Ch.3 THE CALL TO FIGHT FOR JOY IN GOD

– Taking God’s Demand for Delight Seriously –

When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper

Do these two things really go together? Fighting and joy? Fighting
sounds so pressured and violent. Joy sounds more relaxed and
peaceful. It just seems strange to talk about fighting for joy. You may as
well talk about fighting to like hot fudge sundaes. Either you do or you
don’t, right? What’s the fight? No, it’s not that simple. Physical tastes like
hot fudge vs. caramel are morally neutral. It’s not right or wrong to like
the one over the other. But having a spiritual taste for the glory of Christ
is not morally neutral. Not to have it is evil and deadly. Not to see and
savor Christ is an insult to the beauty and worth of his character.
Preferring anything above Christ is the very essence of sin. It must be
fought.

THE ESSENCE OF EVIL

God defines evil this way when he says, “My people have committed
two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and
hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no
water” (Jer. 2:13). God pictures himself as a mountain spring of clean,
cool, life-giving water. The way to glorify a fountain like this is to enjoy
the water, and praise the water, and keep coming back to the water, and
point other people to the water, and get strength for love from the water,
and never, never, never prefer any drink in the world over this water.
That makes the spring look valuable. That is how we glorify God, the
fountain of living water.

But in Jeremiah’s day people tasted the fountain of God’s grace and
did not like it. So they gave their energies to finding better water, more satisfying
water. Not only did God call this effort futile (“broken cisterns that
can hold no water”), but he called it evil: “My people have committed two
evils.” They put God’s perfections to the tongue of their souls and disliked
what they tasted; then they turned and craved the suicidal cisterns of the
world. That double insult to God is the essence of what evil is.

So preferring the pleasures of money or power or fame or sex over
the “pleasures . . . at [God’s] right hand” (Ps. 16:11) is not like preferring
caramel to hot fudge. It is a great evil. Indeed it is the ultimate meaning
of evil. Esteeming God less than anything is the essence of evil.

HEAVEN HANGS ON HAVING THE TASTE OF JOY IN GOD

Therefore, it might not be so strange after all to think of fighting for this
joy. Our eternal lives depend on it. A person who has no taste for the
enjoyment of Christ will not go to heaven. “If anyone has no love for
the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22). “Whoever loves father or
mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or
daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). “Though
you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him,
you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled
with glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). Loving Jesus, not just “deciding” for him or
“being committed to him” or affirming all the right doctrines about him,
is the mark of a true child of God. Jesus said, “If God were your Father,
you would love me” (John 8:42).

Yes, I am assuming that loving Jesus includes the taste of joy in his
personhood. I reject the notion that love for Christ is identical to mental
or physical acts done in obedience to his Word. When Jesus said, “If you
love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), he was describing
the effect of love, not the essence of love. First there is love, then there
is the effect—obedience. The obedience is not identical with love.

Jesus once described his coming like this: “The light has come into
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the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because
their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Here the issue of salvation is loving
or hating the light. Love darkness, or love light. That’s the crisis of the
soul. But what is love for darkness? It’s preferring darkness, liking darkness,
wanting darkness, running to darkness, being glad with darkness.
But all of that is what Jesus demands for himself: “Prefer my light, like
my fellowship, want my wisdom, run to my refuge, be glad in my grace.
Above all, delight in me as a person.” Look around on all that the world
can give; then say with the apostle Paul, “My desire is to depart and be
with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:23). That is what it means to
love Christ. And to have no love for him is to be accursed.

Surely, then, this is worth fighting for. It may feel strange at first, but
when we see what is at stake, no battle will seem more important.
Loving Christ involves delight in his Person. Without this love no one
goes to heaven. Therefore there is no more important struggle in the universe
than the struggle to see and savor Christ above all things—the
struggle for joy.

NOT ONLY LOVE, BUT FAITH TOO INCLUDES THE TASTE FOR JOY IN GOD

To make this fight feel even more imperative I will go further and say
that not only does love to Christ include the taste of joy in his personhood;
so does faith in Christ. I do not mean that faith and joy are equivalent
or identical. Faith in Christ involves more than delighting in
Christ. We trust him—bank on him—to be our righteousness and the
sacrifice for our sins, and the propitiator of God’s wrath, and our mediator
with the Father. Faith depends on Christ alone for all that and more.
But it does not involve less than the taste of delight in Christ himself.

