My Despair at Enjoying God

I came across an old, though-provoking article on Internet Monk written by Steve Brown. The article is Brown’s critical take on John Piper‘s teaching known as Christian Hedonism. For the record, I respect and benefit from the teaching ministries of both men. I am a Christian hedonist, but I think Brown is on to something here in talking about how we can misinterpret Piper’s teaching on enjoying God.

Christian hedonists like myself need to be careful about how we pursue joy in God. As much as misinterpreting Piper’s teaching might lead to licentiousness (e.g. “Because my obedience is motivated by duty rather than joy, I should stop trying so hard to obey until joy comes”), I think it could also lead to legalism (e.g. “Because my obedience is motivated by duty and not joy, so I should keep trying harder to obey in order for joy to come”). Don’t understand what I mean? Let the old white guy explain it!

. . . once I realized that I could glorify God by enjoying Him, I started really, really working on enjoying Him, expecting that, in the enjoyment, I would glorify Him. It didn’t work. The more I worked at it, the less I enjoyed God. In fact, by trying to enjoy God, I ended up desiring to…well…uh…go to a movie or buy an ice cream cone. Then I started feeling pretty guilty about the movie, the ice cream and all. It became a spiral of guilt. I decided that I was a “worm” and, after all that Jesus had done for me, I ought to enjoy Him more. What kind of Christian was I anyway if I enjoyed a movie and an ice cream cone more than God? . . . Enjoyment is a hard thing to program. I figured that maybe enjoying God was an acquired taste. So I stayed with it which led to more guilt…which led to more effort…which led to more guilt…which led to more effort…which…well, you get the picture.

Do you get the picture? I read that and thought to myself, “That’s me!” I’ve been through that same cycle of guilt and effort, all the while telling myself that I wasn’t enjoying God like I was supposed to and how I needed to keep trying harder to enjoy him more. I forced myself to read the Bible, pray, do church activities, and listen to cheesy Christian music until God became my ultimate joy to rule out all other joys, but it never happened.

Instead, something else happened. It wasn’t an overnight thing, but over time I began to realize that I’ll never be able to enjoy God like I should while I’m on this earth. As long as I’m here, my enjoyment of God will be a limited enjoyment of him. And I realized that I shouldn’t be giving in to feelings of despair over my lack of joy in God. The truth is, I do enjoy him and I desire to enjoy him more fully in this life. But the power required to enjoy him more fully is not going to come from me, so I need to stop hating myself for it. Brown goes on to say, 

Quit trying to do and be something you can’t do and obviously can’t be. That’s religion and it will kill you. In order to pull that off, you have to be dishonest with God and with everybody else. Trust me. I’ve been there, done that and bought the T-shirt. It just doesn’t work and it will make you so religious that nobody will be able to stand being around you.

Increased enjoyment in God is going to come from the gospel. It’s going to come from the reality of God’s saving work through Christ, applied to me by the Holy Spirit. It will require that I actively pursue obedience, but it won’t mean that I just try to do what I think is holy and avoid what is unholy. Sanctification is not a process I work at–it is a blessing given to me in the gospel. Sanctification is a lot less about my efforts and a lot more about my response to what God has revealed to me about himself and his relationship with me! For much of my Christian experience, I’ve approached sanctification as something that I’m supposed to take initiative in. But the truth is, sanctification is a two-sided process I’ve been brought into.

So here’s what I propose. If we’re going to point to Question 1 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever“), let’s not forget to also point to Question 35:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

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