– Musing, Memorizing, and the Message of God –
When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper
If the Bible, with the cross of Christ at its center, is more valuable
than anything else on earth, then we should be serious about how
we use it in the fight for joy. We should be like Wesley, quoted on the
facing page, and like Charles Spurgeon, when he said, “It is blessed to
eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in
Scriptural language, and your spirit is flavored with the words of the
Lord, so that your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows
from you.”2 So in this chapter my aim is to give practical counsel on how
to do this. My prayer is that the preciousness of the Bible would become
the measure of our passion for its place in our hearts.
THE PARADOX OF PLANNING AND SPONTANEITY
First, I would stress the importance of planning. I don’t mean any elaborate,
lifelong vision. I mean something as simple as, when you finish
with this chapter, take three minutes to ask for God’s help, and to consider
your schedule, and to pick out a time to read your Bible, and then
write it down somewhere so that you remember to do it. Many good
things do not happen in our lives for the simple lack of planning.
Consultants get paid thousands of dollars to tell executives the obvi-
ous, because the obvious is neglected. It’s the same with all of us. We fail
to do what’s best for us for lack of serious intention to do it. Another
name for serious intention is planning. Most Christians neglect their
Bibles not out of conscious disloyalty to Jesus, but because of failure to
plan a time and place and method to read it.
The result is not spontaneity, but the same old rut. If your longing is
to be spontaneous in the way you commune with God, then build discipline
into your Bible reading and prayer. It sounds paradoxical. But it’s no
more so than the paradox of corn spontaneously growing in a Minnesota
field because of the farmer’s discipline of plowing and sowing and guarding
the field. He doesn’t make the corn grow. God does. But God uses his
farming disciplines as part of the process. The rich fruit of spontaneity
grows in the garden that is well tended by the discipline of schedule.
So I say again, plan a place and a time when you will read the Bible
and think about it each day. There can always be more times during the
day. There should be. But let there be one sacred time and place. Put it
on your calendar. Treat it the same way you would an appointment with
a partner or friend. If someone asks you to do something during that
time, say, “I’m sorry, I already have an appointment then.”
IN GENERAL, EARLY MORNING IS BEST
I earnestly recommend that it be in the early morning, unless there are
some extenuating circumstances.3 Entering the day without a serious
meeting with God, over his Word and in prayer, is like entering the battle
without tending to your weapons. It’s like taking a trip without filling
the tires with air or the tank with gas. The human heart does not
replenish itself with sleep. The body does, but not the heart. The spiritual
air leaks from our tires, and the gas is consumed in the day. We
replenish our hearts not with sleep, but with the Word of God and
prayer. Thousands of saints have discovered through the centuries that
starting the day by filling the mind with the Word of God will bring more
joy and more love and more power than traveling on yesterday’s gas.
FIND A PLACE OF SECLUSION, OR MAKE IT BY RULE
Pick a place of seclusion. If you try to read your Bible and pray where
people are moving about, the powers of darkness will exploit that poten-
tial for distraction with all their might. Don’t think it has to be comfy.
In fact, comfy will probably put you to sleep. It needs to be secluded so
that you are not distracted, and so that you can speak out loud and sing
and cry. You will cry sooner or later—when you are wrestling for the
soul of your teenager, or struggling to keep your marriage together, or
laboring to kill the pride in your life. You need to be alone.
If your family situation or home does not have such a place, then
create it, not by space, but by rule. That is, arrange that the children or
the spouse or the roommates will not speak to you during the appointed
time. One saintly mother with a large brood of children would use her
apron to make a tent for her head and her Bible at the kitchen table, and
the children were taught, when mother is in her tent, make no noise.
PLAN HOW YOU WILL READ YOUR BIBLE
Besides planning for the place and time, plan how you will read your
Bible. There are many ways to read the Bible. Any is better than none.
Coming to the appointed place and time with no plan for how to read
the Bible usually results in a hit-and-miss approach that leaves you feeling
weak, unreal, and discouraged.
For many years I have read through the Bible once each year following
“The Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan.”4 The month is May as
I write this chapter, and I have just read this morning sections from Mark,
Galatians, Psalms, and 2 Samuel. The design is to read daily from two Old
Testament and two New Testament books. I find this variety helpful.
Others don’t, and would rather use some other approach.5 That’s fine. The
one great benefit of “The Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan” is that
it gives you assignments for only twenty-five days out of the month. This
means that any failures to keep up can be overcome each month in the
makeup days. This is a wonderful dose of realism for the average sinful
reader (including me). And if you are already up-to-date at the end of
twenty-five days, then you have five or six days to do special memory work
or to read some other part of the Bible that you have been missing.
