March 14, 2014

The Christian’s Pursuit of God-Given Joy

by Mike Riccardi

Pursuit of HappinessIn my last two posts, I reflected a bit upon the prominence that Scripture gives to joy in the Christian life, as well as the nature and character of this joy that we are commanded to have. We learned from Scripture that joy is not merely a decision of our will, but an affection of our heart. We also learned that joy is a gift and fruit of the Spirit of God, something we can’t just work up in ourselves. But we also saw clearly that it is our “bounden duty,” as Spurgeon said, to pursue our joy.

How is that possible? How are we supposed to obey the command to rejoice in the Lord always if true Christian joy is a gift of God?

I love the way the Scottish Puritan Henry Scougal answers this question. He says,

“All the art and industry of man cannot form the smallest herb, or make a stalk of corn to grow in the field; it is the energy of nature, and the influences of heaven, which produce this effect; it is God ‘who causeth the grass to grow, and the herb for the service of man’ (Ps 104:14); and yet nobody will say that the labours of the [farmer] are useless or unnecessary….” (The Life of God in the Soul of Man, 78–79).

You see, man can’t make grass grow. We can’t make the land sprout fruit and vegetables. Those are blessings that come to us as the gift of God. But God has ordained that the earth yield its produce by means of the farmer’s labors. In the same way, we can’t fabricate or manufacture joy by seeking to manipulate our feelings, or by whipping ourselves up into an emotional frenzy. Spirit-wrought, God-exalting joy is a gift that He gives. But God has ordained that we bear this fruit of the Spirit through means. And so when Paul commands us to, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he is commanding us to make diligent use of the means the Spirit employs in working genuine joy in us.

True Christian joy is a result of flooding the mind with the truth of God and Christ and the Gospel—the result of saturating the eyes of your heart with the glory of God revealed in the face of Christ. The inevitable result of beholding that all-satisfying sight is affections of love, delight, satisfaction, and joy. The fight for joy, the unyielding pursuit of our joy in the Lord, is a fight first of all to see. If seeing the glory of God in the face of Christ is the fuel of all true joy—and it is!—then I must avail myself of every means by which His glory is revealed.

What are those means, you ask? Consider five of them.

1. & 2. Scripture Reading and Prayer

Praying Hands BibleThe first two of these means are so inseparable that they have to be considered together. And they are Scripture reading and prayer. God is supremely revealed in His Word, and so we must prayerfully meditate on Scripture with a view to seeing and savoring Christ’s glory. It’s so simple. Read and pray. You hear it commended to you so much that it seems commonplace. But if there’s one place where we can’t allow familiarity to breed contempt, it’s on these foundational spiritual disciplines. Communion with God through Scripture reading and prayer is the freshest source of the sight of His glory.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it so well:

“We must maintain contact with Christ by prayer and communion. … What fools we are in this Christian life! We depend on so many other things, but the secret of the saints has always been the time they spend in conversation and communion with the Lord and in meditation upon him. We must maintain that contact; we must go to the source and fount of joy and go there readily and frequently” (Life of Peace, 150).

3. Fellowship

We must also pursue the spiritual sight of Christ’s glory in fellowship with other believers. In 1 Thessalonians 3:9, Paul exclaims, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account!” Because of the progress the Thessalonians had made in sanctification—because they had been becoming increasingly conformed to the image of Christ, being made to reflect more and more of Christ’s glory—Paul could see the glory of Christ in them, and that caused him to rejoice in the Lord.

This is why the body of Christ represented in the local church is so important. This is why it’s so essential for believers to be thoroughly involved and active in relationships with our brothers and sisters. True fellowship is a vital means by which we see and treasure the glory of Christ in one another, albeit reflected imperfectly.

4. Creation & Providence

Fourth, we need to open our eyes to the glory of God revealed in creation and providence. The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim His handiwork (Ps 19:1). So look up, and look around once and a while, Beautiful Creationand learn to see the beauty behind all beauty. Behold this glorious creation that God has provided for us to enjoy, and in all the gifts that we enjoy in this life, trace the joy you find in them up to the Giver, and rejoice in Him.

