Our grumbling is not insignificant to God. When we choose contentment in the Lord over complaining, we shine as lights in the world.
Fear is part of living in this finite, fragile flesh in this fallen and fearful world. We are haunted people. We are fearing people, and our fears don’t end in childhood. It may begin with monsters under our beds, but more disturbing monsters lurk in the shadows as we grow older.
We fear athletic and academic failure. We fear star-crossed love or, worse, no love at all. We fear being alone. We fear not getting a good job, or losing our job. We fear losing the health of our children, or losing their affection. We fear that our bills will outgrow our income. We fear job loss, economic collapse, financial strain, and even poverty. As we age, we fear losing our retirement fund, our homes, our minds. Some of our darkest fears can be hedged with insurance, but no insurance can erase all the fears we entertain. We are more anxious and insecure than we’re willing to admit.
All the fears of life set up a beautiful contrast to the security of God’s elect. Once God sweeps you into his sovereign security net, it can relieve all fears that some circumstance will befall your life and bring your hope, happiness, and safety to an abrupt end. It assures you of joys, now in part, that will grow only more enthralling as they expand into the limitless stretches of God.Joy Bankrolled with Blood
In the context of God’s salvation, Scripture delivers a whopping promise:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? (Romans 8:31–33)
In one glorious passage, we find full proof that God will never let his children fall under condemnation or judgment in Christ. It will never happen, because he gave Christ in the first place. And if God gave up his precious, chosen Son, why would he not provide us, his children, with everything else we need to flourish eternally? He won’t hold back. That’s the point. “All things” means “all things.” His heart doesn’t stutter. Everything we need to flourish forever is promised by a gracious heavenly Father eager to bless us lavishly for our joy and for his glory. For his beloved children, the shed blood of Jesus Christ is corroborating evidence to prove that God will stop at nothing to ensure our eternal joy (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 19:777–78).
Because God gave his only Son for you, he has given you his guarantee that he will weave the details of your life together in such a way as to lead to an eternity with him to enjoy his full pleasures forevermore. To be chosen in Christ is to have the script for your life written, and the end of the story is eternal flourishing.Suffering, Sorrow, and Joy
Of course, the script includes conflict and hardships. We don’t find joy by escaping this life, but by living through it. I don’t know how much pain and disappointment you will face, but you will face it. You may face a long season of darkness in depression. You may live with serious regrets, and those regrets come in many shapes and sizes. Maybe you never intended to be forty and single. Maybe you regret being forty and married. Maybe you regret having kids. Or maybe you regret remaining childless. Or maybe you regret that your child abandoned the faith.
Whatever the pains or regrets of life, the happy Calvinist, whose theology has sunk deep into the nerve center of his life, can say, “Though I cannot see why my life has unfolded in the way it has, God is in control and I am upheld by grace.” This confidence liberates our hearts to enjoy life. We don’t live in self-hate over all our failures. Instead, we look back over our lives, knowing that God orchestrated millions of situations and circumstances and relationships to bring us where we are today.
The apostle Paul, who endured just about every kind of letdown, heartbreak, and suffering imaginable, also acknowledged that his pain was part of God’s ultimate plan (2 Corinthians 6:3–10). The sorrow he felt was real, and it hurt, but it also proved that the joy of God was inextinguishable. “Our joy no man takes from us,” Spurgeon once said. “We are singing pilgrims, though the way be rough. Amid the ashes of our pains live the sparks of our joys, ready to flame up when the breath of the Spirit sweetly blows. Our latent happiness is a choicer heritage than the sinner’s riotous glee” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, 28:187).
The joy of God in the life of his children is a precious gift, sometimes concealed, but never extinguished by sorrow, conflict, or human circumstances.Joy Inexpressible
Anticipating unending joy in the presence of Christ changes everything. It means we can relinquish control over our lives. It means we have no fear of the future. It means all our pressing toward personal holiness is not in vain. God elects so that we will be conformed to the image of Christ, in his holiness and in his happiness. It will be done, and we strive and obey in this inescapable hope.
First Peter 1:3–9 teaches us a key lesson about longing and participating. We are not merely left in a subway tube, fiddling on our phones and waiting idly for a tardy train to eventually pick us up and take us to heaven. The Joy Project — my phrase for the story of Calvinism — leads us toward the presence of God, but Christ now offers us tastes of eternal joy that defies words.
As Puritan John Owen writes, the physical joys of this life cannot be compared to these precious glimpses of the beatific vision, by faith. “There is no glory, no peace, no joy, no satisfaction in this world, to be compared with what we receive by that weak and imperfect view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith. All the joys of the world are nothing in comparison to what we receive” (Works of John Owen, 1:415). These “views” are hints of the full beatific vision to come. But Owen is careful to reiterate these moments are not the everyday state of the Christian life on earth. “There enters sometimes, by the word and Spirit, into our hearts such a sense of the uncreated glory of God, shining forth in Christ, as affects and satiates our souls with ineffable joy” (Works, 1:293). These are exquisite moments, but they are infrequent.
Our anticipation for an eternal feast of joy becomes a present taste of delight (Romans 5:2). In Christ, we now taste the firstfruits of eternal joy. “As before the sun rises, there are some forerunning beams and streaks of light that usher it in; so the joys of the Holy Spirit are but the morning glances of the daylight of glory, and of the sun of happiness that shall arise upon us in another world” (Manton, Works, 13:331).Pleasures Forever
For now, we gratefully taste present happiness (periodic joy, by faith) while we eagerly await future happiness (endless joy, by sight). One day this appetizer of spiritual pleasure will give way to the full banquet feast of flooding joys and delights God intends to share with us. This is the climactic finale of God’s joy project, the end toward which everything is unfailingly headed.
God is pushing all things forward toward a glorious future. No longer will his children live in the past, as strangers and aliens; they will arrive in the home country to which they have been traveling, to dwell in the presence of God, to live with all the redeemed before the Lamb, clothed in perfect Christlike purity — no spot, no stain, no wrinkle. The Savior will rejoice in receiving us, the ones he’s loved from before time; the ones for whom he endured, with joy set before him, the shame of the cross. We will be welcomed into the full enjoyment of his love, and it will usher in a joy that will never end or fade. This is what we anticipate.
If we doubt, we look back on the blood of Christ as proof. In the future Christ will feed us abundantly with delights, and he will take us and present us before the Father, who elected us. We will behold God’s glory and taste the sweetness of eternal pleasures that we have always desired. All of our sinful longings will finally vanish. All our idols, our pride and despair, our false hopes and securities, our corrupting sins — all these burdens will be burned up like straw in a bonfire. Tears and regret and death will be gone; suffering will be burnt to ash. We will be finally and fully free to enjoy the pleasures of God together.
If you love Christ, hold this promise with firm resolve. You are beloved. God’s choice of you is a divine insurance policy of joy, underwritten by Christ’s blood, unshaken by the trials and pains of life, ensuring your claim on joys forevermore (Romans 8:28). Fear not. Only believe that nothing will ultimately get in the way of your perseverance in Christ.