HOW GEORGE MUELLER FOUGHT FOR JOY
One of the greatest witnesses I know of to the power of regular disciplined
reading of the Bible for the sake of love-producing joy is George
How to Wield the Word in the Fight for Joy < 117
Mueller (1805-1898), who is famous for founding orphanages in Bristol,
England, and for depending on God for meeting all his needs. He asked
the very question this book is asking, and he gave the same answer:
In what way shall we attain to this settled happiness of soul? How shall
we learn to enjoy God? How shall we obtain such an all-sufficient
soul-satisfying portion in him as shall enable us to let go the things of
this world as vain and worthless in comparison? I answer, This happiness
is to be obtained through the study of the Holy Scriptures. God
has therein revealed Himself unto us in the face of Jesus Christ.6
That’s what we have seen so far in this book: Happiness in God comes
from seeing God revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ through the
Scriptures. Mueller says, “In them . . . we become acquainted with the character
of God. Our eyes are divinely opened to see what a lovely Being God
is! And this good, gracious, loving, heavenly Father is ours—our portion
for time and for eternity.”7 Knowing God is the key to being happy in God.
The more we know of God, the happier we are. . . . When we became
a little acquainted with God . . . our true happiness . . . commenced;
and the more we become acquainted with him, the more truly happy
we become. What will make us so exceedingly happy in heaven? It
will be the fuller knowledge of God.8
Therefore the most crucial means of fighting for joy in God is to
immerse oneself in the Scriptures where we see God in Christ most clearly.
When he was seventy-one years old, Mueller spoke to younger believers:
Now . . . I would give a few hints to my younger fellow-believers as to
the way in which to keep up spiritual enjoyment. It is absolutely needful
. . . we should read regularly through the Scriptures, consecutively,
and not pick out here and there a chapter. If we do, we remain spiritual
dwarfs. I tell you so affectionately. For the first four years after my
conversion I made no progress, because I neglected the Bible. But when
I regularly read on through the whole with reference to my own heart
and soul, I directly made progress. Then my peace and joy continued
more and more. Now I have been doing this for 47 years. I have read
through the whole Bible about 100 times and I always find it fresh when
I begin again. Thus my peace and joy have increased more and more.9
He would live and read his Bible for another twenty-one years. But
he never changed his strategy for satisfaction in God. When he was seventy-
six, he wrote the same thing he had learned for over fifty years: “I
saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to
which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the
Lord.”10 And the means stayed the same:
I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself
to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it. . . . What
is the food of the inner man? Not prayer, but the word of God; and
. . . not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes
through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering
what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.11
THE INDISPENSABLE STRATEGY OF BIBLE MEMORIZATION
How shall we use the Word of God to fight for joy? The first answer I
have given is to read it with plan and regularity. The next answer I give
is to memorize verses and paragraphs and chapters and even whole
books of the Bible. The older you get, the harder it is. I am fifty-eight as
I write this, and I still invest significant time in memorizing Scripture,
but it is much harder now than it used to be. It takes far more repetition
to make the words stick to this aging brain.
But I would not give it up any more than a miser would give up his
stash of gold. I feel the same way Dallas Willard does when he says:
Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation.
If I had to choose between all the disciplines of the spiritual life, I
would choose Bible memorization, because it is a fundamental way
of filling our mind with what it needs. This book of the law shall not
depart out of your mouth. That’s where you need it! How does it get
in your mouth? Memorization.12
The joy-producing effects of memorizing Scripture and having it in
my head and heart are incalculable. The world and its God-ignoring, allembracing
secularism is pervasive. It invades my mind every day. What
hope is there to have a mind filled with Christ except to have a mind
filled with his Word? I know of no alternative.
The Word brings joy directly and indirectly. Directly by simply
showing us the beauty of Christ and his ways and all the good things he
has promised to be for us forever. Indirectly by weaning us off the toxic
pleasures of the world by means of the superior pleasures of Christ, so
that, in purity of heart, we can see the beauty of Christ more clearly. We
discussed how this happens in the previous chapter.
HOW MEMORY HELPS US MAKE WAR
But now observe that memorization suits both these paths of joy. It
offers us all day the immediate beauty of Christ in his Word, and it offers
us all day the weapons by which we cut the nerve of sin’s sweet deception.
Memorization corresponds to both paths of joy. First, the direct joy
of tasting beauty: “More to be desired are they than gold, even much
fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Ps.
19:10). Second, the indirect joy through purity: “I have stored up your
word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).
When you memorize the Word of God, it’s there directly giving joy
to you and (if you speak it) to others, and it’s there indirectly serving
your joy by transforming your mind. How shall we obey the command,
“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) if we neglect
to saturate our minds with the thoughts of God? Ask yourself: Of all the
spiritually minded people you have known—those who seem to walk
most consistently with God and are in tune with God’s Spirit—do they
not all overflow with Scripture? Are they not like John Bunyan? Prick
them, and they bleed Bible.13 This is no coincidence. Memorizing
Scripture is one of the surest routes to going deep with God and walking
in communion with him. Which means walking in joy.