Further, remember that all the circumstances of your life are the providences of a sovereign, loving, and good God who is unwaveringly committed to His glory and your joy. Recognize times of suffering for Christ’s sake as opportunities of unique fellowship with Him (Phil 3:10), and to the degree that you share His sufferings, keep on rejoicing (1 Pet 4:13).

5. Obedience

And finally, fight to see the glory of Christ in the path of obedience. In John 14:21, Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” So, keeping Christ’s commandments results in greater disclosure of the Savior to the eyes of our hearts. He promises that when I forsake sin and obediently follow Him, I get to see and enjoy more of Him!

So fight sin like that! When you’re tempted to sin, and you don’t feel like obeying, reason with yourself! Tell yourself that all sinning will get you is a fleeting, false pleasure that destroys joy rather than satisfies; and that obedience will bring you a greater vision of the glory of your Savior, who is the greatest satisfaction your heart can experience and only source of true and abiding joy.

Conclusion

Dear reader, if it is your desire to conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel (Phil 1:27), if you long for the kind of spiritual stability and resolute steadfastness that characterizes faithful followers of Christ (Phil 4:1), then you must relentlessly pursue your joy in the Lord. I pray these posts have spurred you on in that pursuit.

I’ll leave you with the words of Spurgeon, because, as is so often, I doubt they can be improved upon. He says,

So may you feed and so may you drink until you come unto the mount of God; where you shall see his face unveiled, and standing in his exceeding brightness, shall know his glory, being glorified with the saved. Till then, be happy. … If the present be dreary, it will soon be over. Oh, but a little while, and we shall be transferred from these seats below to the thrones above! We shall go from the place of aching brows to the place where they all wear crowns, from the place of weary hands to where they bear the palm branch of victory, from the place of mistake and error and sin, and consequent grief, to the place where they are without fault before the throne of God, for they have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Rejoice in the Lord always, friends. Again I will say, Rejoice.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Excellent post! I loved everything about it. Thank you for sharing your insight! Indeed, I will rejoice in the Lord always!!

    • Amen Melissa! So grateful for your faithful readership and your encouraging comments.

  • Nehemiah Ryan

    We are also commanded to pursue other qualities. Why focus on just joy? Because too many Christians aren’t finding Jesus to be enough to make them happy. Moreover, there is a principle in Scripture of seasons of fruit and seasons of barrenness (Ps. 1). Sometimes God must take away our joy in order for us to grow more like Christ.
    There is more to the Christian life than joy.

    • What a strange comment, Nehemiah. Of course we are commanded to pursue other graces. Of course we should bring forth the fruit of the Spirit in its fullness: love, joy, peace, patience, and the rest (Gal 5:22-23). But I can’t understand why you would assume that I exclude those other graces simply because in a series of brief blog posts I focus on just one in order to understand it as fully as I can. Unfortunately, we can’t say everything about the Christian life in every blog post. In 2,000 words or less, we generally have to choose between being narrow and having some degree of depth, or being broad and only providing a survey.

      In fact, these last three blog posts have been an extended reflection on Philippians 4:4. Surely you wouldn’t challenge Paul as to why, when he commanded the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always, why he didn’t immediately also command them not to commit idolatry, or to be patient, or to be kind.

      Further, it confuses the Scripture’s teaching to say that, “Sometimes God must take away our joy in order for us to grow more like Christ.” I don’t see how that squares with the fact that we are commanded to rejoice always (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16). That doesn’t mean that we are to be indifferent to the pains of this life, nor is this joy we’re commanded to have always mutually exclusive with the heaviness of sorrow that inevitably accompanies life in a fallen world. This is evident by Paul’s profound statement in 2 Corinthians 6:10 that we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In 2 Corinthians 7:4 he says, ‘I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.”

