The Pain of Life, the Supreme Goodness of God, and the Joy of the Psalmists

From Stephen Westerholm’s little gem, Understanding Paul: The Early Christian Worldview of the Letter to the Romans (Baker, 2004), pages 33, 87–88:

The psalmists of the Bible found joy in the presence of God: an overwhelming sense that, wherever one found oneself, and whatever one’s circumstances, God is there — and God is good. The joy may be expressed, as the Psalms frequently enjoin, with music and dance and boisterous shouts. It may find voice in a quiet prayer of assurance: “When I awake, I am still with thee.” In any case, the psalmists repeatedly speak of discovering in the Eternal not only their provision and protection but also their heart’s delight:

Thou hast put gladness in my heart,

more than in the time

that their corn and their wine increased.

In thy presence is fullness of joy;

at thy right hand

there are pleasures for evermore.

Delight thyself also in the LORD;

and he shall give thee

the desires of thine heart.

Not incidental to the pleasure was the belief that the enjoyment was mutual:

He [God] delighteth not in the strength of the horse:

he taketh not pleasure in the legs of a man.

The LORD taketh pleasure in them that fear him,

in those that hope in his mercy.

The psalmists’ joy is rooted in their conviction that, circumstances notwithstanding, life is good, and that they have a share in its goodness, loved by the One who matters most. Praise, for them, is the natural, appropriate venting of joy: to praise the Lord is “fitting” and “good.”

And yet,

The psalmists who found such satisfaction in God’s “face” were fully aware of the darker aspects of life: is there anywhere a literature that more profoundly probes the lot of the despised, the slandered, the despondent, those ravaged by disease or war? God’s ways are often disturbingly mysterious even for the psalmists. They feel that at times he has “hidden” his “face,” and they cannot understand why.

Nonetheless, what prevails in the end is the unshakable faith in their bones, whatever the fate of their flesh, that underlying all is goodness, beyond human understanding but deserving of human trust: a goodness not only worth clinging to when all else fails, but more precious by far than anything else one might desire.

Fullness of Joy

Paul Tripp on Psalm 16 in The Problem of Good: When the World Seems Fine without God (P&R, 2014), 133:

The pleasures of the physical world are temporarily enjoyable, but the shelf life of their enjoyment is short. The taste of food is wonderful, but it does not linger long on your tongue. The delight of musical creativity is enjoyable, but the notes do not ring in your ears for very long. You sit on the edge of your seat during that powerful movie, but on the way home you are already planning for your next day at work.

Pleasure is pleasurable, but the pleasures of this right-here, right-now created world can never give you fullness of joy. God graces you with pleasure not to satisfy your heart, but to point you to where your searching heart will finally be satisfied. Joy is found in pleasure, but fullness of joy is to be found only in the One who created pleasure for your good and his glory.

Luminescence

Kyle Strobel, writing in the new book Advancing Trinitarian Theology: Explorations in Constructive Dogmatics (148, 152):

In [Jonathan] Edwards’s conception, God is not so loquacious as he is luminescent. Creation certainly pours forth speech, as the Psalmist declares (Ps 19), but it is written by the effusive overflow of God’s beauty. This speech is seen and not heard (or only heard as it is seen). The visual takes precedence in Edwards’s theology because of his doctrine of God, his understanding of the beatific vision, and its orientation for faith. One day believers will see “face to face” (1 Cor 13:12), so the spiritual sight of faith is the anticipation — through a glass darkly — of God’s beatific glory. …

Edwards ends right where he begins — with a God who is infinite happiness, delight, and joy. God’s life is, as it were, the truly religious life; God’s life is one of affection, delight, and the vision that “happifies.” God is the great contemplative, we can say, captivated with truth divine by consenting in union with Truth itself — the Logos. As Edwards claims, God’s excellency “is the highest theme that ever man, that ever archangels, yes, that ever the man Christ Jesus, entered upon yet; yea, it is that theme which is, to speak after the manner of men, the highest contemplation, and the infinite happiness, of Jehovah himself.”

God’s life serves as the archetype for perfect knowledge and therefore casts knowledge in a specifically affectionate and contemplative mold. This is why religious affection is a central issue for Edwards’s understanding of Christian life, knowledge, and conversion. To know God, one must know him as God knows himself — by gazing upon his perfect image in the affection and beauty of the Spirit.

Holy Joy

Charles Spurgeon, The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons (London: 1877), 23:642:

The more happy we can be in our God the more thoroughly will the will of Christ be fulfilled in us, for he desired that our joy might be full. The more you rejoice in God the more you will recommend true religion. The more full of delight you are, especially in trying times, the more you will glorify God. Few things are at the same time both pleasant and profitable, but holy joy and peace possess that double excellence. Fullness of spiritual joy is both the index and the means of spiritual strength.

