When I Don’t Desire God (Part 2)

Desiring God 2005 Regional Conference

Greenville, SC


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

There’s another relationship between God’s self-exultation — doing everything for his glory — and our delighting in it. The connection is that when we delight in it, we magnify it. This is the closest thing to the heart of the foundation of what I’m saying that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him or, to put it another way, you glorify what you enjoy. You glorify what you enjoy.

Joy Is Not Optional

If you really love something and delight in it and talk about it because it gives you such pleasure, you make much of it, you exalt it. When God is our deepest pleasure, we display him as our highest treasure, which is why the pursuit of joy is not optional, because the pursuit of God’s glory is not optional. The fight for joy is not peripheral because God’s pursuit of his glory is not peripheral. As close to heart of the universe is God’s doing everything for his glory, so close to the heart of Christianity, is you’re doing everything for joy in God, because what you take joy in is magnified.

It’s not just the things you decide. It’s the things you love, want, crave, have joy in that you magnify. God made you to magnify him and, therefore, it cannot be optional or peripheral or non-essential that you say, “It really doesn’t matter that I delight in God. I have decided for God,” or “I am committed to God,” or whatever kind of willpower resolutions you want to make while your heart is in love with pornography or money or family or food. As though it’s just this level of “I decided. I prayed a prayer. I have a commitment and I seethe with worldliness.” It won’t do it. He gets no glory from that.

“Whatever you treasure with your emotions gets glory from the intensity of those emotions.”

Food gets glory from that. Pornography gets glory from that. Family gets glory from that. Whatever you treasure with your emotions gets glory from the intensity of those emotions. I wish I could go into why, but that’s all in that foundational material. Let me just draw out this implication. If it’s true that God is most glorified in me when I’m most satisfied in him, if that’s true, the fight to be happy in God is the most important thing in your life.

The Joy of Finding the Treasure in Jesus

How did Jesus describe conversion? “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” I read that text for years without seeing the phrase “in his joy.” And every sermon I ever heard on it was, you can have the kingdom. Sell what you’ve got. Take the kingdom. It was all in terms of decision, resolve, commitment, and that little phrase “in his joy,” take my car. Take my computer. Take my wedding ring. I get the treasure and I can buy it all back someday in heaven, hundred-fold on this earth and in heaven forever.

Jesus got really bent out of shape when Peter said, “Lord, we’ve left everything and followed you.” What do you mean? You’ve left everything and followed me? What am I? You’ve lost everything and followed me? And he said, “Peter, nobody has left mother or father or sister, brother, houses, lands, for my sake who won’t get back in this age a hundred-fold, and in the age to come, eternal life. Get off your self-pity kick.” How do you live in persecution and suffering and hardship? The reason I ask this question is because I think when life becomes tremendously hard right up to the brink of death with disease or accident or war or persecution, your reality shows. How did Jesus instruct us to be real in that moment? How did Jesus instruct us to endure that moment?

The first text I gave you is Matthew 13:44 about the kingdom. This is Matthew 5:11: “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, for your reward is great in heaven.” So how do you handle suffering? You look through and beyond it to what God has promised you, is working in and for you, and you rejoice in it even though tears stream down your face in pain.

Why did Jesus teach us so many things about himself and his Father? Here’s why. John 15:11: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” Have you ever thought that the four gospels are written for your joy? “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy. . . .” I’ll tell you, if there’s anybody’s joy in the universe I would want to have someday, it would be the joy of the omnipotent, emotional Son of God, who sees his Father and responds like 10,000 sights of the supernova or the Grand Canyon.

I would like it very much if the energy and the purity and the delight of the Son of God could become mine. And he said, “I have spoken these things to you, that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be explosively full” partly in this life. I’m no perfectionist, believe me, partly in this life, but someday, and very soon, sooner than you think, in the age to come.

