Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God . . . you never enjoy the world.
* * * * *
Psalm 37 is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing the world has ever seen. It had an astonishing effect on the British nation after Winston Churchill quoted from it during the Battle of Britain in 1940. We who would find the joy of the Lord need to reflect on those words, "Don't worry about evildoers, the Lord will take care of them." (Churchill quoted the KJV, "Fret not!")
But life must be faced every morning, and it is a fact that as the world enters a new millennium (thereby unconsciously honoring the birth of Jesus Christ), we are facing rampant new horrors worse than anything the legendary Pandora ever let out of her box.
Even so, we who are older take the long view. We carry in our heads the memories of Soviet officials who kept threatening us through the 40s and 50s and 60s and 70s with the bomb that our own traitors had stolen and given to them. We remember Stalin, Litvinov, Molotov, Vishinsky, Beria (the head of KGB), Brezhnev, and Khrushchev (the one who came to our shores
and told us, "We will bury you"). How we dreaded to hear their taunts! But where are they all today? They're gone! Poof! So we thank God and take courage, and refuse to yield our serene belief in the goodness of God.
During school days I fretted because a whole lot of other fellows became athletic heroes and were admired by everybody, and I was looked on as puny and insignificant. Do you know what happened to those muscular football heroes? They're almost all dead. Even my enemies are all dead, and I'm still here. Amazing.
Look at the third verse of Psalm 37: "Trust in the LORD and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed" (KJV). That's a word for all of us, for we ought to be good citizens. We ought to do what's right. Jesus told us to perform good works. That's what Christians are expected to do.
But that's not the secret of the Gospel's power; that's only what we are supposed to do. It's existing, not living. It's our duty to God and society. Sometimes it's not much fun, but it must be done. Somebody has to bring in the food and take out the trash.
Now look at the fourth verse: "Delight thyself also in the LORD, and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart" (KJV). That happens to be one of the most important verses in the Bible. The word "delight" means to "take joy." That is the secret goal for which most human beings are looking. That is the pearl of great price, the treasure hidden in the field.
The Bible says that we should love one another (Romans 13:8). Why should we love each other? Is it because we are lovable? No, it is because God is love.1 He didn't create love, He is love. And we are to love because He told us to, and because that is the way to joy, and that is really what we all want. You can have love without joy, but you cannot have joy without love.
But this verse in Psalm 37 is careful to say that we should delight ourselves in the Lord. Why is that? Because, it says, He will then give us the desires of our hearts.
What is it that we are living for? What is the thing we want out of life that keeps us going? Is it money? Sex? Nice clothes? Travel? Relief from pain? Security? A condo? A sport utility vehicle?
Is it getting even with someone who has hurt us? No, these are only means to an end. They are way stations on the road to something you really want or think you want.
Let's keep on this track: What are the desires of our hearts? Here is what some people say: "I want so-and-so to love me. I want a staff promotion. I want to be transferred to another job or location. I want to have money for college. I want a church of my own, with 80 percent tithers. I want to write a bestselling book about Jesus, and then get someone to make a movie about it. The desire of my heart is to find someone who will marry me and treat me right. The desire of my heart is for my family to love me. The desire of my heart is to do something with my life, to serve my country and my God."
But how do we go about achieving such things? It tells us right here. There's no "going about" at all. There's nothing we have to do, just "delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you your heart's desire." Fall in love with Him. Worship Him. Talk with Him. Listen to Him. Witness of Him. He is a lovely God, and He loves you so much that He sent His Son to die for your sins on the cross of Calvary, and fit you to live with Him in the mansions of heaven.
But here's the catch. When you begin "delighting yourself in the Lord," something is going to happen to a lot of those goals that once were the "desire of your heart." It's now apparent that some winners of the Olympic gold medal are finding that with the passage of time, the gold loses its sheen. Fame is fleeting. The medals are quietly put in a canvas bag and life goes on. The same principle applies to each of us. It is called "maturity" or "growing up in all things" to "the stature of the fullness of Christ." In gradual ways God will purify and reshape some of our desires so they do not seem important any more, while other goals He gives us are marvelously and miraculously strengthened.
Not long ago a group of people who called themselves "Heaven's Gate" committed mass suicide, thinking that they would thereby ride a comet to the "next level" where they would discover the joy they couldn't find here. Wrong means, wrong end.