An Ocean of Happiness

Thomas Traherne (1636–74), Centuries of Meditations (London: 1927), 146–7:

Varro cites 288 opinions of philosophers concerning happiness: they were so blind in the knowledge of it, and so different in their apprehensions. All which opinions fall in here, as all rivers fall into the sea, and agree together.

Some placed happiness in riches, and some in honor, some in pleasure, and some in the contempt of all riches, honor, and pleasure; some in wisdom and some in firm stability of mind, some in empire and some in love. Some in bare and naked contentment, some in contemplation, and some in action; some in rest and some in sufferings, and some in victory and triumph.

All which occur here, for here is victory and triumph over our lusts, that we might live the life of clear reason, in the fruition of all riches, honors, and pleasures, which are by wisdom to be seen, and by love to be enjoyed in the highest empire, with great content, in solitude alone, in communion with all, by action and contemplation, attaining it by sufferings, and resting in the possession, with perfect victory and triumph over the world and evil men, or sin, death and hell, in spite of all the oppositions of men and devils.

Neither Angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor height nor depth, nor things present nor things to come, being able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Naming False Securities

Today on the DG blog I posted some thoughts on the link between faith and joy. Joy in God evaporates when our trust in God grows cold, was my main point. Emails and Tweets are coming in from readers wanting to know more about how to identify false securities (idols) in their own hearts. And perhaps the best list of categories comes from Timothy Keller’s book The Gospel in Life: Grace Changes Everything, Study Guide (Zondervan, 2010), and especially what he writes on page 40:

Why do we lie, or fail to love, or break our promises, or live selfishly? Of course, the general answer is “Because we are weak and sinful,” but the specific answer is that there is something besides Jesus Christ that we feel we must have to be happy, something that is more important to our heart than God, something that is enslaving our heart through inordinate desires. The key to change (and even to self-understanding) is therefore to identify the idols of the heart.”

After explaining the idolatry theme more closely from Romans 1:18–25, Galatians 4:8–9, and 1 John 5:21, Keller lists particular categories for personal reflection. The idol categories include the following:

“Life only has meaning/I only have worth if…

  • I have power and influence over others.” (Power Idolatry)
  • I am loved and respected by _____.” (Approval Idolatry)
  • I have this kind of pleasure experience, a particular quality of life.” (Comfort idolatry)
  • I am able to get mastery over my life in the area of _____.” (Control idolatry)
  • people are dependent on me and need me.” (Helping Idolatry)
  • someone is there to protect me and keep me safe.” (Dependence idolatry)
  • I am completely free from obligations or responsibilities to take care of someone.” (Independence idolatry)
  • I am highly productive and getting a lot done.” (Work idolatry)
  • I am being recognized for my accomplishments, and I am excelling in my work.” (Achievement idolatry)
  • I have a certain level of wealth, financial freedom, and very nice possessions.” (Materialism idolatry)
  • I am adhering to my religion’s moral codes and accomplished in its activities.” (Religion idolatry)
  • this one person is in my life and happy to be there, and/or happy with me.” (Individual person idolatry)
  • I feel I am totally independent of organized religion and am living by a self-made morality.” (Irreligion idolatry)
  • my race and culture is ascendant and recognized as superior.” (Racial/cultural idolatry)
  • a particular social grouping or professional grouping or other group lets me in.” (Inner ring idolatry)
  • my children and/or my parents are happy and happy with me.” (Family idolatry)
  • Mr. or Ms. “Right” is in love with me.” (Relationship Idolatry)
  • I am hurting, in a problem; only then do I feel worthy of love or able to deal with guilt.” (Suffering idolatry)
  • my political or social cause is making progress and ascending in influence or power.” (Ideology idolatry)
  • I have a particular kind of look or body image.” (Image idolatry)

Then he looks more closely at the first four categories:

If you seek POWER (success, winning, influence)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Humiliation
  • People around you often feel: Used
  • Your problem emotion: Anger

If you seek APPROVAL (affirmation, love, relationships)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Rejection
  • People around you often feel: Smothered
  • Your problem emotion: Cowardice

If you seek COMFORT (privacy, lack of stress, freedom)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Stress, demands
  • People around you often feel: Neglected
  • Your problem emotion: Boredom

If you seek CONTROL (self-discipline, certainty, standards)…

  • Your greatest nightmare: Uncertainty
  • People around you often feel: Condemned
  • Your problem emotion: Worry

Wow, that is quite convicting. All of these false securities erode our trust in God, and when our trust in God is gone our joy evaporates and we are left with dehydrated souls. The response is to turn to Christ, and there to find all the security we need eternally and for our daily bread today.

And for more information on Keller’s material here, see his workbook and DVD.