Joy on purpose
How do we recognize the joy of the Lord?
Churches that include confession of sin as a formal part of Sunday worship often use Psalm 51 as a prayer to be read or sung together: “Have mercy on me, O God…according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” Christians rightly think of David’s prayer after his infamous fall into sin as a go-to plea for God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Minnesota Pastor Jonathan Parnell agrees, but in his book Mercy for Today, he also remembers that what David needed in his worst moment “is what I need all the time.” Parnell invites the reader to meditate on how the mercy of God saturates every part of the Christian’s life, whether he is aware of it or not.
Mercy for Today—an honorable mention in WORLD’s 2020 accessible theology books of the year—serves as a guide to praying Psalm 51, and focuses on four areas: praise, change, presence, and joy.
In this excerpt, Parnell reflects on how joy in God is different than the joy other religions and philosophies commend. “When it comes to the joy in God we want restored, it’s a joy that intends a purpose much bigger than ourselves,” he writes. “Our joy in God is undoubtedly our joy, and yet it’s a joy purposed to magnify the glory of God and to seek the good of others.” —Jamie Dean
My family and I love calling Minnesota home—most of the time (just barely most of the time). For several months of the year, there’s this thing called Winter, and it’s brutal. The feeling of subzero wind gusts is humbling, to say the least, and it’s part of the reason I became intrigued by the Dutch athlete Wim Hof.
Wim Hof is considered an extreme athlete because he has learned to mentally control his body temperature. The spectacle of this ability is that he can stand outside in his underwear in the middle of deadly cold conditions. Just Google him. Basically, he can sit in the snow unscathed when it’s 30 degrees below zero.
The more you read about Wim Hof, the more you’ll hear about the Eastern breathing techniques and meditation he uses. He has led seminars and tutorials about it, even published a couple of books, all so that you too can learn how to sit naked in the snow. It is intriguing, no doubt, but it raises the question: “Why?”
Well, true of Eastern meditation in general, the quest for enlightenment is a quest for experience, which is epitomized in nirvana, the ultimate peace of mind and liberation from the world. Put simply, the whole thing terminates on me being emptied of me. But here’s the kicker: less of me for the sake of me is still … all about me. Now how is joy in God different? Other than the gospel intending our ultimate fullness, the exact opposite of Eastern religions, how does the gospel answer the question of “Why?”
Among countless differences, one fundamental difference is that joy in God is joy for a purpose that goes beyond our experience. This is important to highlight. Our desire (and fight) for joy in God is not so that we can soften the cushion of our American comforts.1
The point is not just that we feel better, or that we achieve some enhanced version of ourselves through a divine tack on. You’ll of course find those sorts of messages on the magazine covers that line the grocery store checkout, and it’s certainly attractive. The whole industry of “self-help” literature fixates on the word “just,” as writer Greg Jackson points out. “It promises that small changes will have big results. The genre [of self-help] implies that your true life is waiting for you behind the superficial inefficiencies and errors of your current life.”2 All we need are just a few tweaks, so goes the spiel, and who wouldn’t want to try that?
Well, that’s not what we’re doing here. When it comes to the joy in God we want restored, it’s a joy that intends a purpose much bigger than ourselves. Our joy in God is undoubtedly our joy, and yet it’s a joy purposed to magnify the glory of God and to seek the good of others.
Magnifying the glory of God
We all know joy magnifies something. Whenever we see someone who is manifestly happy, we immediately want to know why. Where is that happiness coming from? We instinctively know that joy has a cause, a source, and eventually that source becomes the focus, not the joy itself. For example, imagine you’re hanging out with a group of friends, and one of them is looking at her phone. Suddenly, she bursts into laughter. It is spontaneous joy, clear as day. What do you do when you see that? You want to see what she sees, of course! You want to go stand beside her and look at whatever it is that she’s looking at. Her manifest joy is pointing away from itself to the thing that caused it. The causer of joy is inescapably proclaimed as valuable by our experience of joy.
Our joy in God is the same way, but only more so, because it magnifies the worthiness of God whether anyone else is watching or not. Even if nobody sees it, our joy in God is like an exhibition of his faithfulness. We are making a statement about God with our hearts and behavior: Yes, God, you are who you say you are. You are worthy of all praise. You are the all-satisfying treasure of my life. Our joy doesn’t stop with the joy itself; it’s about where the joy points. Our joy in God magnifies the glory of God. That’s the purpose our joy intends, and it’s the ultimate purpose of our lives.
Satisfied in Jesus
The most important, all-encompassing truth of the universe is that everything exists for the glory of God—which means, ultimately, everything exists to magnify the weightiness and wonder of who God is. That is the resounding theme of the Bible. But we often need to translate the glory of God from an abstract idea to something more real. We shouldn’t imagine God’s glory as a bright, blinding light that fills the sky. His glory is certainly seen there (see Psalm 19), but the Bible gets more particular. The writer to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Paul says that Jesus is the one in whom the “whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The apostle John writes that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:14).
Jesus is the most vivid display of who God is, as he himself has said: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). This means, in a deeply personal way, that the glory of God is the person Jesus. And because that is true—because of who Jesus is—there is nothing more important or more relevant than that Jesus is real. Our purpose, then, is to experience and show that Jesus is the supreme satisfaction of our souls. That is what it means to magnify the glory of God. That is what joy is for. It’s the “why” behind our prayer: God, give me joy again.
For the good of others
We really don’t need any other purpose for our joy, but there is more. In God’s economy, the vertical always affects the horizontal. Like with the Greatest Commandment—love God, then people—our joy in God glorifies God and then spills over for the good of others. It’s another reminder that our joy doesn’t end with an isolated experience, but instead we actually become conduits of joy. That’s exactly what happened for the churches in Macedonia.
In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul is holding up the Macedonian Christians as a model of radical generosity. They gave financial relief to poverty-stricken Christians even though they themselves were also poor. How could they do that? Because of their abundance of joy, as Paul puts it: “For in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Cor. 8:2). Their joy propelled them into self-sacrificing love, and the aim of love, in its truest sense, is that others also be happy in God (and the more others are happy in God, the more the glory of God is magnified).
David understood that his joy in God had implications for those around him. Immediately after verse 12, after David prayed for God to restore his joy, he says, “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Ps. 51:13). David was not just thinking about himself in these petitions. He had not forsaken everyone else in his quest for personal peace, but he wanted others to want what he wanted. He wanted sinners like him, humans like him, to have joy in God, and to ask God for it. Give me joy again, God, for your glory and for the good of others.
God, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise—because you will be praised, with or without me. You don’t need my mouth, and you don’t need me at all, but you have made me, and I’m here, and I want to get in on the praise you deserve. And God, you know my heart needs to be changed. Please do in me what only you can do—create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. And whatever comes, wherever you’re leading me, be with me today. Please, God, don’t leave me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. And give me joy again, God. Give me back the joy I’ve lost, and then more. Make your sun to shine upon me. Make me feel your smiling face. Make me glad in you, for your glory and the good of others. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and uphold me with a willing spirit.
1. “The fight for joy in Christ is not a fight to soften the cushion of Western comforts. It is a fight for strength to live a life of self-sacrificing love” (John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 20. 11. Greg Jackson, “The Inner Life of a Sinking Ship,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2018), 83–91.
2. Greg Jackson, “The Inner Life of a Sinking Ship,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2018), 83–91.
Excerpted with permission from Mercy for Today by Jonathan Parnell. Copyright 2020, B&H Publishing Group.
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