Conflict will inevitably occur in every marriage, but you don’t have to stay stuck. Look for the good God is up to, even in the hard times.
I received your letter about the word hedonism and the way I use it in the phrase “Christian Hedonism.” I really don’t want you to be confused. But I’m glad you were surprised — surprised enough to remember what you heard, and puzzled enough to actually write your letter.
That’s part of why I use the word hedonism. It makes folks scratch their heads, and think, and write letters. I’ll try to explain why I use the word hedonism — which basically means “a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.” But first, let’s start with a story.
Suppose you have a 10-year-old brother named Joe, who thinks you are the greatest thing in the world. He admires you. He thinks you’re cool. He loves spending time with you. And he loves to go fishing. His birthday is coming, and you really want to make him happy with a special gift.
So you take a few odd jobs around the neighborhood helping people with yard work to earn extra money so you can buy him a really nice fishing rod and his own tackle box. But to make it special you put a note in the tackle box that says, “This is a certificate of promise to take you fishing all day on the Saturday after your birthday. Just you and me.”
You earn the money, buy the gifts, wrap them up, and put the note inside the box. On his birthday, Joe opens the packages and loves the rod and the tackle box. Then he opens the box and finds your note. He unfolds it and reads it. “Wow,” he says, “this is the greatest! I love the rod, Tom, and the tackle box. But all day with just you and me — fishing! Wow!”
And suppose you smiled and said, “My pleasure, Joe. In fact, I can’t think of anything that would make me happier this Saturday than to spend the day with you.”
Joe’s face darkens. The joy goes out of his heart. And he snorts, “It’s your pleasure! Nothing would make you happier! So it’s all about you! It’s all about what makes you happy! You are so selfish!”
You are stunned at this reaction. Speechless.
The reason you are stunned and speechless is that this would never happen. Joe would never respond this way. Why not? You did, in fact, say, “My pleasure.” You did say, “I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.” But you and I both know that Joe would never get upset like this. He would never treat you as if you were being selfish.
Why? Because when you find your pleasure in spending time with Joe, you honor him. And he feels it. You treat him as special. You say, “There is something about you that makes me want to be with you.”Honor God by Enjoying Him
Here’s the key thing I’m getting at: Your pursuit of your happiness in hanging out with Joe draws attention to Joe’s worth, not your ego. It makes much of Joe — not you. Your happiness in spending time with Joe is Joe-centered, not me-centered. Joe feels this. He receives it as a gift. He does not feel used. He feels loved.
Thomas, here’s the point: That story is a parable of how you should relate to God. Christian Hedonism teaches that you should seek your fullest and longest happiness in knowing God and being with God. When you do that, God is honored. You will be saying to God, “I can’t think of anything that would make me happier this Saturday (or for eternity) than to spend the day (or forever) with you.” God will not call you selfish if you feel that way! He will feel honored. He will call it worship.
In fact, the way I sum up Christian Hedonism is, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.
Do you see where this leads? It leads to the demand that you and I not only may, but should aim to be as happy as we can be in God. Because that’s what honors him. Yes, it’s a biblical demand! “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).Rejoice in the Giver, Not Just His Gifts
But notice carefully, our aim is to be glad “in the Lord,” not primarily in his gifts. In him as a person, not in him as a dispenser of gifts that we enjoy more than we enjoy him. That’s called idolatry. Christian Hedonism does not aim to have God as a butler — the kind you just ring for when you want him to bring you something.
That would be like saying to Joe, “What I really want next Saturday is for you to make the lunch, row the boat, bait my hooks, string the fish, and clean up when we’re done.” In other words, “I don’t really want to spend time with you as a person. I just want your services.” Lots of people treat God that way. But that is not Christianity. It is not Christian Hedonism.
Christian Hedonism says this: Pursue your enjoyment with all your might, namely, the enjoyment of God as a person. Become the kind of teenager who finds God more desirable than anything else. And when you do enjoy anything else — like pizza, or football, or music, or friends — let all that trigger greater gladness in God himself. Then those things don’t become idols. They become tastes of God’s goodness and mercy and excellence — tastes that God himself is most satisfying.Fullness Forever
Okay, now we can tackle the word hedonism. When I was in the tenth grade, I had a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It defined hedonism as “a living for pleasure.” Today a Google search takes me to this definition: “the relentless pursuit of pleasure.” Both of those are what I mean by hedonism: living for — relentlessly pursuing — pleasure.
Of course, the word is often used to describe a life devoted to sinful pleasure. Or sometimes it’s used to describe a way of thinking about life that decides what’s right only by whether it gives pleasure. I don’t mean either of those things.
When I put the word Christian on the front of it, and call it Christian Hedonism, I mean to say that the strongest and longest pleasures can be found only in God through all that Jesus has done for us in dying for us, and rising again, and ruling over the world. The Bible says that this is, in fact, what we find when we find God: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).Better Than Life
In using the word hedonism, I want the world to sit up and say, “Really?” Thomas, your non-Christian friends probably think they know the path to the best pleasures. They don’t. The path of sinful pleasure leads only to destruction. God loves us too much to let us go down that path without warning, “I urge you to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The Bible calls them “fleeting pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25). They are not the best. And they do not last.
The pleasures that we have in God, now and forever, really are better than what the world has to offer, even in their best and most innocent moments. “You [O Lord] have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7).No More Games
Thomas, there came a time in my life when I was clobbered by the truth that God commands me to be happier in him than in anything else. I mean clobbered, walloped, blown up. It was wonderful and scary. Wonderful, because I knew I wanted to pursue my happiness. And scary because I knew I would need a miracle in my life if I was to enjoy God more than food and television and sports and friends.
Ever since then, I have wanted to find words to show how jolting and shocking and radical the Christian life is. It is not an easy or comfortable way of life. It is extremely threatening to those who just want to play church, while they keep on loving God’s gifts more than God. The word hedonism is my way of getting in the face of those kinds of fake Christians. If they stumble over my words, they might stumble out of illusion into truth.
I hope this helps, Thomas. I admire you for writing. When I was your age, I did not like to read, and so I might be mistaken in thinking you would want to go deeper into Christian Hedonism. But just in case, I wrote a condensed version of my big book. It’s only 90 small pages. It’s called The Dangerous Duty of Delight. I believe it is faithful to what the Bible teaches. And, of course, the Bible is your final authority. I’m not.
If you read it, I pray that it will set you on a lifelong pilgrimage of discovering that “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. . . . More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:8, 10).
We all know that anger will only wound those around us. But its silent brother, sulking, can be just as deadly.
“If one could conceive of a single elixir to improve the physical and mental health of millions of Americans — at no personal cost,” wrote Harvard professor Tyler VanderWeele and journalist John Siniff in a USA Today OpEd, “what value would our society place on it?”