One of the greatest scenes in The Pilgrim’s Progress is when
Christian recalls in the dungeon of Doubting-Castle that he has a key to
the door. Very significant is not only what the key is, but where it is:
“What a fool I have been, to lie like this in a stinking dungeon, when
I could have just as well walked free. In my chest pocket I have a key
called Promise that will, I am thoroughly persuaded, open any lock
in Doubting-Castle.” “Then,” said Hopeful, “that is good news. My
good brother, do immediately take it out of your chest pocket and try
it.” Then Christian took the key from his chest and began to try the
lock of the dungeon door; and as he turned the key, the bolt unlocked
and the door flew open with ease, so that Christian and hopeful
immediately came out.14
Three times Bunyan says that the key out of Doubting-Castle was
in Christian’s “chest pocket” or simply his “chest.” I take this to mean
that Christian had hidden God’s promise in his heart by memorization
and that it was now accessible in prison for precisely this reason.
This is how the promises sustained and strengthened Bunyan. He
was filled with Scripture. Everything he wrote was saturated with Bible.
He pored over his English Bible, which he had most of the time. This is
why he could say of his writings, “I have not for these things fished in
other men’s waters; my Bible and concordance are my only library in my
A RADICAL CALL TO MAJOR MEMORIZATION
Let me be very practical and challenge you to do something you perhaps
have never done. If you are not a memorizer at all, shift up to memorizing
a Bible verse a week.16 If you only memorize single verses, shift up
to memorizing some paragraphs or chapters (like Psalm 1 or Psalm 23
or Romans 8). And if you have ventured to memorize chapters, shift up
to memorize a whole book or part of a book. Few things have a greater
effect on the way we see God and the world than to memorize extended
portions of Scripture.
Andrew Davis, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham,
North Carolina, has written a very helpful little book called An
Approach to the Extended Memorization of Scripture.17 It inspired me
in 2001 to tackle the memorizing of Romans 1—8. By God’s grace, I
made it. Oh, how sweet and how terrible to live so intimately with the
greatest truth in the world!
Since then my focus has been on memorizing significant paragraphs
and chapters of the Bible rather than whole books. All Bible memory is
valuable, whether of verses, chapters, or books. But don’t shrink back
from the effort to memorize extended portions of Scripture. My own
conviction is that a hundred—I dare say a thousand—problems will be
solved in your life by memorizing Scripture this way before the problems
ever come. This is impossible to prove, but I commend it to you for
HOW DO YOU MEMORIZE A WHOLE BOOK?
I will borrow Andrew Davis’s method and simply give it to you as he
gives it in his booklet. It’s the method I use.
Sample daily procedure: The following is an example of how someone
could go about memorizing Ephesians at the rate of one verse per day:
1) Day one: Read Ephesians 1:1 out loud ten times, looking at
each word as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include
the verse number.18 Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re
done for the day.
2) Day two: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse,
Ephesians 1:1 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Look
in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory. Now, do your
new verse. Read Ephesians 1:2 out loud ten times, looking at each word
as if photographing it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number.
Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
3) Day three: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse,
Ephesians 1:2 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again,
you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory.
Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-2 together once,
being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse.
Read Ephesians 1:3 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing
it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number.
Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
4) Day four: Yesterday’s verse first!! Recite yesterday’s verse,
Ephesians 1:3 ten times, being sure to include the verse number. Again,
you should look in the Bible if you need to, just to refresh your memory.
Old verses next, altogether: Recite Ephesians 1:1-3 together once,
being sure to include the verse numbers. Now, do your new verse.
Read Ephesians 1:4 out loud ten times, looking at each word as if photographing
it with your eyes. Be sure to include the verse number.
Then cover the page and recite it ten times. You’re done for the day.
This cycle would continue through the entire book. Obviously,
the “old verses altogether” stage will soon swell to take the most time
of all. That’s exactly the way it should be. The entire book of
Ephesians can be read at a reasonable rate in less than fifteen minutes.
Therefore, the “old verses altogether” stage of your review should not
take longer than that on any given day. Do it with the Bible ready at
hand, in case you draw a blank or get stuck . . . there’s no shame in
looking, and it actually helps to nail down troublesome verses so they
will never be trouble again.
WHY SO MUCH EMPHASIS ON MEMORIZATION?
