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Fullness of Joy . . . Pleasures for Evermore

 
 

Psalm 16

 

The English poet Charles Swinburne insisted that the icy breath of Jesus has put a chill on the world. He insisted that Christ “puts a damper” on life; that our Lord is like a soggy, foul-smelling blanket that deprives people of brightness, joy, laughter; deprives people not only of effervescent mood but even of the pleasures of the senses. Wherever Jesus Christ is spoken of, mildew is about to blight the human spirit.

Swinburne isn’t the only person to have thought this. We’ve all heard our Lord’s name hissed derisively as someone, thinking herself sophisticated, sneered at “that creeping Jesus.” Apparently there is thought to be something creepy about him: oily, cold, grey, a killjoy both uninvited and uninviting, better left alone. And of course anyone who deems Jesus to be this deems us, his followers, to be no better.

Think about the similar associations surrounding the word “Puritan.” “Puritan” is a great word in the English vocabulary, as far as I’m concerned, just because the Puritans made a great contribution to the public good everywhere in the English-speaking world. The Puritans, more than any other group, were responsible for expanding if not providing virtually all the democratic institutions we enjoy, as well as for preserving the intellectual riches we cherish. Always remember that when the Royal Academy of Science was formed in the 17th century, nearly all its charter members — leading scientists of the day — were Puritan clergy. And always remember that when the Puritans were ascendant in Britain and in North America their rate of literacy was vastly higher than that of their detractors (especially among Puritan women). And never forget that when the Jewish people had been expelled from Britain in the 13th century it was the Puritans who welcomed then back and allowed them synagogue, school and cemetery. The Puritans were sober and serious, of course, yet also life-embracing, sport-loving, and sex-affirming. Still, for reasons I can’t fathom, the word “Puritan” is said to call to mind someone who fears that somebody, somewhere, might be having fun.

It appears that many people are held off the Christian life by their suspicion that intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ entails joylessness. For years C.S. Lewis thought this. A brilliant scholar trained in philosophy and English literature, Lewis feared that immersion in God would corrode the intellectual and cultural glories he had come to relish.

I’m convinced that many people fear the same fear. While their life might not be exactly rollicking at this moment, in fact while it may be much less joyful than they’d like, they fear that to become serious about the gospel and him whose gospel it is would evaporate whatever joy, however little, they have right now.

How different is the psalmist’s conviction born of his experience: “In God’s presence there is fullness of joy; in God’s right hand are pleasures for evermore.” Before we go any farther we must be sure to understand the Hebrew idiom. God’s presence, for the Hebrew mind, is God’s face. “In God’s presence” means “as we behold God’s face inasmuch as we’ve turned to face him and glow ourselves as his smile bathes us. “Fullness of joy” is a Hebrew way of saying “wholly satisfying.” God’s presence, God’s face, leaves us so thoroughly satisfied as to find us looking nowhere else for a supplement. “In God’s right hand” (note “in”, not “at”; “in” God’s right hand); God’s right hand is very different from his left hand. God’s left hand is the hand of judgement; his right hand, the hand with which he dispenses blessing, riches, delights, priceless treasure, even incomprehensible ecstasy. And who is the person who finds God’s face wholly satisfying and his right hand quick to release blessing of endless variety upon us? The psalmist tells us it’s the person who cries to God, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you”, the person who exults, “I keep the Lord always before me.” (Ps. 16:2,8) In God’s presence there are pleasures that can’t be counted, can’t be duplicated, can’t be found anywhere else in anyone else.

Does it strike you as exaggerated and therefore unrealistic? I think it’s entirely realistic just because it deals with the ultimately real, God.

I: — Let’s begin with the simple joy of life in God. In his most famous parable, that of the lost son, Jesus describes a fellow who sashays into an unsatisfying, unfruitful existence, humiliating even and degrading, because in his ingratitude and folly he can’t stand his father and can’t stand living with him. Thinking life will be more joyful without his father, he leaves him, only to discover that there was vastly more joy in his father’s home and his father’s presence. He “comes to his senses”, goes home, and is welcomed without hesitation, reservation or qualification. The last line in the story is, “And they began to make merry.”

Jesus speaks of a shepherd who finds one lost sheep (never mind that he already had ninety-nine), and goes home rejoicing. Concerning anyone who makes life’s biggest “U-turn” (the bible calls it repentance) and tastes the delights of living in the father’s house, Jesus says, “There is joy in heaven.” Yes, there is joy in heaven. And in the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry there was also joy on earth. Over and over throughout the written gospels we find Jesus partying. He’s forever eating and drinking in celebration of the lost found, the alienated reconciled, the guilty pardoned, the least elevated to honour, the lonely cherished and embraced. So what if he’s faulted for it. The only people who fault him for it are those who are blind to the Kingdom and therefore can’t see the point of the party. Those who can, however, party with the Master as often as they have opportunity.

