– Discovering How Both and Neither Is the Goal –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
In this book I will use many words for joy without precise distinctions:
happiness, delight, pleasure, contentment, satisfaction,
desire, longing, thirsting, passion, etc. I am aware that all of these words
carry different connotations for different readers. Some people think of
happiness as superficial and joy as deep. Some think of pleasure as physical
and delight as aesthetic. Some think of passion as sexual and longing
as personal. So I signal from the outset that the Bible does not divide
its emotional language that way. The same words (desire, pleasure, happiness,
joy, etc.) can be positive sometimes and negative sometimes,
physical sometimes and spiritual sometimes. That is the approach I take.
Any of these words can be a godly experience of the heart, and any of
them can be a worldly experience of the heart. I will try to make plain
what way the words should be taken in any given context.
But one of the most urgent questions demanded by the title and subtitle
of this book is the difference between desire and joy, or between
desire and delight. The title speaks of desire: When I Don’t Desire God.
But the subtitle speaks of joy: How to Fight for Joy. How are the two
different and related? The Bible teaches us to desire God and to have joy
in God, or delight in God. It illustrates both. Godly people are seen
yearning, longing, hungering, thirsting, and fainting for God. They are
also seen enjoying, delighting in, and being satisfied in God. So we will
look first at how the Bible expresses these two kinds of emotions—desiring
and enjoying—and then we will ask what the difference is.
EXAMPLES OF DESIRING GOD
The God-entranced psalmist, Asaph, says, “Whom have I in heaven but
you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh
and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion
forever” (Ps. 73:25-26). Here is a desire for God so strong that it
makes all others as nothing. From all the portions that earth and heaven
can give, Asaph turns away and says, “God is my portion forever.”
Jeremiah said the same: “‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lam. 3:24). David, the king, spoke in
the same way: “I cry to you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are . . . my portion in
the land of the living’” (Ps. 142:5). “I say to the LORD, ‘You are my
Lord; I have no good apart from you.’ . . .The LORD is my chosen portion”
(Ps. 16:2, 5).
The longing psalmist expresses his desire for God with the image of
a panting deer: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul
for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God” (Ps. 42:1).
David pours out his heart with similar language: “O God, you are my
God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. . . . Your steadfast
love is better than life” (Ps. 63:1, 3).
The prophet Isaiah from time to time overflowed with words of
longing for the Lord: “My soul yearns for you in the night; my spirit
within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the
earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness” (Isa. 26:9). The
apostle Paul revealed the depth of his desire for Christ more clearly in
his letter to the Philippians than in any other: “My desire is to depart
and be with Christ, for that is far better. . . . Whatever gain I had, I
counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss
because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For
his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish,
in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 1:23; 3:7-8).
EXAMPLES OF DELIGHTING IN GOD
One of the most remarkable expressions of delighting or rejoicing in
God is found in Habakkuk 3:17-18. My wife Noël and I used this in our
wedding ceremony to express our expectation that life would be hard,
but that God would be our all-satisfying portion. “Though the fig tree
should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive
fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and
there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take
joy in the God of my salvation.” In other words, when all the supports
of human life and earthly happiness are taken away, God will be our
delight, our joy. This experience is humanly impossible. No ordinary
person can speak in truth like this. If God alone is enough to support
joy when all else is lost, it is a miracle of grace.
The psalmists speak repeatedly of the joy, delight, and satisfaction
that they have in God. “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding
joy” (Ps. 43:4). “Let those who delight in my righteousness shout
for joy and be glad” (Ps. 35:27). “Great are the works of the LORD, studied
by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). “As for me, I shall behold
your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your
likeness” (Ps. 17:15).
In both Old and New Testaments we are commanded to rejoice or
delight in the Lord. “Delight yourself in the LORD” (Ps. 37:4). “Rejoice
in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). In the Old
Testament, to be converted from worldliness to godliness was to discover
the truth of Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of
life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures
forevermore.” In the New Testament, conversion meant discovering
that Jesus was a treasure of such surpassing worth that joy would
enable a new disciple to leave everything and follow him: “The kingdom
of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered
up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that
field” (Matt. 13:44).
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN DESIRE AND DELIGHT?
Now let’s bring these two emotions together. On the one hand, we have
desiring, yearning, wanting, craving, longing, thirsting, etc., and on the
other hand, we have joy, delight, pleasure, gladness, happiness, satisfaction,
etc. What is the difference?
The first thought that comes to most of our minds (I tried this on
my eight-year-old daughter) is that delight (with its synonyms) is what
we experience when the thing we enjoy is present, not just future. But
desire (with its synonyms) is what we experience when the thing we
enjoy is not present but, we hope, coming to us in the future.
I think that’s true, but oversimplified, for several reasons. One is that
many desires are themselves pleasant. That is, the desire is itself a pleasure,
not just a longing for a pleasure. Who could draw a line between
the power of sexual desire and sexual pleasure? The desire is part of the
satisfaction. We speak of climax not because that is the only pleasure,
but precisely because it is not the only pleasure. All the desires leading
to it and following after it are part of the one big pleasure.
