully contented in Christ, I would be a more caring husband, a more caring father, and a more caring and tender pastor. It’s my battle at the vertical level that causes my battle at the horizontal level to rise and fall. So I’m basically arguing that the way to fight the fight of un-love is at the vertical level of delighting more in Christ and all that he is for us. That’s the argument from love.

9. Pride Overcome by Pursuit of Joy in God

Number nine: pride and self-pity are overcome by the pursuit of joy in God.

Remember what I’m arguing for. I’m arguing that it is biblical to say that it’s your duty always to pursue joy in God and that God is most glorified when you do that. I’ve had numerous people over the years hear me unpack the first end of Christian Hedonism — namely, don’t ever deny your desire for joy but glut it on God and glut it on loving people — and have them say, “That just sounds so self-centered. It just sounds so proud. You say it’s all about my joy.” And so the issue of pride is really important. How do you fight pride in your life? I’m arguing that Christian Hedonism is a mighty weapon against pride and its flip side, self-pity.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man, it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23–27).

Camels can’t get through the eye of a needle. This is not some gate in the wall of Jerusalem where camels get on their knees. This is the eye of a needle. They can’t. It is impossible. Impossible. But not with God, for all things are possible with God.

The Death of Self-Pity

The passage continues:

Peter began to say to him (all right, this is what I’m after, Peter’s attitude), “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28).

Jesus didn’t like what Peter just said. I mean, why not? Peter said, “We’ve left everything and followed you.” And Jesus says, “What’s all this self-sacrifice stuff?” Maybe he didn’t sound like that, but check it out. He says:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29–30).

In other words, “Get off your self-pity, oh-poor-me, I-left-everything-to-follow-you kick. You haven’t made any sacrifices.” Something like that. Now, how does that work? I think self-pity is another form of pride. Pride can be expressed in boasting in one’s strength, or it can be the sentiment, “Oh poor me. I’m so badly treated.” Self-pity doesn’t look proud, the other looks proud. But it is proud.

You go home as a husband after a long day at work, hoping that your wife will be a good mommy to you when you get home and express her admiration for your long, hard day, without any reference to hers. You walk in the room and she doesn’t say anything, except, “Want to check to see if the tire’s flat. I think it went flat halfway through the day.” Doesn’t she know I worked hard all day? What is this mounting sense of boohoo? It’s a sense of entitlement. It’s a sense of dessert. It’s the form that pride takes in the heart of the wounded, in the heart of the weak. We usually think of pride the other way. It has the forms of strength and boasting, and, “I’m the best and number one.” We think it sounds like Cassius Clay. Does anybody remember him?

How do you kill that? How do you kill that? Well, Jesus said, “Your problem, Peter, when you said, ‘We’ve left everything and followed you,’ is that you don’t understand that when you follow me, you get rewarded. Millions more than you give up you get back.” That means that we won’t be grumblers and self-pitying people in hard times if we’re fully Christian-hedonistic. Our hands will be lifted in the midst of our trials, our recession, our loss of job, and our hardships, and we’ll be saying, “God, this is hard, but you are everything.” You’ll move through life blessing people instead of sucking on people’s admiration and compliments and needing them because you are so sacrificial.

I Never Made a Sacrifice

Let’s say that you’re a manager, and you’ve got a team around you of five people. At the end of the year, you’re going to take them out for dinner. You take them to a very nice place. For five people, it costs you maybe $300 to take them out for dinner, and they’re amazed that you did this because it seems like, “Wow. You made a significant sacrifice to bless us.” And they start complimenting you.

Now, there’s a little cultural device that is very common at that point, which has a parable in it. I’m not arguing that everybody who says it is spiritual, but I’m arguing that when it is said, it points to a reality that is spiritual. What you say at that moment is, “It’s my pleasure. It’s my pleasure.” What do you do? The hands go up when you say that. What are the hands doing up? What does that mean? That means I’ve got this cascade of compliments coming to me and I’m going up like this with my hands. It means you’re complimenting me as though I made some great sacrifice with my $300. And I’m telling you, “I did what I wanted to do.”

“It’s my pleasure” is a cultural device used to deflect praise, and how does it deflect praise? It shows that people who are living out of the overflow of what they love to do because they’re full of the grace of God are not people to be pitied or complimented because of sacrifice. You don’t need it, and so you deflect it. I really believe that deep and profound satisfaction in God is a great undermining of pride. Why would you boast that you went to China and died there if Christ was in China beckoning you to come and have fellowship with him for 30 years, and be mightily used of God by grace? Why would you boast in that? Boasting must mean, “He’s really not there and this really isn’t all that rewarding and I think I sold my soul.”

