Studying the writings of a pastor-theologian from a different historical context opened my eyes for seeing well-worn paths in new ways. The means of grace are not new or innovative concepts, but rather the ancient paths reinvigorated by considering them afresh through the lens of a joy-absorbed sage.
During a particularly stressful period of pastoral ministry, I began to more intentionally seek out joy in God as the dire remedy for my own frayed and threadbare heart.
I had diagnosed myself as markedly joy-deficient when I searched for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in my life (Galatians 5:22). At age 35, leading a midsize Presbyterian church was already wearing me out. I became stressed at home and frustrated in the office. My coworkers could see it on my face. I needed a deeper source of joy than the world could give, despite its barrage of empty-promise advertisements and panaceas.
So, for nearly three years, I plunged headlong into a deep study on eternal happiness from the theologian of joy, Jonathan Edwards. I surveyed large swaths of his major works and personal writings, mining for gladdening gold.
In my study, I learned at least three methods for maintaining joy in God that Edwards practiced in his own life amid the relentless trials and strains of pastoral ministry. Although most Christians are already familiar with these methods, I discovered that studying the writings of a pastor-theologian from a different historical context opened my eyes for seeing well-worn paths in new ways. The means of grace discussed below are not new or innovative concepts, but rather the ancient paths reinvigorated by considering them afresh through the lens of a joy-absorbed sage.
Creation: God’s Beauty on Display
First, Edwards rejoiced in the natural world and the beauty of creation. Edwards saw a strong connection between beauty and joy. Both beauty and joy are to be found in the “excellencies” of God’s nature, by which Edwards meant the praiseworthy attributes of his essential being. These include God’s holiness, love, power, mercy, and righteousness, just to name a few.
One of the ways that Edwards savored the excellencies and beauties of God was through engaging with, and enjoying, his natural creation. For Edwards, being in and among the creatures in the natural realm stirred his affections for God’s creative power and beauty, in turn stoking the fires of joy in his heart.
Edwards in the Woods
In his Personal Narrative, Edwards described what may have been the most ecstatic experience of his life, a vision of Jesus that he beheld in the woods when riding his horse:
Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health . . . as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer; I had a view, that for me was quite extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God; as mediator between God and man; and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension . . . which continued, as near as I can judge about an hour; which kept me, the bigger part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:801)
Although Edwards was constantly in his study and among his books, he also greatly treasured the outdoors and drank in the beauty of God’s created world whenever possible. He drew upon natural themes for his sermon illustrations, and spoke often of the light of the sun, the taste of honey, water from spring fountains, and the like. Just as John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, Edwards saw the universe as the beautiful “theater” of God’s glory (1.6.3).
Walk Out of the Study
One of the very practical things that I learned from Edwards is to see vestiges of the gospel in the creation itself. In his notebook on Images (or Shadows) of Divine Things, Edwards constantly peered through creation to see the gospel everywhere around him.
For Edwards, “roses upon briers” are a type of Christ’s glory (the flower) wrought by suffering (thorns). In lightning, he saw a type of the wrath of God, threatening judgment. The rising and setting of the sun he viewed as a type of the death and resurrection of Christ. Even in the lowly silkworm, Edwards saw a type of Christ’s righteousness given to men (the silk) through the suffering and humiliation of Christ (the lowly worm). We too can begin to make these types of observations.
Almost every pastor or Christian leader would do well to spend more time in nature. We could start, for example, by using a day each month to take an intentional prayer walk through a local park, or even by doing some simple gardening in our own yard. I recently listened to the story of another pastor in my city who took a four-week sabbatical, not to study or write in a library, but to spend eight hours a day among the trees in a nearby nature preserve, thinking and praying. He came back refreshed and renewed for his third decade of ministry. At the very least, pastors could make it a regular practice to journal about spiritual insights gleaned from nature and creation in a journal similar to Edwards’s Images of Divine Things notebook.