When I Don’t Desire God

Part 3

Desiring God 2005 Regional Conference | Greenville, South Carolina


The name of this conference is How to Fight for Joy or When I Don’t Desire God, and I said that the aim is not to increase your comforts, but to sustain the sacrifice of love. And I hope that’s plain. I said also that the aim is to join God in displaying his glory in the world because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And so, the pursuit of our joy in him is a pursuit of his glory. Then we began some clarifications. There are four of them. We did one last night, and there are three more. The one last night was the fight for joy is a fight for joy in God. It’s not a fight for joy in general.

I remember one conversation I had with a seminary president critiquing the term and the vision that I call Christian Hedonism. And he had it fixed in his mind that the philosophical meaning for the word “Hedonism” was that happiness becomes the criterion for right and wrong. Indeed, that is one of the historic meanings for the word “Hedonism.”

A hedonist in the old Greek sense was somebody who said, “Whatever makes you happy is right, and whatever makes you unhappy is wrong.” And so, he took that definition and put it on my term, and said, “That’s a bad idea, Piper. You shouldn’t be promoting Christian Hedonism.” My response is that Christian Hedonism does not make happiness the measure of right and wrong. Christian Hedonism makes God the measure of right and wrong and says, “It’s a sin to be unhappy about that.” That’s real serious. Christian Hedonism makes God and his word the measure of right and wrong, whether you like or not — and it’s a sin not to like it. Therefore, I am on a crusade to help people break free from that terrible sin of being out of sorts with God’s authority over their lives.

Happiness Is Not God

Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of happiness. It says, “Whatever makes you most happy is your god.” And that’s serious because our churches are filled with people for whom God is not their portion. “Whom have I in heaven but thee? And on earth there’s nothing I desire besides thee,” (Psalm 73:25) is flat out false for almost everybody. What in the world did David mean by that when he wrote that in Psalm 73? Or Psalm 16: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, ‘You are my Lord. I have no good apart from You.’” There’s another one.

“Believing in Jesus is a coming to Jesus so as to find your heart hunger and heart thirst satisfied.”

So, Christian Hedonism is on a crusade to cause people not to dislike God’s being all in all, but to be ravished by the sight of God as absolutely authoritative, absolutely sovereign, absolutely just, wise, true, loving, powerful. It’s a sin not to like that. Therefore, we fight for joy. That was clarification number one, namely, it’s joy in God, not joy in general that we’re fighting for.

Happiness Is a Gift

Here’s clarification number two: we must fight even though joy is spontaneous and a divine gift. Joy in God is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, Galatians 5:22. You can’t make it happen immediately. I held up my little finger last night. No matter how I feel I can say, “Finger go down, finger go up, finger go down, finger go up.” That’s amazing. I don’t know how the brain works. But I cannot do that when I get up feeling glum in the morning. “Feel happy. Feel happy. Feel happy.” And it doesn’t work like that, for you or me or anybody. It’s a gift. It rises spontaneously and responds to things. You don’t make it happen when it happens. It happens. Joy happens. That’d be a good bumper sticker.

But We Still Fight

So why must we, then, fight for it? You might say, “This word fight. I don’t like that word. Don’t turn the Christian life into a fight. I like your joy talk. I don’t like your fight talk. When you put them together I get confused. Why must we fight? So, I’m going to go back where I began with 2 Corinthians 1:24. “Not that we lorded over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy.” And that word workers or laborers is another way of what I mean by fight — fighters, workers. It wouldn’t make you any happier to say, “Joy is work” than it would to say, “Joy is a fight.” But Paul says that, and he’s got God inspiring him. And so, I know this is work. I know this is a fight from 2 Corinthians 1:24. And here’s a part of that verse that I have left out.