I spend this much time on Bible memory because I believe in the power of
the indwelling Word of God to solve a thousand problems before they happen,
and to heal a thousand wounds after they happen, and to kill a thousand
sins in the moment of temptation, and to sweeten a thousand days with
the “drippings of the honeycomb.” I am jealous for you, my readers, that
you would “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). This is
the path to solid joy and all the service of love that it sustains. Christ will be
seen as the fortune he is when we treasure his Word more than money, and
when the joy it wakens overflows with sacrificial love (2 Cor. 8:2).
THE WORD OF GOD, A PAD OF PAPER, A DAY AWAY
Another suggestion I would make is that you plan to take periodic retreats
with nothing but the Word of God and a pad of paper and pen (and perhaps
a hymnal). This may be for a Saturday morning, or a weekend, or
for several days. The aim is to free yourself from the press and hurry of
the world, in order to see more of Christ, because of the unique focus of
those hours. Some of the richest times with God I ever spent have been the
extended hours alone simply to read long stretches of the Bible and pray.
I recall one very powerful time that stands out from years ago when I was
out of town by myself and decided in my lonely apartment to spend the
morning reading the Gospel of Mark at one sitting, praying as I read.
Wesley Duewel, in his book Let God Guide You Daily, describes
what it is like for him to seek God in a retreat of solitude: “I have at
times read as many as fifty chapters from God’s Word before I was completely
alone with God. But on some of those occasions I received such
unexpected guidance that my life has been greatly benefited.”19 When I
read this, I had to ask, as I am sure you do: Have I ever read fifty chapters
of the Bible in one day? What blessings and joys might await those
who are hungry enough to take a day for such a thing?
THERE ARE EYES IN PENCILS AND IN PENS
I mentioned that you might want to take a pad and pen on such a retreat.
In fact I would say, always keep a pad and pen nearby when you read
the Bible. I have often counseled people who tell me that they don’t see
anything when they read the Bible, “Go home and this time, write the
How to Wield the Word in the Fight for Joy < 123
text, instead of just reading it. If anything stands out as helpful, make a
mark and write down your ideas about it. Keep writing till you are done
with that insight. Then keep reading and writing the text till you see
something else to write about, or until you are out of time.”
The main value in this is that writing forces us to slow down and
see what we are reading. Some of us have very bad habits of passive
reading that certain types of formal education have bred into us, by forcing
us to read quickly when we ought to be reading slowly—thinking as
we go. Writing is a way of slowing us down and opening our eyes to see
what we do not otherwise see. This struck me so forcefully one day that
I paused and wrote:
I know not how the light is shed,
Nor understand this lens.
I only know that there are eyes
In pencils and in pens.
LEARNING TO MUSE OVER THE WORD OF GOD
This suggestion that you write what you read, and that you take notes,
is moving us toward what is usually called meditation. Memorizing and
reading slowly with pen in hand are ways of making meditation possible.
And meditation is crucial in the fight for joy. God commanded
Joshua that a leader must be ever musing on the Word of God: “This
Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate
on it day and night” (Josh. 1:8). The scroll was rare and precious.
Joshua did not have a “pocket scroll” to carry around. This means that
God made memory and meditation part of what it took to lead his people.
The same is true today.
This was not a burden to the saints of old: “Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day. . . . I have more understanding than all
my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation” (Ps. 119:97, 99).
“His delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day
and night” (Ps. 1:2). “My eyes are awake before the watches of the
night, that I may meditate on your promise” (Ps. 119:148). “I remember
the days of old; I meditate on all that you have done; I ponder the
work of your hands” (Ps. 143:5). “On the glorious splendor of your
majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Ps. 145:5).
Now what does this meditation involve? The word meditation in
Hebrew means basically to speak or to mutter. When this is done in the
heart, it is called musing or meditation. So meditating on the Word of
God day and night means to speak to yourself the Word of God day and
night and to speak to yourself about it—to mull it over, to ask questions
about it and answer them from the Scripture itself, to ask yourself how
this might apply to you and others, and to ponder its implications for
life and church and culture and missions.
One simple way to do this is to memorize a verse or two and then
say them to yourself once, emphasizing the first word. Then say them to
yourself again, emphasizing the second word. Then say them a third
time, emphasizing the third word. And so on, over and over again, until
you have meditated on the reason why each word is there. Then you can
start asking relational questions. If this word is used, why is that word
used? The possibilities of musing and pondering and meditating are endless.
And always we pray as we ponder, asking for God’s help and light.
READING SERIOUS BOOKS ABOUT THE BIBLE AND THINKING
I would add here that many of us have made the mistake of thinking that
the only kind of meditation that will give rise to joy is the kind that
comes easy and involves little hard thinking. Since reading hard books
or thinking complex thoughts is usually not accompanied with pleasure
for most people, we assume that they are not the path to pleasure. That
is a mistake—at least it will prove to be a mistake for many people.
