Joe Rigney

The Light and Momentary Success of the Wicked

The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply; their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names on my lips. (Psalm 16:4)

So far in Psalm 16, David has sought refuge in God, asking for God to preserve and keep him. He has confessed that Yahweh is not only the Lord, but that he is David’s Lord — the all-sufficient and all-satisfying Good, from whom every good gift comes. And under that greatest Good, one of the chief earthly goods that David has received is the saints in the land, God’s people. They are holy and majestic, delighting David with their grandeur. Because he loves to be near God, David likewise loves to be near his people.

As he continues to pray, David next considers another group of people, those who run after other gods. Perhaps he has in mind the nations around Israel, who seek refuge not in Yahweh, but in Baal, Dagon, and Ashtoreth. Israel is married to Yahweh, covenantally bound to him as her Lord and Husband. The nations, on the other hand, have married false gods, demonic powers. They have run after them and acquired them in marriage.

And what has happened as a result? When David considers the saints and their marriage to Yahweh, he thinks of the majesty of mountains with great delight and pleasure. When he considers idolaters around them, he sees a very different picture — sorrows, pains, injuries, hardships, and wounds. And not just static sorrows, but multiplying, growing, and abounding sorrows.

“Having run after other gods and acquired them, the ungodly have brought down on themselves pain, strife, and hurt.”

Having run after other gods and acquired them, the ungodly have brought down on themselves pain, strife, and hurt.

Prosperity of the Wicked?

Such sorrows are not always immediately evident to us. In Psalm 73, Asaph expresses his dismay at the prosperity of the wicked, and his confusion at their success. The wicked have no pangs until death; they are well-fed and insulated from trouble. They don’t have the struggles and hardships that most men do (verses 4–5). Despite their pride, violence, folly, malice, and oppression, they prosper and succeed in all that they do (verses 6–9). They are always at ease as they increase in their riches, brazenly mocking God for not seeing and not knowing of their evil (verses 10–12).

Such a picture stands in stark contrast to David’s observation in Psalm 16. So how can these two pictures be reconciled? Do the sorrows of idolaters multiply, or are the wicked always at ease? Does their idolatry injure them and cause harm, or does it redound to their prosperity and success?

Asaph shows us the way. His vexation gives way to clarity, but only after he worships Yahweh in the sanctuary. Only after he seeks refuge in God as his highest good is he able to discern the end of the wicked (Psalm 73:17). And when he does, he draws the same conclusion as David.

Truly you set them in slippery places;     you make them fall to ruin.How they are destroyed in a moment,     swept away utterly by terrors!Like a dream when one awakes,     O Lord, when you rouse yourself,     you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:18–20)

In other words, while the wicked may prosper for a moment, in the end their sorrows will multiply. Their foot slides in due time. Having run after vanity, they dissolve into phantoms. Having worshiped creatures, they fall under a curse. In the end, the bill comes due.

“While the wicked may prosper for a moment, in the end their sorrows will multiply.”

In this life, the sorrows of the wicked are unevenly distributed. At times, we see their destruction early, when God gives them a taste of the harvest they have sown. We see it in the consequences of their actions — the brokenness, pain, and loss wrought by sin. This is a severe mercy, a kindness from God that is meant to lead the wicked (and us) to repentance.

But others avoid such earthly sorrows. They temporarily evade being swept away. But even these are storing up wrath for “the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). And when that day comes, the sorrows will multiply forever.

False Worship and False Confession

Having observed and discerned the end of idolatry, David must act on what he knows. And so, he commits to avoiding their idolatrous sacrifices and their false confessions. In particular here, he mentions avoiding their “drink offerings.”

Israel offered drink offerings to Yahweh as part of the sacrificial system (Leviticus 23). In Israel’s drink offering, the priest poured out wine on behalf of the worshiper, in conjunction with one of the other primary offerings, whether an ascension offering, peace offering, or purification offering (Numbers 15; 28–29). Such offerings were to be offered only once Israel had entered and taken possession of the land. In the Bible, wine signifies triumph, celebration, and rest. As one commentator puts it, bread is morning food, eaten to give strength for the day’s labor; wine is evening food, imbibed at the end of the day in gratitude for a job finished and done well. Thus, drink offerings of wine were meant to celebrate God’s triumph over his enemies and his faithfulness to his promises.

In Psalm 16, then, David refuses to participate in idolatrous drink offerings. More specifically, he rejects “drink offerings of blood.” While blood was certainly used in Israel’s sacrifices — sprinkled on the horns of the altar or poured out at the base of the altar — Israel was strictly forbidden to drink blood. The nations around Israel, however, seemed to have drunk blood, and they also offered some to their gods in drink offerings. Because “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11), it’s possible that they did so in order to receive life from the animal that was slain. Israel, in contrast, received life directly from Yahweh himself.

More than simply rejecting their sacrifices, David also rejects their confession. Refusing to take their name on his lips is more than simply avoiding saying the wrong word. David is refusing to invoke the names of the false gods, refusing to call upon them as his lord. This is the counterpart to his seeking refuge in Yahweh and confessing him as Lord.

Model of Faithful Resistance

For us today, David’s clear-eyed fidelity to God is a model. We too often see the wicked prospering in the world. Their sin, far from harming them, seems to enable their success, and in doing so, it becomes a temptation to us. The pressure to go along — to placate the false gods of our evil age, to invoke the world’s objects of trust and worship, to run after other gods in order to fit in and find earthly success — is real.

But we must discern their end. Their sorrows will multiply. The ease, if it exists, will last only a moment. The light and momentary success of the wicked is working for them an eternal weight of affliction that will far outweigh earthly prosperity.

And when we discern this end, we are strengthened to resist the pressure of our age. Rather than conforming ourselves to the pattern of this world, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds. Rather than seeking to placate false gods or false men, we offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God alone (Romans 12:1–2). Rather than echoing the lies and falsehoods in our society, we say with our lips and from our hearts, “Jesus is our Lord; we have no good apart from him.”

Begin Where You Are: How to Renew Your Prayer Life

Begin where you are. This simple sentence, tucked away in C.S. Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm, has the potential to transform your prayer life. In four basic words, it ties together a biblical vision of prayer that avoids two errors that often smother our thanksgiving and adoration of God and hinder our requests to him, especially in relation to earthly blessings and goods. Consider these errors, and whether you recognize them in your own life.

The first I’ll call worldly prayers. Such prayers, though offered by a Christian, are in reality no different from those that an unbeliever might pray. Twice in Matthew 6, Jesus draws a contrast between the prayers and aims of the Gentiles and the prayers and aims of his followers.

When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7–8)

Do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. (Matthew 6:31–32)

Jesus criticizes both the manner of unbelieving prayers (empty phrases and many words) and the aims of unbelieving prayers (anxiously seeking earthly provision and material goods). Christ’s warning implies that his followers can wrongfully imitate unbelievers at precisely these points. We can seek material blessings as our highest goods, anxiously craving and desiring them. And then, we can attempt to manipulate God into providing us these blessings, treating him like a butler who exists solely to supply our earthly needs and preserve our earthly happiness.

False Spirituality

In reaction against the danger of worldly prayers, some Christians fall into a second error, which we can call false spirituality: a pious refusal to pray for earthly goods at all. Because we see the danger of worldly prayer around us, we begin to regard praise and communion with God as the only true forms of prayer.