Or who can draw a clear line between the excitement of desire that
a child feels just before Daddy gets home and the pleasure the child feels
as Daddy walks in the door? The desire is part of the pleasure of Daddy
coming home and getting home and being home. So desire is inseparable
from pleasure. It is part of it.
Another reason it’s an oversimplification to say that in pleasure the
thing enjoyed is present but in desire the thing enjoyed is not yet present
is that desire would not exist if the thing enjoyed had not already been
tasted. That’s how the heart comes to feel something is desirable. Desire
is awakened by tastes of pleasure. The taste may be ever so small. But if
there is no taste at all of the desirability of something, then there will be
no desire for it. In other words, desire is a form of the very pleasure that
is anticipated with the arrival of the thing desired. It is, you might say,
the pleasure itself experienced in the form of anticipation.
ARE WE ON THE RIGHT TRACK?
There are pointers in the Bible that we are on the right track in these
thoughts. For example, not only does the Bible say, “Rejoice in the
Lord” (Phil. 3:1), it also says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God”
(Rom. 5:2). On the one hand, the object of our joy is the Lord, experienced
here and now. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts
through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). On the
other hand, the object of our joy is future and not yet fully experienced.
Nevertheless, even though the object of the joy is future, we hope for
it—that is, we desire it with confidence—and this desire is joyful. “We
rejoice in hope.” The final joy of seeing the glory of God and being
swallowed up in it has been tasted, and the desire for it is the very pleasure
of that future enjoyment experienced now in the form of anticipation.
This is what Paul means by the command, “Rejoice in hope”
Another evidence that we are on the right track in our understanding
of desire and delight is found in the comparison between Psalm 1:2
and Psalm 19:10. Psalm 1:2 says of the man who is blessed, “His delight
is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Psalm 19:10 says of the words of the Lord, “More to be desired are they
than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings
of the honeycomb.” On the one hand, the Word of God is delighted in,
and on the other, it is desired.
Yes, the Word of God is desired sometimes because it is not present
and we would like to read it or hear it. But it is also true that when it is
present and enjoyed, there is also in that very moment a desire for more
of the Word and for a fuller understanding and enjoyment of the Word.
And even when the Word is absent, the desire for it is also a form of
delight in it. There is delight by memory and a delight by anticipation.
So desire for and delight in God’s Word are inseparable.
THERE WILL ALWAYS BE MORE OF GOD TO ENJOY
For all these reasons, I will not try to build a wall between desire and
delight, or between longing and pleasure. Sometimes I will speak of
desiring God and sometimes of delighting in God. Sometimes I will
speak of the inconsolable longing for God and sometimes the pleasures
at his right hand. The difference between desire for God and delight in
God is important mainly to make clear that finite creatures like us, who
have a spiritual taste for the glory of God, will always want more of
God than we presently experience—even in eternity. There will always
What Is the Difference Between Desire and Delight? < 27
be more of God to enjoy. Which means there will always be holy
In this age that is frustrating. We kick ourselves that our cravings
for lesser things compete with God as the satisfaction of our souls.
Rightly so. This is a godly grief. We do well to be convicted and penitent.
We know that we have tasted pleasures at his right hand, and that
our desires for them are pitifully small compared to their true worth. It
is helpful at this point to be reminded that our desires—no matter how
small—have been awakened by the spiritual taste we once had of the
presence of God. They are an evidence that we have tasted. It is also
helpful at this point to be reminded that our desires are only a tiny part
of what is to come. The strength of our desire is not the measure of the
strength of the final pleasure. That truth can rescue us from despair and
keep us fighting in this fallen world for all the joy possible in God.
But the truth that the finite soul will always want more of God than
it presently experiences will not be frustrating in the age to come. Then
when we are perfected and have our resurrection bodies, the longings
that remain will not be because sin is competing with God for our affections.
Rather the reason will be that finite minds cannot receive the fullness
of infinite greatness and glory. It must be given in (glorious but
manageable) increments every day for eternity.
In the age to come, desire for more of God will never be experienced
with impatience or ingratitude or frustration. All desire in the age to
come will be the sweetest anticipation, rooted ever more deeply in the
enlarging memories of joy and in the ever-gathering pleasures of gratitude.
God will not take from us the pleasure of anticipated pleasures.
He will heighten it. He will give us for all eternity the perfect intermingling
of present pleasure and anticipation of future pleasure.
Anticipation will be stripped of all frustration. Its ache will be a wholly
God will be glorified both by the intensity of the present delight
that we have in his beauty and by the intensity of the desires we have
for more revelation of his fullness. The present pleasures will waken
ever fresh desires, and the desires will signal ever greater future pleasures.