Of course, not all people should read the “great books” of Christian
history. Thousands of Christians will not be able to read at all and will
do all their meditation from orally received words. Many more will have
the kinds of work that keep them laboring from sunup till sundown, and
reading will be a luxury for rare snatched hours. Others will live in places
and be so poor that there is no access to any books, and perhaps only
fragments of the Bible. So please don’t take me to mean that everyone
must be a reader of great books in order to fight for joy successfully.
However, for thousands of people who read this book, and millions
of others like you, I would challenge you to throw off the notion that
weighty books of doctrine are joy-squelching, while light devotional
books are joy-producing. It’s true that the joy of serious reading and the
thinking that goes with it (sometimes called study) may not be as immediate
as the joy of singing in church, or seeing a sunset, or talking with
a friend, or hearing a preacher with lots of stories. But the payload for
joy may be greater. Raking is easier than digging, but you only get leaves.
If you dig you may get diamonds.
I have the profound sense that many people who complain of not
being able to rejoice in God treat the knowledge of God as something
that ought to be easy to get. They are passive. They expect spiritual
things to happen to them from out of nowhere. They don’t grasp the pattern
of the Bible expressed in Proverbs 2:1-6.
If you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with
you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart
to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice
for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden
treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find
the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth
come knowledge and understanding.
Look at all those aggressive words: “receive . . . treasure up . . . make
your ear attentive . . . incline your heart . . . call out . . . raise your voice . . .
seek . . . search”—if you do these, then knowledge of God will be yours.
Not because you can make it happen. The giving of the knowledge is still
in the hands of God: “For the LORD gives wisdom.” No, the pursuit of the
knowledge of God is not because you can make it happen, but because God
freely chooses to bless seeking with finding. The pattern is seen in 2 Timothy
2:7 where Paul says, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you
understanding in everything.” You think. The Lord gives. Our thinking
does not replace his giving. And his giving does not replace our thinking.
DOES HARD THINKING CREATE COLD HEARTS?
It is a tragedy that hard thinking has come to be associated with cold
hearts. This has not been the experience of the greatest Christian minds.
Delight and study have gone hand in hand. “Great are the works of the
LORD, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2). The wise English
Puritan Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680) saw this pattern in the Bible and
pleaded with his readers:
Endeavour to preserve and keep up lively, holy, and spiritual affections
in thy heart, and suffer them not to cool. . . . For such as your
affections such must your thoughts be; . . . Indeed, thoughts and affections
are . . . the mutual causes of each other: “Whilst I mused, the
fire burned” (Psalm 39:3); so that thoughts are the bellows that kindle
and inflame affections; and then if they are inflamed, they cause
thoughts to boil.20
Almost all the impulses in American publishing and church life
today communicate that fire in the bones will come not by doctrine and
thinking, but by quick nuggets, accessible stories, light devotional books,
and music. C. S. Lewis had a totally different experience, and mine is
the same as his.
For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful
in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that
the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who
find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a
book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they
are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in
their teeth and a pencil in their hand.21
Amen! (Well, with the exception of the pipe!) Of course, there are very
bad theology books, just as there are very bad devotional books. Both
will dry up your joy in a minute. But one should not stop eating fruit
because the last time he tried it was a lemon. Most of the sweet, rich fruit
of Christian doctrine is old. Augustine, John Calvin, Martin Luther, the
Puritans, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Hodge. Read the old books. It is
a great mistake to think that the great books of old are too hard to
understand. C. S. Lewis is right to point out that the greatness of the old
writer is this: “The great man, just because of his greatness, is much
more intelligible than his modern commentator.”22
The newer the doctrinal books are, the more prevalent is the sad
separation between scholarship and manifest passion for Christ. Most
evangelicals have bought into the need for apparent indifference in writing
about massively important things. It is very sad. Wayne Grudem’s
Systematic Theology23 is a happy exception, and I recommend it to the
average reader as one place where the heart may “sing unbidden” while
How to Wield the Word in the Fight for Joy < 127
working through a tough bit of theology. There are others. And you will
not have to pick so carefully if you search among the Puritans.24
WHY SO MUCH TALK ABOUT HUMAN AUTHORS?
Of course, someone may ask, why are you talking about human authors
in a chapter on the role of the Word of God in the fight for joy? The answer
is that God has appointed for us to be helped in our understanding and
enjoyment of Scripture by human teachers—living and dead. Clearly he
has ordained that there be elders who are “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2).
What they teach is the Word of God. Therefore God wills that we read
and memorize and meditate on the Word of God if we have access to it.
But he also wills that we be taught by faithful elders or pastors. Some of
these write down their teachings. This is why we have books.