Joy: Commanded, Not a Choice

And so there are commands everywhere. I’m just underlining how essential the fight for joy is. There are commands everywhere. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness.” Sometimes I just get so amazed. People will say, “I don’t think you should be talking about the pursuit of joy. I think you should be talking about serving Jesus and obeying Jesus.”

I say, “What Bible do you read?” “Serve the Lord with gladness!” Serve the Lord with gladness! This is not rocket science. This is clear! Serve the Lord with gladness! There is a kind of service he doesn’t like. Murmuring service. Bored service. Glum service. Serve the Lord with gladness. This is biblical! Are we a biblical people or just get our truths from our emotions or non-emotions?

Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous. Shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” That’s a command, not a suggestion. If you don’t want to delight in me, that’s okay. Go ahead with your house or whatever. It’s not an option. It’s a command.

Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I will say, rejoice.” He was writing from prison. I want to underline and make sure I underline that you hear me say Paul, when he writes like that, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice,” this man knew more suffering than all of you combined probably. I’ll read you one of the lists. 2 Corinthians 6: “As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way; by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings. . . .”

If you were beaten for Jesus, I would like to know who you are. Come up and tell me, “I was beaten for Jesus,” and I will bow down and give thanks for you and your faith. “Beatings, calamities, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as imposters, and were true. We were treated as unknown and yet well-known. We were treated as dying, and behold, we live, as yet punished and not killed,” and here’s the key phrase for me, “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that amazing? If that weren’t in the Bible, I couldn’t come to this conference. After that list and that’s the short list, the long one’s in chapter 11. We saw the short list of his pain. He said, “sorrowful, but always rejoicing.”

I say to the guys over and over again at Desiring God, and I say to the staff at Bethany Baptist Church, among the several ways that we can describe the ethos of this ministry and this church, let this be near the top: sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. I want you to be able to taste that. I want suffering people to come into this conference and come into our church and come into the door at Desiring God ministries and feel like these are not chipper people who have never tasted the dark night of the soul, never tasted the loss of a loved one, never tasted the love of a wayward child. These people are so naïve about reality they just jabber about joy. I don’t want that. The opposite of joy is not suffering. It’s despair in suffering.

The Fight for Joy on the Road to Calvary

Near the end of chapter one in the book When I Don’t Desire God, which this conference is built on, I have a section entitled this: “The Aim,” meaning the aim of the book and I would say the aim of this conference, “The Aim is Not to Soften Cushions, But Sustain Sacrifice.” The reason I care so deeply about your joy in God is first, as I’ve said, because God is glorified by what you enjoy. And secondly, it is that joy alone that will liberate you and free you to become a person for others — a person of love.

The fight for joy is not a fight to be comfortable or have security or be prosperous or any other of the American ideals that are advertised to us every day. It is a fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road. Some of you know the text I’m about to quote. It’s a fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road. The fight to be happy is the fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road.

Hebrews 12:2: “Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him stay on the Calvary road and enduring the cross, despising the shame.” That’s the road I want you on when we’re done. Not a chipper road. It’s not a rah-rah road. It’s not a praise God anyhow road. It’s a road of suffering. It’s a road of tears. It’s a road of empathy with all the dying people you’re aware of and the people whose marriages are in trouble, the people whose kids are on drugs, it’s the people you know who are broken in your vicinity, and your joy is going to become a high pressure zone that begins to make wind when it bumps up against low pressure zones of need, and that wind is called love.

Because you’re moving, your joy is moving out. It’s spilling over. I have so much in Jesus. I have a lot of stuff, but I’m brimming with what really counts in life, and I’m going to use my stuff and my time and my energy to make your day for Jesus. I want to serve you for Jesus. That’s the goal, horizontally, and oh how that will glorify God because Jesus says it does. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16). This is the spillover of joy in God according to 2 Corinthians 8:2. They overflowed in liberality because they were full of joy in grace. So joy produces that kind of risk-taking love, and it is worth the fight.