Pleasures will be perfectly desired, and the desires will be perfectly
What we experience here in this fallen age is a partial reflection of
that. This is what we are moving toward. It is not yet here. We know
that all too painfully. But our calling here is to fight for joy—ours and
the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. The aim is that God’s
worth—his infinite desirability—be known and prized and praised in all
the world. This is what we mean by God being glorified. He is most glorified
in and through his people when we are most satisfied in him. The
intensity of our pleasure and our desire bear witness of his worth to the
world, especially when we are freed by this (present and hoped for) pleasure
to leave the pleasures of this world for a life of sacrifice and love
NEITHER DESIRE NOR DELIGHT IS FINALLY WHAT WE WANT
It should be obvious from this, but may not be, that desire and delight
have this in common: Neither is the Object desired or delighted in. God
is. I make this obvious point because all of us from time to time speak
loosely and say that the aim of our pursuit is joy. Or we say that we want
to be happy. Those are not false or evil statements. A Christian means:
I aim to pursue joy in God so that the infinitely valuable objective reality
of the universe, God, will get all the glory possible from my life. “I
want to be happy” may be Christian shorthand for “I want to know the
One, and the only One, who is in himself all I have ever longed for in
all my desires to be happy.”
But the loose way of talking can be misleading. Both ways of saying
it can be taken to mean: The object of our wants is ultimately a psychological
experience of happiness without any regard to what makes
us happy. In other words, they may mean: The final object of our pursuit
is joy itself, rather than the beauty of what we find joy in. This is a
very common mistake. Jonathan Edwards warned against it by observing
that “there are many affections which do not arise from any light in
the understanding. And when it is thus, it is a sure evidence that these
affections are not spiritual, let them be ever so high.”3 Our goal is not
high affections per se. Our goal is to see and savor “the light of the
gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). The
affections that arise from that light are spiritual. By this Christ-revealing
light, we avoid the mistake of simply pursuing joy, not Christ.
C. S. Lewis devoted most of his autobiography, which he called
Surprised by Joy, to exposing this error by narrating his own mistakes.
You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment;
for in hope we look to hope’s object and we interrupt this by (so to
speak) turning round to look at the hope itself. . . . The surest means
of disarming an anger or a lust was to turn your attention from the
girl or the insult and start examining the passion itself. The surest way
of spoiling a pleasure was to start examining your satisfaction. . . .
I perceived (and this was the wonder of wonders) that . . . I had
been equally wrong in supposing that I desired Joy itself. Joy itself,
considered simply as an event in my own mind, turned out to be of
no value at all. All the value lay in that of which Joy was the desiring.
And that object, quite clearly, was no state of my own mind or
body at all. . . . I asked if Joy itself was what I wanted; and, labeling
it “aesthetic experience,” had pretended I could answer Yes. But that
answer too had broken down. Inexorably Joy proclaimed, “You
want—I myself am your want of—something other, outside, not you
nor any state of you.”4
WHY THEN MAKE SO MUCH OF FIGHTING FOR JOY?
One might ask, in view of this danger, why I would lay so much stress
on joy in the Christian life. Why not just talk about God, the object of
joy, and leave the experiences to take care of themselves? There are three
One is this: It is not John Piper who commands us to rejoice in the
Lord; God does. God elevates this experience of the heart to the level of
command, not I. And he does so with blood-earnestness. “Because you
did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart,
. . . you shall serve your enemies” (Deut. 28:47-48). “God threatens terrible
things if we will not be happy.”5 The fight for joy is not a warfare
I appointed. God did.
The second answer is that God is most glorified in us when we are
most satisfied in him. Therefore, to make pretensions about honoring
him more, while not calling people to the most radical, soul-freeing satisfaction
in God alone, is self-contradictory. It won’t happen. God is glorified
in his people by the way we experience him, not merely by the way
we think about him. Indeed the devil thinks more true thoughts about
God in one day than a saint does in a lifetime, and God is not honored
by it. The problem with the devil is not his theology, but his desires. Our
chief end is to glorify God, the great Object. We do so most fully when
we treasure him, desire him, delight in him so supremely that we let
goods and kindred go and display his love to the poor and the lost.
The third reason we should make much of joy and the pursuit of
joy in God is that people do not awaken to how desperate their condition
is until they measure their hearts by Christian Hedonism—or whatever
you may call it. I have found for thirty years that preaching and
teaching about God’s demand that we delight in him more than in anything
else breaks and humbles people, and makes them desperate for
true conversion and true Christianity. Oh, how easy it is to think we are
what we ought to be when the emotions are made peripheral. Mere
thoughts and mere deeds are manageable by the carnal religious mind.
But the emotions—they are the weathercock of the heart. Nothing
shows the direction of the deep winds of the soul like the demand for
radical, sin-destroying, Christ-exalting joy in God.
But having made my defense, I say again: God and God alone is the
final, ultimate goal of our quest. All that God is for us in Jesus is the
Object of our quest for joy. When I speak of fighting for joy, I mean joy
in God, not joy without reference to God. When I speak of longing for
happiness, I mean happiness in all that God is for us in Jesus, not happiness
as physical or psychological experience apart from God. Whether
we are desiring or delighting, the end of the experience is God.
Fighting for that experience of God through Jesus Christ is what this
book is about.
Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is
what sin is. . . . The struggle to submit . . . is not a struggle to
submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly,
with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy—
fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.
F L A N N E R Y O ’ C O N N O R
The Habit of Being1
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for
2 C O R I N T H I A N S 1 : 2 4