One way to think about Christian books by dead authors is that
they are the ministry of the Body of Christ across the centuries, and not
just across the miles. We are meant to learn the meaning of Scriptures
from Christian teachers out of the pulpit and out of the past. None of
us is so free from sin or bias or blindness that we can see the infallible
Scriptures infallibly. We need help. We need correction. We need guidance
and encouragement. Oh, the wonders that others have seen in the
Bible that we have not seen! What a folly and what a blow to joy if we
neglect these books! Many of the greatest God-given helpers in our quest
for joy are dead. But God has preserved their helpfulness in books.
The best way to guard a true interpretation of Scripture, the
Reformers insisted, was neither to naively embrace the infallibility of
tradition, or the infallibility of the individual, but to recognize the
communal interpretation of Scripture. The best way to ensure faithfulness
to the text is to read it together, not only with the churches of
our own time and place, but with the wider “communion of saints”
down through the age.25
WHAT IF YOU READ SLOWLY LIKE ME?
These older works are like reading the Bible through the mind and heart
of great knowers and lovers of God. Don’t let long books daunt you, like
John Calvin’s Institutes. To be sure, finishing a great book is not as important
as growing by it. But finishing it is not as hard as you might think.
Suppose you read slowly like I do—maybe about the same speed
that you speak—200 words a minute. If you read fifteen minutes a day
for one year (say just before supper, or just before bed), you will read
5,475 minutes in the year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you
get 1,095,000 words that you would read in a year. Now an average serious
book might have about 360 words per page. So you would have
read 3,041 pages in one year. That’s ten very substantial books. All in
fifteen minutes a day.
Or, to be specific, my copy of Calvin’s Institutes has 1,521 pages in
two volumes, with an average of 400 words per page, which is 608,400
words. That means that even if you took a day off each week, you could
read this great biblical vision of God and man in less than nine months
(about thirty-three weeks) at fifteen minutes a day. The point is: The
words and ways of God will abide in you more deeply and more powerfully
if you give yourself to some serious reading of great books that
are saturated with Scripture. It certainly does not have to be John
Calvin—or my favorite, Jonathan Edwards—but not to read any of the
great old books when you have access to them may be owing to nothing
better than what Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.”26
BEING WITH BIBLE-SATURATED PEOPLE, LIVING AND DEAD
In the fight for joy I would also add this tactic in the overall strategy of
using the Word of God. Expose yourself to Bible-saturated people, both
the living and the dead. Their lives and their words are a great help to our
joy. The living are the church that you are a part of. The dead are the Body
of Christ whose Word-saturated lives reach us through their biographies.
God wills that we strengthen each other’s hands in the fight for joy.
Paul said, “We work with you for your joy” (2 Cor. 1:24). Hebrews tells
us: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving
heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one
another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may
be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:12-13). And Proverbs says,
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” (Prov. 13:20). We are not
meant to fight for joy alone. Christian joy is a community project.
Just as God ordained that there be teachers, living and dead, so he
ordained that the whole Body of Christ speak the Word of God to each
other every day in the fight for joy. “Exhort one another every day.”
Specifically, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good
works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging
one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near”
(Heb. 10:24-25). All of us should feel the calling to exhort others with the
Word of God. But that’s not my point here. My point here is that you
should make sure this is done to you. Put yourself in some kind of fellowship,
small enough so that this one-another ministry is happening. One
of my first questions in dealing with a joyless saint is, “Are you in a small
group of believers who care for each other and pray for each other and
‘consider how to stir one another up to love’”? Usually the answer is no.
THE WORD OF GOD IS A COMMUNITY TREASURE
As much as I stress Bible reading, and Bible memorization, and Bible
meditation, and reading great books on Bible doctrine, all of that could
sound very individualistic. It suits my American bent. But the Word of
God is meant to be a community treasure and a community event. It
should be alive in the fellowship of believers. This is probably the normal
form that the gift of prophecy should take today: anointed, Spiritguided
speaking and application of Scripture in timely ways for each
person’s need. That is what we need from each other in the fight for joy.
Don’t rest until you have sought out, or called together, a group of
believers where this is happening.
Let me be very specific in regard to church membership in the fight for
joy. I know it is possible to be a member of a church—that is, to have your
name on an official roll—and not be connected to other believers in a way
that stirs up spiritual life and joy and obedience. Indeed it is possible to be
a member of a local church and not even be a believer. Nevertheless I believe
it is the will of Christ for all of his people to be responsible members of
Christ-exalting, Bible-believing local churches. This may be impossible in
some locations. God knows that and will supply what we need if the normal
means of grace are lacking. But in ordinary circumstances Christians
should be responsible members of a local church.
