Wednesday, November 4, 2009

When I Don't Desire God - chapter 1 - is joy all it's cracked up to be?

It's time for another question. I'll give you a few minutes to think about this one (actually, you can take all day if you like) since it's not easy or obvious. Here's my question.

When is God most glorified?
a) when we obey him when we don't feel like it
b) when we obey him with joy

Be honest! You might like to share your answer in the comments. Perhaps, like my small group, you said "both" - and maybe there's some truth in that, as we'll see.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, if we're honest with ourselves, most of us instinctively choose a). We have a sneaking suspicion that if obedience is harder, it's more worthwhile. If we pray when we don't feel like it, don't we honour God more than when prayer is easy? Didn't Jesus call us to deny ourselves (Mk 8:34-38)? Surely we're not supposed to seek our own happiness?

Piper, on the other hand, would go for b). He's devoted a lifetime's preaching and writing to the claim that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him" (p.13). I read my first John Piper book an embarrassingly long time ago, and I've been wondering if he's right ever since. What do you think?

Well, it's official: John Piper has finally convinced me. Yes, we certainly glorify God by obeying when we don't feel like it, but ultimately, we glorify God more when we obey with joy. God commands not just obedience, but joy (Phil 4:4). We're to love him with all that's in us (Mk 12:30). We're to value him as our highest joy (Jer 2:12-13). When we're perfect, in eternity, we'll obey and rejoice to obey (Rev 4-5, 21-22).

Actually, it's not so much Piper who convinces me, but his quote from CS Lewis:

Provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one has to 'try to be good', the better. A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he'd always want the right thing more than the wrong thing. Duty is only a substitute for a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it's idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs can do the journey on their own. (Letters to Malcolm see p.18)

Although it must be said that CS Lewis also wrote (as the demon Screwtape):

Do not be deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never in greater danger than when a human being, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our enemy's will, looks out on a world from which every trace of him has vanished, asks why he has been forsaken, but still obeys. (The Screwtape Letters letter 8)

There's something glorious about the Christian who goes on loving and serving God when every feeling of joy has gone. When we do this, we show that we believe God is our highest joy, even when we feel no joy at all! But this isn't our ultimate end. Our ultimate end is to glorify God with every bit of our being: with every thought, action and feeling. Our ultimate goal is not only obedience, but joy.

It's important to remember that seeking joy in God's glory isn't an easy path: it's the path of the cross. We battle the world, Satan, and our own hearts. The route to joy is self-denial, suffering and sacrifice (1 Pet 4:13). My favourite part of chapter 1 comes right at the end, where Piper tells us he's writing

not to soften cushions, but sustain sacrifice ... I am [not] writing to make well-to-do Western Christians comfortable, as if the joy I have in mind is psychological icing on the cake of already superficial Christianity. Therefore let me say clearly here at the beginning that the joy I write to awaken is the sustaining strength of mercy, missions, and martyrdom. ... This we will do for the joy that is set before us. (pp.19-21 my emphasis)

If Piper was recommending fluffy, prosperity gospel-style joy, I wouldn't be interested. But he's recommending the serious joy in God which means we'd lay down everything - life, family, happiness - for the joy of God's glory.

Let's finish with one last Piper-inspired question. How do you feel when you realise that God wants not only duty, but joy? Do you feel liberated, perhaps for the first time, to seek joy in God? Or do you feel devastated, because you can manage duty, but rejoicing in God is way out of reach?

Either way, this book is for you.

Questions for discussion and reflection:
Do you think Piper is right to say that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him"? How does this make you feel: free to seek joy in God, or devastated because you don't value God as your highest joy? How have you found joy in God through self-denial and suffering?


Hannah Blake said...

To be honest, knowing that God demands joy makes me feel more devastated than anything else. Like you wrote, I can manage duty. Not that I would always succeed, but I can try, fail, be forgiven and try again. That seems easy. It's just about my actions. It's so much harder to change my will, to change my heart. Ultimately, I guess, it's impossible. But I want to delight in God!

I often wonder whether I should strive for my actions to be godly even if my heart is not. It seems a little hypocritical, but on the other hand I don't want to wait around until my desires are godly before I change my sinful actions.

Thanks for your reflections Jean. They were so helpful in consolidating those two chapters. I'm really looking forward to reading this book over November and learning more!

Jean said...

Hi Hannah. Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Thanks for your reflections and for your honesty. The next few chapters should really help.

Yes, I think you should strive to be godly even if your "heart" is not. By "heart" here, do you mean your emotions? Because we can obey God from our heart even when our emotions are lacking. Our hearts are infinitely complex - including, in the way the Bible uses the term, our thinking, beliefs, desires, affections, convictions, choices - and even when one is lacking, the others can still be in place.

Also if you are obeying God in response to the gospel and because you want to serve him - even when the feelings of "wanting" are lacking - it's still from the heart. It's like that man who said to Jesus, "I believe, help me in my unbelief". God values even our small, stumbling efforts at obedience.

And in the end, only God can change our hearts. So we repent, and we obey, and we pray, and we trust. And we "work out" our salvation always in faith that God is "working in us to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:13-14).

You might find this series, which I'm working on at the moment, helpful.

Sarah B said...

Piper's use of the biblical mandate for joy are compelling. I'm interested to see if he refers to depression throughout the book as an impediment to that joy. From memory this wasn't referred to in his Desiring God book. By depression, I don't mean a phase of life where an individual experiences apathy, low mood etc., rather Clinical Depression that requires medical intervention.

Jean said...

Hi Sarah! Yes, he does address depression (including clinical depression). The whole last chapter is on depression. I'll be interested to hear what you think of i!