– Doing Ourselves What Must Be Done for Us –

When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper

The title of this chapter is good news for the hopeless and bad news
for the self-reliant. Or to put it another way: It is liberating and
devastating. It liberates from despair the person who knows that he cannot
make himself desire what he does not desire. And it devastates the
presumption of the person who thought that all his duties were in his
own power.


One of the reasons people deny that delighting in God is essential is that
they know intuitively that this delight is beyond their control, and they
feel that something beyond their control cannot be required. They are
half right. In the end, joy in God is a free gift, not a self-wrought human
accomplishment. That’s right. But it is not biblical to say that the only
virtues God can require of me are the ones that I am good enough to
perform. If I am so bad that I can’t delight in what is good, that is no
reason God can’t command me to love the good. If I am so corrupt that
I can’t enjoy what is infinitely beautiful, that does not make me less
guilty for disobeying the command to delight in God (Ps. 37:4). It makes
me more guilty.


The fact that joy in God is a duty is plain from the straightforward biblical
commands to do it. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say,
Rejoice” (Phil. 4:4; see also Ps. 32:11; 37:4; 97:12; 100:1; Joel 2:23).
Matthew Henry, writing in the seventeenth century, speaks on behalf of
two thousand years of sober reflection on these words:

Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say Rejoice (v. 4). All our joy
must terminate in God; and our thoughts of God must be delightful
thoughts. Delight Thyself in the Lord (Ps. 37:4). . . . Observe, It is our
duty and privilege to rejoice in God, and to rejoice in him always; at
all times, in all conditions; even when we suffer for him, or are
afflicted by him. We must not think the worse of him or of his ways
for the hardships we meet with in his service. There is enough in God
to furnish us with matter of joy in the worst circumstance on
earth. . . . Joy in God is a duty of great consequence in the Christian
life; and Christians need to be again and again called to it.2

Since joy in God is a duty, some say it can’t be a gift. But consider
now what the Bible says about this. Then we will close this chapter by
asking why it matters.


Among those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, it is a commonplace
to say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”
(Rom. 3:23). That is a profound and all-important truth. But it’s not the
whole story. The problem is not that we have all done acts that are sinful,
but that we are sinful. N. P. Williams put it like this: “The ordinary
man may feel ashamed of doing wrong: but the saint, endowed with a
superior refinement of moral sensibility, and keener powers of introspection,
is ashamed of being the kind of man who is liable to do
wrong.”3 Sin is not just something we do; it is a power deeply rooted in
our nature. When we are converted to Christ, the Holy Spirit is given to
us, and by his power we begin to overcome our fallen, sinful nature.

But by nature we are rebellious, disobedient, and hardened against
God. Thus the psalmist cries out, “Enter not into judgment with your
servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps. 143:2). The
prophet Jeremiah bemoans the truth that “the heart is deceitful above
all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). King
David traced this condition back to his birth: “Behold, I was brought
forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5). This
inborn corruption is so severe that Paul says, “I know that nothing good
dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18).

What Paul means by “flesh” is not his skin, but his natural self apart
from the redemption of Christ and apart from the transforming work
of the Holy Spirit. Another way Paul refers to the “flesh” is by calling it
simply the “natural person”—that is, the person we are by nature, without
Christ. So he says, for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural
person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are
folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually
discerned.” In other words, “the natural person,” or “the flesh,”
is so resistant to spiritual reality that he can’t understand or accept the
things of God. This person will not delight in God. The natural heart is
so corrupt in its desires that it cannot see or savor the beauty of Christ.

That’s what Paul means when he says in Romans 8:7-8 that the mind
of the flesh “is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed,
it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Notice the
word cannot. It’s used twice. The natural person, the person defined by
flesh, but not yet changed by Christ, is so hostile in mind to God’s glorious
authority (not submitting to his law) that he cannot delight in God
or rejoice in his ways. He can do many religious and moral things, but
his heart is far from God (Matt. 15:8), and he cannot make himself stop
seeing the greatness and authority of God as undesirable.


It is not surprising then to hear Paul describe us, in this fallen, natural,
fleshly condition as “dead.” That’s what he says in Ephesians 2:4-5: “But
God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved
us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together
with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” The deepest reason why
we cannot rejoice in the Lord is that by nature we are dead. That is, we
have no spiritual sensitivity to the truth and beauty of the gospel of
Christ. We are like the blind in the art gallery of heaven. Our deadness
Joy in God Is a Gift of God < 49
is not the deadness of the body. It’s not even the deadness of the intellect
or the will. It is the deadness of the spiritual ability to see reality for
what it is.