The only blessings we thank him for are spiritual blessings, the kind set forth in Ephesians 1. Thus, we praise him that he chose us, predestined us for adoption, redeemed us by Christ’s blood, forgave us for our trespasses, and sealed us with his Holy Spirit, all to the praise of his glorious grace. Likewise, the only requests we make to him are for spiritual goods — for holiness, for help to walk in his ways, for filling with the Holy Spirit.

Clearly, such prayers are good prayers. The falseness comes from the word only. We may not use this word directly, but we may still subtly begin to operate according to it. The only requests that truly please God are those for spiritual things. The only thanksgiving that truly honors him is gratitude for spiritual blessings.

This attitude ignores the plain and simple fact that Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). What’s more, it ignores the litany of passages in the Psalms where the psalmists seek God for deliverance from earthly enemies, ask him to supply earthly needs, and render him thanks for earthly kindnesses. The Bible is filled to the brim with thanksgiving and supplication for earthly provision and blessing.

And so, to avoid both errors, we offer spiritual prayers for earthly goods. And “begin where you are” can help.

From Pleasure to Thanks

Lewis commends this principle as a way of fostering worship and adoration. We often find that spiritual blessings, being invisible, feel abstract to us. However much we may want to summon a heart of worship for God’s attributes, character, and saving acts, our hearts struggle to get off the ground. Lewis’s principle encourages us to begin with the concrete and the present.

The earthly blessings that surround us, however minor, are present to us in ways that help us to begin. A warm shower, shoes that fit, a satisfying breakfast of biscuits and gravy, indoor heating in the middle of winter, the laughter of your children, a hug from your spouse — all of these are concrete blessings, extended to you with kindness from God. “His mercy is over all that he has made” (Psalm 145:9).

“Direct your attention to the mercies that press upon you at every side, and see them for what they are.”

Thus, Lewis says, rather than try to conjure up feelings of adoration directly, direct your attention to the mercies that press upon you at every side, and see them for what they are. They are beams of glory, striking our senses, giving us pleasure, and inviting us to chase them back to the sun. Every pleasure, Lewis says, can become a channel of adoration when we experience the pleasure and then frame it rightly as a message of kindness from our generous Lord.

Lewis, therefore, encourages us to attend to our pleasures and then to give thanks for them — to say, “How good of God to give me this,” elaborating on this with all the concrete specificity we can muster. “Thank you, Lord, for the smoothness of the table, the softness of my socks, the sweetness of the honey, the silliness of my son, and the wisdom and compassion of my wife.”

From Thanks to Adoration

Then, having given thanks, we follow the sunbeam back to the source, turning thanksgiving into adoration. “Such earthly blessings, O Lord, are simply the far-off echoes of your own bounty and goodness. These are but the fringes of your ways, and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

From our first breath in the morning to our last conscious thought as we rest our head on our pillow, Lewis encourages us to receive God’s earthly kindness, to give thanks for God’s earthly kindness, and then to leap from that gratitude to the heights of worship, weaving in the spiritual blessings of redemption, forgiveness, and sanctification all along the way.

“The higher does not stand without the lower,” Lewis reminds us (87). And that’s why we must begin where we are.

One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We — or at least I — shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.” Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience. (91)

Daily Bread, Heavenly Bread

The same principle applies to our requests. Though the Gentiles seek for earthly goods (food, shelter, clothing), Jesus does not tell us to cease praying for such gifts. Instead, he exhorts us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33), and then to pray for our daily bread.

We see this in the Lord’s Prayer itself. The request for daily bread is sandwiched between “Hallowed be your name” and “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever.” In other words, our requests for earthly provision are framed and animated by our desire for the sanctifying of God’s name and the coming of his kingdom.

Framing the prayer for earthly provision in this way enables us to avoid the foolishness of unbelieving manipulation that Jesus condemns. How many of us have earnestly desired some earthly good, but instead of asking God directly for it, have asked instead for some spiritual good in hopes that he’ll see our spiritual request and throw in the earthly good for good measure? Is this not the equivalent of piling up empty phrases and many words in order to trick God into giving us what we really want? Is there not a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of such pious prayers?

Instead, begin where you are — with the desires and needs and anxieties that you actually have. The daily needs are real, and we are taught to ask for them directly. Bring them before God honestly, with no pretense or fakery. No doubt, our earthly desires are often excessive or misplaced. But the best way to reorder them is to bring them to God and let him do the moderating and refining.

“Prayers for daily bread lead naturally (or supernaturally) to prayers for heavenly bread, for the bread of life.”

In this way, we can begin where we are, but unlike unbelievers, we can press beyond where we are. We don’t seek merely the earthly provision; we seek God’s kingdom first, above all, as our highest good. Thus, as with gratitude, we ask for the earthly good, and then we press through the desire for the earthly good to a deeper desire for the heavenly good. Prayers for daily bread lead naturally (or supernaturally) to prayers for heavenly bread, for the bread of life.

Your Heavenly Father

Finally, don’t miss what ties all of these prayers together — the goodness of our heavenly Father. Why don’t we pile up empty and manipulative words for what we need? Because our heavenly Father knows what we need before we ask (Matthew 6:8). Why don’t we anxiously pursue earthly goods? Because our heavenly Father knows that we need them all (Matthew 6:32).

And this presses home the goodness of beginning where we are and asking for daily bread. Just the other day, I was burdened by an earthly problem. I could see no earthly way out of it. And so, I bowed my head and asked God for help. “I don’t know what to do, Lord. You will have to do something. Make a way.” Thirty minutes later, the answer came, clear as a bell.

Had I not prayed for the provision, I might have missed out not only on the blessing (since God does truly answer prayer) but also on the kindness and care of “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). When I begin where I am, I pray to him who knows my needs before I ask, and who tells me to ask anyway, because he loves to give good gifts to his children (Matthew 7:11).

Earthly Categories for Spiritual Things

We move horizontally between the images, among the things of earth, understanding how they relate to each other, so that the whole picture and experience of the world can then lead us to God. God draws us into this web of creation so that we might know him through it. It’s how he reveals himself to us in a way that fits our frame.

What the Heavens Declare
Psalm 19 begins with one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” The first half of the psalm celebrates God’s glory in nature—in the heavens (v. 1), in the sun’s course across the sky (vv. 4, 6), in the similarities between the sun and a warrior and a bridegroom (v. 5). This revelation has gone out to the entire world so that there is no place where God’s revelation is not heard (vv. 2–4). In other words, the psalm begins with a celebration of what theologians call “general revelation.” General revelation includes all the ways that God reveals himself in creation—in the ordinary course of nature and the general course of history. In other words, it’s not just the heavens that declare the glory of God.
Everything that God has made declares the glory of God. The apostle Paul tells us that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). In other words, made things make invisible attributes visible. Created things make eternal things perceivable. God’s own power and righteousness and beauty and wisdom and mercy are invisible attributes. We can’t see them directly. But when we see a tornado tear across the plains, we see his power. When we stand on a giant mountain, we feel the firmness and stability of his righteousness. When we watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, we see his beauty. When we witness the magnificent intricacy of the food chain—deer eating grass and then being eaten by lions—we see his inscrutable wisdom and mercy over all that he has made. Made things make invisible attributes visible.

How do Christians enjoy the good things of the earth while still enjoying the Creator? Scripture supports the wholehearted enjoyment of both. Here is a book for Christians struggling to enjoy the things of earth for the glory of God.

