When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper

Almost all of John Piper’s popular books (as opposed to his more theological works) have developed the same theme—desiring God. Piper works from his oft repeated premise, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” In one form or the other Piper has unpacked this statement in many books, articles, his website and numerous conference engagements. This emphasis on desiring God, or experiencing joy in the Lord, now characterizes an army of Christians who follow Piper’s teaching. Some of these followers have interpreted Piper to mean that joy is the defining identity of the believer: that joy in Christ and a passionate desire for God is what assures a person that He is truly born again and that if one lacks such joy one is not a Christian; additionally, this joy must be spontaneous and obeying God while lacking spontaneous joy is tantamount to legalism.

With such interpretations swirling around Piper’s teachings I was most happy to discover his book When I Don’t Desire God, How to Fight for Joy. The title implies that Piper would carefully address one of the thorniest aspects of his theology. In this I was not disappointed.

I was pleased to find a refreshing honesty about the struggles faced in the Christian life, even by evangelicalism greatest advocate for joy. Piper, like all of us, finds himself often distracted, spiritually dry, “prone to wander,” and frequently experiencing “seasons of darkness” (e.g. pp. 28, 39, 130, 132, 214). For these reasons Piper candidly and repeatedly tells us that if we are to have joy in Christ we must fight for it. This is a welcome admission on two fronts. First, it provides a needed correction for those who have mistakenly understood Piper to teach that joy should be automatic for those truly regenerated. Secondly, it properly frames the Christian life as a battle, even in the attainment of joy. Piper writes, “The essence of the Christian life is learning to fight for joy in a way that does not replace grace” (p. 44).

How does one fight for joy? First, we must understand the place of duty. Piper has often stated elsewhere that following the Lord out of duty, but lacking joy, is wrong. Joy must accompany duty for our obedience to glorify God. In this volume Piper modifies this a bit. To begin with, he reminds us that it is our duty to “rejoice in the Lord” (p. 48). So, in our obedience to the Lord we must remember that joy in the Lord is incumbent upon the believer. But what are we to do when joy is lacking? Quoting C.S. Lewis (one of his favorite authors), “A perfect man would never act from sense of duty…duty is only a substitute for love.” But Lewis indicates that we are not yet perfect and duty sometimes serves as a crutch and “most of us need the crutch at times.” It should be our desire to use our “own legs” but when needed the crutch of duty is acceptable. The crutch must not become the norm, however, we must fight for true love and joy, but “most of us need the crutch at times.” I find this a remarkable and important concession by Piper.

The fight for joy continues by developing strategies—“strategies to see Christ more fully” (p. 60). And how are we to see Christ more fully? “God has ordained that primarily He reveals His glory to us ‘by the word of the Lord’ ” (p. 65). Piper is not calling for strategies found in mystical practices but in the proper examination of the Word. Therefore, when all the smoke has cleared, we are taken back to the time-honored methods of spiritual development — study, reflection and application of Scripture.

For these reasons Piper calls for us to establish appointments with the Word—appointments that we must fight to keep (p. 97). Keeping these appointments will be a battle because of the lure of the flesh and the substitute of sin (pp. 101-102). The power of sin is in deception; it is the Word of God which reveals and destroys this deception (pp. 104-105). Much of the latter half of the book concerns itself with how to greatly benefit from the Word in our fight for joy.

All of this is most helpful. Piper calls us back to the Word, helps the reader to develop strategies to benefit from the Word, yet clearly reminds us that mere compliance is not enough—God wants us to rejoice in Him. Our meditation on the Word should reveal to us the unsurpassed glory of Christ which should lead us to seek our greatest satisfaction in Him.

Some concerns:

Unfortunately, while all of this is right on target, Piper still leaves us somewhat confused.

