“For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” I Corinthians 9:16 NIV
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11 NIV
The Holiness Project – Spiritual Joy
Joy is Not Optional.
That is the declaration of Pastor John Piper from Desiring God. He coined the term Christian Hedonism and it certainly puts a spin on things. Listen to what he says….
Christian Hedonism is the conviction that God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Not only is God the supreme source of satisfaction for the human soul, but God himself is glorified by our being satisfied in him. Therefore, our pursuit of joy in him is essential.
This is a truth that many (if not most) modern Christians simply do not understand or experience. I want to take a closer look at it precisely because I did’t get it either for a long time. Now I have a glimpse of that far country, that beautiful vision, and I want to share it with you.
The problem with most of us (myself included) is that having joy in my relationship with God is not that common. Certainly there are moments of joy but it is not a common experience. Certainly I can compare it with my relationship with my family and understand that there are moments of joy and, in other moments, there is anger and pain and depression as well. Not necessarily because of my family. Just because of life.
Is an abiding joy in God even possible? And, if so, what are the necessary conditions that would make that happen? I’m not sure how to arrive at that heady place going in a straight line, so I will attempt a slight detour that may act as a roadmap to that beautiful country.
Sometimes it is good to take a detour. What I propose is that we talk about God’s purpose for our lives and start there. If we cannot find joy in God’s plans for our life, we will fight Him or ignore Him and, certainly, we will find no joy in our relationship with Him. But if we discover that God’s plans for us are full of joy beyond belief, then we may begin to understand that joy is, indeed, essential, and moreover, practical in ways that I am only just now beginning to understand.
Yes, this is a Hedonistic approach to my relationship with God. What’s In It For Me is not something we are used to saying (or admitting) in church circles but, in this case, I think it is allowed. After all, even someone like C.S. Lewis was a Christian Hedonist. He claimed that there were natural benefits to a relationship and that, even though we may not have gotten into the relationship for the benefits, we still expect that they are part of the package.
Love goes beyond the benefits. Love is about the other, not about what I get out of it. Still, we need to be convinced that this relationship is good for us, brings natural benefits and, ultimately, is a source of joy. In other words, we may love someone who does not love us back. Not a good basis for marriage. But when the love is mutual, the relationship is natural and the result is joy. Of course.
In the passages I quoted at the beginning of this post, on the one hand we have Paul saying “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel…” and on the other hand, we have God declaring through Jeremiah that He has good plans for us and a future. So which one is it? Is Paul telling us that he is under obligation to preach the gospel, that it brings no joy, that he is not in agreement with God’s plan and future for him? Not at all. We know better.
Yes, there is a deep passionate need for Paul to preach the Gospel but it was because he had accepted God’s plans for him so deeply into his heart that his hunger and thirst to please God could only be expressed by fulfilling God’s desire to preach the Gospel through him.
What am I trying to say? Just this. For many of us, we simply don’t believe that God’s plans for us will bring us the benefits we want, the relationships we want, the joy we want. God’s plans are “heavy” and difficult and often painful and takes great spiritual maturity to accept and carry out. No doubt. But that doesn’t sound like much joy. I think we are missing something.
Sometimes I hear people say that they always had a dream to be a great musician but they knew God wanted them to be a missionary and so that is what they did. Now they are back 30 or 40 years later, ready to retire and full of regret that they never pursued their dreams. What a tragedy!
Yes, God wants us all to build the Kingdom of heaven and bring people to God for salvation to become disciples. If you have read anything that I have written over the past number of years, I believe that evangelism is the key focus of the church that all of us need to be involved in. The question is how?
The mistake to avoid is thinking that God’s plans for your life are somehow different from the dreams you have in your heart to do. After all, I remind them, who do you think put those dreams in your heart in the first place? Where do you think you got your musical skill? Your job on this earth is self-actualization. Period.