Let me read it again putting in the part I left out. “Not that we lorded over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” So he sandwiches joy with faith on either side. And, in fact, he seems to use them almost interchangeably, doesn’t he? I mean, wouldn’t you expect him to say this: “Not that we lorded over your faith, but we are workers with you for your faith.” That’s what you’d expect him to say, and he doesn’t say that. He substitutes joy for the word faith in that second clause. “Not that we lorded over your faith. We are workers with you for your joy” as though faith and joy are overlapping realities. They are so interwoven that Paul can almost use them interchangeably. Not entirely, but they overlap, which suggests to me, and I do believe this is the case, that an essential element of faith is joy, delight.

Satisfied in Him

Here’s a verse I would put as support for that from John 6:35. Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Now, notice the parallel of those two halves. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never hunger,” and then parallel, “whoever believes,” now you have faith paralleling come. “Come to me that you not hunger. Believe in me that you not thirst.” So here’s my definition of faith on the basis of John 6:35: Believing in Jesus is a coming to Jesus so as to find your heart hunger and heart thirst satisfied. That’s believing. Therefore, I cannot separate saving faith from a heart satisfaction in Jesus as my treasure. I do not conceive of any Christian on planet earth who says, “I am saved by faith, and Jesus is not my treasure.” That is an oxymoronic statement to me. That makes no sense, and I would call a person like that into question.

I would say, “I’m not sure you’re a Christian. You might be, because your words may not tell the truth about your heart, but those words are not describing a Christian.” “I put my faith in Jesus, and he is not my treasure. I have no affection for him as a treasure.” That’s not a Christian in my judgment, and I base it on the text like John 6:35. “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger.” It does something to your soul-hunger when you come for salvation. “Whoever believes,” and believing and coming are parallel words there, “shall never thirst.”

“The Christian life is war, and if you want to simply coast in this culture, you’ll drift toward hell.”

War All the Time

Now, the reason I point out the connection between joy and faith and their interwovenness in Paul’s mind and Jesus’s mind is that we are told explicitly in the Bible to fight for faith.

And if joy is an essential element of faith, then the fight for joy follows from 1 Timothy 6:12: “Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you are called.” From there he’s talking in terms of exhortation to Timothy, and then he gets to the end of 2 Timothy, and he bears witness to his own life, and you remember what he says in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

In Paul’s mind, the Christian life is war, and if you want to simply coast in this culture, which is drifting hell-ward, that’s where you’ll go. But if you’re willing to swim and fight, then you might find your joy in another place than where this culture finds it and thus become very useful in the Disneyland of the world called America.

Intensity, Not Just Commitment

But if you just join the crowd and drift in your so-called Christianity, you will be of no use to them. It is a long and hard battle. Listen to this amazing word from Jesus in Matthew 24:12–13. “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold, but the one who endures to the end will be saved.” He’s talking about the end of the age. As we move toward the end of the age, he says, “The love of many in Greenville, the love of many in Minneapolis, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, L.A., New York, Chicago, Boston, the love of many will grow cold. But those who endure” in what? Hotness, hotness, will be saved. That’s right. I mean, he’s talking about love in terms of its temperature, not just its commitment.

So many people just dumb love down to behavior. It doesn’t matter what you feel, just do nice things for people and you’re a loving person. That cannot be true in view of 1 Corinthians 13. “If I give away my body to be burned and all that I have and have not love, I am nothing.” You can’t equate love and behavior, otherwise, 1 Corinthians 13 makes zero sense.

Love is also the heart, caring about people, loving zealously, warmly, affectionately our maker and our Redeemer, and this is going to grow cold toward the end in many people. And all I’m pointing out is, the fight is a fight not to grow cold. It’s a fight to delight with red-hot passion in God to the end. And I’m 59, and when those of you come up and shake my hand at the end of these things and sometimes with tears say, “I pray for you almost every day that you not fall.” I thank you.

