John Piper has said that the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Desiring God, the ministry that Piper founded, states, “Joy is not optional. It’s essential.” Piper calls himself a Christian hedonist, which is defined as “the conviction that God’s ultimate goal in the world (his glory) and our deepest desire (to be happy) are one and the same, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
The language of Christian hedonism has invited a good deal of criticism. I hesitate to use the language, because hedonism is classically defined as the pursuit of joy/pleasure coupled with the avoidance of suffering at all costs. The New Testament makes it clear that Christians cannot and should not avoid suffering at all costs, but I appreciate Desiring God’s emphasis on helping Christians to pursue joy in Christ.
It should help us to reflect on the reality that suffering and joy are not polar opposites in the Christian life. Stated another way, it is possible to pursue and attain joy even in the midst of suffering. The writer of Psalm 43 pleaded with God to vindicate him and defend his cause against an ungodly people. He was opposed by a deceitful and unjust man and felt that God had rejected him. He felt himself in deep mourning because of the oppression of his enemy.
But even as he faced opposition, he knew what to do. “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” (v. 4). “God my exceeding joy” translates the Hebrew name El Simchath Gili, which is the name of God under focus this week.
Everybody wants to be happy. While Christians understand that suffering and affliction are necessary realities, nobody wants to suffer or face affliction. We long for joy. We take great hope in the fact that we will one day experience unending joy in the presence of God. But the gospel of Jesus Christ promises that we can find joy in this life. Jesus promised, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Notice carefully that, in the gospel, Christ’s joy can be in us. It not only empowers us. It not only aids our joy. It can be in us. We can actually have the joy of El Simchath Gili—God our exceeding joy.
Observe, however, that this promised joy is only for a particular people: for those who are united to Christ. Jesus said a few verses earlier, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). To experience this joy, we must be in Christ. We must look consistently to Christ. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us with his joy.
How do we pursue joy in Christ? How do we know God as our exceeding joy? Consider three important steps from Psalm 43:4.
First, the writer knew that joy would be found at “the altar.” The altar that was authorised for old covenant worship was located at the temple. Time and again, God instructed his people to tear down altars throughout the land and to instead worship at the altar he had prescribed. For the psalmist to “go the altar of God” was for him to go to the place of corporate worship and to be there with the people of God. In contemporary terms, joy was found at church.
Church life can sometimes be wonderful. We can experience glorious fellowship and benefit practically from the ministry of others. We take delight in worshipping God with each other. Corporate worship can be considered the closest thing we will ever come on earth to knowing what the eternal state will be like.
But church life can also be profoundly troubling. The church is the gathering of sinners—forgiven sinners, yes, but sinners nonetheless. Church members will fail you. They will sin against you. They will betray you. Church life can be profoundly heartbreaking. It can be the source of our greatest distress. And yet the psalmist knew where to look for joy: at the altar of God.
If you want to experience El Simchath Gili—if you want the joy of the Lord to be in you—you must be found in the gathered worship of God’s people. Isolating yourself from the gathering of God’s people may be tempting when they wrong you, but it is the surest way to misery. To experience the joy of the Lord, we must worship with his people.
Second, the writer knew in whom to find joy: “God.” His joy was found not in circumstances but in a person. Joy was not found in clothing and shelter and luxuries. Joy was not found in human intimacy. Joy—true joy—the joy of El Simchath Gili—was to be found in God alone.
If you will experience the joy of Christ, do all you can to learn all you can about the source of your joy. Grow in your knowledge of Christ. He is delightful and knowing him more intimately is the surest way to embracing his joy as your own. Christ is most clearly seen in Scripture; are you spending much time in Scripture learning about him? Are you reading good books that point you to the surpassing delight of the person and work of Christ? Are you forming and maintaining relationships with those who will point you toward Christ rather than to inferior sources of happiness?
The songwriter stated it beautifully: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus—look full in his wonderful face—and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” The way to joy is to so fill your vision with the glory of Christ than all other glories are eclipsed by his surpassing worth. As Puritan John Owen said, “Do any of us find a lukewarmness, a spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Well, there is no better way for our healing than this, a fresh view of the glory of Christ and abiding therein.”
Third, and related to the above, the writer knew that his joy would be cemented as he considered El Simchath Gili to be his “exceeding joy.” He knew that he must compare all other joys to his God and find how transitory they are.
Where are you presently finding your joy? Sex? Fame? Acceptance? Money? Power? Comfort? How do these things stack against the glory of Christ? Michael Reeves puts it bluntly:
Which is better? Does pornography offer you the satisfaction, acceptance, and love that Jesus does? Does money offer you anything in comparison to the riches of Christ? Does passing temporal power offer you anything in comparison to what Christ is offering?
When you see how much better Christ is than those other things you go running after, you will choose Christ rather than those things, and you will walk away from them with freedom.
As you pray this week, ask the Holy Spirit to show you more of Christ and to help you see the fading glory of your earthly pleasures in comparison with the eternal glory of your eternal treasure.