When the New Testament uses the word member to refer to a
Christian in relation to a local body of believers, it uses the word first
metaphorically. That is, we are members of a local body of believers the
way hands and feet are members of the human body. “As the body is
one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though
many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . If the foot should say,
‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not
make it any less a part of the body” (1 Cor. 12:12, 15). This is a picture
not of the universal body of Christ, but of the local expression of that
body in a specific place. We know this for several reasons.
One reason is that when Paul refers to the universal body of Christ,
he says the “head” is Christ himself. “He is the head of the body, the
church” (Col. 1:18; 2:19; Eph. 5:23). But when Paul refers to the local
body of believers, he uses the term “head” as just another member, like
hand or foot: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’
nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (1 Cor. 12:21).
Another reason we know that the picture of “membership” in
1 Corinthians 12 is membership in a local body of believers, and not just
membership in the universal body of Christ, is that it speaks of close relationships
of care and responsibility that go with this membership: “God
has so composed the body . . . that there may be no division in the body,
but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor.
12:24-25). This kind of mutual care is not possible in the universal body
of Christ, but only in local expressions of that body.
Therefore, it is clear that the apostle Paul moves beyond the
metaphorical use of member (hand and foot and head and eye) to the
real, personal, responsible membership in a local church. Membership
moves from the metaphorical connectedness to real, concrete organizational
connectedness that creates the expectation of both care and
accountability. This is why Paul can take church discipline so seriously
and even speak of the rare cases when a member is put out of the church.
“For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the
church whom you are to judge? God judgesthose outside. ‘Purge the evil
person from among you’” (1 Cor. 5:12-13). Such a formal removal
would not be possible if there were no formal membership.
I stress this biblical perspective on church membership because we
live in a day when people shun responsibility and accountability. We are
very individualistic and resistant to others holding us to any standard
that might cross our immediate desires. But God loves us and does not
call us to what is bad for us. Church membership is a gift of grace. Like
all relationships (marriage, parenting, employment, teams, citizenship),
it has its pain. But, more than most of us realize, it has its lifesustaining,
faith-strengthening, joy-preserving effect according to God’s
plan and mercy. The Christ-displaying, corporate ministry of the Word
of God comes to us in church membership in ways that we cannot predict.
I urge you not to cut yourself off from this blessing by staying on
the edges of Christ’s church.
One of the things that gives this corporate ministry of the Word such
power is that the Word comes incarnated in real persons. We are not
reading pages—we are hearing living persons. Paul pointed to the power
of this personal ministry when he said, “So, being affectionately desirous
of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but
also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess.
2:8). When the Word of God, tailored to our need, comes to us in a person
who gives us his very self, there is a great triumph of love that almost
always leads to joy.
CHRISTIAN BIOGRAPHY AND THE FIGHT FOR JOY
And even the dead can live in this way. The entire eleventh chapter of
Hebrews can be included in the reference to Abel: “And through his
faith, though he died, he still speaks” (v. 4). In answer to how we “stir
one another up to love,” the book of Hebrews answers: through the lives
of the living and the dead. “Remember your leaders, those who spoke
to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and
imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). A Christian life, whether past or present,
is a demonstration of the truth of God’s Word and a display of God’s
grace. Therefore, since the fight for joy is a fight to see and savor all that
God is for us, we would be poor warriors not to seek Christian fellowship
and read Christian biography.
THE INSPIRATION OF EDWARDS’S FIGHT FOR JOY
My friendship with Jonathan Edwards has grown over the years, though
Edwards has been dead since 1758. What I have learned from his words
and his works is incalculable. I thank God for him with all my heart. I
wrote my tribute to him in God’s Passion for His Glory: Living the
Vision of Jonathan Edwards.27 His own battle for joy has been a great
inspiration and guidance to my own. For example, he wrote seventy resolutions
when he was a young man. Three of them have remained with
me over the years in my own fight for joy.
Number 22 says: “Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.” You can see that he grasped the warfare of joy early on. As a means to that end he said in number 28: “Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, so that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.” He was preeminently biblical, for all his philosophical powers. And that has helped to keep me riveted on the Word of God. And to put a passion behind this Word-soaked quest for eternal joy, he gave these simple but inspiring words in resolution number6: “Resolved, To live with all my might, while I do live.”28
When you read Christian biography you get to see a person fight for
joy over a lifetime. This is tremendously helpful. It gives guidance in the
warfare. It gives inspiration because of triumphs of grace. It gives humility
and hope because of failures and recoveries. And sometimes there are
glimpses of what is possible in relation to God that set a reader to praying
and longing as never before. For example, Edwards recalled his experience
from the time he was thirty-four:
Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health, anno [year] 1737;
and having lit [dismounted] from my horse in a retired place, as my
manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and
prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of
the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful,
great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle
condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet,
appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared
ineffably excellent, with an excellency great enough to swallow up all
thought and conception—which continued, as near as I can judge,
about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood
of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I
know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie
in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and
pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him;
How to Wield the Word in the Fight for Joy < 133
and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly
purity. I have several other times had views very much of the
same nature, and which have had the same effects.29
This story freed me in my twenties from the foolish notion that great
theology and serious doctrine keep a person from weeping for joy. Ever
since then I have rejected the notion that the rigorous effort to know
more of God must cause one to feel less of God.
