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Book Jacket

1581346522
Trade Paperback
272 pages
Sep 2004
Crossway Books

When I Don't Desire God: How to Fight For Joy

by John Piper

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Excerpt:

1

Why I Wrote This Book

Sustaining the Sacrifice of Love

 

Christian Hedonism is a liberating and devastating doctrine. It teaches that the value of God shines more brightly in the soul that finds deepest satisfaction in him. Therefore it is liberating because it endorses our inborn desire for joy. And it is devastating because it reveals that no one desires God with the passion he demands. Paradoxically, many people experience both of these truths. That certainly is my own experience.

THE LIBERATING AND DEVASTATING DISCOVERY

When I saw the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, I was freed from the unbiblical bondage of fear that it was wrong to pursue joy. What once had seemed like an inevitable but defective quest for the satisfaction of my soul now became not just permitted but required. The glory of God was at stake. This was almost too good to be true—that my quest for joy and my duty to glorify God were not in conflict. Indeed they were one. Pursuing joy in God was a nonnegotiable way of honoring God. It was essential. This was a liberating discovery. It released the energies of my mind and heart to go hard after all the soul-happiness that God is for me in Jesus.

But simultaneous with the liberation came the devastation. I was freed to pursue my fullest joy in God without guilt. Indeed, I was commanded to pursue it. Indifference to the pursuit of joy in God would be indifference to the glory of God, and that is sin. Therefore, my quest took on a seriousness, an earnestness, a gravity that I never dreamed would be part of pursuing joy. And then, almost immediately, came the realization that my indwelling sin stands in the way of my full satisfaction in God.

It opposes and perverts my pursuit of God. It opposes by making other things look more desirable than God. And it perverts by making me think I am pursuing joy in God when, in fact, I am in love with his gifts. I discovered what better saints than I have found before me: The full enjoyment of God is my ultimate home, but I am still far off and only on the way. Augustine put it like this in one of his prayers:

    I was astonished that although I now loved you . . . I did not persist in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I plunged again into the things of this world . . . as though I had sensed the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.2

HOW CHRISTIAN LIVING BECAME IMPOSSIBLE

This discovery was devastating to me. It still is. I was made to know and enjoy God. I was freed by the doctrine of Christian Hedonism to pursue that knowledge and that joy with all my heart. And then, to my dismay, I discovered that it is not an easy doctrine. Christian Hedonism is not a lowering of the bar. Out of the blue, as it were, I realized that the bar had been raised. Manageable, duty-defined, decision-oriented, willpower Christianity now seemed easy, and real Christianity had become impossible.

The emotions—or affections, as former generations called them—which I was now free to enjoy, proved to be beyond my reach. The Christian life became impossible. That is, it became supernatural. Now there was only one hope, the sovereign grace of God. God would have to transform my heart to do what a heart cannot make itself do, namely, want what it ought to want. Only God can make the depraved heart desire God. Once when Jesus’ disciples wondered about the salvation of a man who desired money more than God, he said to them, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). Pursuing what we want is possible.

It is easy. It is a pleasant kind of freedom. But the only freedom that lasts is pursuing what we want when we want what we ought. And it is devastating to discover we don’t, and we can’t.

THE MOST COMMON QUESTION I HAVE RECEIVED

This is why the most common and desperate question I have received over the last three decades is: What can I do? How can I become the kind of person the Bible is calling me to be? The question comes from an aching in the heart that rises from the hope of great joy. People listen to the biblical arguments for Christian Hedonism, or they read Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.3 Many are persuaded. They see that the truth and beauty and worth of God shine best from the lives of saints who are so satisfied in God they can suffer in the cause of love without murmuring. But then they say, “That’s not who I am. I don’t have that kind of liberating, love-producing, risk-taking satisfaction in God. I desire comfort and security more than God.” Many say it with tears and trembling.

Some are honest enough to say, “I don’t know if I have ever tasted this kind of desire. Christianity was never presented to me like this. I never knew that the desire for God and delight in God were crucial. I was always told that feelings didn’t matter. Now I am finding evidence all over the Bible that that the pursuit of joy in God, and the awakening of all kinds of spiritual affections, are part of the essence of the newborn Christian heart. This discovery excites me and frightens me. I want this.

But I fear I don’t have it. In fact, as far as I can see, it is outside my power to obtain. How do you get a desire that you don’t have and you can’t create? Or how do you turn the spark into a flame so that you can be sure it is pure fire?”