The article goes on to summarize an extensive body of research showing that religious participation correlates with multiple measures of mental and physical health: those who attend services have lower rates of depression, are more optimistic, are less likely to commit suicide, and are 20% to 30% less likely to die over a fifteen-year period. Flip this data on its head, and declining church attendance in the US could be termed a public health crisis.The Goods of Church Attendance
VanderWeele is a professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, who has devoted much of his career to research and analysis in this area. His in-depth assessment of decades of studies separates the wheat from the methodological chaff and paints a picture of substantial benefits from participating in religious services. While the effect is not exclusive to Christianity, most of the studies have been done on Christians attending church and show that weekly attendance or more yields the greatest benefits.
Reassuringly, one of the positive correlations is with lower likelihood of divorce (page 10). While people who check the box “Christian” on a census form may be no more likely to have stable marriages than those who don’t, regular church attendance does seem to make the marriage knot harder to untie.
Another area of positive correlation is forgiveness. Religiousness is associated with higher levels of forgiveness, and higher levels of forgiveness correlate with less depression, less anxiety, less likelihood of nicotine addiction or substance abuse, and fewer self-reported health symptoms (page 14). The list goes on.
What should we make of this research?No Prosperity Gospel
For those alert to the evils of the prosperity gospel, alarm bells may be ringing. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matthew 16:24). He makes no promise of health here and now. He bids us come and die. And yet, while we should suspect any suggestion that church attendance frees us from physical or psychological suffering, at the same time we must recognize that God’s commands are intended for our good and expect that they should promote human thriving.
Take marriage, for example. Marriage is hard. No theology of marriage should claim otherwise, or suggest that dogged, lifelong commitment to another person — for better or for worse — comes without significant cost. There will be times when leaving our spouse seems to promise greater happiness, and at those times, Christians must choose commitment to Christ (and therefore their husband or wife) over the seemingly greener grass that lies outside. But because the Lord’s commands are for our good, we should expect that exclusive, lifelong marriage is overall better for human beings than other contexts for sexual intimacy.
This applies to any other area of human thriving. While we should not rest our faith in scientifically measurable benefits of church participation, we need not be anxious about them. The God who made us knows how we work. His commands should help us live well.No Complacency
At the same time, research on the positive outcomes of going to church must not make us complacent. For example, while church attendance correlates with lower levels of depression and suicide, very few of us are experiencing the level of intimacy within the church family that we would if we took the New Testament seriously. Not all depression arises from lack of social support, but much does, and loneliness plagues our churches as it does our world.
God calls us to live as one body, brothers and sisters, a family united in love. And yet we often live as though we have no real claim on each other and as if the loneliness and deep psychological struggles of our fellow Christians are not our problems. We should not be content with a diagnosis of church as “somewhat better than the world” on this or any other front. Rather, we should strive to live up to our kingdom calling. We should be known as Jesus’s disciples because we love one another in a world-defying way (John 13:35).What If I Still Struggle?
Perhaps, as you read this article, you’re feeling a pang of shame. You might think, “What if I still struggle with depression, or substance addiction, or anxiety, or have experienced divorce? Here is yet another indication that I am a mess and Christianity does not work for a failure like me.”
Do not forget the gospel-sanctioned truth: we all limp through life into glory. Look around at church. Despite appearances, you’re not seeing people who have it all together, but people strengthened in weakness. Even the most seemingly-fruitful saints aren’t struggle-free. For example, the great preacher Charles Spurgeon suffered from debilitating depression, and when the apostle Paul pleaded repeatedly for the thorn in his flesh to be removed, the answer came back in the negative (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
If you struggle with depression or anxiety, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts, an eating disorder or a crippling sense of loneliness, you are not letting us down. Rather, your brothers and sisters are on your side, holding your hand and cheering you on, because we all bring our weakness to the table, and no one at Christ’s table is turned away.
We all have our part to play in this thing we call church. You are not called to sit injured on the bench watching others run and score. You can be God’s help to a fellow struggler. When we find ourselves wondering, “Who will love me?” let’s ask ourselves, “Whom can I love?” because there are people in your church who need you today, this week, this month, and this year. You can be Christ to them, not because you are perfect, but because his grace is enough, and his power is made perfect in weakness.The True Elixir
For all the benefits of church participation, Jesus is the only true elixir. He is the living water, who draws us through death to life. Let’s be encouraged by the evidence that his commands are good for us in the here and now. But let’s long all the more for the day when Jesus brings heaven and earth back together, and there is no more sickness or mourning or anxiety or depression, when our oneness in him is free from pain and sin, and our life expectancy is eternal.
The Bible is like no other book in the history of the world. Man wrote it, but God spoke it.
Christians are the sort of people who sing at midnight.
When Paul and Silas lay in prison, beaten and bloodied and chained, their fellow prisoners heard them singing in their cell (Acts 16:25). When the Lord Jesus awaited his betrayal, he led his disciples in a hymn (Matthew 26:30). And, of course, when David and the psalmists walked through the twilight of God’s seeming silence, they sent songs into the darkness.
Christians sing not only at sunrise, when rescue has finally rushed over the horizon. They also sing at midnight, when the blackness makes the sun seem burnt out.
And often, God uses our midnight songs to keep us till the morning.Midnight Misery
Psalms 42–43, sixteen verses that form one song, are two of the psalter’s darkest nights. The psalmist, one of Israel’s temple singers, finds himself in exile — away from the temple, away from friends, and seemingly away from God’s presence.
The ghost of God’s apparent absence walks through the movements of the song, especially in the repeated taunt “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42:3, 10). Unlike the author of Psalm 115, who could boldly answer back, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), the author of Psalms 42–43 finds himself repeating the questions back to God: “Why have you forgotten me? . . . Why have you rejected me?” (Psalm 42:9; Psalm 43:2).
The psalmist’s doubts cleave him in two: Part of him believes that God will shine his face on him again (Psalm 42:5), and part of him feels that God has clean forgotten him (Psalm 42:9). Part of him still remembers the language of hope (Psalm 42:5), and part of him can speak only the language of despair (Psalm 43:2). Part of him stands up and lays hold of God’s promises (Psalm 42:8), and part of him sinks down and lays hold on the dust (Psalm 42:11).
And in the midst of all that misery, as the psalmist sits under the thunder of his doubts, he does something few of us would think to do. He sings.Midnight Melody
“At night his song is with me” (Psalm 42:8). Like Jesus, Paul, and Silas after him, the psalmist breaks the silence of the night with a song — a song that likely contained many of the ideas we find in Psalms 42–43.
But why? When faced with darkness without and doubt within, why did the psalmist sing? And why should we? Psalms 42–43 give us at least four reasons.1. Songs turn misery into prayer.
Our darkest nights can make prayer feel like a foreign language. We can kneel at our bedsides for an hour, unable to say a word. We can start, stop, sigh, and give up. Or if we do pray, we can ramble from one unformed thought to another, our petitions dying as they rise.
In his own trouble, the psalmist put his prayers on the wings of a melody:
Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? . . . Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause. . . . Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling! (Psalm 42:9; Psalm 43:1, 3)
The psalmist, steeped in the rhythms of Israel’s songbook, knew that a song could take his groans and send them Godward. He knew that a song could gather up the chaos within and give it an intelligible voice. And so, he placed his pain in the structure of a lament.
