20160429

Finding Joy :: Weekend Reading List

“A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road—you simply have to go a little further down the track, ” observes Zadie Smith. The author confesses, “That has not been my experience.”

Joy, in many Christian circles, has been wrongly placed in contrast to happiness. The result of this false dichotomy, Randy Alcorn points out, is a distorted view that removes joy from the emotional spectrum and secularizes happiness. “Our message shouldn’t be ‘Don’t seek happiness,’” Alcorn remarks, “but ‘You’ll find in Jesus the happiness and joy you’ve always longed for.’”

As a fruit of the Spirit, joy is given from God, simultaneously with self discipline and patience. In other words, delaying gratification doesn’t diminish the joy of God. True joy requires sacrifice. It reaches beyond pleasure and taps into something much deeper. The most talented storytellers in our culture have recognized this—noting how different joy is from the reckless pursuit of pleasure that marks our material world. Filmmaker George Lucas explains:

Joy is the thing that doesn’t go as high as pleasure—in terms of your emotional reaction—but, it stays with you. Joy is something you can recall, pleasure you can’t. The secret is, that even though it’s not as intense as pleasure, the joy will last you a lot longer.

If you’re trying to sustain that level of peak pleasure, you’re doomed. It’s a very American idea. Joy lasts forever, pleasure is purely self-centered. It’s all about your pleasure—it’s about you. It’s a selfish, self-centered emotion. It’s created by a self-centered motive of greed.

Joy is compassion. Joy is giving yourself to somebody else, or something else. It’s a kind of thing that, in its subtlety and lowness, much more powerful than pleasure. If you get hung up on pleasure you’re doomed. If you pursue joy, you’ll find everlasting happiness.

When we think of the fruit of the Spirit as the transferable attributes of God—those divine characteristics which shape our lives as we live in sync with the Spirit—it becomes clear human beings were created for joy. Scripture reveals that anything we are created to receive from God we will attempt to counterfeit—to become our own god as we provide for ourselves.

Marijuana, alcohol, adventure sports, sex, and so many other little things bring us right to the outside edges of joy. We taste, if only for a moment, the glory of creation. And because pleasure is so short lived and so soon forgotten we want more. We need more. In trying to pin down a definition of joy for her piece in The New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith looks back to her drug use in the London club scene:

Was that joy? Probably not. But it mimicked joy’s conditions pretty well…. The thing no one ever tells you about joy is that it has very little real pleasure in it.

We can’t counterfeit true joy. Commenting on Smith’s experience, Alex Bayer observes, “static pleasure precludes the chance of achieving joy.” What we see—in Christ’s life, sacrifice, death, and resurrection—is that joy is found not in the flickers of earthly pleasure, but the eternal glory of God. One of Jesus’ shortest parables, then, is a story about joy—and how we find it in the happy forfeiture of this life’s meaningless pleasures:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Joy is not contrast to happiness, but to grief. We know this, deep down—if nothing else from the depth of these two emotions. We know this from the low-level grief we carry with us in a broken world. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit because it only comes as God re-enters the world from which sin kicked him out. He came and wept with us so that we might rejoice for all of eternity with him.

Grief today is but a sign of the glory to come. Likewise, the joy we find relinquishing our pursuit of daily pleasure for a greater joy is a testimony of what lies ahead. Smith concludes:

The writer Julian Barnes, considering mourning, once said, “It hurts just as much as it is worth.” The end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all, and can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 4 (Listen – 2:46)
Hebrews 4 (Listen – 2:43)

This Weekend’s Readings
Song of Solomon 5 (Listen – 2:43) Hebrews 5 (Listen – 1:57)
Song of Solomon 6 (Listen – 1:48) Hebrews 6 (Listen – 2:58)

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20160428

Finding Peace in Christ :: Throwback Thursday

By Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843)

Consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession. — Hebrews 3.1

When a traveller passes very rapidly through a country, the eye has no time to rest upon the different objects in it, so that, when he comes to the end of his journey, no distinct impressions have been made upon his mind; he has only a confused notion of the country through which he has travelled. This explains how it is that death, judgment, eternity, make so little impression upon most men’s minds.

In the same way the devil tries to make the children of God doubt if there be a Providence. He hurries them away to the shop and market. Lose no time, he says, but make money. Therefore God cries, Stop, poor sinner, stop and think; and Jesus says, “Consider the lilies of the field how they grow; consider the ravens, which have neither storehouse nor barn.”

In the same way does the Devil try to make the children of God live uncomfortable and unholy lives. He beguiles them away from simply looking to Jesus: he hurries them away to look at a thousand other things, as he led Peter, walking on the sea, to look round at the waves. But God says, Look here, consider the Apostle and High Priest of your profession: look unto me, and be ye saved.

