This article was written to accompany the ‘Enjoying God’s Presence’ hangout.
- What Bible verses can you think of on the subject of joy? Try to list at least five.
- Do you think there is such a thing as a joyless Christianity? Why/why not?
There are many different ways that people respond to the presence of God, Foremost amongst them is joy. According to Psalm 16, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” (Psalm 16:11).
It may seem surprising to some that the presence of God is described as a place of pleasure. Ideas of reverence, awe and fear may seem to provide a better fit for our expectations, and these ideas are certainly present in scripture. Nevertheless, joy seems to be the dominant response of those who experience God’s manifest presence. “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.” (Psalm 36:7-8)
Experiencing joy in God is not peripheral to Christianity. In Christ, we have been redeemed to know and to enjoy God. John Wesley expresses it by saying:
“One design you are to pursue to the end of time – the enjoyment of God in time and eternity.” (John Wesley)
Or in the words of John Piper:
“The pursuit of joy in God is not optional.” (John Piper)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Do you think it is an overstatement to say that the pursuit of joy in God is not optional? Why/why not?
Pleasure In God
The reason that pleasure in God is not peripheral to Christianity is because God is ultimately enjoyable. He is beautiful, glorious and perfect. If we are moved to joy by circumstances, games, created wonders and other people, then how much more by our incomparable God?
Jonathan Edwards puts it this way:
“The pleasures of loving and obeying, loving and adoring, blessing and praising the Infinite Being, the Best of Beings, the eternal Jehovah; the pleasures of trusting in Jesus Christ, in contemplating his beauties, excellencies and glories; in contemplating his love to mankind and to us, in contemplating his infinite goodness and astonishing loving kindness… these are the pleasures that are worthy of so noble a creature as a man is.” (Jonathan Edwards)
There is something about the presence of God that causes us to rejoice. Whilst he was still in his mother’s womb, John the Baptist leaped for joy in the presence of the embryonic Jesus. “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! … For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.’” (Luke 1:41-44). A few verses later, the angel proclaims that this good news of great joy is not just for John the Baptist but for all people. Because the presence of God has come into the world in the person of his Son, joy will spread to the whole world. “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10).
This joy is now found in all who trust in God, “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy.” (Psalm 5:11) and though we do not see God with our eyes, we know his presence and rejoice. As Peter explains, “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” (1 Peter 5:8)
In his excellent book, ‘One Thing’, Sam Storms expands on the nature of this joy inexpressible:
“The happiness for which we are eternally destined is a state of soul, in which we experience and express optimum ecstasy in God. Happiness is the whole soul resting in God and rejoicing that so beautiful and glorious a being is ours. Happiness is the privilege of being enabled by God’s grace to enjoy making much of him forever. I’m talking about the ineffable and unending pleasure of blissful union with and the joyful celebration of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is a joy of such transcendent quality that no persecution or pain can diminish, nor wealth or success or prosperity can enhance.”
No wonder Psalm 63:3 describes God’s steadfast love as ‘better than life’. No wonder we rejoice in his presence.
- Think about all there is in God to rejoice in. Try to make a list of the aspects of who he is and what he has done that give cause for joy.
- Spend some time praising God for these things.
When John Piper teaches on the subject of enjoying God, he often refers to it as Christian hedonism. Hedonism is the philosophy of living life in the pursuit of the maximum pleasure. For many hedonists, this leads to lives of sinful indulgence, but Piper argues that the true hedonist will instead be driven to God, the ultimate pleasure. “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.” (Psalm 4:7)
Piper argues that enjoying the pleasures of God, and even pursuing those pleasures brings glory to God. Stoic duty does not honour God as much as joyful pursuit. This led Piper to coin his famous tagline, ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.’ The more satisfaction, joy and pleasure we experience and desire in God, the more he is shown to be satisfying, great and glorious. The greatest praise we can give to God is to desire and enjoy him for who he is.