Few things make me more excited than the thought that I might finish well. I was sitting down there singing, “He’s my portion. He’s my portion,” and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great just to have a heart attack?” I know I’m strange in things like that. I think about death a lot, because few things make me more serious about my own walk with God than to think that in about thirty seconds I might face him. If that doesn’t make you serious, well what would it be? And it’s true every minute of your life. So that point about Matthew 24 is just to say that the fight is real, it’s long, it’s serious, and it’s about joy, because love growing cold, I think, is a way of saying, “Love going joyless.”

God Creates What He Commands

So, the question is how in the world do you put together spontaneity and gift for joy and fight and work and endurance. These things just seem so opposite in our experience. In fact, they’re so opposite in our experience.

People theologically make two kinds of mistakes here. One is they say, “Joy can’t be essential, because it is commanded by God, and therefore it has to be icing on the cake. It has to be a caboose at the end of the train. It has to be optional for stoical personalities. It can’t be essential, because it’s commanded, and you don’t have control over it. If you don’t have control over it, it can’t be essential.” That’s one mistake, and here’s another one: “Joy must be under our immediate control, because it is commanded.”

Now, there’s a framework of mind operating with those two mistakes, and it’s the framework of mind that says, “God cannot be just if he requires from me what I do not have immediate power to perform. God cannot be just if he requires of me, demands of me something that I, in my own native immediate willpower can’t do.” That’s a mistaken assumption. That’s an unbiblical assumption. It’s an assumption that pervades the American church and which causes people to make hash out of the Bible and become mistaken in so many theological ways.

Natural Man

Romans 8:7 says, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it cannot.” So, the mind of the flesh is the mind that every human has since Adam and Eve fell. All of us came into this world not spiritual beings, but what Paul calls natural beings.

“God alone can raise the dead. God alone can give hearing to the ear. God alone can give light.”

And he says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not receive the things of the Spirit of God. They are folly to him. He is unable to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” So here I am born to Bill and Ruth Piper a fallen human being natural in my mind — not spiritual — and therefore hostile to God. And so were all of you born that way. Dead in your trespasses and sins, naturally regarding as folly everything that God says was good for you. We’re dead. We are blind. The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot.

With God All Things Are Possible

Then you remember what the tenth commandment in the law is, “Thou shalt not covet.” And there it becomes crystal clear why you cannot. Remember the rich young ruler? “How shall I inherit eternal life?” I’ve kept the Law.” “You lack one thing.” Jesus can see where his treasure is. “You lack one thing. Sell everything you have, give to the poor, follow me. You’ll have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:17–22).

Being very rich, he turned away sad. He couldn’t let it go. How do I know he couldn’t? Because the disciples, look at this, and Jesus says, “It’s hard for the rich to get into the kingdom of heaven, really hard.” And they’re stunned and say, “Well, who then can be saved?” And Jesus doesn’t say, “Humble people, wise people, smart people, spiritual people.” He says, “With man it is impossible, but with God, all things are possible” (Mark 10:23–27). In other words, the mind of the flesh has you enslaved and trapped and dead, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

God Gives the Growth

But God can do something about it. It’s called grace. It’s called sovereign almighty grace. And that’s the way fighting relates to grace. Like Philippians 2:12, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. For God is the one who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Now here, my inability and God’s sovereign ability come together in a command and an enablement. Work out your salvation. Fight for joy, for God is the one underneath working in you to enable you to work. Or 1 Corinthians 15:10: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me was not in vain, but I worked harder than any of them. Nevertheless, it was not I. It was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”

Fight for joy though you cannot fight for joy. You’re dead. You’re blind. You’re hostile to the law of God. You cannot keep it. God breaks in on you by the Holy Spirit, illumines your eyes. We’ll see more on that in just a few minutes. You recognize Jesus as your treasure. This is called new birth. It’s called conversion. You are enabled to embrace him as your Savior, your Lord, the treasure of your life, and now he’s in you by the Holy Spirit, and you are now a person at war with yourself.