Augustine wrote, “We are made for God. Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in him.” Since we are made for him then of course it’s only in him that we shall be profoundly contented and shall know a joy, a delight, available nowhere else. In his presence we are going to be satisfied, and in his right hand we are going to find blessings without number.

Our society, however, can’t see it. Our society has no difficulty recognizing the distress of a fish out of water. The fish gasps, twitches, convulses. As soon as it’s put back into the water it swims away without hint of distress. Our society gets the point where fish are concerned, but doesn’t get the point where humans are concerned; namely, God’s presence, his “face”, is the sphere, the environment for which we were made and apart from which we are always going to be distressed.

Ever since Canadian Confederation (1867) each generation of Canadians has been twice as wealthy (on average) as the preceding generation. I am twice as wealthy as my parents, four times as wealthy as my grandparents, and so on. In other words, people today have unprecedented disposable income. What do they spend it on? They spend it on pleasures, all manner of pleasures, hoping that one of the assorted pleasures they try will issue in that joy too deep to be described that everyone craves, or hoping that all their assorted pleasures together will yield this. But they fail to understand something crucial: to pursue pleasure is always to be deprived of it. To look for it is always to overlook it. To set out to get it is to think that joy is “gettable”, something, some thing that can be acquired, when all the while joy is to be found in God alone and isn’t detachable from him. Joy characterizes God’s own inner life: he profoundly delights in himself. As we are admitted, through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, to the inner life of God we are admitted to the joy wherewith he rejoices internally, eternally. Joy, then, is found in intimacy with a person; it is never “gotten” as if it were a thing detachable from a person.

Since it is only as we hunger for the person of God that we find his joy overtaking us, the profoundest joy that we crave always comes upon us as surprise. C.S. Lewis, mentioned earlier in the sermon, was an able philosophical thinker. In fact it was his rigorous philosophical thought that moved him from strident atheism to the threshold of intellectually robust faith. Yet when Lewis came to write his autobiography its title wasn’t “How Philosophy Helped Men Believe” but rather “Surprised by Joy.”

II: — Once we come to know that God himself is the wellspring of joy we find ourselves free to rejoice in the joys of God’s creation. Once again, however, we must understand that God wants us to enjoy his creation without confusing it with him, its Creator. We are to rejoice in creaturely joys without making them a substitute for God himself and his joy. The psalmist, in Psalm 16, understands this when he writes, “Those who choose another god, another deity, multiply their sorrows.” It is only as we “choose” him who truly is God that we are then free to enjoy most profoundly the blessings of his good creation.

[1] Think about marriage. God intends marriage to be a union so intimate that the hearts of two people interpenetrate each other in such a way that one person’s life henceforth includes the other person. Marriage, in other words, God intends to be the most intimate and the most profound of human relationships. (And it’s for this reason, by the way, that marriage everywhere in scripture is the commonest metaphor for our life in God.)

But of course God’s intention for marriage is to be realized in God; his intention is honoured most profoundly when we understand that marriage is a triangle: not the illicit triangle of the soap opera, but a triangle whose apex is God and whose base is husband and wife. Husband and wife move toward each other as both of them are oriented to the apex. Husband and wife see each other most truly not by staring at each other but rather by looking to their Lord and seeing their mate in him.

Where this doesn’t occur husband and wife see each other by staring at each other. Now they live in a universe of two people, and they quickly learn it’s a small universe. They have effectively made an idol of each other (they have “chosen another deity”, in the words of Psalm 16), and they will shortly learn that all idols have clay feet. They expect now that their marriage-partner is going to provide what no human being should be asked to provide. No one human being can provide that satisfaction which God alone intends us to find in him. To expect one’s partner to do this is to burden the marriage intolerably.

A young husband says of his wife, “She is simply divine.” Two years later he sighs, “Well, I suppose she’s only human.” Later still, “I feel I can’t live without her yet I can’t seem to live with her.” Finally, “We have discovered that we are incompatible.”

His wife isn’t divine, never was, never will be. Certainly she is meant to satisfy him humanly in the most intimate human relationship ordained by God; but she was never meant to satisfy him with that joy which can only be a surprise just because it’s a by-product of our immersion in God himself.

To expect our marriage partner to do what only God can do is to choose another deity and therein multiply our sorrows. Yet in the right hand of God there are pleasures beyond telling just because in his presence, beneath his smile, there is a satisfaction that is finally both undeniable and indescribable.

[2] Think about recreation. God has created us with bodies. There is no human being who doesn’t have a body. Our body isn’t something we drag around grudgingly but rather something we should positively delight in. People who rediscover their bodily nature delight in it. Look at the proliferation of health clubs, squash courts, swimming pools and gymnasia.