When you are so troubled that you cannot speak to God, you may still be able to sing. You may still be able to take up one of the songs of the saints — whether an actual psalm, or a hymn, or a more modern song — that will turn your misery into prayer.2. Songs confront the logic of despair.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, preaching on Psalm 42, famously said, “Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself?” (Spiritual Depression, 20).
Technically, however, the psalmist doesn’t simply talk to himself. He sings to himself. When he tells himself, “Hope in God; for I shall again praise him” (Psalm 42:5), he croons it. He turns to his sunken self, takes him by the shoulders, and serenades him with hope.
Often, sung words fit where said words cannot: melodies slip under the doorways of our doubts while said words stand outside knocking. Once sung, the words often stay with us, echoing through the chambers of our minds and hearts, bringing form to our mayhem, beauty to our bleakness, and truth to the logic of our despair.
God gave us a book of songs for a reason. Often, we need to do more than speak the truth to ourselves. We need to sing it.3. Songs glorify the God who hears.
When we lift up a song at midnight, we declare with the psalmist that God is “the God of my life, . . . my rock” (Psalm 42:8–9).
When we sing into the darkness, we confess that God alone can raise our cast-down souls (Psalm 42:5), that God alone can lead us back home (Psalm 43:3), and that God alone can retune our songs of misery into songs of praise (Psalm 43:4).
When we raise our song in the night, we declare, against all our feelings, that God reigns over this darkness, that God is at work in this darkness, and that God is still worthy of worship in this darkness.
And when we do, we glorify the God who hears.4. Songs prepare the way for joy.
Songs are not magic spells. They do not remedy our distress right as we sing them. But songs are one way we prepare for joy’s return. Psalms 42–43 end with the psalmist still in darkness. For the third time, he addresses himself with these words:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God. (Psalm 43:5)
But joy’s delay does not close the psalmist’s mouth. He sits there at the bottom of his pit, his knees crumpled under him, his eyes gazing up at a sky that seems empty, and he keeps on singing. He keeps on praying to God and preaching to himself through song. And he keeps on trusting that, as he does so, God will slowly lift him from the pit, and joy will return:
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God. (Psalm 43:4)
When the time is right, God will answer. And our songs will be one way that he lifts up the valleys, makes low the hills, and prepares the way for joy’s return.
The Bible isn’t a collection of cute stories, but the very words of Almighty God. No object in the world should cause us to wonder more.
Midsummer. American parents of school-aged kids know this as the season of boredom. The summer holiday’s novelty has worn off. Many fun things so anticipated during the final weeks of school have been enjoyed. Free time has become routine. Parents are informed that there’s “nothing” to do. This provokes parental eye-rolls with statements to the effect, “We wish we had the luxury to be bored.”
But the truth is, parents too experience boredom. It’s just that in our phase of life, boredom doesn’t take the form of “there’s nothing to do.” We’re constantly churning through a never-ending list of responsibilities, obligations, tasks, and commitments. There’s always more to do than we can get done. Our boredom takes the form of a loss of the joy of wonder.
Whatever boredom looks like at any particular moment, we need to pay attention to it. It’s telling us something important.What Is Boredom?
What is boredom? Very simply put, boredom is disinterest. It’s the condition of finding some thing or someone or some subject or some task or some event or perhaps most everything uninteresting.
For example, when one of my kids says, “I’m bored; there’s nothing to do,” they don’t literally mean there’s nothing to do. They mean, “I can’t think of anything to do that interests me.” Which is why they tend not to make this statement to me because they know I’m likely to provide them something to do — something they’re not particularly interested in doing.
This is why we can be very busy and very bored at the same time. Because boredom is not the opposite of busyness; it’s the opposite of interest. It’s not a “things to do” problem; it’s an interest problem. Which means it’s a joy problem.Is “Bored” the Same as “Lazy”?
You are unlikely to find the word “bored” in your English Bible (unless it’s referring to drilling a hole in something). But you will find words like “slothful” (Proverbs 12:24; Ecclesiastes 10:18; Matthew 25:26), “sluggard” (Proverbs 6:6; 21:25), “lazy” (Titus 1:12), and “idle” (Proverbs 19:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:11), and the Bible makes it clear that these are sinful character traits.
So, is being bored the same thing as being slothful, sluggardly, lazy, or idle? Not necessarily. There are many reasons we might feel disinterest: sleep deprivation, illness malaise, depression, grief, disappointment, etc. But it might be a momentary indulgence in slothfulness, or it might even be slothfulness wearing boredom as a disguise.The Wrong Treatment
In the common American English vernacular, “bored” is generally understood as a temporary experience of disinterest. The degree to which it’s sinful depends on what’s fueling it. But everyone experiences boredom with some regularity and, though we find it unpleasant, it doesn’t typically alarm us.
But we think of “slothful” or “lazy” as something different — persistent, habitual negative character traits, which we would not attribute to everyone and which we see as damaging, even dangerous, to the lazy person and those he affects (this is the biblical understanding too). For example, a worker might be bored (disinterested) in his work, yet still work diligently. But a worker who’s lazy will work negligently, to the detriment of everyone else.
However, diagnosing the difference can be complicated. A lazy person very rarely is honest enough to categorize himself as lazy and is more likely to refer to his experience as being “bored” (and the things he wants to avoid doing as “boring”). This shows that boredom doesn’t carry the same negative moral implications as laziness — at least in American society. But used this way, it’s laziness wearing boredom as a disguise.
The point of this dissection of boredom and laziness is essentially this: we need an accurate diagnosis in order to effectively treat a disease. Boredom and laziness are not necessarily the same problem. We need to understand what boredom is telling us so we don’t fight boredom with the wrong treatment.What Boredom Is Telling Us
So, what is boredom telling us? When we feel bored, we are essentially asking the question, “Where’s the joy?” Boredom is what our hunger for happiness feels like when we’ve momentarily lost sight of or confidence in what will satisfy it. And as such, it is a warning and an invitation.
Think of boredom as a dashboard warning indicator that starts dinging. Something has caused your interest level to run low and it’s draining your joy. What is it? Perhaps it’s a physical or emotional health issue that needs care. Perhaps you’re being tempted to indulge laziness. Or perhaps, even more seriously, you’re indulging an idol of selfishness and you’re trying to drink from “broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
One of the great, appalling tragedies of selfishness is that the more we yield to it, the less capacity we have to enjoy anything else — anything other than what we believe caters to our narrow personal preferences, enhances our personal reputations, and advances our personal interests. Whatever is making our boredom indicator ding, it is God’s merciful warning that something important requires our attention.
But we can also think of boredom as God’s gracious invitation for us to explore and discover the spectrum of joy in the love for us that he has laced through the height and depth and length and breadth of his special and general revelation. If boredom is an expression of our happiness hunger, God extends to us this great invite:
“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isaiah 55:1–2)An Infinite Supply of Interesting
G.K. Chesterton said, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person” (Heretics, 13). When we feel disinterested, and it’s not a health issue or a more complex sin issue, we should not believe the deceptive mood that we’ve exhausted what interests us. We should assume we’re mentally and imaginatively out of shape, and we need to work out some more.