The Most Common Response

So here’s where we are now. We just finished foundations — 45 minutes worth of foundations out of these sessions. I’m going to build now on that. Where we’re going is that for years and years after I wrote Desiring God in 1986, and have spoken on it hundreds of times, I suppose, arguing for the things I just spent 45 minutes arguing here and writing about them in every way I could write about them, and preached as many ways I could preach, the most common question that came back to me when I was done would be people coming up, often with tears, saying, “I think you’re probably right, and I’m not there. I’m not there. I don’t delight in God like that. I don’t feel like he’s a Grand Canyon that I stand beside in the morning. I don’t feel like he’s a supernova that causes me to explode with joy. I just get up in the morning and go to work. I hardly even know what you’re talking about. My experience of God isn’t anything like what you’re talking about.”

For twenty plus years, that was the most common response. It wasn’t a theological issue, like you believe this, you believe that, and I don’t. That wasn’t the problem. It’s, yeah, that sounds sort of biblical, and I feel scared that I may not even be a Christian.

And you know what? I don’t think that’s a bad response at all. Back in the Puritan days, back when pastors preached the Bible and people trembled, people were concerned about their assurance a lot. The Puritan pastors had to get really serious about getting them into the Bible, praying down the Holy Spirit, and trying to help people gain some Holy Spirit-given affection for God that would be the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit that I’m a child of God instead of I signed a card, I prayed a prayer, I must be. It’s a logical deduction. This is the way most people are taught to get assurance today. I prayed, I signed the card, the Bible says if I do this and that, then I’ve got the Holy Spirit, so I must have the Holy Spirit. I have no experience of the Holy Spirit. I don’t have any changed affections. God is not precious to me. He’s not a treasure. And the inference is, that’s not Christianity.

When I said these things for all these years, there was this trembling, this concern, and this simple question of how do you fight for joy? What if I don’t desire God? What if I don’t desire God? So I kept notes and I thought and prayed for years and years, and then finally last year I put this together, and now I would like to just do a few conferences like this to help people. I’m not eager to make anybody feel miserable. I would like you to work through the misery of questioning to rock-solid assurance, because you should have assurance. The Bible talks about assurance.

Not a Fight for Joy in General, but a Joy in God

“The fight for joy is a fight for joy in God, not a fight for joy in general.”

I’ve got four clarifications of the fight for joy, just statements of what I do mean and what I don’t mean by the fight for joy. And then we’ll plow into how you do the fighting in real nitty-gritty, practical ways. We’ll start the clarifications here and we’ll pick them up in the next hour. Let’s see how many we can do here. The first one is this: the fight for joy is a fight for joy in God, not a fight for joy in general. I know some of you are going to walk out of this room and say I said things I didn’t say, because you don’t like what I’m saying and when you don’t like what someone says, you distort what they say. But I’m trying to make this clear.

The pursuit of joy that I am commending, the fight for joy, is a fight for joy in God, not in general, just any old place. The subjective experience of joy means nothing to me unless it is riveted in an object outside of me, has reality outside of me. I don’t create it; it’s just there. I must deal with it. And it’s the glory of God.

C.S. Lewis has he been helpful to me on this. I don’t know if you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprise by Joy. I commend it. It’s a little bit weighty, and not everybody struggles with what he struggled, but I did. And therefore when you read a book that carries you where you are going, it works. It helps. Let me read you his struggle and his main discovery. That book is mainly about this point in my message. Namely, that the pursuit of joy, which everybody has, should be not a pursuit of the experience, but of God and joy in God. So here’s what he said:

I perceived, and this was the wonder of wonders, that I had been equally wrong in supposing that I desired joy itself. Joy itself, considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of no value at all. All the value lay in that of which joy was the desiring, and that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or body at all. I asked if joy itself was what I wanted, and labeling it “aesthetic experience,” had pretended I could answer yes. But that answer, too, had broken down. Inexorably, joy proclaimed, “You want. I myself am your want of something other, outside, not you, nor any state of you.”