• On the one hand throughout the book Piper has rightly recognized that Christians will have periods in which joy is imperceptible. At such times we must not give up but pursue in earnest our fight for joy. Yet Piper just does not know what to do with joyless Christians. That joyless seasons are common to all believers is admitted, so how does Piper fit these into his system? He claims that believers, no matter how sad or depressed, are never completely without joy in God (p. 220), that even in the “cellar of our soul” still the “seed of what we once knew of joy” is still there (p. 220). However, by this definition joy is indefinable. If those at the very bottom of life emotionally, with no discernable feelings of joy, are nevertheless in possession of joy, then what is joy and how would one know he has it? Most confusing is Piper’s use of the example of William Cowper as his closing illustration (pp. 229-234). Cowper attempted suicide numerous times and lived the last years of his life in emotional agony and defiance of God. He even refused to bow his head during table grace, claiming God had abandoned him. Yet Piper somehow sees Cowper as a Christian who retained the kernels of joy even in his decades of misery. If a Christian is defined by joy, and if Cowper is a Christian, he must have joy, even if he lived most of his life in tortuous despair, so goes Piper’s argument.

• Piper is forced to come up with this convoluted understanding of joy because he boxes himself in with his theology of joy. Early in the book Piper states, “A person who has no taste for the enjoyment of Christ will not go to heaven…loving Christ involves delight in his Person. Without this love no one goes to heaven” (pp. 34-35). He even makes comments that seem to bleed over into works-salvation, “Eternal life is laid hold of by a persevering fight for the joy of faith” (p. 37). Then he implies that our salvation can be lost if we do not maintain our joy: “Here [speaking of Revelation 2:10] something infinite and eternal hangs on whether these Christians hold fast to the joy of faith while in prison” (pp. 37-38). Yet later, Piper affirms that Christians without joy are nevertheless saved (p. 210). Most confusing.

• Of equal concern is Piper’s propensity to reduce everything in Scripture, and the Christian walk, to the pursuit of joy. While such pursuit is biblical and an important (and often neglected) component of the Christian life, such reductionism comes dangerously close to distorting the Christian life. For example, while the NT has much to say about joy (and Piper quotes most of the passages) there is much more explored in the NT than joy. For example, as Paul writes his final three letters known as the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), he only mentions joy one time. He loads up on words like faith, truth, teaching and doctrine, but only mentions joy once to these men whom he was mentoring. Obviously, if one wants to play the reduction game (systematizing the teaching of Scripture around one theme) there are many choices. The liberals have long ago chosen to frame all of Scripture around the theme of love, yet even that theme is not big enough to capture all of biblical truth. Reduction always leads to imbalance. We are called to embrace all the great themes of Scripture, not dilute them to one. Piper manages to funnel all of Scripture back to his favorite doctrine by a form of eisegesis that twists words to mean something else. For example, in one section he provides a collage of Scripture on assorted topics, none of which specifically addresses joy, and yet claims they were all prayers concerning our fight for joy in God (pp. 143-148). In another section he specifically states, “This means that the biblical passages that speak of the fight of faith apply to the fight for joy” (p. 36). With this type of reasoning everything in Scripture will make a beeline to our pet doctrine—in Piper’s case, joy. It is not that Piper is wrong about the fight for joy; it is that he makes too much of it—he goes too far. There is danger in this form of reductionism.

• Finally, Piper quotes favorably from a very disturbing stable of authors: Dietrich Bonhoeffer (popular liberal theologian, who, by the way, was executed not for his faith in Christ, but for his part in an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler) (p. 90), Dallas Willard (leader in the unbiblical spiritual formation movement) (p. 119), C.K. Chesterton (Roman Catholic author) (p. 196), and Richard Foster (father and main promoter of the infiltration of Roman Catholic mysticism into evangelical circles) (pp. 192-193). He also speaks twice of the “dark night of the soul” which comes from counter-reformation Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross (pp. 217, 229). Most disturbing is Foster’s quote calling for “new prophets to arise in our day” to which Piper responds, “And when they arise, one way that we fight for joy in God is to read what they write” (p. 193). After authoring a book which majors on pointing us to the Bible in our fight for joy, it is disconcerting to now read of an encouragement to read the words of modern prophets; and coming from Foster’s perspective and Piper’s theology on prophets, they are both referring to extrabiblical revelation through present-day prophets).

On the whole When I Don’t Desire God is a helpful book. It may be the best of Piper’s popular works that I have read due to the element of transparency and honesty. But there are some concerning features as outlined above.