The Bible is an inexhaustible treasure trove of truth, and the world and people around you are unfathomable oceans of wonder that God has given you to explore. Let boredom tell you the same thing that getting too winded on too few stairs tells you: you need to increase your capacity. Yes, it will take some hard work. Everything that’s worth anything always does.
Listen carefully to your boredom. It’s telling you something important. It’s a hunger for happiness. Don’t just feed it the junk food of easy entertainment and stimulation or the malnourishing diet of selfish pursuits — unless slothfulness, chronic discontentment, and spiritual lukewarmness (or worse) is what you’re aiming for. If you heed boredom’s warning, it will show you your broken joy cisterns. If you accept its invitation, it will lead you to where the true fountains of joy are found.
How do we not let a no from God squelch our joy in him? John Piper offers two anchors of hope to help us remain steady in the struggle.
For their Latin class, my middle school students were tasked with memorizing the Apostles’ Creed. What was a chore for them was pure joy for me. I listened to them repeat over and over the systematic presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
That’s when I discovered it. I realized some of the students, most of whom have spent their entire school-aged lives in a Christian school, did not know the gospel. And not only did they not know it; they appeared utterly bored by it. The enormity and beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ was lost on them as they trudged through the task of memorizing the most profound truth in the universe.
Ours is an epoch in which the rains of competing worldviews are falling, the floods of untruth are rising quickly, and great may be the fall of the house we long to build for our children. Can it be that we Christian parents and teachers are failing, however unwittingly, to build our children’s faith on the solid foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Matthew 7:24–27)?Three Essentials for Christian Parenting
The contest for the hearts of our children is real, literal, and perpetually raging. The enemy does not sleep. He operates with Machiavellian brilliance. We must be intentional, relentless, and confident in our pursuit of Deuteronomy 11:19, “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Failing to indoctrinate our children in the truth of the gospel is antithetical to loving them.
Our adversary has a canny way of wrapping sin in pretty packages. What can be done, then, to convince children that God is more attractive than anything the world has to offer?1. Immerse yourself in sound doctrine.
Before we parents and teachers teach truth, we’d better be sure we have it ourselves. Ligonier Ministries conducted a poll in which self-professed evangelicals were asked to rate on a Likert Scale their agreement or disagreement with fundamental Christian doctrines. The sobering results led the Ligonier pollsters to conclude,
Many self-professing evangelicals reject foundational evangelical beliefs. The survey results reveal that the biblical worldview of professing evangelicals is fragmenting. Though American evangelicalism arose in the twentieth century around strongly held theological convictions, many of today’s self-identified evangelicals no longer hold those beliefs.
In her book, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean challenged, “If teenagers lack an articulate faith, it may be because the faith we show them is too spineless to merit much in the way of conversation.” That stings, but the truth remains.
This generation is woefully ignorant of sound doctrine. How, then, can “spinelessness” be avoided? Assess your time management when it comes to prioritizing Christ. Make daily Bible reading a habit. Follow faithful teachers. Your phone can be an instrument of wasted time or a tool for learning sound doctrine! Read edifying works, and study alongside other strong believers. Heed Ephesians 5:15–17 and Psalm 90:12. If you want Christ to be your child’s first love, you must make him your own.2. Make your joy in Christ visible to your children.
When my children were small, I made it a point to show them the resplendent and dazzling creativity of God. From a magnificent sunset to a lovely vista to a fascinating animal at the zoo, or simply a towering tree or pretty flower in our yard, I would quiz joyfully, “What is God?”, to which they’d shout the blithe reply, “A good artist!”
I wanted to make sure they recognized God’s handiwork and glorified him in his marvelous creativity, genius, and beauty. When God gives you reason to exult, share it with your kids! And don’t just do it from the mountaintop. Be sure to remind your children of God’s grace and glorify his goodness from the depth of the valleys, as well. Don’t waste a moment in showcasing our benevolent God in all circumstances. Your enthusiasm and love for Christ will make an impression on your children.3. Present the gospel every day and in different ways.
In her talk at this year’s Gospel Coalition women’s conference, Kristie Anyabwile spoke of her grandmother, who faithfully took every opportunity to teach her about God — not through formal devotion times, or a curriculum or formula, but by simply and unwaveringly living out her convictions before her granddaughter and speaking the truth to her.
Children will not learn the gospel without hearing it. Not just on Sundays, but every day. Paul asks, in Romans 10:14, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”
Don’t become complacent or succumb to the lie that your schedule is too tight to regularly share the gospel with your kids. When you’re driving them to soccer, tucking them into bed, walking through the mall, waiting in line at Chick-fil-A, be intentional in taking every opportunity to teach your children sound doctrine through the regular hearing of Scripture, catechisms, creeds, and doctrinally sound music. Take every moment with them captive to the teaching of Christ.Children in the Christian Bubble
Some accuse Christians of keeping their children in a bubble, hidden away from reality and the world. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the so-called “Christian Bubble” is exactly where some children need to be. Not to keep them from the world, but to teach them to live as Christ-followers in the context of it. The bubble should be a strong community of believers who live and teach the absolute truth of their faith.
Only Jesus Christ has “the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Only Jesus Christ can fulfill what we all long for. Only Jesus Christ can save our children from an eternity of separation from God. These are desperate times. We must never waver in our effort to teach our children that Christ is worth following, despite the lure and enticement of the world. It must begin and end with the gospel.
As of yesterday, Ask Pastor John podcast episodes have been played 100 million times.
This milestone is a trivial thing in the story of the universe, but it’s a notable benchmark for the ministry, prompting us to pause for a look back on five and a half years of God’s faithfulness to us, and to thank you for your years of engagement.
“The APJ numbers are encouraging,” John Piper said this week about the milestone. “But, strangely, the emotional impact of one personal testimony face to face is greater than the numbers. God gives me these testimonies almost everywhere I go. APJ is just part of a constellation of influences people receive from Desiring God, but it is one that people mention to me as much as any other. From moms shuttling their kids to school and playing the podcast on the way, to lawyers building it into their early morning exercise routines, to high school students taking a break from homework, to eighty-somethings whose eyes won’t read anymore.”
The podcast continues because listeners have made it a part of their daily routines and commutes. In your overwhelming interest in the project, we now have 60,000 listener questions (and counting). That’s one of the keys to the success: years of engagement by you — your commutes, donations, prayers, and excellent email questions are central to us crossing this 100 million-play threshold.The APJ Backstory
So where did the Ask Pastor John podcast originate?
The podcast has its roots in Ask Pastor John Live, a video live-stream of John Piper answering real-time questions from viewers through Twitter. The live video format, often with Piper holding note cards with questions, was popular for a few years (2008–2010). The format eventually became DG Live, an interview series eventually abandoned for other projects.