That’s what we mean by general revelation, and by its nature, it is pervasive and constant. It’s accessible to all men everywhere. “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard” (Ps. 19:3). As C. S. Lewis said, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.”1 Jonathan Edwards, an eighteenth-century American pastor and theologian, testified that he believed that the whole universe, heaven and earth, from top to bottom and front to back is filled with “images of divine things, as full as a language is of words.”2 By this, he meant that everything in creation is communication from God about God. God speaks to us everywhere and in everything.
Earthly Categories for Spiritual Things
General revelation works both directly and indirectly. It works directly by creating categories in our minds and hearts for knowing God. This is direct because we move straight from the made thing to God himself. How do the heavens declare the glory of God? Through their size and majesty. The vastness of the heavens points to the greatness of God. Or the beauty of a sunset gives us a visual picture of the beauty and holiness of God. Or the sun’s perpetual and constant shining images God’s constant and everlasting goodness. In each case, we move straight from the made thing to God himself. Our experience of the world gives us categories for knowing God and his word.
And not just God himself. General revelation gives us categories for knowing many aspects of the spiritual life. Consider Psalm 1.
Blessed is the manwho walks not in the counsel of the wicked,nor stands in the way of sinners,nor sits in the seat of scoffers;but his delight is in the law of the Lord,and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a treeplanted by streams of waterthat yields its fruit in its season,and its leaf does not wither.In all that he does, he prospers.The wicked are not so,but are like chaff that the wind drives away.(Psalm 1:1–4)
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Wisdom Above Came Below: How Christmas Speaks to Our Confusion

O Come Thou Wisdom from on high,     And order all things mightily.To us the path of knowledge show,     And cause us in her ways to go.

I love Advent hymns almost as much as I love Christmas hymns. My favorite is “O Come, O Come, Immanuel.” The words and music perfectly capture the longing that marks this season of the church’s year. Advent is a season of waiting, of painful expectation and deep yearning for God to act to address the sin, sorrow, death, and evil that mar his world.

The second verse expresses our longing for wisdom, for God to order all things mightily for his glory and our good. The hymn testifies to our need for knowledge and wisdom and for the power to walk in God’s ways.

“Advent is a season of waiting, of painful expectation and deep yearning for God to act.”

But what do we mean by “wisdom from on high”? And how does Jesus answer this longing? The book of James offers a glimpse into the wisdom from above, the kind that pleases God and bears a harvest of righteousness. In drawing the connection between James’s “wisdom from above” and the hymn’s “wisdom from on high,” we can both see Jesus more clearly during Advent and strengthen our hearts to walk in the ways of God.

Two Kinds of Wisdom

James’s letter offers a sharp contrast between heavenly and earthly wisdom. The latter is marked by boastful betrayal of the truth, flowing from bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in the heart (James 3:14). Wisdom is not merely a matter of behavior, but involves the whole person, both inside and out.

Earthly wisdom is animated by envy and rivalry, by the itching resentment at other people’s gifts and success. Jealousy and ambition go hand in hand because they are two sides of the same coin. When our selfish ambition succeeds, we boast, looking down our noses at others from our high horse. When it fails, we stew in malice and bitterness as others surpass us.

In both cases, we are “false to the truth”; we fail to evaluate ourselves and other people rightly. Our vision is warped by “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” desires and passions, which result in “disorder and every vile practice” (James 3:14–16).

Such are the wisdom and ways of the world. These are the paths of ignorance, error, and falsehood. And the brokenness and confusion of the world is the result. Shattered families, sexual perversion, quarreling and dissension, slander and accusation — this is the world that we inhabit and mourn in our lonely exile here.

Wisdom from Above

James offers a fundamentally different picture of heavenly wisdom. Such wisdom likewise works from the inside out. “The meekness of wisdom” is reflected in our practice (James 3:13). Such meekness is the exact opposite of selfish ambition; meekness is not self-impressed or self-important. It looks at oneself with sober judgment and does not think more highly of oneself than it ought. In that way, the meekness of wisdom is “true to the truth,” rather than “false to the truth.”

What characterizes such wisdom? First, it is “pure” (James 3:17). Unlike the vile and wicked practices that mark worldly wisdom, heavenly wisdom is marked by undivided devotion to God. God’s wisdom is holy, unblemished, and whole. Heavenly wisdom brings order to chaos and confusion because it is wholeheartedly devoted to God’s purposes. James places the purity and holiness of heavenly wisdom in a position of prominence. It comes “first,” and in that way governs and guides the rest.

Next, heavenly wisdom is “peaceable, gentle, open to reason.” It leads us to avoid unnecessary conflict and refrain from violence and quarrelsomeness. Heavenly wisdom may lead us to fight and to defend what is good and true. But it does not love to fight for fighting’s sake. If given the choice, the wise and understanding are eager to live at peace with all men. The wise are willing to be friends with the one who is truly friendly.

Heavenly wisdom yields easily when moral issues are not at stake. It has a sense of proportion and courtesy, and bears with the foibles and stumbles of the weak. It is both open to reason and obedient, able to distinguish when it is good to bend and when it is time to stand.

Wisdom from above quickly overlooks faults and is therefore “full of mercy.” When forgiveness is sought, it is eagerly granted. Like the father in the parable, heavenly wisdom rejoices when prodigals come home.

Finally, heavenly wisdom abhors all hypocrisy and partiality. What you see is what you get. Wisdom’s character is consistent and persists through all manner of circumstances. The actions may be different, since different situations require different responses. But beneath every response lies sincerity, judiciousness, and refreshing honesty.

Longing for Wisdom

In the midst of a broken world and a depraved generation, we long for such wisdom. And while wisdom works from the inside out, from the heart to the hands and life, it is preeminently wisdom from above (James 3:17). It is wisdom that comes down from heaven, changes our hearts, and then issues forth in a “harvest of righteousness.” It is good and right for us to long to embody such wisdom in our own lives.

In Christ, we aspire to unimpeachable purity and abounding mercy. We endeavor for our steady reasonableness to be made known to all. We ask for God’s grace to demonstrate unwavering obedience to him in every area, and gracious courtesy to others as often as we can. And we eagerly seek peace when possible. The recurring mark of heavenly wisdom is its desire for peace, for wholeness, for fellowship and communion.

Wisdom from on High and Among Us

As we long for such wisdom to fall upon us, Advent reminds us that Wisdom dwelt among us. For Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate human embodiment of wisdom from on high.

Was anyone ever as pure and holy as he? Zeal for his Father’s house consumed him; it animated his entire life. He was perfectly obedient, even as he grew in wisdom and stature.

“Jesus of Nazareth is the ultimate human embodiment of wisdom from on high.”

Was anyone ever as gentle and meek as he? He rightly stewarded almighty power and authority for the good of his people, remaining ever mindful of our frame. His gentleness with burdened sinners was legendary. The weary and heavy laden found rest in his meekness. For all of his zeal and purity, he did not despise the weak and lowly.

Was anyone ever as full of mercy? How often was he moved with compassion to care for his people and meet their needs? Like a father with his children, like a hen with her chicks, like a shepherd with straying sheep — his mercy not only filled him, but overflowed and watered the souls of the weak.

Was anyone ever as impartial and sincere? He abhorred every form of hypocrisy. There was no play-acting with him, but he moved among the poor and the rich, the powerful and the powerless with sincerity and truth. Widows and revolutionaries, prostitutes and Pharisees, tax collectors and priests — all were welcome, provided they stooped to come through the door of humble repentance.