I’ve got these words of David Livingstone. He said, “I never made a sacrifice.” Now that’s not true, technically, but that’s his heart. He’s coming to the end of years and years in Africa where he suffered greatly, and finally died there on his knees. Do you remember that story? They found him in his tent, bent over his cot, dead in the kneeling position. What a way to go. I hope my wife finds me that way some day, or better yet to just fall over in the pulpit, right on the Bible. The last words would be, “I never made a sacrifice,” meaning that to walk with God through these hard days was so satisfying.

10. Self-Denial for the Sake of Greater Joy

Number ten: there is such a thing as self-denial, but it is all for the sake of ultimate satisfaction in God.

We’re almost done with the arguments. Someone might ask, “What about self-denial, Piper? You’re telling people to glut themselves on the pursuit of joy, and this doesn’t sound like Jesus when he says, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’ He says, ‘deny yourself,’ and you’re telling us to glut ourselves. How does that work?” When people ask me that question, I generally say, “Keep reading. Keep reading.” Because it goes on to say:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).

How are you motivating me, Jesus? Do you want me to save my life, or do you want me to not save my life? Because it looks like you say, “He who wishes to save his life is going to lose it.” So you don’t want me to save my life. And here, you’re telling me, “If I lose my life for your sake and the gospel’s, I will save it.” So you’re enticing me to save it. So, what do you want?

The answer surely is that the first kind of saving is worldly, isn’t it? He who wishes to save his life means, “I’m not going to do that. I’m not going there to serve Christ. I’m not going to do this witnessing. I’m not going to have this lifestyle. I’m going to save my prosperity. I’m going to save myself from Malaria and terrorists. I’m going to be in a nice, really secure, padlocked house in a safe neighborhood.” I think that’s what he means there. If you structure your life that way, you’ll lose it. But when he says, “If you’re willing to lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.” He doesn’t mean, “If you’re willing to go to hell, you’ll go to Heaven.” I don’t think that’s what he means.

I think “whoever loses his life for my sake” means, whoever loses mother, or father, or son, or daughter, or gives up a good job, or is willing to endure shame at work when he identifies himself a Christian — whatever the things are that are costly in life, if you do them you save your life. And so he’s enticing us with saving our lives, which is why C.S. Lewis said in that quote I read earlier, “Yes, there’s self-denial, but every time we’re called to deny ourself, they are accompanied with such promises, and the promises have such reward, that it’s never denying yourself ultimate joy, but temporary joy.” He said, “It’s like a little child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slums because he can’t imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at sea.”

He ought to deny himself those pleasures for greater ones. I mean, it really is fun to make mud pies in the slums if you’re a little urban kid and you’ve never even seen pictures of a beach, and sandcastles, and running in the water. If you’ve never seen that and you can’t even imagine it, making mud pies is fun. It’s your best deal. But when you’re shown this in the gospel, you should do self-denial here. Giving up the mud pie is self-denial. It’s like saying, “I’ll deny myself brackish water to have pure water. I’ll deny myself tin in order to have gold. I’ll deny myself vinegar in order to have honey.”

Of course there’s self-denial. You deny yourself all the stuff that keeps you from joy and keeps you from God. You deny yourself the broken systems that can hold no water in order to go back to the fountain of living water. I believe in self-denial big time. Sometimes it really hurts because there’s enough of the old man in me that certain sexual pleasures are still clawing to be sought, right? Or it could be money, or fame, or whatever. We battle this until the very end. Yes, self-denial is real, but it’s self denial in the pursuit of total satisfaction forever. In that sense it’s not ultimate self-denial, which Ayn Rand, the atheist, never saw. She thought the Christian life was total self-denial.

11. Suffering Sustained by Pursuit of Joy in God

Number eleven: Suffering is required and sustained by the pursuit of joy in God.

Suffering is not optional.

Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).

If you are left without discipline . . . then you are illegitimate children and not sons (Hebrews 12:8).

If they persecuted me, they will persecute you (John 15:20).

Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).

It’s not optional. The question is, how can you stand it? What’s the means by which we are enabled to walk through affliction, which is required by the Lord?

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad . . . (Matthew 5:10–12).

This is a command in the midst of persecution and in the midst or reviling to be glad. And then comes the argument:

For your reward is great in heaven . . . (Matthew 5:12).

Do you see what this does? Some people say you can be so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. I suppose in one sense it’s true. There is a kind of heavenly mindedness that might distract a person from being earthly good, but that’s not what’s happening here. This is a person who is so heavenly minded that he is empowered to receive persecution in the pursuit of love. You’re walking in the path of love in a hard place and people are not rewarding you for it. They’re reviling you for it. How do you stay? How do you keep going? Answer: be heavenly minded. You’re going to get an unbelievable reward. It’s going to come back to you 10,000 fold. If there’s no reward on the planet, there will be a reward in heaven. If they take your life, to die is gain. Reward is on the other side.