Within saving faith there is the necessary element of a pleasing taste
for the glory of Christ. Paul describes what happens in conversion as “seeing
the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God”
(2 Cor. 4:4). This is what Satan desperately wants to hide from the eyes
of our hearts—a spiritual sight of Christ’s glory in the gospel. Not just
facts, but the beauty of the facts. The saving response to this spiritual
apprehension of glory in the cross of Christ must include a pleasing sense
of Christ’s beauty. It is inconceivable that faith would find Christ dis-
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tasteful. It is inconceivable that the regenerate heart could look upon the
glory of Christ in the gospel with indifferent or negative affections.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; . . . whoever believes in me
shall never thirst” (John 6:35), he is saying that “believing” in him
includes a taste for the living water of his all-satisfying glory, so that the
believing heart will never thirst again. That is, faith, having tasted the
all-satisfying sweetness of the living Christ, will never forsake him in
preference for the broken cisterns of the world. There may be temporary
strayings and backslidings. There may be great soul-conflict. But
once the soul has truly tasted the water of life and the bread of heaven,
it will never finally forsake the Lord.

Believing means trusting Jesus not only as our all-sovereign Lord
and all-sufficient Savior, but also as our all-surpassing Treasure. Trusting
in Christ as our Treasure means seeing and savoring him as a Treasure.
Christ is not our Treasure if we do not treasure him. And treasuring
something means being glad to have it. Therefore saving faith involves
no less than being glad to have Jesus himself for who he is.

It could not be otherwise, if the aim of God is to glorify his Son. If
Christ is followed only because his gifts are great and his threats are terrible,
he is not glorified by his followers. A defective lord can offer great
gifts and terrible threats. And a person may want the gifts, fear the
threats, and follow a lord whom they despise or pity or find boring or
embarrassing, in order to have the gifts and avoid the threats. If Christ
is to be glorified in his people, their following must be rooted not mainly
in his promised gifts or threatened punishments, but in his glorious
Person. Oh, it is true that “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by
all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). I do not minimize the joy of seeing
the works of the Lord. But his works are great because the Lord is great.
And they will become idols of delight unless they point us to the Lord
himself as our highest delight. The faith that honors Christ is the faith
that sees and savors his glory in all his works, especially the gospel.

THE CALL TO FIGHT FOR THIS

This means that the biblical passages that speak of the fight of faith
apply to the fight for joy. In his first letter to Timothy Paul tells him,
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which
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you were called” (6:12). Faith is something that must be fought for, if it
is to thrive and survive. This is how we take hold on eternal life—by
fighting to maintain faith, with its joy in Christ. Satan seeks more than
anything to destroy our faith. You can hear this in 1 Thessalonians 3:5,
where Paul says, “When I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about
your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our
labor would be in vain.” In other words, their faith is what Satan targets.
If faith is going to endure, with its joy in God, we must fight.

WHAT WE HAVE LOST IN THE WESTERN CHURCH

One of the reasons that today in the Western church our joy is so fragile
and thin is that this truth is so little understood—the truth, namely,
that eternal life is laid hold of only by a persevering fight for the joy of
faith. Joy will not be rugged and durable and deep through suffering
where there is not resolve to fight for it. But today, by and large, there
is a devil-may-care, cavalier, superficial attitude toward the ongoing,
daily intensity of personal joy in Christ, because people do not believe
that their eternal life depends on it.

The last two hundred years has seen an almost incredible devaluation
of the fight for joy. We have moved a hundred miles from Pilgrim’s
Progress where Christian labors and struggles and fights all his life “for
the joy that was set before him” (Heb. 12:2) in the Celestial City. Oh,
how different is the biblical view of the Christian life than the one prevalent
in the Western church. It is an earnest warfare from beginning to
end, and the war is to defend and strengthen the fruit-bearing fields of
joy in God.