In the Old Testament, the name by which he is oftenest called is the Angel of the Lord, or the Messenger of the Covenant. God anointed him and sent him to the work. In the New Testament, over and over again Christ calls himself, the sent of God. “As thou hast sent me into the world, so have I sent them into the world, that the world may know that thou hast sent me.” “And these have known that thou hast sent me.” All this shows plainly that it is not the Son alone who is interested in the saving of poor sinners, but the Father also. “The Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

The atonement has been made, Christ has died, his sufferings are all past. And how is it that you do not enjoy peace? It is because you do not consider. “Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Consider: has Jesus died in the stead of guilty sinners, and do you heartily consent to take Jesus to be the man in your stead?

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 3 (Listen – 1:48)
Hebrews 3 (Listen – 2:25)

20160427

Power and Intimacy 

For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. — Hebrews 2.18

“External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve,” observes David Brooks. The New York Times columnist recalls that a few years ago he came to a realization: “I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul.”

Striving is the term authors of the Scriptures give to pursuits of self salvation. The tuning pitch of the book of Hebrews is the presentation of Christ as the end of our striving. Where we will pursue ad infinitum, the first chapter of Hebrews teaches, Christ is sufficient:

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.

If Christ were just all-powerful, we would have the answer we need but no path to access it—what can make limitless strength bow down? On the other hand, if Christ were just near to the brokenhearted, we would have the intimate grace and love we need, but no faculty to heal our brokenness or bring justice to our world.

This may be why the first two chapters of Hebrews echo the first two chapters of Genesis. In the first creation account God speaks the world into existence—power, radiance and glory writ large across the galaxies. In the second account God scrapes dirt with his hands and breathes life with his lungs—intimately knowing the frame of his beloved children. Where the first chapter of Hebrews says God is powerful, the second says he feels our pain.

“Shoreless Ocean,” A.W. Tozer writes of God, “who can sound Thee? Thine own eternity is round Thee, Majesty divine!” It is the power of grace—the heart of the Christian experience—that draws us to intimately know God’s power in our lives. Tozer reflects:

You and I are in little (our sins excepted) what God is in large. Being made in His image we have within us the capacity to know Him. In our sins we lack only the power…. For now begins the glorious pursuit, the heart’s happy exploration of the infinite riches of the Godhead. That is where we begin, I say, but where we stop no man has yet discovered, for there is in the awful and mysterious depths of the Triune God neither limit nor end.

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 2 (Listen – 2:15)
Hebrews 2 (Listen – 2:47)

20160426

What Remains

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. — Hebrews 1.3

On most days I don’t actually want God; I just want someone more powerful than I am to manipulate things into going my way. Wanting benefits from God versus wanting God is the difference between believing in God and experiencing God. In his sermon The Gospel and Your Self Timothy Keller explains:

If the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high and the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of paper 310 miles high. That’s how big the galaxy is. Yet the galaxy is nothing but a speck of dust, virtually, in the whole universe.

The Bible says Jesus Christ holds this universe together with the word of his power… Is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?

The safest way to live the Christian life is to relegate God to creating individual comfort, success, and prosperity. This is why, Kierkegaard believes, we insulate ourselves from truly experiencing God:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to under­stand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accord­ingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget every­thing except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

The book of Hebrews provides both a promise—Christ is sufficient where everything else fails—and a confrontation—Christ is superlative and following him is consuming. “When God becomes real,” Dr. Keller concludes, “that gets into your heart as an irreducible, unavoidable, inescapable, permanent principle you’ll never be able to escape.”

The unending love, never-failing grace, impartial justice, and unspeakable holiness of God surrounds us in this broken world. The author of Hebrews rejoices, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain.”

Today’s Reading
Song of Solomon 1 (Listen – 2:16)
Hebrews 1 (Listen – 2:15)

20160425

On Not Wasting Life

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.” — Ecclesiastes 12.1

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it,” Seneca quipped in his work On the Shortness of Life. “Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present.” In the same breath, “meaningless!” shouts the wisdom of Ecclesiastes; “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”

Seneca cautioned that life is too often “wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing.” Maria Popova links the great philosopher’s work to the modern contrast of business and “the art of living.” In Seneca’s words:

Your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.

You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality!

To this the author of Ecclesiastes couldn’t agree more. Why squander our days, our energy, our passions on the meaningless pleasures of this world when we are designed for eternal glory? Why settle for earthly riches when heavenly honors await us? The answer—in Genesis, as in Seneca’s day, as in our time—is that we become consumed in our labor. Seneca writes:

It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously… New preoccupations take the place of the old, hope excites more hope and ambition more ambition.

The calling of Ecclesiastes is to reorient our lives to our labor and give ourselves daily to the one that matters most in this life. Christians don’t retreat from labor, nor become consumed or defined by labor, but align our earthly passions with God’s desires. For, as Ecclesiastes concludes, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it.”

Today’s Reading
Ecclesiastes 12 (Listen – 2:38)
Philemon (Listen – 2:52)