The fight for joy, clarification number one, is a fight for joy in God. So crucial. Somebody should ask me, “Why, then, do you insist over and over again in everything you write that we should pursue joy in God? Why don’t you just say, pursue God?” And there are three reasons.

God’s Language, Not Mine

Number one. It isn’t my idea to talk like this. It’s God’s idea. Deuteronomy 28:47 is one of the scariest warnings in the Bible. It goes like this: “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, you will serve your enemies.” God is so bent on having people pursue joy in him that if they try to serve him without that joy, they will serve their enemies. That’s how blood-earnest God gets in this issue of pursuing joy. So it’s not me who made up all the commandments — delight yourself in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord — that’s Bible talk, not my talk.

Not Doctrine Only, but Also Delight

Second response, God is glorified by our experience of him joyfully, not merely by the way we think about him. The devil has had more theologically accurate thoughts about God in the last 24 hours than you will have in a lifetime. You believe that? I do. I think he’s brilliant, and he knows God inside out and hates what he knows. Satan’s problem is not doctrine. It’s delight. Therefore, getting our heads straight won’t save us, and it won’t glorify God by itself. I hope you know I’m really big on doctrine, but I’m, at this point, saying the reason I push joy in God is because all the right thinking about God in the world is not as good as Satan’s thinking about God. He just hates it.

Desires Can Damn Us

The third response is people don’t awaken to how desperate their condition is before God, usually, I think, until they begin to measure their hearts by the demand for joy in God. A lot of preaching of the law, and I think that’s a good thing, deals with the law just at a do level, a deed level. Don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, and don’t steal.

And doesn’t probe the depths of commandment number ten, which is the root of all the others. “Thou shalt not desire things in ways you shouldn’t.” Covet. Desire is the root problem of the law, and so when we preach, not enough people probe people’s consciences and hearts as to what do you delight in? What are you going to watch on television when you go home tonight? What is your default activity when there’s no pressure on you? What is your heart reflexively drawn to? Those are the things that damn us. It isn’t adultery. Good grief, it does not take a lot of willpower to stay out of bed with another woman, but not to have a desire to look at a picture — desire — that’s damning.

To know that my heart has to change, my whole structure of motivation has to change, my whole priority of treasuring things in the world has to change, I’m damned. There’s nothing I can do. I feel totally devastated by this indictment.

That’s a third reason why I think we should not just say, “Pursue God,” because you know what people will do with the word “Pursue God, pursue God, pursue God”? They’ll just fill in all the verbs they feel comfortable with. I read about him. I talk about him. I’ll do some things for him. Don’t you touch my heart, because I’m in love with money, and I’m in love with the praise of man, so don’t connect “pursue God” with “pursue joy in God,” because that will get me in trouble.

After God in a Certain Way

Those are my three reasons for why, even though I totally agree with C.S. Lewis, we are after God in a certain way. Not to indict him, not to ignore him, not merely to say right things about him. We are after God to enjoy him, and if we don’t, we don’t honor him. It’s a huge, huge issue. My goal is God and happiness in all that he is for me.

“We are after God to enjoy him, and if we don’t, we don’t honor him.”

Now, I’m going to stop here. Let me tell you where we’re going next. The first clarification of this was the pursuit or the fight for joy is a fight for joy in God, not just the experience in general. The second clarification is, Piper, why must we fight if joy is a gift? Fight and spontaneity, and if joy isn’t spontaneous, it’s not joy. You don’t decide to be happy in the next five seconds. You can decide to pursue happiness by doing things that make you happy, but your emotions are not like your little finger. You can take your little finger, and under almost any emotional circumstances, say, “Go down. Go up. Go down. Go up. Go down.” Isn’t that remarkable? You can’t do that with happiness.

So if happiness is something that just comes and is spontaneous and Galatians 5:22 says it’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit, then what’s this fight language? That’s the second clarification that we will take up next time.