In the summer of 2013, the content team faced the challenge of how to draw Piper into the website as he and Noël planned to move and live in Knoxville for a year. How could Pastor John be closer to us even while his presence was more distant?
At a team lunch on January 7, 2013, where we brought up ideas for the year ahead, I proposed Ask Pastor John — a new manifestation of the Q&A format. No longer live video, APJ would be pre-planned, prepared, pre-recorded, and edited into an audio-only podcast answering listener questions. It would be a syndicated podcast.
“Topics,” I originally suggested, “could include leadership coaching, pastoral ministry questions, exegetical and theological questions, responses to contemporary events, autobiographical details of public value, updates on current reading and thinking, responses to listener questions, as well as travel plans and personal and writing updates.”
The podcast would terminate when the Pipers returned to Minneapolis.
That evening I sent the proposal out. “This sounds excellent,” wrote Pastor John a few hours later in an email, with an appeal: “Let’s pray that it will not just be interesting or informative, but spiritually awakening and Christ-exalting, and soul-sanctifying, and mission-advancing, and that it would spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things through Jesus Christ, and abundantly more.”
Under that commission and with that prayer, the podcast received a thumbs-up from everyone. Three days later we recorded over the phone for the first time and launched Episode 1 the next day. Already 100 episodes into the podcast by the time the Pipers moved to Knoxville, Pastor John’s voice remained close to Desiring God. We heard from him every weekday.
Episode 1 launched on January 11, 2013: “Reflections from John Piper on His Birthday.” I cooked up the initial questions, and we recorded and released 245 episodes in 2013 alone, one every weekday. At around episode 400, the Pipers returned to Minneapolis and APJ didn’t stop. The audience kept growing, so we kept recording, and we’ve since released another 900 episodes (and counting).
The basic premise of the podcast remains unchanged, although a lot of modifications have been introduced over the years. We eventually moved away from landline phone calls to Skype and then to studio-quality recordings. Now, John Piper records in his upstairs home office. I record in my basement audio studio at home. To make the content load a little more sustainable over the years, we introduced seasons of guests, a season of sermon clips, and then eventually scaled to our current format: three episodes per week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). We created an APJ app a few months into the podcast. We were initially syndicated in iTunes and most recently syndicated in YouTube, currently our fastest growing platform for the podcast.Most Popular
Our milestone is a celebration of your engagement, and looking back on the five and a half years, sixteen of our episodes have reached the 300,000-play benchmark. In this list you can get a sense of the dynamic range of our topics over the years.
Episode 400: “Is Oral Sex Okay?” (1,570,100 plays)
Special Episode: “John Piper’s Funeral Prayer for a Family of Five” (798,300)
Episode 919: “Should Children Sit Through ‘Big Church’?” (442,900)
Episode 102: “Can a Born-Again Christian Lose Salvation?” (389,100)
Episode 1,077: “When Worship Lyrics Miss the Mark” (384,600)
Episode 804: “Has My Sexual Sin Made Me Unsavable?” (369,300)
Episode 886: “Bikinis and Modesty” (367,900)
Episode 1,170: “God’s Sovereign Plans Behind Your Most Unproductive Days” (355,700)
Episode 827: “I Slept with My Girlfriend — Now What?” (353,600)
Episode 648: “Is Yoga Sinful?” (343,500)
Episode 191: “Would You Attend a Gay Wedding?” (327,400)
Episode 200: “Is Drinking Alcohol a Sin?” (326,500)
Episode 390: “What Is God’s Glory?” (315,700)
Episode 749: “Where Did Satan’s First Desire for Evil Come From?” (310,800)
Episode 788: “Romantic Love Is a Wonderful Gift — and a Terrible God” (309,900)
Episode 1,096: “What’s the Origin of Desiring God’s Slogan?” (300,000)
The podcast exists, not as a final word, not because every listener will agree with every conclusion in every episode, and not because the podcast is a shortcut around the pastors God has placed in our lives. It exists as an attempt to apply Scripture to the most perplexing areas of life and theology.
One year into the podcast, I asked Pastor John how he wanted listeners to engage with our episodes. In the spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:21, “test everything; hold fast what is good,” he said. “And the test I hope they use is, first, the Bible. That’s where I try to find all my responses to people’s questions. And, second, I hope they esteem the spiritual leaders of their own churches highly and talk to them about the issues they face — which is also in 1 Thessalonians 5 (verse 13)! There is one final authority and it’s God’s word, not mine. I want to exalt God’s word over and over as true and wise and sweet.”
Episode-by-episode we aim to build discernment in our audience, to equip them as disciplers. Piper said this week, “My prayer is that, besides the immediate guidance and encouragement it may give, people, over time, will absorb a way of thinking and a way of using the Bible so that in the decades to come they will become the sages in their churches where younger people come for wise, Bible-saturated, gospel-rich counsel.”
To this end we will continue to tackle controversies and the struggles we face when life is darkest. The work is weighty.
Pastor John summarizes his experience in working on the podcast over these several years, “There are times I put my face in my hands and shake my head when I read the questions,” he said. “So much suffering. So much sorrow. So many imponderable relational tangles with seemingly no human solution. So the effect of Ask Pastor John on my life is first to soften me for people’s suffering, and then anger me at sin and Satan. It drives me not only to the word of God, my only hope of helping anybody, but also to prayer and to the Holy Spirit. In other words, the podcast makes me feel helpless.”Thank You!
It’s no small thing to continue in these heavy labors, and we can because of your interest and engagement. Your email questions began arriving from day one, and over the course of the 2,000-day life span of the podcast we’ve received an average of 30 questions from you, every single day!
In those 60,000 emails are 9 million words (by comparison, three times more words than the 13-volume collected works of Piper). The response remains incredible to us.
We continue because of God’s sustaining grace on the life of John Piper and the ministry of desiringGod.org. And part of that sustaining grace has been the ongoing interest of our listeners, and the prayers of our audience, and the financial sacrifices of our donors, all of which are necessary ingredients in our milestone of reaching 100 million total plays. Because unlike many podcasts, we don’t depend on advertising revenue and we have no sidebars or sponsored breaks. The podcast runs unimpeded because God puts it on the hearts of people who believe in what we do, fund it, and make it freely accessible to the world.
So please continue to pray for us, as we pray that the podcast will not just be interesting or informative, but spiritually awakening and Christ-exalting, and soul-sanctifying, and mission-advancing, and that it would spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things through Jesus Christ. That’s our aim. And as long as we have your support, we will continue with the seemingly impossible task of working through the tens of thousands of questions that sit in the inbox, yet unanswered.
Even when Judas betrayed Jesus, Satan was never running the show. Demonic scheming never called the shots; divine love did.
Many children begin walking with the Lord without parents to show them how. They hear, “Train up a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6), and wonder, But what about me? They see God calling fathers to “bring [their children] up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4), but their dad never even opened a Bible.
