Originally published Wednesday, 15 October 2014.
Do you ever think to yourself, "If only ____, then my life would be better?" Or maybe you've thought this: "I'm not happy because ____ and once that changes, everything will be good." And then have you ever gotten to that goal, that one thing you needed to feel whole and complete, only to find it wasn't quite what you expected?
I only ask because I have. There are many things in my life that have become my "if-onlys," things that I believed were obstacles in my path to joy. Sometimes they were job related; other times they had to do with relationships and how I wanted the other person to make my life easier. Sometimes they were desires and hopes I had; other times simply material things I wanted. Whatever those things were, they were all things that I perceived would make me happy, satisfied, fulfilled and complete.
In his book, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself, John Piper asks this sobering question: “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation— is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ were not there?”
I'll let that settle in your mind and heart for a bit.
Okay. What is your response?
This question gets at the heart of what we believe about who God is and why Christ came. It points out that we can view Christ's death and the salvation he purchased as an insurance policy that guarantees our spot in heaven. God then becomes our cosmic candy dispenser, granting our whims at the push of a prayer. If we desire all the comforts and joys of heaven and could care less if Christ wasn't there, we've missed the point of salvation entirely.
John Piper continues: "Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It's a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don't want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel”
Whenever I've read that question, my own heart wants to jump up and say an immediate, "No! Of course not!" But then I have to pause because the truth is, I don't always live as though it's true. There are many things in my life that I hold so close that they compete for my affections for Christ. And I have to admit, there are things that I have desired that I have not been pleased when God has not provided them for me. I've pouted and demanded a good reason as to why he's withheld my desires from me.
This is where John Piper's question gets me because it reveals that my heart often wants the good things God gives more than God himself. I want all God's blessings, promises, and answered prayers and the way I react when I don't get them says more than words ever could. When my dreams don't come true or my child gets sick or a job is lost or I don't get the house I always wanted or relationships fail or leaders in my church let me down or the depression doesn't lift--how I respond shows more of what I think of Christ and his place of importance in my heart.
Because if Christ isn't my everything now, here on earth, how would he be that for me in heaven?
Here's the truth: real joy and happiness do not come through things, relationships, carefree days, obedient children, blissful marriages, good jobs, healthy bodies, and comfortable lives. It comes from being in right relationship with God. We were created to be in fellowship with him. We were made to glorify and enjoy him. This is why Jesus came and why he died to save us: to redeem and restore us back to God. He didn't die to make our lives comfortable or to become our divine candy machine. He came to bring us the joy of knowing and being known by God. All the other things that we enjoy in this life are shadows, a dim reflection of the joy found in him. Every other joy in life ought to point us to him, not be a replacement for him.
Because when we chase the shadow instead of enjoying the real thing, we'll never find the complete satisfaction of our hearts. Shadows can loom large and seem grand but they have no substance. Though they have the same outline of the original, they are not the thing itself. When we pursue any joy apart from God and in replacement of God, we are only playing with shadows and missing the light of his love and grace altogether.
This is what happened to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:17-22. There was one thing he held on to that he couldn't give up to follow Jesus. It was the one thing that stood on the altar of his heart in the place that rightfully belonged to God. When Jesus pointed out that thing to him, he walked away saddened because he cared more for the shadow than the real thing.
The question for our own hearts is, do we follow Christ for who he is or what we think he can do for us? What if-onlys and shadows are we chasing? Let us pray for hearts that desire Christ above all things. May mere shadows cease to satisfy us and may Christ alone be the joy of our heart, both in this life and in the one to come.