What is the end you are looking for? Not unlikely it is what we all want: a life filled with good health, lots of love, and freedom to act. The efforts we make to get on top of our environment (and some of us work very hard), all the money we try to save and the struggles we go through in rearing our children, all our donating to worthwhile causes in all this, what are we actually looking for? Surely it's not pride. Not ambition. Not vengeance. Not lust. For millions of people the real end is simply joy. Yet how often we take shortcuts and employ the wrong means, and thereby lose it all! Our little flower blossoms only to "waste its fragrance on the desert air."
That's the way God made the universe. In Revelation 4:11 we find that He made creation for His own pleasure. He designed it all by clockwork. He had a plan a plan for Himself and a plan for us and it was all to end in joy. There must have been a smile on the Father's face when He set this particular planet in its orbit for us. He did an excellent job. Then He created a beautiful man and a beautiful woman for His own pleasure, and He put them in a garden and said, "Enjoy yourselves." Talk about a purpose in life: That was it. Hallelujah!
Well, what happened? You know what happened. You're a sinner, just like I am. Our first parents were disobedient to the heavenly purpose. They got off-track because they were looking for power. "You shall be as gods! You shall have the knowledge of good and evil."2 But that's not joy. The joy was already there, and they blew it. It's very sad, because now we have this sin problem, and our planet is obviously under a curse. And yet in the midst of all our sorrow and pain and wars, God did not forsake us. He looked down in compassion on our troubles and fears and He seems to have said, "I'm going to help these people. I'm going to send my Son down there, and He will teach them what my original purpose was in the creation." In any case He sent Jesus to be with us His only begotten Son, whom He loved so dearly. The Father, who knows all, knew that His Son would suffer and die on our behalf, but He sent Him anyway. Thus in a way that only the Trinity can explain, it was God Himself who came.
And Jesus walked the dusty roads of earth with a smile on His face, like His Father. Do you know that God has a smile on His face? It's a shame that in our churches there are pictures and statues and icons of Jesus that never show Him smiling. If you go to Rio de Janeiro you will find this magnificent statue on top of the Corcovado overlooking the city. It is Christ the Redeemer with His arms outstretched, but He is not smiling. He looks so sad.
When I read my New Testament I learn that Jesus was first and foremost a Man of Joy. He said, "I have Good News. I have glad tidings of great joy." The kingdom of God is a kingdom of joy!3 That's what Jesus went around telling people, lifting their spirits by saying, "Be of good cheer! Be of good cheer!"
Wouldn't you like to have been there in Galilee? Imagine boarding a 747 and flying over to Palestine and landing there at the airport at Nazareth! Then you would walk over the hills to the Sea of Galilee, and just stand on the edge of the crowd that had gathered around a Man. And you could understand the language that He was speaking. You would ask someone, "What's going on?" And he would reply, "It's Jesus, and a few minutes ago He stopped a funeral procession, and He opened the casket and told the man to sit up." And suddenly you would hear a big shout from the people: "Another miracle!"
Then maybe you would hear a tambourine, and a drum, and then the people would begin to clap. Just suppose, while you were standing on the edge of the crowd by the seashore, that Jesus would spot you. He would say, "See that person there? I want that person to come up here. Make room, won't you?" And the whole crowd would part and you would come right up. He would reach out and take your hand, and call you by your name, the name His Father had given you. How would you feel? Would you sense an exuberance, a joy, and ecstasy, a jubilation, that the Son of God had called you? So then He and the crowd would move on and you would go with them. And you would go from place to place and Jesus would be your Friend. Isn't that what you're looking for?
He's calling you today. He's here, and He's calling your name, and He's saying, "Follow me."
Jesus came to bring us joy, among other things, and it was for future joy that He went to the cross. It's in Hebrews 12:2: "Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God."
Not long ago I was at a radio station on a call-in program in Colorado Springs, and this young fellow called in with a curious statement. He said, "I became a Christian about a year ago, and I've been going to church, but I feel that there is a party going on, and I'm left out." Do you know what he was talking about? He was talking about the fifteenth chapter of Luke.
