To escape our bondage to sin, we must come alive to the glory of God in Christ. He’s our only hope.
On this theme, theologian Jonathan Edwards was a master. He discovered God’s glory and beauty all over Scripture, and he centered his understanding of the Christian life there.
The classic picture of Edwards as a hellfire preacher, suspending sinners by fishing line over the pit of God’s flaming wrath, simply fails to get a balanced picture of his ministry. He may be most famous for scaring people out of hell with divine wrath, but he spent far more of his time trying to woo people into heaven by proclaiming the beauty of God in the gospel. So writes Dane Ortlund, in his book Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God (Crossway).
This insatiable desire for God’s beauty stokes the fire of the Christian life. We ask for the same thing every day: “to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4). And we testify together: “all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Psalm 96:5–6).
We must have God’s beauty.
So what does God’s splendor have to do with my daily life right now — in my busyness, in my temptations, in my boredom, and in my spiritual dryness? I recently sat down to talk with Dane Ortlund, who serves as the Bible publishing director at Crossway.
First, God’s beauty soothes our busy and anxious hearts.
“The beauty of God’s tender mercy calms me down, lets me breathe again.”
“The beauty of God’s tender mercy calms me down, lets me breathe again, slows my heart’s frantic scurrying about,” Dane said. “There is so much ambiguity in living as a moral being. In all my anxiety, he is an undeterred and gentle Father who has adopted and justified me. Edwards really felt that. Especially when you read his sermons or letters, there’s an aroma you smell. He really felt safe and loved and calmed because of God and his gentle care for him as a Father.”
Second, God’s beauty fills the affections of our heart, which is essential if we are going to meet our foes of sin and temptation with success. “The world tells me that selfish indulgence in lust is where the fun is,” Dane said. On the contrary, “Edwards writes all over the place about quietly enjoying the beauty of God, and communing with him in his Son, who is the mighty and radiant friend of sinners like me. To use a word Edwards delightfully used, enjoying God happifies us.”
One of the crucial battles of the Christian life is discovering the true ugliness of sin and exposing its destructiveness. “Sin is the enchanting allure of what is going to kill you,” Dane said. “I can’t help but jump into the water of sin and get slammed against the rocks of judgment and hell and death. I have no willpower to stop. I cannot stop myself. I need a higher loveliness, a more compelling beauty. I am only going to do what I love to do, and I will be that way forever. I cannot function any other way. I have a beauty-thirst that must be quenched, no matter what.”
We all do. “The sixty year old who leaves his wife for a younger woman, the teen looking at porn, the banker checking his personal accounts every hour, the pastor feeding his soul on the nicotine of congregational approval — all of these are taking a doll, putting makeup on it, treating it like a spouse, and expecting it to love you like a spouse, when the real person is in the next room wanting to love you truly.”
Just as God’s beauty confronts our anxieties and our temptations, so also it confronts the spiritual hazards of our boredom.
“Sin is the enchanting allure of what is going to kill you.”
One year ago, ESPN reported the tragic story of Christopher Lane, a college baseball player who was jogging down a street in Duncan, Oklahoma. Three teens drove up behind him in a car and shot him in the back, senselessly killing the athlete. When the teens were later arrested and asked to explain their actions, they said they did it because they were “bored.”
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones said it: “Sin is always, in some sense, a life of boredom.”
“That’s where sin takes us,” Dane explained. “Among other reasons, hell is hell because it’s so boring.” Yes, boring, because hell is being stuck eternally in self-centeredness that is blind to all external beauty, unsatisfied within and unhappy without.
But on the other hand, “Holiness is fun,” Dane says, somewhat cautiously. “Can I say that? Holiness is playful. It’s clean. It’s bright — not dark — because we have been swept up into the love of the Trinity. We have been justified and ratified. We have become human again.”
That’s a very counterintuitive picture of holiness.
“What immediately leaps to our mind when we see the word holiness?” asks Dane. “Austerity. Coldness. Grim-faced. Jaw-set. In one of his early sermons Edwards says, ‘Holiness is a most beautiful, lovely thing. Men are apt to drink in strange notions of holiness from their childhood as if it were a melancholy, morose, sour thing.’ But Edwards says there is nothing in holiness but what is sweet and ravishingly lovely. Sin is mire and filth. Holiness is sweet, lovely, delightful, serene, calm. That corrects me. Holiness is calming. It is the only route by which I can actually enjoy my life, because I am not delighting in the world’s fraudulent offers of happiness. Holiness is quietly thrilling. Where else would you want to live but in the brightness of holiness?”
True joy is not measured by escaping boredoms with entertainment. That won’t work, and for a good reason. “The Christian life does not run properly without joy,” Dane said emphatically. “But that doesn’t mean you need to watch more Letterman. Laughter is not a reliable joy gauge.” Exhaust Netflix and Hulu of all their sitcoms and your greatest joy remains buried in a field not yours.
“Sin is always, in some sense, a life of boredom.”
But Dane is no ascetic. In his book he writes, “The formula to joy is not God and [blank] so much as God in [blank]” (77). Later he explains, “True joy derives not from God and job, family, sex, friends, food, rest, driving, buying a home, reading a book, drinking coffee — but from God in these things. . . . Every taste of beauty in this world, from the roar of waterfalls to the chatter of birds to the richness of true friendship to the ecstasy of sexual experience, is a drop from the ocean of divine beauty. Every pleasure is an arrow pointing back to him. Joy is from, and only finally in, God” (79).
In our interview, Dane went so far as to say, “Maybe this sounds cold and unfeeling, but Edwards said that when loved ones of ours die, we don’t ultimately have any reason to mourn, because we will experience forever in heaven in Christ everything in the loved one that we loved. Christ himself recapitulates and sums up himself all the other joys. If you have Christ, you have all joy.”
Dane isn’t suggesting for a moment that there are no sweet reunions with friends and family in heaven. He is saying, even in those reunions, what makes them joyful is not the loved one plus God, but in the loved one there is a substantive encounter with the beauty of God mediated through them.
But all this beauty-talk doesn’t immunize Christians from sorrow and depression. At the end of my interview with Dane, I asked him what counsel would he offer to those readers who are in the dumps right now, who cannot see God’s beauty, who are living through a season of dryness. What would Pastor Edwards say to them?
Dane offered six pieces of counsel:
One, you are not abnormal. So relax. We all go through this from time to time.
Two, your stale, numb condition wouldn’t worry Edwards as long as it does worry you. And it worries you because you’re asking the question. In other words, Edwards had a rich understanding of regeneration and new birth. He knew an unregenerate heart wouldn’t be bothered (and probably wouldn’t be reading this interview).
Three, God’s verdict over your life is not strengthened by the intensity, or weakened by the lack of intensity, of your enjoyment of the beauty of God. In fact, part of the beauty of God is that his paternal care and love for you doesn’t hinge on your experience of that beauty.
Four, if you are feeling dry and barren because you are living in sin, and you know it, then what do you expect your life to be like?
Five, if you are in Christ, one day you will look back on this dry, barren, adversity-filled life and see how all the cumulative pain of this world (which we are in, and sometimes it just about breaks us) is going to be rewound and undone, and actually be part of our final radiance and resplendence and glory. So hang on.
Six, stay in the Psalms. They are in the Bible to give dry and barren human beings something to say to God, and to give them some restored sanity when, left to themselves, all they want to do is go back to bed under the covers, or go get drunk, or go kill themselves, because the pain of life is so great.