Jesus is the Wisdom from Above, the Wisdom from on High, and he came as our Prince of Peace and Wonderful Counselor, sowing and reaping a harvest of righteousness in a land of deep darkness. Christ has come. Christ will come again.

The Joy of Christian Duty

We Christian Hedonists have a complicated relationship with duty. On the one hand, with our emphasis on the centrality of affections and desire in glorifying God, we are at war with duty-driven approaches to the Christian life that regard the affections as optional add-ons. To do a righteous act purely from a sense of obligation — because it is the right thing to do — is not morally superior to performing the same act with a deep sense of desire and gladness. Desire does not ruin the moral worth of good actions. Indeed, the right kind of desire establishes the true moral worth of our actions.

On the other hand, we Christian Hedonists, far from setting duty and desire at odds, instead bring them together by insisting that we are obligated to delight in God. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). We are called and commanded to desire God, to treasure God, to want God, to find our highest joy in God.

So again, we have a complicated relationship with duty. And as such, it’s worth taking a few moments to consider this relationship more carefully. The question is this: Is there a good, wise, and Christian Hedonistic way of celebrating the value of duty in the Christian life?

What Is Duty Anyway?

To answer this question, let’s first untangle a potential ambiguity. What do we mean by duty? On the one hand, duty might simply be a synonym for obligation. Anytime we use the word ought, we are dealing with duty. In this sense, duty and delight, far from being at odds, coincide. We ought to delight in God. We ought to love him with all of our heart. Included in all of our obligations is the duty to find our highest satisfaction in God. Thus, if we equate duty and obligation, then Christian Hedonists clearly value duty. That’s why we talk about “the dangerous duty of delight.”

“Duty refers to fulfilling one’s obligations in the face of obstacles.”

But duty often has a more particular and narrower meaning. Often, duty refers not merely to obligations, but to obligations that we find difficult to fulfill for one reason or another. In this sense, duty refers to fulfilling one’s obligations in the face of obstacles. When obligation meets impediments, then we talk about duty. Put another way, duty (in this narrower sense) is when the want to and the ought to don’t match.

That’s why duty has so often been praised as a virtue. To do the right thing in the face of the various obstacles that hinder us, to persevere in willing the good even when it’s hard, even when we lack the spontaneous delight that would make doing the right thing enjoyable — these have led many to praise duty as not merely virtuous, but as the pinnacle of virtue. The moral effort involved in overcoming impediments seems to give duty a beauty and luster and value that unimpeded, spontaneous goodness seems to lack.

What do we, as Christian Hedonists, make of this seeming superiority of arduous moral effort that overcomes all obstacles to doing good?

Impediments of Various Kinds

First, let’s understand what we mean by impediments. It seems to me that impediments might be either natural or moral, and either internal or external. Natural, external impediments are the high mountains and long distances we endure to fulfill our obligations. The time it takes, the monotonous repetition of our obligations, the heavy loads we must carry, and the inconveniences we undergo — all of these lie outside of us and are simply features of living in a finite (and fallen) world.

Natural, internal impediments are those bound up with our finitude and embodiment. Any impediment flowing from bodily weakness and natural aversion to pain and suffering would be included here. Sometimes duties are heavy, not because the obligation is so heavy, but because we are so weak. To do the right thing when we are tired or hungry or sick, or when the consequences of doing the right thing will be pain, discomfort, and even the possibility of death — this is what it means to do our duty in the face of natural, internal impediments.

Moral, external impediments include the evil that we must overcome in others. Loving my neighbor who is kind and pleasant is easy. Loving my neighbor who is quarrelsome, bitter, envious, and ungrateful is harder. Their ingratitude and bitterness are impediments that I overcome to fulfill my obligation. The same is true of the mockery, scorn, and rejection by others that sometimes occur when we do the right thing and maintain our integrity. So also with the obstacles posed by dark spiritual powers, which seek to undermine our obedience (though frequently the obstacles they erect take the form of the other kinds of impediments).

“Even the simplest of obligations can feel impossible in the face of our own pride, anger, sloth, and fear.”

Finally, we have the moral impediments that lie within us. Our besetting sins and disruptive passions — these are the impediments that we most frequently have to overcome. Even the simplest of obligations can feel impossible in the face of our own pride, anger, sloth, and fear. Or we might consider how our desires for other good things turn our obligation to love others into arduous exertions. The love of money (and all the desires it could fulfill) kept the rich young ruler from doing the one thing Christ called him to do. That inordinate love was his greatest impediment, and he went away sad (Mark 10:22).

In our daily lives, these impediments are almost always mingled. Making a time-consuming meal for a bitter neighbor when you are tired after a full day’s work brings three of the impediments together in one major obstacle (and no doubt presses on our own abiding sinfulness, thus bringing all types of impediments together). So we must not artificially divide the kinds of obstacles that we face.

What, then, do Christian Hedonists say about duty in the narrow sense in the face of these kinds of impediments?

1. Duty exists to be transcended.

The narrow sense of duty is owing to the various natural and moral impediments that we face, and these are owing to our pilgrim condition in a fallen world. Someday, most of these impediments — at least the moral ones and the natural, internal ones — will pass away. It seems possible to me that natural, external impediments may still have a place even in the new heavens and new earth; heaven may have its ardors and exertions, its severities and steep ascents. However, in our glorified condition, our natural limitations will not in any way hinder our joy in doing good; indeed, they will increase our joy.

When that day comes, goodness will flow from us spontaneously, like songs from a lark and water from a fountain. Unhindered delight in doing what we ought will be the crowning bloom on our moral actions.

2. Humans have levels of will.

In the meantime, in our pilgrim condition, we embrace the worth and value of overcoming impediments in our efforts to do good. That worth and value will be embraced rightly if we recognize the different levels of “willing” that we are capable of as humans.

We see these two levels in Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). “Not my will” — this means that, at some level, the race set before Jesus was an unpleasant one, filled with various impediments: a long distance up Calvary’s road, a heavy cross upon his back, the natural weaknesses of a beaten body, the hatred, scorn, and mockery of wicked men, his abandonment by his friends, and the surety of an excruciating death. Jesus beheld all of these impediments to his calling to love his people and, at one level, said, “I don’t want to.”

But only at one level. At another, deeper level, his human will embraced the divine will. “Yours be done.” Despite all of the impediments in his way, Christ still fundamentally desired to do the will of his Father. And thus he did what he ought in the face of the external and internal obstacles in his way.

What can we say about this deeper willing and desiring that Christ displayed? First, it was animated by joy: “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Second, his experience of joy while enduring the cross differed markedly from his experience after his ascent to God’s right hand. The sufferings were neither pleasant nor enjoyable; they were horrific and painful. Nevertheless, we all know that there is a kind of satisfaction in doing one’s duty in the face of obstacles and in the midst of great pain, by looking forward to the reward (Hebrews 11:6, 26).

3. Even duties can become joys.

The two levels of our willing enable us to speak truly about the value of the narrow sense of duty. At one level, the want to and ought to don’t match; thus, we can talk about duty. But at another, deeper (or higher) level, they do match, because we actually persevere in doing the good, despite the lack of want to at the first level. Our desire or commitment to doing what’s right overcomes all external hindrances and internal reluctances.