The flesh wars against the Spirit, the Spirit against the flesh to keep you from doing what you would and life becomes a battle to the end of your days, but you fight in strength that he supplies. Now, you’re like farmers. Farmers want crops to grow, and they can’t make them grow. Only God can make them grow, but they can plow and they can plant, and they should. Listen to the way Paul puts it in 1 Corinthian 3:6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” And we could just substitute, “God gave the joy.” There are things that are involved in this gift — and it’s a gift. “I planted, Apollos watered, God gave the gift.” So, neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.

Do What Only God Can Do

I love 2 Timothy 2:24. This is so close to the heart of my understanding of my ministry and your ministry. “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone, able to teach.” So now just get the picture here. The Lord’s servant. That would be now or you in your ministry, must not be quarrelsome. Must have a certain loving demeanor about him, and then he must be apt to teach, help explain things in the Bible, make sense out of biblical truth, answer people’s objections, an able teacher. So, there’s a love component and a word component in the ministry here. 2 Timothy 2:25: “Correcting his opponents with gentleness.” And then comes this staggering word, “God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth that they may escape from the snare of the devil having been captured by him to do his will” — 0his joyless will, his worldly will.”

Do you hear what the ministry is? The ministry is doing what only God can do. Pastors, lay people, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers, what is your task? Your task is: don’t be quarrelsome, be kind, grow in your giftedness to teach, be patient, endure evil, correct the opponents. God may grant repentance. You can’t make it happen. You can’t make it happen in you, and you can’t make it happen in anybody else. It is a gift, and life after the first repentance is a series of gift receivings.

Gift, gift, gift. Every day is from God, and we are trying to put ourselves under the waterfall of God’s grace. That’s what being led by the Spirit is. It’s just navigating life where the waterfall of gift is. “Where will God enable me to overflow in joy in love to you better?” Will it be driving this way or this way? Will it be sending this card or that card? Will it be staying home or going out like we talked last night? Where is the waterfall of blessing that overflows onto other people, because I have nothing to accomplish in this world except what is given to me?

Persevere in God’s Work

I was with Campus Crusade a few weeks ago out in Fort Collins, Colorado talking to all of the campus leaders, and I took that text as one of my main texts because they’re evangelists, right? They want to get people to have a passion for God who right now love only the NBA or their new hair or whatever. And so, they have an impossible task, because all those students are natural. They are hostile to God, they’re hostile to his law. They’re not able to submit to it. They’re not able to come to Christ. They are so dead in their trespasses and sins that they love stuff over their Maker and Campus Crusade has said now, “Go save them.”

That’s not a false biblical statement, because Paul said, “I will do anything. I’ll become all things to all people if I might save some.” It’s not wrong to talk that way, it’s just telling Campus Crusade to do what is impossible. So I looked out over these couple of thousand people and I said, “God’s mission for you is to do what only he can do, and that should liberate you.” Oh, how bold and radical and persevering it should make you to hang out 17 Tuesday nights in a row at Pizza Hut looking into this blank face knowing you can’t do it. But God can do it on the 18th night if he pleases. Only he can break them in half, open their eyes, quicken their joy, make Christ a treasure.

“The war is to rest in the right place, and the whole world is telling you to rest in all the wrong places.”

And the other text that I used to support this understanding of 2 Timothy 2:24–26 was Acts 26:16–18. This is where the Lord Jesus on the Damascus road says to Paul, “I send you to open their eyes that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God that they may receive forgiveness of sins.” “I send you to open their eyes.” Paul knew good and well God alone opens eyes. 2 Timothy 4:6: “The God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shown into our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Paul knew that. He wrote that. He knew that God alone can raise the dead, God alone can give hearing to the ear. God alone can give light — spiritual light to the blind eye. And he makes humans an essential element and means in the process called evangelism.