They strive to grow in faith, mature in godliness, and deepen their joy in God, but without a day in, day out model and guide. It can feel like the spiritual equivalent of Hatchet, the classic American novel for boys. Thirteen-year-old Brian, the son of divorced parents, is the sole survivor in a plane crash out in the Canadian wilderness and teaches himself how to make a shelter, hunt, fish, and forage for food, and start a fire — all with just a hatchet. Young Christians are often left to fend for themselves in their own homes, having to teach themselves how to pray, hear from God in his word, and pursue holiness — all with just a Bible.
And a Father in heaven. If your parents have not been positive spiritual influences on your faith, you are not as alone as you may feel. Many have met and followed Christ without godly parents, and each of them has been fathered in a deeper, more meaningful way.Son Without a Father
If you feel like you’ve had to survive on a hope and a hatchet, you may be able to relate to Hezekiah. His father makes even the worst dads look okay. As king of Israel, he led a whole nation astray by making metal idols and then altars to worship his false gods. Instead of protecting and sanctifying God’s temple, Ahaz stole from it and shut its doors. Instead of caring for the precious sons God gave to him, he murdered his own children, burning Hezekiah’s brothers as offerings to false gods.
Ahaz contributed to Hezekiah’s walk with the Lord by showing him who not to be.
And yet, “Hezekiah began to reign when he was twenty-five years old. . . . And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that David his father had done” (2 Chronicles 29:1–2). Not his father Ahaz but his spiritual forefather (and kingly ancestor) David. When Hezekiah could not imitate his dad, he found a faithful man of God worthy of imitation.Despite His Father
Instead of stealing from the temple and closing it to God’s people, Hezekiah “opened the doors of the house of the Lord and repaired them” (2 Chronicles 29:3), and he did so immediately, in the first month of his reign.
Instead of following his father’s horrible example, he confronted his father’s iniquities and confessed their wickedness: “Our fathers have been unfaithful and have done what was evil in the sight of the Lord our God” (2 Chronicles 29:6).
Instead of blaming his father and avoiding the consequences, he took responsibility and bore the burden of his father’s failures: “Now it is in my heart to make a covenant with the Lord, the God of Israel, in order that his fierce anger may turn away from us” (2 Chronicles 29:10).
Instead of leading others away from God and into transgression, he called the people of God to reject temptation and return to God:
“O people of Israel, return to the Lord. . . . Do not be like your fathers and your brothers, who were faithless to the Lord God of their fathers. . . . Do not now be stiff-necked as your fathers were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has consecrated forever, and serve the Lord your God, that his fierce anger may turn away from you.” (2 Chronicles 30:6–8)
Instead of presuming on grace and mercy, Hezekiah refused to take God’s kindness and compassion for granted, pleading earnestly for the people to repent: “If you return to the Lord, your brothers and your children will find compassion with their captors and return to this land. For the Lord your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chronicles 30:9).
Instead of bringing judgment and destruction on his family and nation, his steadfast faith and godly leadership brought healing (2 Chronicles 30:21), and “there was great joy in Jerusalem, for since the time of Solomon the son of David king of Israel there had been nothing like this in Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:26). While he knew great misery because of his father, he spread great gladness because he trusted and obeyed God.
In the midst of a threatening spiritual wilderness, with the worst of spiritual examples in his father, Hezekiah found a true Father and learned how to survive, grow, and serve by faith in him.If You Are His Child
If you follow Christ, you have a good Father, even if you didn’t have a good father. If you are led by the Spirit into confession, repentance, and obedience — like Hezekiah — you are a chosen and precious son of infinite love and strength. “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). Before you were adopted, you were enslaved to fear, and for good reason. But now, your Father’s Spirit lives in you and casts out the fear of punishment (1 John 4:18).
The Spirit lives in you to remind you that you’re not an orphan anymore (Romans 8:16). And if you are a child of God, then you also are an heir of God with Christ (Romans 8:17). And if you are an heir of all things with Christ, you also will be glorified with him. You were once alone, abandoned, and spiritually helpless. You were fatherless. Now you have received a supernatural adoption, an infinite inheritance, unimaginable glory, and the Father of fathers.
God did not adopt you reluctantly, but lovingly. He formed even the best parent-child relationships to be only hints of the kind of love he feels for his children. He sent his own Son to die for you in order to make you his (1 John 3:1–2).
Sons and daughters without a loving human father are not lost for love. All those who know true love, no matter what kind of love they have experienced in their family, have learned it through being loved by God (1 John 4:9) — the good Father of the spiritually fatherless.
A harvest awaits Christians in the gay community. Sam Allberry shares how he engages LGBT students with the message of Jesus.
Bible studies are weakened because few believe that there are right and wrong interpretations of the Bible.
While the past is an exquisite place to visit, it is a menacing place to live.
The embittered wife, annoyed that the husband she married is not the boyfriend she once dated; the overbearing father desperate to relive his athletic career through his son; the young adult missing her college freedoms and friends, dreading her nine-to-five; the despondent Christian, longing to go back to the zeal he once had, all show us that few things threaten today like the joys of yesterday. Laughter abounded once. The family was united for a time. We were beautiful then.
But God does not mean for our hearts to live in yesterday. He gives us fresh mercies each day to enjoy (Lamentations 3:22–23). But passing these, we can travel back in our minds to relive that season’s happiness. Yesterday, hopes were high and life was worth living. Today proves too disappointing. So, with glazed eyes and depressed souls, we become the here-less scarecrows of our former selves who increasingly diminish from the here and now to escape to better days. Our hearts may still beat, but we have stopped living.
When former blessings decay present gratitude; when God gave that job, that boyfriend, that success — and life afterward is worse for it; when we have become tart creatures that begrudge the fall because we once enjoyed spring; when we sigh through our days and retreat into our memories; we have left the safe path. Driving forward while staring into the rearview mirror, we have made the previous experiences a kind of god. And, unfailingly, when we kneel before the past, the present becomes a curse.What’s Wrong with Nostalgia?
We call it dwelling in the past.
Considered a psychological disorder from the seventeenth century until only recently, nostalgia is the longing for the past which is seen as better than the present or future. From the Greek, nostos (to return home) and algos (pain), nostalgia is acute homesickness for days gone by. It escapes from present unhappiness (or boredom) into what was and cannot be again.
And as nostalgia lusts after that season we expected to last much longer, the question that wisdom never asks threatens to creep into our hearts,
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)
Wisdom, an inquisitor of many questions, gasps when this one is uttered. This is nostalgia’s question. But why not ask it?1. We are not good judges.
To ask the question assumes the conclusion: that former days were, in fact, better. But this should not be assumed. We neither have a full grasp of the past nor the present.
As Uncle Rico teaches us in Napoleon Dynamite, the past, when retold and worshiped, becomes exaggerated. Previous days get better and better, and achievements become loftier the farther one travels from them. Even grim pasts can be remembered fondly — the Israelites imagined eating meat and bread to the full, though slaves (Exodus 16:3). Hear it from them; they were kings back then.