James 1:12 says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under
trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life,
which God has promised to those who love him.” The person who will
receive the crown of eternal life is the person who successfully endures
trial—that is, the person who fights for joy in the pain of loss and gets
the victory over the unbelief of anger and bitterness and discouragement.

Revelation 2:10 says to those who are being thrown in prison for
their faith, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
This is very different from the mood of Western Christianity. Here something
infinite and eternal hangs on whether these Christians hold fast to
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the joy of faith while in prison. But today worship services, Bible studies,
prayer meetings, and fellowship gatherings in many churches do not
have a spirit of earnestness and intensity and fervor and depth because
people do not really believe that anything significant is at stake in the
fight for joy—least of all their eternal life. The all-important priority
seems to be cheerfulness, even jollity.

Oh, that the church would waken to the warfare we are in and feel
the urgency of the fight for joy. This is how we hold fast to eternal life.
“Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life” (1 Tim.
6:12). Faith has in it the taste of joy in the glory of Christ. Therefore the
good fight of faith is the fight for joy.

A GOOD FIGHT

It will help us fight for joy if we realize why Paul calls it a good fight.
First, it is a good fight because the enemy of our joy is evil. The enemy
is unbelief, and the satanic forces behind it, and the sins that come
from it. When you set yourself to combat the forces that try to make
you delight in yourself or your accomplishments or your possessions
more than in God, you oppose a very evil enemy. Therefore it is a good
fight.

Second, it is a good fight because we are not left to our own strength
in the fight. If we were, as Martin Luther says, “Our striving would be
losing.” In other words, when a child of God fights for joy in God, God
himself is the one behind that struggle, giving the will and the power to
defeat the enemy of joy (Phil. 2:12-13). We are not left to ourselves to
sustain the joy of faith. God fights for us and in us. Therefore the fight
of faith is a good fight.

Third, it is a good fight because it is not a struggle to carry a burden,
but a struggle to let a burden be carried for us. The life of joy in
God is not a burdened life. It is an unburdened life. The fight for joy is
the struggle to trust God with the burdens of life. It’s a fight for freedom
from worry. It’s a fight for hope and peace and joy, which are all threatened
by unbelief and doubt about God’s promises. And since freedom
and hope and peace and joy are good, the fight to preserve them is a
good fight.

Fourth, the fight of faith is good because, unlike most fights, it does
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not involve self-exaltation but self-humbling. Most fighting is not good
because it is a proud attempt to prove our own strength at someone else’s
expense. But the fight for joy is just the opposite. It’s a way of saying that
we are weak and desperately need the mercy of God. By nature we do
not like to admit our helplessness. We do not like to say, “Apart from
Christ I can do nothing—I cannot even rejoice” (see John 15:5). But the
very essence of faith is the admission of our sinful helplessness in the
quest for eternal joy, and looking away from ourselves to God through
Christ for the help and the joy that is in him alone. This kind of humility
is good. Therefore the fight for joy is a good fight.

Fifth, the fight for joy is good because by it God is greatly glorified.
When we devote ourselves to resist the idolatrous power of every craving,
every desire, every pleasure that is not God, then God is exalted as
the superior Treasure of our lives. Fighting against all alien joy shows
that we know the infinite worth of God. Therefore the fight for joy is a
good fight.

At the end of his life Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have
finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7). Keeping the faith
for a lifetime is the result of fighting the good fight for a lifetime. And if
faith includes at least the taste of joy in the glory of Christ, then this lifelong
fight is a fight for joy—a very good fight.

PAUL’S MINISTRY: WORKING FOR OUR JOY

It’s no surprise, then, that Paul conceived of his entire ministry as helping
people fight for joy. He says as much in two places. In 2 Corinthians
1:24 he says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you
for your joy.” Notice two things. One is how joy and faith are almost
interchangeable: “We don’t lord it over your faith; we work with you
for your joy.” You would have expected him to say, “We work with you
for your faith.” But he says he works for their joy. That is what I am
trying to do in this book. That is what I try to do every Sunday in the
pulpit. That is what we should do for each other every day (Heb. 3:12-
13). Maintaining joy in God takes “work”; that is, it’s a fight against
every impulse for alien joys and every obstacle in the way to seeing and
savoring Christ.