This desire is what enables us to “count it all joy . . . when [we] meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). The fact that we have to “count it” joy highlights the gap that we are exploring. We don’t have to count pleasant experiences as joy; they just are joy because we enjoy them at both levels. It is the trials, the unpleasant moments, the impediments that must be counted as joy because we know what the testing is producing for us — steadfastness, maturity, and completeness (James 1:3–4).

4. Some impediments require repentance.

Recognizing the different types of obstacles that the narrow sense of duty overcomes enables us to evaluate them rightly. When facing natural impediments or the moral evil in others, we need not feel guilt for the struggle. We can lament our bodily weaknesses and grieve over the evil done to us by other people, but we need feel no moral responsibility or conviction for having to overcome such obstacles.

When facing our own inner, moral obstacles, however, such as the passions that hinder our pursuit of godliness, we must both lament and repent for our remaining sinfulness. In such cases, we do our duty with a humble brokenheartedness because the gap between the ought to and the want to is owing to our own abiding corruption.

5. Doing our duty strengthens our will.

We labor to strengthen the deeper level of willing by cultivating habitual holy affections at this level. Seeking to do our duty in the broader sense (i.e., fulfilling our obligation to delight in God above all things) is what strengthens our ability to do our duty in the narrower sense (when the want to and ought to don’t align at every level). We want the fundamental inclinations of our will to be enduring, stable, and strong enough to overcome the temporary disruptions of our passions in the face of external impediments.

So, we Christian Hedonists do not disparage duty. Instead, we put it in its proper place. It is a crutch in our pilgrim condition, a deep and abiding resolve to overcome the various obstacles that keep us from fully rejoicing in doing good with joy unhindered. In this sense, doing our duty in the face of impediments is a crucial expression of our deep and enduring satisfaction in all that God is for us in Christ.

The Sweetness of a Godward Meal: Dad’s Wisdom for Thanksgiving Day

My son, eat honey, for it is good,     and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.Know that wisdom is such to your soul. (Proverbs 24:13–14)

“Hey, son. Can I talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure, Dad. What’s up?”

“Thanksgiving dinner is almost ready, but before we eat, I have some Thanksgiving Day advice for you.”

“Okay.”

“It’s pretty straightforward, but it might require a little explanation.”

“What is it?”

“Today, I want you to eat honey.”

“Honey? Why?”

“Well, because it’s good.”

“Good?”

“Yeah, you know what good means, right?”

“Of course I do.”

“Tell me.”

“Good means that you like something.”

“Okay. What does that mean?”

“Um, that it tastes good?”

“So honey is good because it tastes good?”

“Yeah, because it tastes sweet.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere. So you’re saying that honey is good because it’s sweet to your taste?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever thought about how taste works? Like, what does it mean for honey to be sweet to your taste?”

“Not really.”

“Let’s start with honey. What is it?”

“Something that bees make in their hives.”

“Do you know how they make it?”

“Not really.”

“Okay, let’s start with flowers. Have you ever heard of Green Magick?”

“No.”

“That’s what a friend of mine calls photosynthesis and all of the amazing processes that go into making a plant grow. Plants take water and nutrients from the soil, carbon dioxide from the air, and light from the sun and mix and mingle it all together to produce stalks, leaves, and, of course, flowers. Do you know why plants have flowers?”

“In science class, Mrs. Johnson said that that’s how plants reproduce.”

“That’s right. Flowers reproduce through pollen. That’s the fuzzy stuff on the flower. The challenge is to get the pollen from one flower to another so that they can reproduce seeds to grow into new plants. Do you know how they do that?”

“Bees?”

“Exactly. Bees come to one flower. Pollen sticks to their hair. Then they go to another flower, and drop the pollen where it can fertilize it to produce seeds that produce more plants. Do you know why the bees come to the flower?”

“Because of the colors?”

“Partly. The colorful petals of the flower do grab their attention. But the petals are promising something that the bees want: nectar. That’s the sweet sticky stuff in the center of the flowers. Nectar is the bee’s reward for pollinating the flowers.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“I know. Let me ask you another question. Do you know what the word glorify means?”

“Sort of. But I don’t know how to say it.”

“When we’re talking about created things, one meaning of the word glorify is to take something good and to make it even better. So nectar is glorified water. It’s water that’s been transformed by Green Magick into something even more glorious. Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“So the bees eat the nectar, and it goes into their second stomach, called the honey sac. Once they’re full, they go back to the hive and share the nectar with other bees. All of the sharing and digesting starts to transform the nectar into something else.”

“That sounds kinda weird.”

“It’s actually amazing. Eventually, after partially digesting and sharing, the bees deposit the nectar into this wax that they make. Then they beat their wings really fast, which causes some of the moisture in the nectar to evaporate, which completes the transformation into honey. In other words, honey is glorified nectar.”

“And nectar is glorified water.”

“Now you’re getting it. So the move from water to nectar to honey is a move from glory to more glory to even more glory.”

“That’s cool.”

“It is. So now we’re back to my advice. Do you remember what it was?”

“You told me to eat honey because it’s good.”

“And why is it good?”

“Because it’s sweet to our taste.”

“So let’s think a little more about sweetness. Sweetness has to do with the connection between honey and your tongue. So what do you know about your tongue?”

“It’s in my mouth, and it has taste buds.”

“And what do you know about taste buds?”

“Not much.”

“Taste buds are tiny sensory receptors on your tongue that detect different tastes. Do you know the five main tastes?”

“Um, sweet, salty, sour, and . . . I don’t know the others.”

“Bitter (like kale) and savory (like bacon). So your tongue has taste buds, and when different foods hit them, we detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter, or savory (or some combination). So when we put honey on our tongues, we say it’s sweet to our taste. And because it’s sweet to our taste, we say . . .”

“That it’s good.”

“Exactly. Now, do you remember how the water went through an amazing process in the plant in order to become nectar? And how the nectar went through a weird process in the bees and the beehive in order to become honey?”

“Yes.”

“And what did I call that process?”

“Glorification.”

“Well, the honey needs to go through a similar process in you in order to be glorified.”

“You’re not going to make me spit up the honey and share it with people, are you?”

“Ha! No, this process is a little different. Think about this. Is water alive?

“No.”

“And so in order to be glorified, it needed something greater than itself. It needed something alive — the plant. Right?”

“Right.”

“And why did the plant need the bees?”

“Because they can’t move and pollinate in order to reproduce.”

“Exactly. They needed something greater as well — a mobile creature. Well, really, a lot of mobile creatures, a hive of bees. And how did they attract those mobile creatures?”

“With the petals and the nectar.”

“And why did the bees want the nectar?”

“To eat it.”

“And why did they want to eat it?”

“Because it’s good and sweet to their taste?”

“Very good. So in that way the bees are kind of like us, right?”

“Yes.”

“So we’ve moved from water (which isn’t living) through flowers (which live and grow, but don’t move) through bees (which live, grow, move, and taste). And now we come to us. What makes us different from bees (and other animals)?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.”

“I don’t know.”

“No really, think about it.”

“Oh, right. We can think.”

“Exactly. So in order to glorify honey again, we’re going to think. We’re going to use our minds. And that brings me to my second piece of Thanksgiving advice. To do it, I need you to remember the first piece of advice. Do you?”

“Eat honey, because it’s good and sweet to my taste.”

“Great. Now, here’s the second: know that wisdom is such to your soul. Got that?”

“Not really.”

“Since it’s almost time to eat, I’ll give you a little help. The Bible says that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ So wisdom is a way of life that flows from the fear of the Lord. Does that make sense?”

“Yes.”