I relish bodily existence as much as anyone. Because I was a boxer please don’t regard me as a troglodyte who enjoyed pain, either inflicting pain or having it inflicted. What I relished about boxing was the training: I never had to be cajoled into the gymnasium. Today no one has to browbeat me to get on my bicycle. I think I am as body-affirming as anyone.

At the same time, there is in our society a cult of the body, a deification of the body and particularly of body image. To make an idol of body image is to choose another deity and therein to multiply sorrow, if only the ever-increasing sorrow and frustration of watching one’s body shape change irretrievably with age.

And then there are those who attribute vast metaphysical significance to bodily activity. Yoga ceases to be exercise only and instead becomes the key that unlocks the universe or at least allows someone to intuit the innermost realities of the universe. Six months later she sadly concludes that while yoga fosters flexibility and reduces tension, it doesn’t satisfy humankind’s nameless longing, nameless discontent, nameless weariness.

A few months ago a Vancouver magazine asked me if it could reproduce my article on Martin Niemoeller, the Lutheran pastor who defied Hitler and was imprisoned from 1937 to 1945, and was released by American forces only three days before his scheduled execution at the hands of the S.S. I permitted the magazine to reproduce my article, with the result that I now receive the magazine. There is much in it that I support. There is much, however, that wants to coddle this aspect of our embodiedness and that aspect of it, all with a view to spiritual transformation. One source of such transformation is balneotherapy, balneotherapy being the human transformation that arises from bathing in salts, steam, seaweed, or infrared saunas. Another source of transformation arising from attention to the body is sound therapy, touch therapy, vitamin therapy, herbal consultation, electromagnetism, enemas. I am not saying that all of these ways of attending to the body are pointless. I am saying, however, that they reflect an obsession with the body that aims at furnishing the joy God intends us to find in our embodiedness but will never furnish just because they seek it from the wrong source.

Why don’t we look instead to our Maker, admit he has seen fit to create us embodied, thank him for the manner of our existence, and delight in it? This will find us enjoying many of the pleasures in his right hand whereas making an idol of the body (choosing another deity) will find us pursuing what always escapes us.

[3] Lastly let’s consider the delight we find in culture: art, music, poetry, drama, fiction. You are as fond of all this as I. The level of cultural appreciation is very high in this congregation, and for this I am glad, since God ordains us to receive everything from his hand with thanksgiving. There is nothing in his creation that we are to scorn.

Let me say unambiguously that I have profited immensely and continue to profit from my exposure to fiction, poetry, biography, music, fine art, the theatre, dance, history. I scorn none of it, as I’m sure you scorn none of it. But of course along with the riches of God’s creation that we’d never think of scorning, God insists that we not scorn him. And he ordains that we not scorn him just because he is God and is to be acknowledged for who he is; in addition he knows that while cultural riches are rich indeed, they will never give us what he alone can. If ever we think they can, then we lose twice over: we “lose” inasmuch as we have disregarded the One who is our life, our good, our ultimate blessing. We “lose” a second time in that our unrealistic expectations leave us expecting from culture what it can’t deliver, with the result that we forego what it can.

The fact that culture can’t substitute for him who is our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer is brought home most forcefully to us when we feel that a wall has collapsed on us, when we inquire of the physician concerning a loved one and he merely shakes his head, when any of life’s endless abysses opens up at our feet and we can scarcely believe — but also cannot not believe — that it’s happening to us. At this moment we don’t play our favourite soprano trilling La Boheme or read our favourite novel. John Henry Cardinal Newman, himself a master of English prose, remarked, “There has been a great deal of nonsense talked about the consolation of literature.”

Heinrich Heine, the great German poet, had a sophisticated appreciation of sculpture. Following a tragedy in his family he took a trip, hoping to distract himself, and found himself before the beautiful form of the Venus de Milo. Gazing at it he cried, “It’s beautiful, but it has no arms.” At such times we must rather cling to the truth that has sustained God’s people for three millennia: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” (Deut. 33:27)

Because God is good he has given us all things richly to enjoy. “Everything created by God is good,” says the apostle Paul, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.” (1st Tim. 4:4) Yet our great God and Saviour forever remains the good, and it is to him that we must cling at all times and in all circumstances.

Charles Swinburne, the English poet was wrong. Jesus Christ isn’t a wet blanket who stifles life’s joys. On the contrary, to encounter our Lord is to know the God in whose presence there is fullness of joy and in whose right are pleasures for evermore. It’s no wonder Paul exults, “Because you are Christ’s, everything is yours as well.” (1st Cor. 3:23)

 

                                                                                           Victor Shepherd   

June 2002