He illustrates this with a comparison to marriage. Imagine a husband was to arrive home on his anniversary with a beautiful bouquet of roses for his wife. If, when his wife thanks him, he says ‘don’t worry about it, as your husband, this is my duty’, then the magic of the moment is gone. A wife isn’t honoured by a husband who buys flowers out of duty, but rather one who takes pleasure in letting her know the joy she brings him and expressing it with his gift. In a similar way, God is more glorified by joyful adoration than dutiful activity.
Augustine went so far as to say:
“If I were to ask you why you have believed in Christ, why you have become Christians, every man will answer truly, ‘For the sake of happiness’.” (Augustine)
This is not to say that people don’t become Christians for God, but rather that it is for the sake of the joy found in the presence of God, both now and for eternity that people come to Christ. In Psalm 37 God promises, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we delight ourselves in the Lord, those desires are for God himself.
- How do you respond to the idea of Christian hedonism?
- What objections do you think some people might have to this teaching?
God’s Own Joy
The foundation of our joy in God is God’s own joy. God is a happy Being. Notions of God as stern and joyless miss the mark. Moreover, it is the joy of God that empowers us for joyful service. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). This verse isn’t talking of simply joy in God, but rather the joy of God. God’s own joy that overflows into our lives is what empowers us to go away and ‘make great rejoicing’ (v.12).
God takes pleasure in himself. The Father rejoices in the Son, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) and the Son rejoices in the Holy Spirit over his relationship with his Father. “In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘…all things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’” (Luke 10:21-22)
On one occasion, Jesus told a parable about a man finding treasure. “The kingdom of heaven is like 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.” (Matthew 13:44) This man gave up everything he had for that which brought him great joy.
THINK IT THROUGH
- How would you interpret the parable? Who does the man represent? What about the treasure?
Jesus’ parable is sometimes interpreted as though we are the man who sees something desirable (Christ) and so, in joy, give up everything in order to gain that treasure.
There is some truth in this reading of the parable. Christ is to be treasured, and becoming a Christian does involve giving up an old life. However, the context of the parable, and the overall story of the Bible, lead us to a different understanding.
The man is Jesus. Matthew 13 features a number of parables, and in every case, it is Christ (or the Father) who is cast in the active role. Our role each time is passive. It would not be an accurate description of what the kingdom is like to focus on how much we have given up to become a part of it, but rather how much Christ has given up to bring us in. Jesus is the man, and motivated by his great joy, he gave up everything, even his very life to bring his treasure, us, into his kingdom. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2)
The Father is full of joy. The Spirit is full of joy. The Son is full of such joy that he went to the cross for us. Now that joy overflows to us as we rejoice in him.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Would you make a distinction between joy and happiness? Why/why not?
If God himself is full of pleasure, and he shares this pleasure with us, then we can conclude that pleasure is a good thing. However, not all pleasure is good. Whether we prefer to distinguish ‘joy’ and ‘happiness’, or prefer terms like ‘true joy’ and ‘false joy’, we must realise that there is a distinction to be made, and the distinction focusses on where we pursue that joy. Paul wrote to Timothy explaining that in the last days, people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.” (2 Timothy 3:4). Paul is not arguing against pleasure per se, but rather pleasure that takes no joy in God. Seeking pleasure in creation with no reference to the creator is both sinful and pointless.
The prophet Jeremiah vocalised God’s charge against his people, “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13) Though in God they had access to joy beyond their wildest dreams, they abandoned him and looked elsewhere, only to find that the cisterns they had dug could not deliver what they had hoped for.
Jesus elaborated on this distinction when he told the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. As the story starts, the boy is looking to the ways of the world for joy. “The younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and then he squandered his property in reckless living.” (Luke 15:13). It is easy to speculate what this reckless living consisted of, and would parallel the lives of many in our day who are seeking joy away from God. The boy, like his modern counterparts, found such a life ultimately unsatisfying. He found himself in poverty, working as a hired hand on a pig farm and jealous of the standard of living of the pigs he looked after! Pleasure seeking apart from God promises much but inevitably fails to deliver.