Modesty in the Fight

Or he makes you a key player in your fight for joy. It’s his gift. He alone can give it, and you must fight for it. Now, that produces a certain modesty, I think, in the fight. When I say that you must fight and only God can give, it should create a certain modesty in the fight. I use that phrase, because it seems the best alternative to the presumption that comes with thinking, “I can make this happen. I can make this happen. He tells me to rejoice in the Lord and always rejoice. All right. If he tells me to do it, I’ll do it.” There’s a certain presumption there that just doesn’t fit with everything I’ve seen so far. Here are some texts that describe the modesty of the Christian claim on God.

Proverbs 21:31: “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but victory belongs to the Lord.” There’s a certain modesty as you go into battle. “I will make my horse ready. I will strap it tight. I will put my sword in my hand. I will get a good night’s rest. I will eat breakfast properly. I will stoke the engines of my affection for God. But victory is in the hands of the Lord. Joy belongs to the Lord.”

Proverbs 19:21: “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but the purpose of the Lord will stand.” Be a planning people. Be planning churches. Oh, yes. Don’t live plan-less lives. Just be modest. Your plans may or may not happen and God will decide, and be happy about that. Be totally happy about that.

Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” Be a watchman and a build a house, but just be modest. If your house gets built, God built it. And if nobody attacks the city, God kept them from attacking the city. We have a place in causality whether it’s our joy guiding our steps, growing a church, leading someone to Christ. We have an indispensable place on planet earth. He wouldn’t have created us if there were no reason for us to be. But it is a modest place that ascribes to God the final say in whether I’m happy today or not.

We must not begrudge to God the seasons of winter that he may will for us when we have done all we can do to make ourselves as happy as we should be, and we’re not. There are several things that this modesty accomplishes.

Life Is Not a Series of Techniques

It guards me against thinking that I decisively produce the joy that God demands and therefore life becomes a series of techniques. In America, we are a technique people. I mean, just open magazine after magazine, mail after mail: here’s the new technique for your marriage and the new technique for living the victorious Christian life and the new technique for growing the church and technique, technique, technique. The reason we are a technique-obsessed people is because we’re not modest. We don’t really emotionally embrace the fact that God has given us some things to do, but in the end, we don’t have control. God has control.

That removes the feeling that as an American, I got to have results, so I will get people saved, and the way to get them saved if I can’t make them saved, is I’ll develop a technique that gets them saved on the beach immediately. And that’s where a lot of our evangelistic strategies have come from: a lack of submission to God’s sovereignty, a lack of modesty, and therefore the drive to produce managerial techniques that make things happen ourselves. That’s one thing this view will help you avoid.

It will keep you from falling into legalism, thinking that you can do this in order to earn God’s favor. You have to have God’s favor first before you can do this. We’ll get there in a minute.

Rest in the Right Place

This will also help you balance. I don’t know if you’ve ever struggled with this like I and people in my church do: the balance between life is fight and life is rest. Matthew 7:14: “The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life?” The gate is narrow. The way is hard that leads to life, and those who find are few. So, the Christian life is hard, right? It’s hard. It’s a fight. It’s a war. That’s one thing, and if that’s the only way you think, you’re probably going to be a sick person because you also know another thing Jesus said in Matthew 7. Always keep Matthew 11 and 7 together. 7-11. I’m going to remember it that way.

What’d he say in chapter 11? “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yolk upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you’ll find rest for your soul.”

Well, Jesus, which is it? Rest or hard? Narrow? Am I in your arms just kind of being brought to heaven or am I swimming and stumbling to work and then climbing and clawing? Is it restful to be a Christian or is it war to be a Christian? And the answer is it’s both, and here’s the way they come together: The war is to rest in the right place, and the whole world is telling you to rest in all the wrong places.

The world is constantly telling us to rest in money, rest in success, rest in your looks, rest in your strength, rest in your business. The world wants you to find your satisfaction, your restfulness, your peacefulness in insurance, padlocks, cruises, big fat retirement, big portfolio. These are all the restfulness commendations of the world. And the war is to rest in the right place, and it just happens to be hard to rest for Christians who are worldly. And another reason that I stress this modesty is that it does give all glory to God.