“Okay, then, let’s consider the word such. That’s a comparison word. It means like this. So we can restate the sentence as ‘know that wisdom is like this to your soul.’ Does that make sense?”

“Sure.”

“So what is wisdom like in that sentence? What does this refer to?”

“Honey?”

“Honey is part of it. But not just honey. What else?”

“The goodness of honey?”

“Yes. And why is honey good?”

“Because it’s sweet to my taste.”

“So if such means like this, and this refers to honey’s goodness and sweetness, what does the whole sentence mean?”

“It means that, just as honey is sweet to my taste, so wisdom — the way of life flowing from the fear of the Lord — is sweet to my soul.”

“You’ve got it. And how does sweetness (and other flavors) work?”

“When honey hits our taste buds, we call that experience sweet.”

“And so in order to taste honey’s sweetness, you must have . . .”

“Taste buds.”

“Which means your soul also must have . . .”

“Taste buds?”

“Exactly. Your soul has taste buds, just like your tongue does. But your soul doesn’t taste honey. Instead, it tastes wisdom. As honey is sweet to your taste, so wisdom is sweet to your soul. One is physically sweet. The other is spiritually sweet.”

“I think I’m starting to get it.”

“Well, that’s good news. Because if you’re starting to really get it — not just in your mind, but in your heart — then honey is going from one degree of glory to another.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Nectar is glorified water, transformed through the Green Magick in the flowers. Honey is glorified nectar, transformed through the bees that taste it, digest it, share it, and store it in honeycomb.”

“I still think it’s weird that we eat bee vomit, by the way.”

“And now the sweetness of honey is glorified, taken from glory to glory when you — a human being with a soul that thinks and wills, knows and loves — eats honey, because it’s good, and then connects the bodily experience of honey’s sweetness to the spiritual way of life that flows from fearing the Lord.”

“Wow.”

“Bees may be able to eat honey because it’s good. But they can’t ‘know that wisdom is such to the soul.’ But you can. You can eat honey — the glorified nectar that bees make from the glorified water that flowers make — because it’s good. And then, you can know with your mind and you can heed with your will your dad’s advice. You can connect the sweetness of honey to the life of wisdom. More than that, you can chase them both back to the source.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t you remember Psalm 34? ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’”

“So he’s like the honey too?”

“He’s better. He designed all of this to show forth his wisdom and glory, and to invite us further up and further in. The water, the flowers, the pollinating, the nectar, the bees, the hive, the honey, the tongue, the soul, the life of wisdom — all of these are from him and through him and to him. To him be the glory forever and ever. And now, I’m hungry. Let’s go eat some honey.”

“Me too. But we’ve got one problem, Dad.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t think we’re having honey for Thanksgiving.”

“That’s okay. Pumpkin crunch cake will have to do.”

How a Head Loves a Body: Watching Husbands and Wives Dance Well

The Scriptures regularly use the metaphor of a body to speak about human social life. The church is the body of Christ, with many members (1 Corinthians 12). Marriage is a “one flesh” union — that is, one whole body that is made up of a head and a body (Ephesians 5:22–30). Indeed, we can consider the whole household in bodily terms, with the husband as the head and the wife and children as the various distinct members.

At times, discussions of headship and bodyship are reduced to the question of authority and submission. And while authority and submission do flow from and fit within the metaphor of the body, deeper reflection on the relationship between the head and the body enables us to see more acutely how authority and submission are practically lived out. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll focus largely on a household, though the principles are relevant for any type of social body: church, school, business, or political body.

Begin with the obvious. The head and body are profoundly interdependent. You can’t have one without the other. No one wants a bodiless head or a headless body. As God himself said in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Thus, from the outset, our goal is to recognize how deeply woven together our understanding of headship and bodyship must be. Head and body are complementary; they fit each other.

Additionally, the whole body has a purpose, a mission. In Genesis 1, the mission of the initial household is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The body as a whole does not exist for its own sake, but for the sake of God’s mission in the world.

Headship

With these two truths in mind, let us reflect on the function of the head in relation to the body. We can summarize the head’s role under two headings, one largely internal and the other largely external. First, the head (the husband in this case) orders or structures the whole body for its purpose through presence, words, and actions, and empowers the members of the body to fulfill their calling. Second, the head maintains the body’s boundaries, represents the body to other bodies, and is responsible for the well-being of the body as a whole.

The head is thus responsible for organizing and structuring the body for its purpose. The head orients the body and directs the body. The head must therefore know what the body’s purpose is, and keep that purpose in mind as he seeks to empower the rest of the members for their particular purposes.

More Than Words

Crucially, the head doesn’t do this organizing work merely by words (as important as words are). We mustn’t think of the head as someone who barks orders. Instead, the head’s words and actions emerge from the head’s presence with the body. The head orients and orders the body the way that the earth orients and orders the moon. Here then is an image: like a planet with its moon, a husband guides his home through his gravity. If he does so faithfully, the moon orbits properly. If he is unfaithful, the moon wanders into disorder.

“Like a planet with its moon, a husband guides his home through his gravity.”

Or we might use a musical image. The head sets the tone; he lays down the beat. He establishes the rhythm. It may be a steady beat that makes beautiful music; it may be a melody line that enables glorious harmony. Or it may be off-beat and out of tune and result in nothing but noise. But one way or the other, the head establishes the rhythm and melody.

Or a final image. The head works like the body’s immune system. An immune system doesn’t merely fight off infection; it regulates the body’s functions, maintains the body’s boundaries, and defends the body from attack by recognizing and deploying appropriate measures.

Faithful Presence

A faithful head’s influence is present even when he’s absent. When Dad is at work, and Mom is disciplining the kids, his presence stands behind hers and empowers her action.

On the other hand, an unfaithful head can be present in body and absent in spirit. He may be in the room, but his passivity makes him light and weightless, and thus his wife and kids do what is right in their own eyes. His abdication and lack of initiative leave a gap that causes much misery. Or, conversely, perhaps his domestic tyranny oppresses and drowns out all other music.

Such images help us to contextualize the head’s authority in his household. While it may include issuing commands when appropriate (as when a father tells his child to do something), the bigger picture involves skillfully and competently taking initiative to marshal the body’s resources for its purpose and gladly sacrificing for the sake of the body and its mission. Such is faithful headship.

Bodyship

Turn then to the notion of bodyship. Like headship, the body’s role can be summarized in terms of internal and external dimensions. First, the body receives the initiating presence, words, and actions of the head and makes them fruitful by providing feedback, input, and counsel to the head. Second, the body glorifies and fructifies the head’s efforts by keeping in step with the head, carrying out the head’s will, and extending and amplifying the whole body’s influence in the world.

Receiver and Glorifier

This is a fundamental truth: the body receives in order to give more. It does not just receive and return. It receives and glorifies. It receives and beautifies. It receives and amplifies. And, in considering marriage as a one-flesh union, the most obvious way that the body (the wife) does this glorification is in procreation itself. A husband is the gardener, and his wife is the garden. He sows his seed; she receives it and bears fruit (in the form of children).

We can consider a number of images to help express her role in relation to his. He is the breadwinner; she is the breadmaker. He is the sun; she is the moon, who reflects and extends the sun’s light where the sun is not. He forms; she fills. He sets the melody; she brings the harmony. He empowers her; and she uses that power to enlarge the domain of their household.