Self-actualization? What in the world are you talking about? I’m talking about become the best, real YOU that you can possibly become. The glory of God is man fully alive to Him in Christ. Yes, you need to be in Christ. We are not talking about the process of salvation here. But when you become a Christian you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Who you are is no accident. Now that you are in Christ, you need to come fully alive to God. What does that mean?
Yes, we can talk about the spiritual fruit and gifts, the spiritual armour and disciplines, but let’s also talk about the creational side of things as well. The spiritual and the creational have come together now that you are in Christ. Everything is spiritual. Nothing is left out of your relationship to God. Even sin is spiritual in the negative sense. Everything has to do with our relationship with God. If we are good at music before being a Christian, we are still good at music afterwards. That music was put in you by God who knew you before the foundations of the world.
The music in you is spiritual by definition. The music in you, the dreams that you have, the abilities, skills, talents you have are part of what it means to come totally alive in Him. You have been living like a zombie in sin but now you are in Christ and learning to come fully alive in (and through) your relationship with God. That concept of coming fully alive is what I mean by self-actualization. Becoming everything that God planned for you to become with the spiritual and the creational integrated into one beautiful whole.
What that means is that God’s plans for you include your dreams, include your deepest desires and plans. God is not working at cross purposes with you. He wants to empower you. He wants you to become a powerful influencer in your realm of relationships as a child of God. Yes, a powerful influencer. That doesn’t mean you have to be an extrovert or a celebrity or a famous speaker (unless of course that is the dream and ability that God put in you). It means that you need to become everything that God has in store for you, that He put in you in the first place. That is your unique way of becoming fully alive in Him.
Now a few cautions are in order.
If we are convinced that God’s plans for us integrate perfectly with our dreams and abilities, we have a great starting point and I think we can assume that if there is a problem, it is probably on our side, not His.
What I mean to say is that many people don’t know what their dreams are or they are unclear about what they really want. We aren’t used to talking in those terms in the church. What do you really, really want? What are your dreams? If you had one year to live and you could not fail, what would you do? Take stock of your life and ask some hard questions.
The question about what you want is a bit dangerous because we still have sin within us and that sin can still mess up the process but if we are convinced that we need to do some work to find that plan and future that God has for us, at least we can agree that it will bring us great joy.
So, be careful to recognize that sin may blind us to our real dreams and abilities. Fear will try to cut us off at the very start of the process. A lack of resources and support from family and friends are easy excuses not to do anything. The amount of work that it involves can get us a bit depressed right off the start.
Furthermore, we often have secondary desires that are rooted in sin and fear and a low self-esteem. Saying that we just want a million bucks is not very helpful. What would you do with those resources? Focusing on a luxurious lifestyle may be nice for a while but also not very helpful. You don’t have to be a Christian to know that money can’t buy you happiness (or love).
To the degree that your desires are rooted in your ego, your necessities, your primeval desire to control your world, they are not your true dreams. Remember that we are talking about coming fully alive in God through Christ. Your identity has changed. You are a child of God. Part of the royal household. You don’t have to play in the mudpuddles of life. It isn’t about trying to control your world, or protect yourself from the dangers and difficulties of this life. God is your provider, your protector. You are in Him. You are part of the family already.
So what do you want? Most people don’t really know. They have stopped dreaming and need to be woken up. Then they need to be challenged to come up with dreams, dig deep for their best self, and focus on that.
Whatever we come up with, one thing is for sure. What we need to be convinced of is that God’s plans and future for us will bring us great joy and therefore it is worth the effort and risk to make it real, to come fully alive in Him.
The Desert Warrior
Let’s talk to God…..
Lord, we want to come fully alive in You. Thank you for saving us and thank you for teaching us that you saved us for joy and peace and a life full of purpose and adventure. Yes, it will be difficult and that isn’t a surprise. We know that the kind of people we become as we fight for our dreams is the real prize at the end of the fight. Thank you for giving us life and giving it to us in abundance. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.