Paul describes our deadness to divine beauty with phrases like
“futility of mind” and “darkened in understanding” and “ignorance
that is in us.” And he traces it back to “hardness of heart.” You see this
in Ephesians 4:17-18: “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in
the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding,
alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them,
due to their hardness of heart.” Notice that hardness is deeper than ignorance.
Ignorance is rooted in hardness, not the other way around.
Therefore we are not excused. The problem with our ignorance of God’s
beauty is not innocent unawareness, but culpable hardness. Our hardness
is our deadness, and our deadness makes us unable to submit to the
command, Love the Lord with all your heart.

Because of this fallen, sinful, hardened, rebellious, futile, dead condition
of our hearts, joy in God is impossible. Not impossible in a way
that makes us less guilty, but more guilty. When the rich young ruler
walked away from Jesus because he delighted more in his riches than in
following Christ, Jesus said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the
eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”
(Matt. 19:24). The disciples were astonished at this. They knew that a
camel cannot go through the eye of a needle. That’s true. And humans
cannot make themselves delight in Christ more than money. So Jesus
answered, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”
(v. 26).


This was Jesus’ way of saying that joy in God is a gift. Preferring Jesus
to money is a gift of God. We can’t produce it on our own. It must be
given to us. When Jesus is presented to us as the most desirable Person,
Lord, Savior, and Friend in the universe, we will not come to him on our
own. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent
me draws him. . . . No one can come to me unless it is granted him by
the Father” (John 6:44, 65). Coming to Jesus as the Treasure and
Pleasure of our lives is “granted . . . by the Father” or it doesn’t happen.
We are too hard and rebellious in ourselves even to see Jesus as attractive,
let alone leave all and come to him as our all-satisfying Joy.

Jesus said it another way. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,
and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to
you, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7). Until we are born again
by the Spirit of God, all we are is “flesh”—natural people with no spiritual
life, no living taste buds in the soul for the sweetness of Christ. How
then are we made alive? The next thing out of Jesus’ mouth is, “The
wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not
know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who
is born of the Spirit” (v. 8). The point is that the Spirit is free. He blows
where he wills. We don’t control him. He controls us. His life-giving
work is pure gift. When you see Jesus as your Treasure, the Spirit has
blown through your heart. Your joy in Jesus is a gift.


Someone may say, “This sounds like repentance. But isn’t repentance
something we do? Are you saying repentance also is a gift?” That’s a
good question. The transformation we’ve described is indeed repentance.
Repentance refers to the experience of a changed mind. Once the
mind was hostile to God, but now the mind is in love with God. Once
the crucifixion of Christ seemed foolish, but now it is precious to us. It’s
the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor. 1:23-24). Once the mind trusted
in human ability to achieve happiness and security, but now the mind
despairs of itself and looks to Christ for hope and joy. Christ—and all
that God is for us in him—has become our happiness and our security.

Yes, that is repentance. And, yes, repentance is a gift. We do not
make ourselves into Christ-adoring people. We do not muster enough
human wisdom or strength or willpower to deliver ourselves from the
captivity of Satan’s deceits. No, that is all a precious gift of God. Oh, he
uses human means to bring it about. Otherwise I would not be writing
this book. But in the end, no human means make the miracle of repentance
happen. You can see both the means and the miracle in 2 Timothy
2:24-26: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone,
able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with
gentleness. [That’s the means. Now the miracle.] God may perhaps grant
them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may
escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his
will.” We teach and we love, but God grants repentance.

I pray that this book will be used by God as one of his many means
to “grant . . . repentance.” But in the end, it will be God, and not this
book, or any book, that delivers a person from the captivity of the devil’s
deceit and opens his eyes to see the superior worth of Jesus Christ. Then,
when God grants repentance, he will prize Christ above all treasures and
savor him above all pleasures. That is a gift. I pray for every reader who
needs it: Lord, grant them repentance.


But the question was asked above, “Isn’t repentance something we do?
If it’s a gift of God, how do we do it?” Yes, repentance is something we
do. After Peter preached a convicting message at Pentecost, the crowd
cried, “Brothers, what shall we do?” To this Peter answered, “Repent”
(Acts 2:37-38). He said more. But that’s the point at issue here.
Repentance is a command that we are responsible to obey.

Here we have arrived at the central mystery of living the Christian
life. Christ has died for our sins and risen from the dead. Because of his
blood and righteousness we are forgiven and counted righteous by God
in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9; Rom. 5:19). Therefore, Christ has
become the Yes to all God’s promises (2 Cor. 1:20). Everything promised
by the prophets for the new covenant has been purchased for us infallibly
by Christ. These new-covenant promises include, “The LORD your
God will circumcise your heart . . . so that you will love the LORD your
God with all your heart” (Deut. 30:6); and, “I will put my law within
them . . . on their hearts” (Jer. 31:33); and, “I will remove the heart of
stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezek.11:19); and,
“I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes”
(Ezek. 36:27).