Excellent Influence

Crucially, the body provides input and influence on the head, for good or for ill. Adam listened to the voice of his wife, and they fell into grave evil. Nabal did not listen to the voice of his wife, and he fell into grave evil. A husband is the head, and he can lead his family into ruin (like Adam) or into glory (like Jesus). A wife is the body, and she can influence the head for misery (like Eve) or for good (like the woman in Proverbs 31).

The book of Proverbs provides a fruitful way to consider what it means to faithfully live as men and women. The book itself is counsel from a father to a son, a king to a prince. The prince has two quests: he is to seek wisdom, and he is to seek an excellent wife. And throughout the book, the choice is before him: listen to Lady Wisdom or to Lady Folly. Hearken to the Excellent Wife or to the Adulterous Woman.

“She is no doormat. She is the glory and the glorifier. She takes what is good and makes it better.”

The prince is the head; he will order and structure and guide and direct his kingdom. But he is not autonomous; he will be influenced for good or ill. So in his quest, after hearkening to the voice of Lady Wisdom for 30 chapters, the Excellent Wife walks down the aisle in Proverbs 31.

She is no doormat. She is the glory and the glorifier. She takes what is good and makes it better. While she is called to follow the direction and leadership of her husband, her wisdom and action are essential to the fruitful household. Her glad-hearted submission, eager help, and wise counsel are all employed for the sake of the household and God’s mission.

Beautiful Design

Thus, we end where we began. In his wisdom, God has designed us to fit together, to complement one another, in order to accomplish his purposes. Husbands, as faithful heads, guide, order, and direct the household. Wives, as faithful bodies, amplify, glorify, and extend the household in the world. And both do so eagerly, sacrificially, and with great joy for the glory of God.

Living Among Majesties

What draws David’s delight is that God’s people are set apart for his purposes. These people reflect, however imperfectly, the majesty and glory and beauty of God’s own holiness. Henry Scougal once said, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” And so, David looks upon those who love God, he sees their worth and excellence, the majesty of their souls, and he says, “These are my people, and I love them.”

Tucked away in Psalm 16 is a shocking statement:
As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. (Psalm 16:3)
“All my delight?” Could King David mean that? Could he really mean that all of his delight is in the people of God? He could. He says the saints are “the excellent ones.” This word is an important word, found throughout the Bible. Elsewhere it is translated as majestic.
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1)
So then, as the name of the Lord is majestic and excellent, so the people who bear that name are majestic and excellent.
Ordinary and Majestic
This word for majestic (or excellent) can also be translated as mighty or noble. It’s often linked to glory, power, and magnificence. Mountains, ocean waves, massive cedars, great cities — all of these are described in the Bible as majestic. When used of people, the word often refers to princes, rulers, and lords, those who have official positions of authority over others.
David Mathis explores the meaning of this biblical term as applied to God:
In our language, as in biblical terms, the word captures not only greatness but also goodness, both bigness and beauty, awesome power together with pleasant admiration.
God’s people have a kind of grandeur about them, one that calls forth awe and wonder from David. Such grandeur may not be visible physically, but, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, someday it will be. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” (The Weight of Glory, 45).
When Dante encounters the apostles Peter and James in Paradise, he bows down before these “great and glorious princes.” After an encouragement from his guide Beatrice, he raises up his eyes “unto those mountains that had bowed them” (Paradiso, canto 25, lines 38–39). Dante, like David, is awed and delighted by the saints, who are as majestic as mountains.
Mankind and My Odd Neighbor
It’s important to note that David doesn’t delight in the saints merely as they will appear in glory; he delights in the saints “in the land.” In other words, these are real people, on earth, at the present time. How easy it is to love mankind in general, and yet how difficult to love particular individuals. As the old joke says, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” The Christian variation of this is to love what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the visionary ideal of community” (Life Together, 27).
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Related Posts:

Living Among Majesties: The Grandeur of the People of God

Tucked away in Psalm 16 is a shocking statement:

As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight. (Psalm 16:3)

“All my delight?” Could King David mean that? Could he really mean that all of his delight is in the people of God? He could. He says the saints are “the excellent ones.” This word is an important word, found throughout the Bible. Elsewhere it is translated as majestic.

O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1)

So then, as the name of the Lord is majestic and excellent, so the people who bear that name are majestic and excellent.

Ordinary and Majestic

This word for majestic (or excellent) can also be translated as mighty or noble. It’s often linked to glory, power, and magnificence. Mountains, ocean waves, massive cedars, great cities — all of these are described in the Bible as majestic. When used of people, the word often refers to princes, rulers, and lords, those who have official positions of authority over others.

David Mathis explores the meaning of this biblical term as applied to God:

In our language, as in biblical terms, the word captures not only greatness but also goodness, both bigness and beauty, awesome power together with pleasant admiration.

“God’s people have a kind of grandeur about them, one that calls forth awe and wonder.”

God’s people have a kind of grandeur about them, one that calls forth awe and wonder from David. Such grandeur may not be visible physically, but, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, someday it will be. “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship” (The Weight of Glory, 45).

When Dante encounters the apostles Peter and James in Paradise, he bows down before these “great and glorious princes.” After an encouragement from his guide Beatrice, he raises up his eyes “unto those mountains that had bowed them” (Paradiso, canto 25, lines 38–39). Dante, like David, is awed and delighted by the saints, who are as majestic as mountains.

Mankind and My Odd Neighbor

It’s important to note that David doesn’t delight in the saints merely as they will appear in glory; he delights in the saints “in the land.” In other words, these are real people, on earth, at the present time. How easy it is to love mankind in general, and yet how difficult to love particular individuals. As the old joke says, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” The Christian variation of this is to love what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the visionary ideal of community” (Life Together, 27). But this idealized abstraction is merely a wish-dream, and the moment it comes into contact with concrete people, it vanishes like a mist.

Lewis identifies the demonic strategy in such a temptation. Screwtape encourages his young protégé to exploit the gap between glorious expressions like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. . . . Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. (The Screwtape Letters, 6–7)

“How easy it is to love mankind in general, and yet how difficult to love particular individuals.”

David’s celebration in Psalm 16 avoids precisely this disappointment. David is not confessing his delight in an abstraction, in a wish-dream community. The majestic ones that have captured his delight are the saints in the land, near at hand, singing out of tune with their double chins and odd clothes. David looks upon them and says, “Majestic. Excellent. All my delight.”

Captured by God for God

How is David able to do this? How can he see majesty in such mundane simplicity? Because David knows that these are saints. That is, they are not merely the excellent ones; they are the holy ones. What draws David’s delight is that God’s people are set apart for his purposes.

These people reflect, however imperfectly, the majesty and glory and beauty of God’s own holiness. Henry Scougal once said, “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love.” And so, David looks upon those who love God, he sees their worth and excellence, the majesty of their souls, and he says, “These are my people, and I love them.”

Jonathan Edwards said much the same thing. When we love something, we love when others love that same thing. That’s why fans of the same sports team immediately hit it off. The mutual joy forms the foundation of a new friendship. How much more when the object of our mutual admiration is God himself?

What heightens and advances the pleasure of society is the excellency and the love of those with whom we converse. But the saints are the excellent of the earth; they are possessed of excellency of the highest kind, and they only are endowed with true excellency. Proverbs 12:6, “The righteous is more excellent than his neighbor”; and 17:27, “A man of understanding is of an excellent spirit.” And certainly in such conversation is the greatest delight to be found. Psalm 16:2–3, “My goodness extendeth not to thee; but to the saints that are in the earth, and to the excellent, in whom is all my delight.”