The other place where Paul speaks of his calling in this way is
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Philippians 1:25. He is wrestling with two competing desires: to depart
and be with Christ, or to stay and minister to the churches. He concludes,
“I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your
progress and joy in the faith.” In other words, he expresses the summary
of his ministry on earth as working to advance their joy! It is remarkable
that Paul would sum up his entire ministry as working for our joy.
So we should not draw back at the summons to work and fight for joy
in God.

BACK TO THE TENSION BETWEEN FIGHTING AND REJOICING

Now back to the question we began with: Do fighting and joy go
together? I’ve tried to address one issue, namely, that the stakes are so
high we should not be surprised that we must fight. Our souls hang in
the balance. So I hope it sounds more fitting and crucial now when the
summons comes: Take up arms and fight for joy in God. A manual in
that war is what this book aims to be.

But another thing that makes fighting and joy seem incompatible is
that joy is spontaneous and fighting is planned. Joy happens in the heart
spontaneously. You don’t get up in the morning feeling blue and then
immediately experience joy simply because you decide to. If you are tired
when you wake up, you can force yourself to throw your legs out of bed.
But if you are gloomy and discouraged when you wake up, you cannot
just start feeling happy. Joy is not in the power of the will the way physical
motion is.

So how does the intentionality of the fight relate to the spontaneity
of the joy? This is virtually the same question that I posed in the previous
chapter and promised to try to answer here: How does the fact that
joy is a free gift of God relate to our responsibility to have it?2 One of
the reasons we experience joy in God as spontaneous is that it’s a gift.
And one of the reasons we must fight for it is that we are responsible to
have it. So the questions are virtually the same: How do we fight for
something that is spontaneous? And, what can we do to obtain a totally
free gift?

This entire book is meant as an answer to that question, but here I
will simply offer a broad summary answer in three parts.
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THE FIGHT ITSELF IS A GIFT

First, we embrace the truth that not only our joy in God, but also the
fight for joy itself is a gift of God. In other words, God works in us to
enable us to fight. Embracing this truth prevents us from thinking that
the joy we fight for is ultimately our achievement. Joy remains a gift and
continues to be spontaneous, even though we ourselves are engaged in
its cause.

The evidence for this point is found in numerous biblical texts. For
example, in 1 Corinthians 15:10 Paul says, “By the grace of God I am
what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary,
I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace
of God that is with me.” Paul worked hard. He did not say that God’s
grace made his work unnecessary. He said God’s grace made his work
possible. He worked, but “it was not I, but the grace of God that is with
me.” So the fight for joy is our fight, and we are responsible to do it.
But when we have fought for joy with all our might, we say with the
apostle Paul, “it was not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” It
was a gift.

Philippians 2:12-13 describes how Christian work is enabled by the
work of God within us. “Work out your own salvation with fear and
trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for
his good pleasure.” God’s work in us does not eliminate our work; it
enables it. We work because he is the one at work in us. Therefore, the
fight for joy is possible because God is fighting for us and through us.
All our efforts are owing to his deeper work in and through our willing
and working. This is why I say our fight for joy is a gift of God.

The same thing could be shown from Hebrews 13:20-21: “Now
may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus,
the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant,
equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us
that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be
glory forever and ever. Amen.” God works in us that which is pleasing
in his sight. The fight for joy is owing to his working in us. When all is
said and done, Paul says, “I will not venture to speak of anything except
what Christ has accomplished through me” (Rom. 15:18). In this way
the gift of joy remains a gift and remains spontaneous, even though we
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fight for it. All our fighting is a work of God, and when a work of God
brings about joy in God, the joy is manifestly a gift.

WE FIGHT TO PUT OURSELVES IN THE GOD-ORDAINED PATH OF BLESSING

Second, we understand that our fight for joy does not coerce God to give
the gift of joy, but puts us in the path where he has ordained the blessing
to come. I say it carefully, lest I sound as though joy can be demanded
from the Almighty. It is a fruit of the Spirit that grows on the tree of faith
(Gal. 5:22); it is not a wage God must pay for our work or for our fight.
That God ordinarily gives joy when we walk in certain paths is no guarantee
that he will do so according to our timetable.