For the sake of your joy in Christ read Christian biography. It will
take you out of yourself and put you in another time and another skin,
so that you see Jesus with eyes more full of wonder than your own. Find
some Bible-saturated, Christ-exalting, God-centered saints from centuries
gone by and learn from them how to fight for joy.
LUTHER’S STRANGE HELPER IN UNDERSTANDING AND ENJOYING SCRIPTURE
The topic of biography gives me a chance to mention one more tactic in
how to use the Word of God in the fight for joy. Martin Luther (1483-
1546), the great German Reformer, taught me the essential role of suffering
in seeing the fullness of Christ in the Scriptures and knowing the
fullness of joy.
Luther noticed in Psalm 119 that the writer not only prayed and meditated
over the Word of God in order to understand it—he also suffered in
order to understand it. The psalmist says, “Before I was afflicted I went
astray, but now I keep your word. . . . It is good for me that I was afflicted,
that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:67, 71). An indispensable key to
understanding the Scriptures is suffering in the path of righteousness. It is
sure that we will all be given this key: “Through many tribulations we must
enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). For some, the Word comes with
the key attached: “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy
of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess. 1:6). That’s the way it was for Luther.
He proved the value of trials over and over again in his own
For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil
will afflict you, will make a real doctor [teacher of doctrine] of you,
and will teach you by his temptations to seek and to love God’s Word.
For I myself . . . owe my papists [Roman Catholic adversaries] many
thanks for so beating, pressing, and frightening me through the
devil’s raging, that they have turned me into a fairly good theologian,
driving me to a goal I should never have reached.30
Suffering was woven into life for Luther. Emotionally and spiritually
he underwent the most oppressive struggles. For example, in a letter
to Melanchthon on August 2, 1527, he writes:
For more than a week I have been thrown back and forth in death
and Hell; my whole body feels beaten, my limbs are still trembling. I
almost lost Christ completely, driven about on the waves and storms
of despair and blasphemy against God. But because of the intercession
of the faithful, God began to take mercy on me and tore my soul
from the depths of Hell.31
These were the trials that opened his eyes to the meaning of
Scripture. These experiences were as much a part of his exegetical labors
as was his Greek lexicon. Seeing such things in the lives of the saints has
caused me to think twice before I begrudge the trials of my ministry.
How often I am tempted to think that the pressures and conflicts and
frustrations are simply distractions from the business of ministry and
Bible study. Luther (along with Psalm 119:67, 71) teaches us to see it all
another way. The stresses of life, the interruptions, the disappointments,
the conflicts, the physical ailments, the losses—all of these may well be
the very lens through which we see the meaning of God’s Word as never
before. Paradoxically, the pain of life may open us to the Word that
becomes the pathway to joy.
There is more that could be said about how to use the Word of God
to fight for joy. Indeed, more will be said in the following chapters. For
now, in closing, remember this: The Bible is the Word of a living Person,
Jesus Christ, who is our God and Savior. Therefore, read and meditate
and memorize with a view to seeing him in the words that he records
and the works he recounts. He is as near as your own breathing and is
infinitely merciful and mighty.
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
P S A L M 9 0 : 1 4
Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you
will receive, that your joy may be full.
J O H N 1 6 : 2 4
I pray, O God, that I may know You and love You, so that I may
rejoice in You. And if I cannot do so fully in this life may I
progress gradually until it comes to fullness. Let the knowledge
of You grow in me here, and there [in heaven] be made complete;
let Your love grow in me here and there be made complete, so
that here my joy may be great in hope, and there be complete in
reality. Lord, by Your Son You command, or rather, counsel us
to ask and You promise that we shall receive so that our ‘joy may
be complete.’ I ask, Lord, as You counsel through our admirable
counsellor. May I receive what You promise through Your truth
so that my ‘joy may be complete.’ God of truth, I ask that I may
receive so that my ‘joy may be complete.’ Until then let my mind
meditate on it, let my tongue speak of it, let my heart love it, let
my mouth preach it. Let my soul hunger for it, let my flesh thirst
for it, my whole being desire it, until I enter into the ‘joy of the
Lord,’ who is God, Three in One, ‘blessed forever. Amen.’
A N S E L M