So it is with us: we photoshop the past in our minds. We forget the fights, the frustration, that season’s pain and uncertainties — the present irritations always seem sharpest. But neither do we have a great view of our current seasons. Older saints tell many stories to verify the truth of what Samuel Rutherford attested: God keeps his best wine in the cellar of suffering — and cellars can feel like jail when we are locked inside. But God prepares a table for us amidst our sorrows. And there, he sits down to eat with us.2. Nostalgia criticizes our Father.
The question of why the past is better than the present is always addressed to someone. Mother earth. Karma. Dr. Phil. But for most, God.
But faith in God does not wallow in the question. Unbelief questions God and tells us to curse him and die when he takes good from us. Trust sits in the ashes and says between sobs, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
“Why were former days better than these?” — unsatisfied with the obvious answer that God, in his perfect will and governance, saw it best to allow new hardships, refuses to bless his name. It calls the Almighty to the witness stand to give account. It interrogates his goodness. It cross-examines his claims of benevolence. It prosecutes God on allegations of child abuse — he gave stones and serpents when his children wanted bread and fish. Why has God now handed me gravel to chew on? is never a good question.3. We have more chapters to live.
The question is also not wise because it halts forward progress. It tempts us to believe that the God of yesterday morning’s mercy now hands out rations that aren’t worth waking up for. So we pity ourselves, hit the snooze button, and slumber on toward death.
But overhear Gandalf’s advice to Frodo, as he laments his present life away from the Shire,
Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.
Many experience days they would not choose to live in. But it is not for us to decide whether God gives or takes away. What is for us to decide is what we will do with the time that God has gifted us. We have more living to do. Maybe more than we wanted, but not more than we ought to have.Home Is Before Us
Today’s fruit, although perhaps more bitter than yesterday’s, is always the best fruit we can be eating. Why? Because it is the fruit that our Father hands us. And the fruit given to us from he who knows what we need for today, before we ask him, is always the best of all fruit.
But only the best fruit of all in this life. To break the spell of the rearview mirror, we must consider what waits ahead. No matter how delicious past fruit was, no matter how ordinary today’s fruit may seem — neither of these is heaven’s fruit. If today’s good were heaven’s good, then pessimism would be virtuous. But it isn’t. What we receive here are snacks to sustain on our journey to where he who did not spare his own Son will entirely, graciously, give us all things.
Paul describes our life, for now, with the word waiting (Titus 2:13). Not withering. Not reminiscing. Not dwelling in the past. God calls us to remember the past to breed gratefulness and hope for the future mercies which will extend beyond the borders of this world. We do not sit lifeless, looking back on the best times here. We pant for the best times to be lived there. And as we wait, we renounce the empty joys of nostalgia, thank God for our pasts, but put our hope in what is to come.
“Every Sunday our people need a fresh picture of why God is the all-satisfying treasure of their lives,” John Piper explained to a roomful of practicing and aspiring preachers. “Our people need to see some particular, concrete, stunning representation of his greatness — some fresh angle on the old glory that makes people say, ‘I count everything as loss for the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.’”
On November 2–3, 1994, John Piper delivered the Bernard H. Rom Preaching Lectures at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Piper had been pastor for fourteen years at Bethlehem Baptist Church, where already he had preached more than 700 sermons. But as he would explain six years later in the 2000 lecture series, “Those 1994 Rom Lectures were very significant for me. . . . To sit down for the first time and labor to try to ask, ‘What do I do?’ and define preaching for myself was very significant.”
Now, for the first time, both of John Piper’s sets of lectures — the 1994 series, Preaching as Worship: Meditations on Expository Exultation and the 2000 series, Preaching and the Problem of Suffering — are available online.Preaching as Worship
Preaching is an act of worship, says Piper. The sermon doesn’t function as a postlude to singing, but is itself a supernatural song that aims to stoke the fires of worship in God’s people. “In the same way that a melody or tune can awaken us to the true beauty of God in the lyrics,” Piper explains in the first series, “so there is a music in the soul of the pastor, which he sings over the glory he’s seen in God’s word that will awaken the people.”
But this does not imply that preaching remains in the realm of theological abstraction. “Preaching that does not empathize with people’s pain and connect with where they are will not produce biblical fruit.” But preachers dare not stop there.
Christian sermons do not simply address felt needs. Rather, they move beyond immediate, felt needs to the deepest needs of every human heart — those needs that underlie our day-to-day struggles.
“The aim of preaching is dealing with divorce, worshipfully, for God’s sake. The aim of preaching is to deal with teenagers, worshipfully, for the glory of God. The aim of preaching is to deal with anger and family systems, worshipfully, for the glory of God. Preaching exists to magnify God and exalt his centrality in all of life, and if that doesn’t happen, I don’t think it’s Christian preaching.”
Preaching never forgets or suppresses the needs of the people, but the problems people face should not stop the sermon from singing the glories of God in Christ. Only when the sermon sings will the preacher truly meet the deepest desires of his people.Preaching for Sufferers
We never want the song to sound fake, however. Joy in the pulpit, and joy in the ministry, is not chipper or cheap. Christian joy is deep and durable. It’s strong and stable — even through suffering.
By the year 2000, John Piper had spent two decades with the people at Bethlehem Baptist Church. He had walked with his congregation through the terror of suicide, the damage of divorce, and the pain of disease.
Suffering awaits both the pastor and his people. “It has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29). For many Christians today, suffering may feel strange — even meaningless. But for the Bible, suffering is not only normal (1 Peter 4:12); it’s a gracious gift God himself designs for our eternal benefit and his everlasting glory (Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 4:17).
For the preacher specifically, Piper explains, “God has ordained that our preaching become deeper and more winsome as we are broken, and humbled, and made low, and desperately dependent on grace, by the trials of our lives.”
Suffering isn’t a setback — not to the people, and certainly not for the preacher. Hardship presents an opportunity to lay claim to God’s promise that, in Jesus, he will never leave or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5; Joshua 1:5). Trials become occasions to call on our heavenly Father to keep his great and precious promises. As much as we pine for sunny days of serenity, “Sunshine happiness signals the value of sunshine. Happiness in suffering signals the value of God. Suffering and hardship — joyfully accepted in the path of obedience to Christ — shows the supremacy of Christ more than faithfulness in fair days.”Don’t Miss Your Chance
“The aim of preaching is the glory of God through Jesus Christ. The glory of God is the aim of all preaching,” says Piper. Every Sunday morning poses an opportunity to sing the glories of God — and not just with music, but in the heralding of God’s life-giving words. Preaching isn’t an effort to entertain or amuse, but a chance to point God’s people to the wonder, excellence, and greatness of their Savior.
Everyday life presents endless options to distract us from what matters most. But Christian preaching, in the context of corporate worship, shines as an opportunity to draw people away from broken, leaky cisterns and direct them to the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 2:13).
“Your aim is to produce a God-besotted people, who by their God-besottedness, echo and reflect and have the aroma of the glory of God in their lives. They live for the glory of God.”
Unbelief, not faith, hides from Jesus after falling into sin. Trust runs to the one we have offended for the grace and mercy Jesus already purchased at the cross.