And as religion makes lovely, so it begets love, the purest and most ardent. Nothing so much tends to charity, peace, mutual benevolence and bounty as Christianity, and therefore nothing so much sweetens human society. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 109).

Do We See Nobility?

David’s celebration, then, becomes an exhortation to us. It forces us to ask questions of ourselves and to seek God’s help in being conformed to the image of Christ. Do we see nobility in the simplest of saints? Do we delight in the saints in our land, particularly in our local church? Do we delight in actual people — quirks, warts, and all? Do we delight in them for their holiness and majesty, and do we delight in them in hopes of spurring them on to greater holiness and majesty?

If not, then perhaps we should turn Psalm 16 into a prayer.

Lord, we say to you, “You are our Lord; we have no good apart from you.” Help us to find your goodness in your people. Make us to know your holiness reflected in your saints. Lead us to see the worth, excellency, and majesty of each and every Christian that we meet, from the great to the small, from the strong to the weak. And then fill us with the joy of Jesus himself, who takes pleasure in you and in his people with all his delight.

The Beautiful Roots of Courageous Submission

When you think of examples of biblical courage, who comes to mind? Perhaps Abram leading his 318 fighting men into battle to rescue his nephew Lot? Or perhaps young David and his sling facing off against Goliath? Or perhaps Peter and the apostles standing before the Sanhedrin and boldly promising to obey God and not men?

All of these would be good answers. But here’s another, courtesy of the apostle Peter himself: Sarah, the wife of Abraham. In his letter to the churches in Asia, Peter commends Sarah as a model for her spiritual daughters who “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:6). Sarah is a prime example of biblical courage and fearlessness, and exploring the expression and source of her courage can strengthen women of God today.

Her Well-Ordered Soul

What form did Sarah’s courage take? It began in what Peter calls “the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4). This is not a personality trait (as though God prefers introverts to extroverts). There’s nothing inherently virtuous in being a shy wallflower. Instead, “a gentle and quiet spirit” refers to mental fortitude, emotional strength, and spiritual composure. This sort of woman has a well-ordered soul, one that is composed and content in her calling and station.

“‘A gentle and quiet spirit’ refers to mental fortitude, emotional strength, and spiritual composure.”

A quiet spirit is the opposite of a loud one. Consider Solomon’s warnings about the forbidden woman, the adulteress: “She is loud and wayward; her feet do not stay at home” (Proverbs 7:11). The apostle Paul issues a similar warning about women who are “idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not” (1 Timothy 5:13). The opposite of such loud, discontented, wayward women is those who “marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander” (1 Timothy 5:14).

In sum, Sarah-like courage begins with a composed soul, with firmness and emotional fortitude to be self-controlled — not brash, harsh, loud, or meddling, but sober-minded and strong in the face of dangers and potential fears. We might consider Peter’s commendation in light of an earlier exhortation, where he urges all of his readers to roll up the sleeves of their minds, be sober-minded, and set their hope fully on the coming grace of Christ (1 Peter 1:13). Such is the posture of Sarah’s spiritual daughters.

Feminine Courage in Action

Though such courage starts with the hidden person of the heart, Peter is clear that it becomes visible and manifest. He says that the well-ordered soul is a beautiful adornment for a wife — a beauty that is expressed not in the ostentatious and decadent way of the world, but in Sarah-like submission to her husband.

This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. (1 Peter 3:5–6)

Notice that submission involves both actions and words. Sarah obeyed Abraham, and she called him lord.

Modern people may chafe under such exhortations or roll their eyes. Our egalitarian culture has conditioned many to bristle at any talk of obedience (at least outside of very small children). The words submit and obey now carry infantilizing or patronizing connotations. For a wife — a grown woman — to obey her husband is to debase herself. For him to desire and expect such submission is boorishly arrogant and presumptuous. What a different world the Bible is.

When Equality Goes Awry

C.S. Lewis would undoubtedly say that our imaginations have been baptized by the democratic and egalitarian sentiments of our age, and this to our own harm. While recognizing the need for some measures of political equality, Lewis lamented and warned of the danger of an undue elevation of equality.

The man [or woman] who cannot conceive of a joyful and loyal obedience on the one hand, nor an unembarrassed and noble acceptance of that obedience on the other, the man who has never even wanted to kneel or bow, is a prosaic barbarian. (“Equality,” 9)

The submission of Sarah does not diminish her in the slightest. She obeys Father Abraham, the great patriarch, because she is Mother Sarah, the great matriarch. She calls him lord because she is his lady, his wife, his glory.

We ought to recognize the significance that Peter references Genesis 18:12: “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” What’s remarkable about Peter’s citation is how unremarkable the term is in the passage. The use of the honorific term lord is, in context, rather mundane. This is simply the way Sarah talks about her husband.

Two Questions for Christian Wives

In commending Sarah at this point, it’s not necessary that we bring back the use of the specific term lord. The particular term is a matter of custom and convention, differing across time and space. The more pressing issue is the heart, the orientation, the spirit from which the words come. And so, Christian wives would do well to ask themselves a couple of pointed questions.

How do you speak about your husband? Do you speak well of him to others? If someone’s perspective on your husband were based solely on your words, what impression would they have of him? In other words, is your speech marked by respect and admiration for him, or contempt and dishonor? What sort of heart does it reveal — a loud and discontented one, or a gentle and quiet one?

What’s more, how do you speak to your husband? Are his initiatives met with scoffing and scorn, or with eagerness and support? Do you take his words, efforts, and labors (even the weak ones) and seek to make them more fruitful, more abundant, more glorious? To use other language from Peter, is your conduct toward your husband respectful and pure (1 Peter 3:2)? Does it show proper holiness, regard, and esteem?

Bravery Before Warriors

Looking to Sarah as a model of submission, obedience, and respectful conduct and speech doesn’t entail that a wife join her husband in disobedience, or passively accept his negligence and folly.

“This sort of woman has a well-ordered soul, one that is composed and content in her calling and station.”

Just consider Abigail, a true daughter of Sarah if ever there were one. She recognized the ingratitude and idiocy of her foolish husband Nabal and immediately took action to save her household (1 Samuel 25:14–35). But she did so like Sarah, not like Abraham. Abraham showed courage by assembling 318 fighting men and leading them into battle. Abigail showed courage by assembling gifts and food and offering them to David with respect, honor, and gratitude while appealing to God.

In other words, Abigail, in seeking to rectify her husband’s sinful error and folly, showed the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit. Her soul was in submission to God, content in his kindness, and ready to speak and act with appropriate submission and obedience. And God blessed her.

Deepest Source of Courage

Sarah-like courage begins with a well-composed soul, the hidden person of the heart, and then expresses itself in respectful words and obedient conduct. But underneath the hidden person of the heart is something even more fundamental, which we dare not miss. The fundamental marks of women like Sarah are holiness and hope. “This is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves.” Sarah hoped in God. He was her refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. He upheld and strengthened her in the face of dangers, and this holy hope composed her soul and quieted her heart.

Submission, obedience, and respectful speech adorned this hope. Maintaining this hope was undoubtedly difficult. It’s frightening to follow a fallible man, especially when God calls him to leave country and kindred and journey to a far country. Maintaining such hope requires real mental and emotional effort. But God was gracious, and Sarah hoped in God and did not fear anything that was frightening.

May her daughters today do so as well.

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