CONVERSION IS THE CREATION OF NEW DESIRES

To answer that question, I have written this book. I long to be of help to believers and unbelievers who are seeing some of the radical heartchanges demanded by the Bible in the Christian life—especially that we must desire God more than anything. I am not interested in superficial, external behavior changes, which the Pharisees were so good at. “You Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). These external changes are doable without divine grace.

I would like to help those who are beginning to see that salvation is the awakening of a new taste for God, or it is nothing. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). I want to help those who are starting to see that conversion is the creation of new desires, not just new duties; new delights, not just new deeds; new treasures, not just new tasks.

Far and wide people are seeing these truths in the Bible. They are discovering that there is nothing new about Christian Hedonism at all, but that it is simple, old-fashioned, historic, biblical, radical Christian living. It is as old as the psalmists who said to God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12) and “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (Ps. 90:14).

It’s as old as Jesus, who gave to his people this virtually impossible command for the day of their persecution: “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). It’s as old as the early church who “joyfully accepted the plundering of [their] property,” because they “had a better possession and an abiding one” (Heb. 10:34). It’s as old as Augustine who described conversion as the triumph of sovereign joy:

    How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.4

It’s as old as John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva, who said in his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion that aspiring after happiness in union with God is “the chief activity of the soul.”

If human happiness, whose perfection it is to be united with God, were hidden from man, he would in fact be bereft of the principal use of his understanding. Thus, also the chief activity of the soul is to aspire thither. Hence the more anyone endeavors to approach to God, the more he proves himself endowed with reason.5

It’s as old as the Puritans, like Thomas Watson, who wrote in 1692 that God counts himself more glorified when we find more happiness in his salvation:

    Would it not be an encouragement to a subject, to hear his prince say to him, You will honor and please me very much, if you will go to yonder mine of gold, and dig as much gold for yourself as you can carry away? So, for God to say, Go to the ordinances, get as much grace as you can, dig out as much salvation as you can; and the more happiness you have, the more I shall count myself glorified.6

It’s as old as Jonathan Edwards, who argued with all his intellectual might in 1729 that “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds to their spiritual and gracious appetites.” Rather, they ought to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to obtain more spiritual pleasures. . . . Our hungerings and thirstings after God and Jesus Christ and after holiness can’t be too great for the value of these things, for they are things of infinite value. . . . [Therefore] endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself in the way of allurement. . . .7 There is no such thing as excess in our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance in spiritual feasting.8

It’s as old as Princeton theologian Charles Hodge who argued in the nineteenth century that the true knowledge of Christ includes (and does not just lead to) delight in Christ. This knowledge “is not the apprehension of what he is, simply by the intellect, but also . . . involves not as its consequence merely, but as one of its elements, the corresponding feeling of adoration, delight, desire and complacency [= contentment].”9

It is as old as the Reformed New Testament scholar Geerhardus Vos, who in the early twentieth century conceded that there is in the writings of the apostle Paul “a spiritualized type of hedonism.” Of course, it is not intended to deny to Paul that transfigured spiritualized type of “hedonism” if one prefers so to call it, as distinct from the specific attitude towards life that went in the later Greek philosophy by that technical name. Nothing, not even a most refined Christian experience and cultivation of religion are possible without that. . . . Augustine speaks of this in his Confessions in these words: “For there exists a delight that is not given to the wicked, but to those honoring Thee, O God, without desiring recompense, the joy of whom Thou art Thyself! And this is the blessed life, to rejoice towards Thee, about Thee, for Thy sake.” Conf. X, 32.10

It’s as old as the great C. S. Lewis, who died the same day as John F. Kennedy and had a huge influence on the way I experience nature worshipfully.11

Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility. . . . But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.” It is the stealing of the apples that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. . . . I have tried since . . . to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I meant something different . . .Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun. . . . If this is Hedonism, it is also a somewhat arduous discipline. But it is worth some labour.12

Lewis was so influential in my understanding of joy and desire and duty and worship that I will add another quotation from him as a tribute to the greatness of his wisdom. I hope my enthusiasm for Lewis will set you to reading him, if you haven’t. He, of course, had his flaws, but few people in the twentieth century had eyes to see what he saw. For example, few saw, as he did, the proper place of duty and delight:

    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 sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like 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 (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own!13

The point of citing all these witnesses is that lots of people, with good reason, are being persuaded that Christian Hedonism is simple, old-fashioned, historic, biblical, radical Christian living, not some new spiritual technique. They are discovering that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which means they are finding that their desires, not just their decisions, really matter. The glory of God is at stake. And many, with tears, want to know: What do I do when I don’t desire God? God willing, I would like to help.