All of these new-covenant promises have been secured for us by
Christ who said at the Last Supper, “This cup that is poured out for you
is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The blood of Christ
obtained for us all the promises of the new covenant. But look again at
these promises. What distinguishes them from the old covenant is that
they are promises for enablement. They are promises that God will do
for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We need a new heart to delight
in God. We need the Spirit of God whose fruit is joy in God. We need
to have the law written on our heart, not just written on stone, so that
when it says, “Love the Lord with all your heart,” the Word itself produces
the reality within us. In other words, we need the gift of joy in
God. Left to ourselves, we will not produce it. That’s what Christ bought
for us when he died and shed the blood of the new covenant. He bought
for us the gift of joy in God.


That is half the mystery of the Christian life—the most crucial half. The
other half is that we are commanded to do what we cannot do. And we
must do it or perish. Our inability does not remove our guilt—it deepens
it. We are so bad that we cannot love God. We cannot delight in God
above all things. We cannot treasure Christ above money. Our entrenched
badness does not make it wrong for God to command us to be good. We
ought to delight in God above all things. Therefore it is right for God to
command us to delight in God above all things. And if we ever do delight
in God, it will be because we have obeyed this command.

That is the mystery: We must obey the command to rejoice in the
Lord, and we cannot, because of our willful and culpable corruption.
Therefore obedience, when it happens, is a gift. The heretic Pelagius in
the fourth century rejected this truth and was shocked and angered when
he saw the way St. Augustine prayed in his Confessions. Augustine
prayed, “Give me the grace [O Lord] to do as you command, and command
me to do what you will! . . . O holy God . . . when your commands
are obeyed, it is from you that we receive the power to obey them.”4


That is a biblical prayer, and we will see many like it in the chapters to
come (e.g., Ps. 51:12; 90:14; Rom. 15:13). It corresponds to the mystery
of the Christian life. We must delight in God. And only God can
change our hearts so that we delight in God. We are thrown back on
God utterly. The Christian life is all of grace. “From him and through
him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36).

In the next chapter I will talk about the kind of willing and doing
involved in obeying the command to rejoice, when this rejoicing itself is
a gift. We do not stop and become passive when we hear that joy is a
gift. We act. How and why we act is the question we will take up in the
next chapter. But first I promised that we would ask why the truth of
this chapter matters.


The first reason is that truth matters, and we should believe and embrace
it whether we can see how it benefits us or not. This is what the Bible
says about us and about joy in God. We can’t produce it; God must give
it. That is true, and we should believe and love the truth.

Second, when we believe this truth, our joy in God is multiplied
because it is compounded with gratitude. In all our joy we are thankful
to God, the Giver, that we delight in God.

Third, when we believe this truth, we will seek our joy from God
with greater urgency than if we thought it was in our power. This truth
sets us to praying as never before.

Fourth, believing this truth will prevent our strategies in the fight for
joy from degenerating into technique and legalism. Technique cannot be
paramount because God is sovereign. There are things we must do in the
battle for joy. But if joy is a gift, it can never be earned. So legalism that
tries to earn things from God is excluded. Not only that, but knowing that
joy is ultimately a gift, and not a mere human achievement, also protects
us from elevating technique and willpower too highly. Our strategies must
be humble and dependent, followed by “May the LORD do what seems
good to him” (2 Sam. 10:12). Our strategies to fight for joy are simply
means of God’s grace. And means of grace are always modest.

The Bible illustrates the modesty of means in numerous ways. “The
horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the
LORD” (Prov. 21:31). “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who
build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman
stays awake in vain” (Ps. 127:1). “Many are the plans in the mind
of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Prov. 19:21).
If joy is a gift from God, we will use all his appointed means, but we will
not trust in means, but in God.

Fifth, believing that joy in God is a gift of God will give all the glory
to God. This is the goal of the Christian life—to live in a way that will
show God to be most wonderful. The apostle Peter gives a principle in
1 Peter 4:11 for how to do that. He says, “Whoever serves, [let him
serve] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that
in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” The strength
to serve is a gift. God supplies it. When we believe that and lean on it
consciously, we show God to be the glorious giver of the strength. The
giver gets the glory.

We may paraphrase like this: “Let him who rejoices in the Lord,
rejoice in the joy that God supplies, so that in everything—including our
joy—God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” Therefore, believing
that joy in God is a gift from God is essential in our calling to live for
the glory of God. It shapes all our other strategies. It makes them humble.
It makes them into acts of faith. In everything we do in our quest
for joy we are praying and trusting the grace of God for a gift. May this
truth liberate the despairing soul and humble the proud.

Man’s proper happiness consists in the enjoyment of God; but it
is not possible that man should enjoy God with only those
things in him which he receives by the first birth. So that there
is this necessity of man’s being born again.

“ B O R N A G A I N ”
The Works of Jonathan Edwards1

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.

2 C O R I N T H I A N S 4 : 4

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
P S A L M 3 4 : 8