We are like farmers. They plow the field and plant the seed and cut
away weeds and scare away crows, but they do not make the crop grow.
God does. He sends rain and sunshine and brings to maturity the hidden
life of the seed. We have our part. But it is not coercive or controlling.
And there will be times when the crops fail. Even then God has his
ways of feeding the farmer and bringing him through a lean season.

We must learn to wait for the Lord. King David gave us an example
of this in Psalm 40. “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to
me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out
of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (vv. 1-
3). Here is a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), who spent time
in “the pit of destruction” and in “the miry bog”—where there was no
song in his mouth. How long was he there? We are not told. What matters
is what he did there. He waited for the Lord. He could not make
the Lord come. He could wait and hope and trust that he would come.
And he did come. He put David’s feet on a rock and put a new song in
his mouth.

Georg Neumark (1621-1681), the German hymn-writer, expressed
this humble position in his great hymn, “If Thou But Suffer God to
Guide Thee”:

God knows the time for joy and truly
Will send it when he sees it meet
When He has tried and purged thee duly

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And found thee free from all deceit.
He comes to thee all unaware
And makes thee own His loving care.
3

Two hundred years later Karolina Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (1832-
1903), known as the Fanny Crosby of Sweden because of the 650 hymns
that she wrote, expressed the same humility under the mighty hand of
God. In one of her best-known hymns, “Day by Day,” she wrote:

He Whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what He deems best—
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest
.4

In obedience to God’s Word we should fight to walk in the paths
where he has promised his blessings. But when and how they come is
God’s to decide, not ours. If they delay, we trust the wisdom of our
Father’s timing, and we wait. In this way joy remains a gift, while we
work patiently in the field of obedience and fight against the weeds and
the crows and the rodents. Here is where joy will come. Here is where
Christ will reveal himself (John 14:21). But that revelation and that joy
will come when and how Christ chooses. It will be a gift.

WE FIGHT TO SEE

Third, we understand that the fight for joy is first and always a fight to
see. Seeing the glory of Jesus Christ in the gospel awakens joy. And joy
in Christ magnifies his worth. That is why Satan aims chiefly at blinding
us from seeing Christ for who he is. He hates to see Christ honored.
And Christ is mightily honored when the sight of his glory gives rise to
the kind of gladness that cuts the nerve of sin and causes radical sacrifice
in the cause of the gospel.

Paul tells us about this design of Satan in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The
god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them
from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image
of God.” If joy in Christ, with all the risk-taking love that flows from it,
is to be stopped, then seeing the glory of Christ must be blocked. That
is Satan’s chief employment.
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When we understand that seeing Christ is what leads to enjoying
Christ, and that therefore the fight for joy is mainly a fight to see, we
grasp how the fight does not undermine the fact that joy is a gift and a
spontaneous experience. The joy that comes from seeing beauty is spontaneous
no matter how hard one fought to see. The fighting does not
cause the joy. Seeing causes the joy. And it does so freely. There is no
coercion. No one stands before a beautiful sunrise and says, “Now I
worked hard to get up this early; you owe me happiness by your bright
colors.” No. We stand there, and in humility we receive. And if the joy
comes, it is a gift.

The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way
that does not replace grace. We must be able to say at the end of our
lives, “I have fought the good fight.” But we must also say, “It was not
I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I have pursued Christ as my
joy with all my might. But it was a might that he mightily imparted. We
must fight for joy in such a way that we prove Jesus true when he said,
“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). We will succeed
in this battle when we can say with Paul in Colossians 1:29 that we
are “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
We struggle to bear the burden and carry the yoke. But he gives the
power. All burdens are light to him. All yokes are easy to him. This too
is something glorious to see in him. This too makes us glad in him. Trust
him for this. Our joy in him will be the greater because we see him as
the one who gives both the joy and the strength to fight for it.
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Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.
C . S . L E W I S
Surprised by Joy1

The fruit of the Spirit is . . . joy.
G A L A T I A N S 5 : 2 2

For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that
you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as
if you did not receive it?

1 C O R I N T H I A N S 4 : 7