IT WILL NOT BE AN EASY JOURNEY TOWARD JOY

I take this task seriously. Our journey in this book is not across easy territory. There are dangers on all sides. Spiritual desires and delights are not commodities to be bought and sold. They are not objects to be handled. They are events in the soul. They are experiences of the heart.

They have connections and causes in a hundred directions. They are interwoven with the body and the brain, but are not limited to the physical or mental. God himself, without body or brain, experiences a full array of spiritual affections—love, hate, joy, anger, zeal, etc. Yet our affections are influenced by our bodies and brains. No one but God can get to the bottom of these things. “For the inward mind and heart of a man are deep!” (Ps. 64:6); and not just deep, but depraved: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9).

So the answer to the question, “What should I do when I don’t desire God?” is not simple. But it is crucial. The apostle Paul said, “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22).

Love is not a mere choice to move the body or the brain. Love is also an experience of the heart. So the stakes are very high. Christ is to be cherished, not just chosen. The alternative is to be cursed. Therefore life is serious. And so is this book.

THE AIM IS NOT TO SOFTEN CUSHIONS, BUT SUSTAIN SACRIFICE

The misunderstanding of this book that I want most to avoid is that I am 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.

Even as I write this sentence Christians are being hacked to death outside Kano, Nigeria. Yesterday a twenty-six-year-old American businessman was beheaded in Iraq by terrorists. Why him? He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This kind of death will increase especially for Christians. In Sudan water is systematically withheld from Christians as they die of thirst and malnutrition, while desperate attempts to visit wells are met with murder, rape, or kidnapping.

Fresh reports come every month concerning the destruction of Christian churches and the arrest of pastors in China. In the last decade over five hundred Christian churches have been destroyed in Indonesia. Missionaries are at risk all over the world.

When I address the question, “What should I do if I don’t desire God?” I am addressing the question: “How can I obtain or recover a joy in Christ that is so deep and so strong that it will free me from bondage to Western comforts and security, and will impel me into sacrifices of mercy and missions, and will sustain me in the face of martyrdom?”

Persecution is normal for Christians. “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). “Beloved, do not be urprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

In the New Testament this sobering truth does not diminish the focus on joy—it increases it. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Rom. 5:3). “Blessed are you when others . . . persecute you. . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12). “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness” (Jas. 1:2-3). “They left the presence of the council,  rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).

The fight for joy in Christ is not a fight to soften the cushion of Western comforts. It is a fight for strength to live a life of self-sacrificing love. It is a fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road and stay there with him, no matter what. How was he sustained on that road? Hebrews 12:2 answers, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the the joy I write to awaken is the sustaining strength of mercy, missions, and martyrdom.

Even as I write this sentence Christians are being hacked to death outside Kano, Nigeria. Yesterday a twenty-six-year-old American businessman was beheaded in Iraq by terrorists. Why him? He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This kind of death will increase especially for Christians. In Sudan water is systematically withheld from Christians as they die of thirst and malnutrition, while desperate attempts to visit wells are met with murder, rape, or kidnapping.

The aim of this book is not to salve the conscience of well-to-do Western acquisition. The aim is to sustain love’s ability to endure sacri- ficial losses of property and security and life, by the power of joy in the path of love. The aim is that Jesus Christ be made known in all the world as the all-powerful, all-wise, all-righteous, all-merciful, all-satisfying Treasure of the universe.

This will happen when Christians don’t just say that Christ is valuable, or sing that Christ is valuable, but truly experience in their hearts the unsurpassed worth of Jesus with so much joy that they can say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Christ will be glorified in the world when Christians are so satisfied in him that they let goods and kindred go and lay down their lives for others in mercy, missions, and, if necessary, martyrdom. He will be magnified most among the nations when, at the moment Christians lose everything on earth, they say, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:13-14). This we will do for the joy that is set before us. And this joy will hold us and keep us, if we have tasted it and fought to make it the supreme experience of our lives. Christ is supremely glorious and supremely valuable. Therefore he is worth the fight.