It’s been fifteen years since I wrote When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. I wrote it because hundreds of people who hear the message of Christian Hedonism with hope drift into discouragement because they don’t have the joy in God that they know they should. Christian Hedonism says that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Which makes matters worse if that satisfaction is missing. That’s why I wrote the book.
I have been asked, What would I say now, with the accumulated wisdom of 72 years, to those still struggling to “delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4)? This is not theoretical for me. Not only do I share the struggle, but I have conversations with real people struggling like this. I followed up one such conversation recently with an email. I’m going to share that with you below. But first a caution.
Wisdom for the Darkness
Whether we can help someone struggling with joylessness in the Christian life depends not primarily on the quantity of wisdom we have accumulated over the years, but on how we apply the truth we have, and whether the Spirit of God turns that truth into life and freedom and joy.
I am not minimizing the value of accumulated wisdom. The Old Testament sage commands, “Get wisdom” (Proverbs 4:7). Jesus “increased in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). Paul prays that we would be “filled with spiritual wisdom” (Colossians 1:9). We know that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3). Paul calls us to admonish each other “in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16). James tells us that if we “lack wisdom,” we should ask for it from God (James 1:5). For there is a “wisdom that comes down from above” (James 3:17). We can never get too much wisdom.
But my point is that if you are 30 instead of 70, you should not be intimidated or paralyzed by the fact that you still have 40 years of wisdom accumulation in front of you. As you read your Bible tomorrow morning, praying for supernatural insight, God may grant you a glimpse of some precious truth that later in the day will be exactly the truth that your struggling friend needs.
Am I Beyond Hope?
After the conversation that I had recently with my friend, he followed up with an email. He was still in distress. What do you say when you feel you have said all you know to say — in the book and in conversation?
One answer is this: Don’t think that you need the tailor-made answer to the presenting problem. Instead, realize that any precious biblical truth that has ministered deeply to you, though it may seem irrelevant to your friend’s situation, may be more helpful than you realize. Just go ahead and overflow from your morning devotions. They will know the truth (which may seem random to us), and the truth may set them free.
You also can give the sober counsel that struggling has hope of success, but forsaking the struggle does not. I think it is a mistake to give unqualified assurance to a struggler when you do not know if they are born again. You hope they are. They hope they are. But you are not God. And they are in a season of darkness. What you do know beyond doubt is: if they finally abandon Christ and hope, there is no hope.
So I thought it might be helpful to share with you how I responded to my friend’s email. Keep in mind that his struggle has to do with patterns of repeated sin which make him feel hopeless about ever getting victory. These failures leave him feeling distant from God and, at times, wondering if he is a Christian, or perhaps whether he may even be an Esau who has spurned grace so often that true repentance is no longer possible (Hebrews 12:16–17).
This is a terrifying position to be in. I don’t think my friend is unusual. I think thousands of Christians, if they will pause to be painfully honest, will admit to the same struggles. It is hard to admit this, because it is so scary.
Parts of the following letter are exact quotes. Other parts are altered enough so as not to betray any confidences.
Letter to a Distressed Friend
I totally empathize with the frustration and fears of possibly being an Esau because of sinning so deeply against God’s mercy and light and patience. There is no comfortable answer to how one conquers such fears and escapes such a condition. From my own experience, what I would say is this: If you have the grace to hold on to God’s mercy and not throw it away in apostasy, there is hope.
This is not a comfortable answer. It doesn’t speak in terms of simple certainties — namely, that you will definitely prove not to be an Esau. But it is the only way forward into light and hope and relief. I can’t promise that you are a child of God, but I can promise that if you throw away hope, you will prove not to be a child of God.
God’s word speaks often about “waiting” for the Lord, as in Psalm 40:
I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure. (Psalm 40:1–2)
How long was David in the miry bog? It doesn’t say. But what is clear from all the psalms is that the psalmists never forsake God when they feel like he has forsaken them. Something holds them.
Not only does the Bible speak of waiting for God in the miry bog, but it also speaks of true believers walking in a kind of darkness. Perhaps you have considered this word from Isaiah:
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:
you shall lie down in torment. (Isaiah 50:10–11)
We may not be able to describe adequately what it means both to walk in darkness and to trust the Lord. They seem contradictory. And yet there it is. I’m suggesting that it would mean this: When the darkness of uncertainty and fear hangs over you, inasmuch as by grace it remains in you, don’t let go of the One you knew in the light. Keep holding on, if only, it may seem, by your fingernails. Know this: his hands are on his children’s fingernails — day and night. Pray for dawn and deliverance. From where I stand at age 72, I believe I can encourage you that it will come.
Paul speaks in a way that captures some of the mystery of the ongoing battle with sin:
Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24–25)
Paul is ashamed of his inconsistency in these times of defeat. But he does not despair. He looks away from himself, confesses his divided self, and presses on in the battle.
But he also tells us that the way he fights as an imperfect saint is by the hope that Christ has a firmer grip on him than he does on Christ. He may feel like only his fingernails grip the cliff. But he believes that Christ grips his fingernails:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Philippians 3:12)
Or, to paraphrase, “I grasp for the hope for future perfection, because Christ has already grasped me and will not let me go.” Sometimes we feel his grasp more sweetly than at other times. It is a fearful thing when we are going through a season where we don’t feel it at all.
I’m not going to give you a list of ways to fight for your joy. Those are all in the book that you already read. What I am doing in this letter is simply reminding you (1) that God is present in the darkness, (2) that he is holding on to his people when they feel barely able to hold on to him, and (3) that though you may feel unsure of your salvation in this struggle, you may be totally sure you will not have salvation if you give up the struggle and walk away.
“If you have the grace to hold on to God’s mercy and not throw it away in apostasy or suicide, there is hope.”
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May I recommend a song about God’s precious keeping power? In the last several years, the song “He Will Hold Me Fast” has gone deep with me and become very sweet. I love the robust congregational affirmation of this recording of Capitol Hill Baptist Church singing it.
I could never keep my hold
Through life’s fearful path.
For my love is often cold,
He must hold me fast.
May God give you the grace to sing it anew.