      And so even in the midst of sorrow, even in the midst of affliction, even as we experience the pains of this life, we are commanded to be joyful—to rejoice always. If we fail to heed that command, we must not assign blame to God in His unsearchable sovereignty nor to changing “seasons” of life. We must confess our sin and repent of our joylessness. I developed that more in this post. I hope you’ll take the time to read it.

      • Nehemiah Ryan

        Thanks 🙂 I didn’t see the last three blog posts but I will check them out. My issue is not really with this post as much as it is with “Christian hedonism.”
        It’s pretty much a 20-21st century phenomenon that believers have to be told to find joy in Christ. If we really knew how wonderful He is then joy would naturally be present. The problem is not that we need joy. The problem is we need to see Jesus as He is in Scripture. Once we get a real glimpse of Him, joy naturally follows- along with the other qualities. Make sense?
        As far as seasons of barrenness go, those times are to get our misplaced pleasure put back into its correct place; in Christ.

        • I didn’t see the last three blog posts but I will check them out.

          Always helps to read that opening line of the original post. 😉

          My issue is not really with this post as much as it is with “Christian hedonism.” It’s pretty much a 20-21st century phenomenon that believers have to be told to find joy in Christ.

          I really have to disagree strongly with you there, Nehemiah. Again, I developed this further in the post that looks into the nature of joy and the fact that it is a duty enjoined upon all believers, but Paul has commanded us all, as clear as day, to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And if there was any doubt as to whether he truly meant it, he repeated himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4; cf. 1 Thess 5:16). There Paul is telling believers to find joy in Christ. If “Christian hedonism” echoes that command (and it does), then there is no way it is a 20th- or 21st-century doctrine; it’s a first-century doctrine. It’s a Pauline doctrine, a Holy Spirit doctrine.

          And it’s not that that doctrine was lost throughout the ages and rediscovered only in the last 40 years or so.

          John Calvin wrote, “The chief activity of the soul is to aspire to happiness in God” (Institutes, I.15.6).

          The Puritan Thomas Manton very simply defines the duty of “Rejoicing always” as “Delighting ourselves in God” (Complete Works, 17:470).

          I’m sure you’re familiar with the role Jonathan Edwards had in Piper’s formulation of what he calls “Christian hedonism” Edwards said, “True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God. And this is the spring of all their delights, and the cream of all their pleasures.”

          George Mueller spoke of a great lesson the Lord had illumined to him through his study of Scripture. He wrote, “I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord.”

          Charles Spurgeon defined rejoicing in the Lord as being satisfied in God and overflowing with delight in Him (“Joy, a Duty”).

          And the great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge wrote that one of the essential elements of the knowledge of Christ is the “feeling of adoration, delight, desire, and complacency” that accompanies truth about Him (“The Excellency of the Knowledge of Christ Jesus Our Lord,” 214).

          And the same idea and the same themes permeate the writings of the rest of the Puritans, who have been unparalleled in their devotion and practical piety. The doctrine that we are to pursue our greatest joy in the Lord is so far from a 20th-century invention; it is Pauline, Spirit-inspired doctrine passed down through the ages of the faithful church.

          If we really knew how wonderful He is then joy would naturally be present. The problem is not that we need joy. The problem is we need to see Jesus as He is in Scripture. Once we get a real glimpse of Him, joy naturally follows- along with the other qualities. Make sense?

          Yes, it does. But this is the doctrine of Christian hedonism! No one is saying that we ought to pursue joy apart from the Lord — that we should somehow make happiness, irrespective of the object of our happiness, our highest goal. No, the command is to rejoice in the Lord always. And as I’ve written in the original post, yes, of course, the sight of Jesus is the source of that joy. The whole post is about the means by which we apprehend that sight of Him (I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve read the post very carefully.)

          As far as seasons of barrenness go, those times are to get our misplaced pleasure put back into its correct place; in Christ.

