Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change
Three excerpts at a time from the new book by Brian G. Hedges

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Excerpt 15 of 22

Pursuing Joy

How good is your grip on the doctrine of sin? If you've made it this far in this book, you probably recognize and accept that you are a sinner. You acknowledge, along with Paul, that despite your underlying desire to be holy you still want some things you should not want, think some things you should not think, like some things you should not like, say some things you should not say, and do some things you should not do. All this sinful thinking and acting is bound up with your desire for some kind of satisfaction, some taste of happiness. Me, too. You and I sin because we believe it will make us happier, even if only for a moment.

You could easily then conclude that there must be something wrong with happiness. You might even think that wanting to be happy, or seeking satisfaction for yourself, are suspicious, questionable activities—flirtations with the unholy, self-indulgence run amok. How can you have a heart that races after joy without also racing after sin? Holiness, after all, requires self-denial, doesn’t it?
Yes, it does. But consider this. Have you ever heard a well-intentioned Christian leader say, “God is more concerned with your holiness than your happiness”? In a sense, this is true. God certainly places a high premium on holiness. But the problem lies in what this statement implies. The balanced, biblical reality is that the pursuit of holiness and the quest for joy are not at odds. The two goals are really one.

The Holy Pursuit of Joy

So, everyone longs for happiness. And believers in Jesus thirst for holiness. But holiness and happiness are not mutually exclusive. God is not a cosmic killjoy who is indifferent to the joy of his children! To suggest that God doesn’t want us to be happy rips the heart out of biblical statements like, “Blessed [happy] are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6, emphasis added).

God is concerned with both our holiness and our joy. On one hand, God knows we can never find true and lasting happiness apart from holiness, because holiness is the pure oxygen that happiness breathes. Without holiness, joy suffocates, withers, and dies. Sin kills joy. But when we cherish righteousness and detest sin, joy will flourish and grow. As Scripture says of Jesus, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions” (Heb. 1:9). In the words of Thomas Brooks, an English pastor in the seventeenth century, “Holiness differs nothing from happiness but in name. Holiness is happiness in the bud, and happiness is holiness at the full. Happiness is nothing but the quintessence of holiness.”[i]

On the other hand, the quest for joy is one of the primary motivations for pursuing holiness. Over and over, Scripture appeals to our desire for joy and satisfaction by promising blessing for those who seek Christ. And Scripture repeatedly warns that misery will come to those who refuse Christ and choose sin instead. Seeking satisfaction outside of a relationship with God simply won’t work. As C. S. Lewis wrote,

God made us: invented us as a man invents a machine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human race to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.[ii]

Only as we seek our satisfaction in God will we begin to break free from the gravitational pull of sin’s lower pleasures. In the words of Matthew Henry, “The joy of the Lord will arm us against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and put our mouths out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks.”[iii]

[i] Thomas Brooks, The Crown and Glory of Christianity, or Holiness the Only Way to Happiness, in Alexander B. Grosart, ed., The Works of Thomas Brooks, vol. 4 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002 reprint of 1861-67 edition) 37.
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1952) 50.
[iii] Quoted in John Piper Desiring God: The Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Books, Third Edition, 2003) 12.