In contrast to this was the welcome the boy received when he returned home. His Father ran to meet him, adorned him with fine clothes, put a prime steak on the barbecue and turned up the bass. There was joy and celebration in that house. This is the true joy of God. The Father in the story explains it by saying, “It is fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:32)
God has no problem with strong desires for joy. In fact, in his sermon ‘the weight of glory’, C.S. Lewis suggests that the reason many of us seek pleasure elsewhere is actually that our desires are not strong enough:
“It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” (C.S. Lewis)
- In what places may people look for pleasure rather than in God himself? List as many as you can.
- Choose one of these. Write down at least five ways in which it falls short of the pleasures of God.
Joy and Obedience
Seeking pleasure in God is not a threat to living obedient lives, but rather fuels greater obedience than we ever thought possible. Joy in God transforms obedience from fighting hard to suppress our desires into living out a renewed desire for what is good.
Sam Storms illustrates this from Greek mythology. The sirens provide a vivid picture of sin. They appeared to be beautiful women living on an island, and they lured passing sailors with their seductively irresistible songs. Once the sailors were lured in, their boats crashed onto hidden rocks beneath the surface of the sea and the sirens consumed them.
The Sirens appear on multiple occasions in different myths. One example is Ulysses. He has been warned many times about the sirens, but he desperately desired to hear their song. He ordered his crew to put wax in their ears so they would not be led astray. He then had himself tied to the mast so that he could hear the song but would not be able to steer the ship to the sirens. Ulysses resisted because of the external compulsion of the ropes, but in his heart, he truly desired what the sirens promised. Many of us try to fight sin in the same way, allowing external shackles to prevent us indulging that which we desire in our heart.
In contrast to this was Jason. When Jason sailed past the island of the sirens, no ears were waxed and nobody was tied to the mast, yet he did not turn astray. Jason had brought with him on the journey Orpheus, the greatest musician in the land. When the Sirens started to sing, Orpheus began to play. The men who would otherwise be led astray by the Sirens song stayed true to their course because their hearts had been enchanted by a sweeter song.
Enjoying God is the only way to truly fight sin. Until our hearts have latched on to something more beautiful, glorious and magnificent than the pleasures of sin, then at best we will be using external compulsion to shackle a heart that craves sin. When we find joy in God then we will know the sweeter song that diminishes the appeal of sin. This is, in the name of an 19th century sermon, ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’. Storms draws the lesson from his illustration in this way: “
“The essence of loving living as a follower of Jesus isn’t in trying harder, but in enjoying more. I’m not saying you can change without trying. I’m saying that enjoyment empowers effort. Pleasure in God is the power for purity.”
“I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8)
- What approaches do you have to fighting sin? Do these approaches remind you more of Ulysses or of Jason?
- Is there a place for the kind of external restraints that Ulysses employed? Why/why not?
When We Don’t Feel Joy
Joy can be a fight. There are pleasures evermore in God’s presence, but we can have days, weeks or even years where we struggle to feel such pleasures. This is part of the human experience, and part of the Biblical experience. The Psalms reflect this struggle in its gritty reality. Even Jesus experienced it, weighed down with grief in Gethsemane and described as ‘the man of sorrows’.
- In what ways can you fight for joy when you are not feeling it?
George Mueller declared that his first order of business for each day was to get happy in God. There are many factors in fighting for joy. We will highlight two of them.
Firstly, it is important to challenge our own inner dialogue. Lloyd-Jones expresses it this way:
“Have you realised that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” (Martyn Lloyd-Jones)
We need to preach the truth to ourselves, remind ourselves of who God is and what he has done as we fight for joy. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” (Psalm 42:5).
Second, be deliberate about experiencing the manifest presence of God. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy, and I will praise you with the lyre, O my God, my God.” (Psalm 43:3-4)
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4)
- To what extent has joy been your experience as you have encountered God’s presence?
- Read through Psalm 42. Paraphrase the Psalm and pray it into some of the situations of your own life.
- How would you summarise the difference between worshipping out of duty and worshipping out of joy? Reflect on your own worship, and identify where you see each of these.