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What Comes First: My Obedience to Jesus or My Joy in Jesus?

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How is my obedience connected to my joy? It’s a question today from Jonathan. “Hi, Pastor John. I’m a seminary student in South Africa. My question is about Christian Hedonism. What a deep and powerful thing enjoying God is. God used this greatly in my conversion!

“After a couple of years, however, my joy in God grew very dim. Not only my joy, but also my contentment and prizing of God above all else — a most joyful state — disappeared. This is especially true when I fall into sin. I feel sin blinds me to who God is and thus I don’t enjoy him for who he is because I can’t see him for who he is. Is that true? And how much of our joy in Christ is only achievable and possible in a state of robust obedience?”

 

Joy and Obedience

I’m going to say things a little differently than Jonathan, but first let me affirm his insight. When we are living in disobedience to Christ, our joy in him will be minimal or nonexistent, depending on the depth and duration of the disobedience. That’s true. You might say our greatest enjoyment of Christ can be enjoyed only in a robust state of obedience. I think that’s true.

“If we treat obedience as something we do first and then joy in Jesus follows, we will have turned obedience into a work of the law.”

But I think it’s important to penetrate into the relationship between obedience and joy a little more deeply. Let’s not stop at simply saying, “If you obey Jesus, your joy will be greater.” If we leave it at that, we won’t really see clearly what the nature of obedience is and its relationship to joy and Christ.

I would ask Jonathan, or anybody, “Do you think that obedience to Jesus is distinct from enjoying Jesus?” In other words, is it accurate to think of obeying him as one thing, and then, as a result of doing that, this other thing happens called “enjoying him”? It’s really not like that, is it? Why not?

Well first, we are commanded to enjoy him, to “delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4 and elsewhere). We must rejoice in the Lord. That obedience isenjoyment of God, not just a cause of enjoyment.

Second, all Christ-honoring obedience is rooted in our treasuring of Jesus, our enjoying of Jesus, so that it wouldn’t be accurate to say that enjoying Jesus is only the result of obedience. In fact, joy is a part of obedience, the cause of obedience, the root of obedience.

 

Losing Sight of Christ

So what Jonathan is saying is not at all wrong; it’s only half or maybe a third of the picture. He’s stressing the utterly necessary truth that whenever we are walking in disobedience, our joy is going to be limited, even canceled. That’s true.

“Our greatest enjoyment of Christ can be enjoyed only in a robust state of obedience.”

You can see it especially in John 14:21–23, where Jesus says, “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).

In other words, there’s a correlation between our loving Jesus and keeping his commandments and the clarity and sweetness of the manifestation that we have of Jesus and the Father in our hearts. Jesus says, “I will manifest myself to him.” He says this to those who are loving him and walking in fellowship with him and keeping his words.

Those manifestations of the preciousness and sweetness and power and reality and presence and beauty and worth of Jesus will be forfeited when we are loving other things more than Jesus, and not keeping his word. That’s true. That’s the truth that Jonathan is seeing and emphasizing.

He has experienced the loss of joy, and of the intimate, sweet manifestations of Christ to his soul because he’s walked in sin. That’s true; that’s what will happen.

 

Pathway to Obedience

But, there’s another side to this. If we miss it, there will be no way out for Jonathan. How’s he going to get out of this? Because if he thinks simply in terms of “I’ve got to obey so that I can enjoy,” he’ll never get out.

Because seeing Jesus as satisfying and experiencing him as precious is the pathway to obedience, not just the result of obedience. You can’t obey first in order to enjoy if the enjoyment of him is the path to obedience.

If we treat obedience as something we do first and then all joy in Jesus follows, we will have turned obedience into a work of the law, or a legal external performance that has in it no Christ-exalting worth and therefore will not result in true enjoyment of Jesus.

All Christ-exalting, gospel-rooted obedience is the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). Obedience comes from faith, and faith is a seeing and savoring of the truth and beauty and worth of Jesus in the gospel. Therefore, faith, specifically what Paul calls in Philippians 1:25 “the joy of faith,” is the root of all Christ-exalting obedience, not just the fruit.

So by all means, Jonathan, cease from all outward sin. Cease. But let the main battle of your life be not just against outward actions that have to change, but mainly against inward blindness that needs to be overcome with fresh glimpses of the glory of Christ. Then the new obedience will not be a tribute to your willpower, but a tribute to the beauty of Christ that has broken the power of the deceitfulness of sin.

 

Where the Battle Lies

Jonathan has been walking in disobedience because of the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13Ephesians 4:22). Sin is telling lies to him. It is saying that the path of disobedience will produce more pleasure. It won’t. It’s a lie.

“All Christ-exalting, gospel-rooted obedience is the obedience of faith.”

The pleasures are fleeting (Hebrews 11:25). They are shallow. So the battle to be fought in Jonathan’s heart, in all of our hearts, is not just how to stop doing bad things so that we can enjoy Jesus. No, no, no, no, no. The battle is how to stop believing false things.

By all means, forsake bad behaviors. But mainly the battle is to look to Jesus. Look to all that God is for you in him, and pray for eyes to see his all-satisfying beauty and worth, so that you rest in him and are so satisfied that the root of sin is severed, and you walk in obedience.

 

 


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