In that parable the young man who had been a prodigal was coming back to his father. When he came back, what did the father do? His son had taken the money that the father had given him out of his inheritance, and had wasted it. He was just a no-good kid, a beach bum or whatever. He came back and said in effect, "Father, I am no longer worthy to be your son; make me as one of your hired servants. I have wasted my substance in riotous living and I'm no good."4
And what did the father do? First of all, he kissed him. He met him on the road before he reached the house, and he kissed him. Then he put a robe around him, and a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. He brought him into the house and said, "Kill the fatted calf, we're going to have a feast." And he called for music and he called for dancing, and the Book says, "They began to be merry."5
Merry? Yes. That is Jesus' word. Is that a fair description of the church? E.M. Forster, the brilliant English novelist, was probably not a believer, but he has left a most unusual criticism of the church. He wrote, "Christianity has shirked the inclusion of merriment."6 My own experience agrees with him. But why should it be so? Merriment is a part of the good life that Jesus promised us. Why should we Christians bend over backward to establish solemn reputations of dignity and gravity that so often
come across as pomposity? Did our Lord go in for ceremonious taciturnity? Or did He tread this life with a light touch?
When Jesus described the father in this parable, He really meant God, didn't He? If not, why else did He tell the parable? But where did He get the idea that God would order music and merriment and dancing? There's only one place: He got it in heaven. That's what heaven is going to be like. You'd better learn how to clap your hands, because there will be a lot of rejoicing in heaven. I'm not sure what kind of merriment there will be, but there's going to be a lot of joy in heaven because that's all heaven is: joy.
But it seems the young prodigal had an older brother, and he had been working with a scythe out in the fields, and he came up to the house dripping with perspiration and said, "What's all this noise? All this foot-stomping?" The father said, "Son, your brother has just come home."
"So what? Is that why you killed the fatted calf? Is that why you ordered all this celebrating?"
"Yes, because he has come home, and the lost is found, and the dead has come back to life."
"That useless kid? That hippie? That beatnik? Running around with prostitutes? You never did anything like that for me. You never gave me a new coat or a gold ring. You never killed a calf for me! Oh, no, I can do my dancing with a scythe. You had me out there in the heat working my head off, and for that dude you pay out cash, and when he fouls up you give him a feast."
The father said, "Son, listen, it's all yours. Everything I have belongs to you. Come on, join the party."
"No. Oh no. No, this is not right. It's not just."
Salvation was never intended to be just. We're not saved by justice. As the dying Irishman said when they told him he was going to a just reward, "Justice! . . . that's the one thing I don't want! I want mercy!"
Our God is a God of mercy.7 And this boy who called in on the radio program was like the elder brother. He said, "There's a party going on and I'm out of it."
There are Christians today substantial, office-bearing Christians who have become elder brothers. I heard about one deacon, 60 years old, who they said, had been a deacon for 40 years and was just as mean now as the day he was ordained. He didn't realize that, as Francis Schaeffer said, "God means Christianity to be fun."8 Is that what you're missing? God's crepe suzettes? I wonder sometimes whether the whole church instead of being the bride of Christ, has actually become the elder brother and the party pooper, while the rest of humanity out there in the athletic stadium seems to fit as the prodigal in the parable.
People tell me that Christianity is about suffering, not joy, because Jesus suffered and died on the cross. But what was it that made Him suffer? What made Him a man of sorrows? The writer of Hebrews tells us He did it "for the joy that was set before Him," (12:2) the joy, that is, of being our redeemer from sin. Jesus found great joy in setting us free from the power and penalty of sin through His substitutionary death on the cross.
But Jesus did not stay in the tomb. He came out alive on Easter morning. And that first word He spoke on Easter morning to Mary (Matthew 28:9) as He came out of the tomb do you remember it? It was chairete, meaning "Take joy!" Jesus was on His way to joy, and when He left in a cloud, His disciples didn't weep. They were filled with joy. Do you have a resurrection joy? Would you like to delight yourself in the Lord? You can.
1. 1 John 4:8
2. Cf. Genesis 3:5
3. Romans 14:17
4. Luke 15:21
5. Luke 15:24
6. E.M. Forster, A Passage to India
7. Numbers 14:18
8. Francis Schaeffer, Complete Works, vol. 3 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books), p. 355
Chapter 18 || Table of Contents