The burden of pastoral ministry was eating away at the edges of my joy. I felt more fatigued by the demands of leadership than ever before. I needed to fight for joy in ministry more than ever before. Here I was researching the life of Jonathan Edwards and his theology of joy—all while embroiled in a battle to guard my own joy from what felt like a slow fade.
I saw once again how the command to be joyful isn’t just a general call but also a vocational call for those in pastoral ministry. I’m supposed to shepherd the flock with joy, or I won’t benefit them (Heb. 13:17). In fact, if I don’t have joy, my ministry will be unbiblical—and unsustainable—because the “joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
I won’t last in this marathon of ministry without the strength that comes from joy in Jesus.
As I was doing some study on how Jonathan Edwards’s theology of joy enabled him to minister joyfully, even in trials, I encountered a quote that changed my life. Let us go to perhaps the lowest moment of Edwards’s pastoral life: when his church fired him as a pastor. David Hall was a member of the council that met to determine Edwards’s fate in the communion controversy. This was Hall’s testimony:
[Edwards] received the shock, unshaken. I never saw the least symptoms of displeasure in his countenance the whole week but he appeared like a man of God, whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies and whose treasure was not only a future but a present good, overbalancing all imaginable ills of life, even to the astonishment of many who could not be at rest without his dismission. (Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography, 327)
When I read that phrase, “whose happiness was out of the reach of his enemies,” I literally had to sit down and turn my palms facing up into a posture of asking to receive from God. Everything in me collectively said: “I want that, Lord. Please teach me that, Lord!” That quote became a quest.
Edwards’s theology of joy sustained him in ministry because he put joy at the center of his ministry. It’s the thread that’s woven through all of his theology.
The first two essential elements of his theology of joy are the most far-reaching, but they were also the most familiar to me because of John Piper’s influence. Edwards stressed that God can’t be God without delighting in himself, and that redeemed sinners can’t glorify God without delighting in him. These twin truths are summarized well in Piper’s essay on the legacy of Edwards, “A God Entranced Vision of All Things: Why We Need Jonathan Edwards 300 Years Later” in his book, A God Entranced Vision of All Things. I will quote from Edwards and share Piper’s reflections on the effect of these truths.
1. The Godness of God
Joy is part of the Godness of God. In other words, God would not be God without the infinite joy he has in his infinite perfections. God must take infinite delight in what is infinitely delightful. He must supremely value the supremely valuable. God wouldn’t be wise if he failed to delight in himself in this way. He wouldn’t be holy and righteous. He would be unrighteous and become a fallen, idolatrous fool who effectively exchanged the glory of God for created things (Rom. 1:22–23).
But Edwards went even further and deeper in his essay on the Trinity:
The Father is the deity subsisting in the prime, unoriginated and most absolute manner, or the deity in its direct existence. The Son is the deity [eternally] generated by God’s understanding, or having an idea of Himself and subsisting in that idea. The Holy Ghost is the deity subsisting in act, or the divine essence flowing out and breathed forth in God’s infinite love to and delight in Himself. And . . . the whole Divine essence does truly and distinctly subsist both in the Divine idea and Divine love, and that each of them are properly distinct persons. (A Treatise on Grace, 118)
I love what Piper says about this aspect of Edwards’s theology of joy:
You cannot elevate joy higher in the universe than this. Nothing greater can be said about joy than to say that one of the Persons of the Godhead subsists in the act of God’s delight in God—that ultimate and infinite joy is the Person of the Holy Spirit. (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 25)
Therefore, Edwards made joy a nonnegotiable aspect of the nature of God. Fully fleshing out this truth leads to further reflection on what is at the heart of glorifying God
2. How We Glorify God
Piper claims that the following paragraph is personally “the most influential paragraph in all the writings of Edwards” (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 25):
God is glorified within Himself these two ways: 1. By appearing . . . to Himself in His own perfect idea [of Himself], or in His Son, who is the brightness of His glory. 2. By enjoying and delighting in Himself, by flowing forth in infinite . . . delight towards Himself, or in his Holy Spirit . . . . So God glorifies Himself toward the creatures also in two ways: 1. By appearing to . . . their understanding. 2. In communicating Himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying, the manifestations which He makes of Himself . . . . God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that He might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and heart. He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it. (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 26)
The effect of this paragraph was life-changing in that joy went from peripheral to central in Piper’s thought:
Joy always seemed to me peripheral until I read Jonathan Edwards. He simply transformed my universe by putting joy at the center of what it means for God to be God and what it means for us to be God-glorifying (A God Entranced Vision of All Things, 24).
3. The Web of Edwards’s Theology of Joy
These two ideas affected me greatly, but they were only the beginning. In reading more Edwards, I often stared in utter astonishment at how intricate, interconnected, and interrelated this theology of joy really was. Virtually every doctrine Edwards touched took on the bright burning glow of joy in God.
Edwards couldn’t conceive of a doctrine of salvation apart from joy. A joyless salvation is a contradiction in terms. He stressed that joy in Christ by the power of the Spirit marks every part of salvation from conversion to sanctification and glorification.
Edwards could scarcely expound on the doctrine of revelation without exulting in the feast of seeing God in his Word and in his world. Edwards insisted that meditating on the excellencies of God’s self-revelation has an expansive effect on our souls. We shouldn’t set any bounds on our spiritual appetites. As we see the divine beauty and taste the divine sweetness, our affections should rise in accord with the infinite value of these things.
Edwards couldn’t conceive of a philosophy of preaching and pastoral ministry that could somehow be separated from the joyful affections of his hearers. Listen to how he thought about his pastoral duty in ministry:
I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 4:387)
This helped me hone my own preparation to preach. Our goal in sermon preparation must be to raise our own affections as high as possible with affections that fit with the nature of the truth we proclaim—or we hypocritically have an aim for our hearers that we don’t have for ourselves.
Edwards couldn’t dream of a doctrine of heaven apart from joy. Indeed, heaven is the invitation to “enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). Heaven is a world of joy—not just a world where you enter and have joy for God, but where you enter into the very joy of God.
But here is the question I kept asking: Are these threads strong enough when they are woven together in these ways? Or does this joy come apart at the seams when one feels tattered by trials?
Joy Even in the Darkest Days
Edwards had a lot to say about how to process trials. One of the most moving to me was a letter Edwards wrote to the Rev. Benjamin Coleman. Coleman was a pastor in Boston who had just suffered the loss of his daughter, the protracted sickness of his wife that resulted in her being incapacitated, and the recent death of his associate pastor. Do not read these facts with a lifeless imagination. I tried to comprehend what I would do if my sweet daughter died, my beautiful wife became completely unresponsive, or my beloved associate pastor suddenly passed away. How would I respond? What would become of my joy? Here is what Edwards would say to us:
When you are thus deprived of the company of your temporal friends, you may have sweet communion with the Lord Jesus Christ more abundantly, and that as God has gradually been darkening the world to you, putting out one of its lights after another, so he would cause the light of his eternal glory more and more to dawn within you. (Edwards on the Christian Life, 118)
Something clicked at that point when I connected Edwards’s theology of suffering to another quote I’d read many times before:
The enjoyment of God is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 17:437–438)
Why can our joy be truly untouchable and out of the reach of trials? We can lose the streams of joy, but never the source. The scattered beams of joy may stop shining, but never the sun of joy itself. When the scattered beams are gone we will grieve, but not like those who have lost the sun. When the lovely streams dry up, we will grieve, but not like those who have lost the ocean. Joy is untouchable because its source is inseparable. Nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).