For the Joy Set Before Us

Now, I think that is the key to enduring suffering — keeping our eyes on the prize. For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). I tell you, sometimes I get really bent out of shape here at certain ethicists who start to diminish the importance of reward in life because they say it is functioning in the old, selfish way. Well it would be if the reward were, “I’ll be puffed up some day and Jesus will go down and I’ll go up. I’ll be the king of the universe, and I’ll get every carnal desire that I ever wanted satisfied, and Jesus will be useful to that private, carnal, fleshly desire, and his glory doesn’t matter. My joy matters.” If that’s the way people are thinking, then I agree when they say pursuit of joy is going to mess up motivation.

But if the reward is Christ, then it’s different. Jesus prays, “Father I pray that they might see my glory, that the love with which you loved me might be in them and I in them, so that they have a Vesuvius of joyful admiration of me forever and ever” (John 17:24–26). If that’s the reward, it doesn’t contaminate love. My main argument for that is that’s the way Jesus was motivated. This is Hebrews 12:2:

For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross . . .

You have a cross to endure. How are you going to do it? Do it the way Jesus did it, for the joy that is set before you. Do you have a bad marriage? There’s a lot of hard marriages. Solution number one, divorce. Solution number two, heaven. Spend 30 years returning good for evil and then go to heaven. The reason so many people get divorces is because they don’t believe in heaven. They think heaven should come now. They think, “I should have a better wife, or husband. This is not what I married for. I didn’t marry to get this. This is supposed to be more heaven-like, and it’s hell-like.” Well, that’s the hand some are dealt, a hellish marriage, in order to give you an opportunity to show the superior value of heaven. That’s what it says. When they revile you and persecute you, or when you have a totally inadequate husband or wife, rejoice and be glad, for greater is your reward in heaven.

True Salt and Light

Jesus continues and says, “You are the salt of the Earth. You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13–16). What do you think salt and light refer to here? Let’s just sum it up before we take a break. I’ll sum up what I think it is.

You Christians, you’re the salt of the Earth and you’re the light of the world. What’s the shining? What are people seeing? What are they tasting? I think they’re tasting this. They watch you undergo very difficult circumstances, whether some kind of reviling, some kind of persecution, or some kind of ordinary, natural calamity. They’re watching you. And if you’re able to rejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heaven, you’re going to be a very salty person. You’re going to taste like nothing in their experience. You’re going to shine with such brightness against the dark backdrop of these troubles that they will be able to give glory to your Father who is in heaven.

I think the light and the salt are the tanginess of people who don’t grumble but instead rejoice in the midst of hardship. And I don’t put myself up as a very good example of it. I want to be that. Oh, how I want to be that. I want to be that more than I want to be almost anything. I want it to be that when things go the worst possible, my joy is undaunted. That’s what I want, because the world’s going to look at that and they’re going to say, “That tastes different. That is attractive. Salt is attractive. That’s why we put it on our potatoes, french-fries, and steaks, because it attracts us to the taste. And light, we’re drawn to light. So I think Christian Hedonism is true because the Bible presents the pursuit of joy in God, in heaven, as the means by which we are enabled to endure necessary suffering.

12. Service Sustained by Being Served

Number twelve: The duty of serving God is sustained by the joy of being served by God.

Somebody might say to me, “You know, this motif you’ve developed of pursuing your own joy, this doesn’t sound like service. We’re supposed to be servants and serve God.” Let’s just use 1 Peter because this is the one I use most often just before I preach:

Whoever speaks, [is to do it] as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, [is to do it] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 4:11).

So, what is service? Let’s say I’m sitting on the front pew, and I’m about to stand up to preach. I have to serve the people. I’m going to serve God for 45 minutes in preaching. What is that? He says, “Let those who serve do so by the strength which God supplies.” So who’s the giver when I’m serving? God. He wouldn’t have it any other way. Why? It says, “So that in all things God may be glorified.” The giver gets the glory. If I try to reverse roles with him here, thinking, “I’m going to serve you. You need me. You need this sermon to be preached because you can’t get these people saved any other way. You can’t sustain this church. You need me. You receive from me.” Who gets the glory then? I do.

But if I’m just an empty, needy, little kid, still nervous from 50 years ago, walking into a pulpit, saying, “God, I can’t do anything good for these people unless you show up. I can’t talk. I can’t think. I’m going to lose my place. I’m going to lose my memory. I’m going to lose my attitude. I’m going to ruin these people. I will be unfaithful to your word unless you come,” and I bank on him entirely, then my service becomes a receiving of grace and a glorifying of God. So I think my pursuit of receiving satisfaction and power from God is the key to my serving.