          Amen! I would agree with this, but your original comment suggested something much more than what you say here. It suggested that the absence of joy in a believer “for a season” might be reasonably excused as something less than sin. But given Philippians 4:4 and 1 Thessalonians 5:16, there’s no way that can be so. The times in which we have “misplaced [our] pleasure” are not simply “goof-ups.” They’re sins. And putting our pleasure “back into its correct place” is the very stuff of repentance. To pursue our joy, then, is to pursue Christ, for He and He alone is the source of any and all true satisfaction.

          • Nehemiah Ryan

            I agree with you. I think we are talking past each other a lot, so we aren’t really paying attention to what the other is NOT saying. You misrepresented what I said because you read something into what I said which wasn’t my intent. You thought I was arguing against the doctrine when I’m actually arguing against the motivation. The doctrine is clear.
            Let me reiderate. The issue I’m having is this…
            No one can serve two masters, correct?
            The definition of hedonism is to live for your own pleasure. “Christian hedonism” then is seeking your own pleasure in Christ. Sounds good on the surface because He truly is the source of real joy
            So the question is, whose pleasure are we living for, our own or the Lord’s? We cannot serve both equally.
            A further question then is, are we using the Lord for our own pleasure? If we are living to please ourselves then it means we must use Christ as a means.

            I just don’t see how we can live for own our pleasure and simultaneously live to please Christ, without attempting to serve to masters.

            Please note that I am not saying we aren’t supposed to obey the direct command. I’m saying that to make our own pleasure the driving purpose of our life is to betray the Lord. It is to serve ourselves rather than God.
            So it boils down to whether or not Christ is merely the means or the end, or both.

            Hopefully that clears up where I’m coming from. I only care about motive and whether my Lord is merely a means, or if He is everything.

          • While I might have missed your intent, I don’t think I misrepresented or read anything into what you said. I think the real issue is that you don’t understand “Christian hedonism” very well — what precisely it teaches and what precisely it does not teach.

            If you haven’t read Desiring God, or even if you haven’t read it in a while, I would advise that you skim through the first few chapters and the appropriate appendices. It addresses, quite ably, the very issues and objections you raise.

            You might also benefit from this article: “Christian Hedonism: Forgive the Label, but Don’t Miss the Truth.”

            But just so I don’t leave you hanging, I want to briefly answer your question as an introduction into your further study.

            So the question is, whose pleasure are we living for, our own or the Lord’s? We cannot serve both equally.

            It’s this assumption that reveals you haven’t understood what Piper has taught about this reality. One of the central theses of the “Christian hedonist” worldview is that the dichotomy between God’s glory (i.e., His pursuit of His own pleasure by magnifying the glory of His name) and our joy (i.e., our pleasure) is a false dichotomy. The pursuit of God’s glory and the pursuit of our joy are the same pursuit, because, as Piper says, God is most glorified in us when we’re most satisfied in Him.

            So even the differentiation of “our pleasure” vs. “the Lord’s pleasure” reveals faulty thinking. If we’re thinking and behaving righteously, our pleasure is the Lord’s pleasure, and vice versa. To seek one is to seek the other, which is why I wrote at the end of my last comment: “To pursue our joy, then, is to pursue Christ, for He and He alone is the source of any and all true satisfaction.”

            The only problem comes when we start defining our pleasure as being in something other than Christ. Then your concerns are valid. But that’s not Christian hedonism; it’s not rejoicing in the Lord.

            Again, these objections (i.e., two masters; Christ a means and not an end) are answered explicitly in Piper’s own writings. I’d direct you there for greater understanding on these issues.

  • John Azar

    In a world that acquires most of its temporary joy &
    happiness from sports & the entertainment industry, it is always good to be
    reminded that ours is everlasting because our Creator is the only source of our Joy..Excellent post, thank you Mike.

    • Well said brother. Let us not go to the broken cisterns of the substitute pleasures of the world for satisfaction, for they are broken cisterns that can hold no water. Let us ever go to the fountain of living water, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

      Glad to see you on the thread, John.

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