Living with Longing

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Psalm 84

 

Is God a killjoy?

Just over a decade ago a number of prominent atheists and humanists in Britain (like Richard Dawkins) organised a campaign to encourage people to stop worrying about God. They raised funds to put huge posters on buses and around the city of London stating, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Now, I could take issue with the claim that there is probably no God. What’s the basis for that claim? How fair and open minded have they been with the historical, scientific and philosophical evidence?

But what I want to point out is how this statement reflects a common attitude towards Christianity. It reflects the assumption that God, Christianity and the Bible are out to squash your enjoyment of life. The underlying assumption and attitude behind the statement is that living as a Christian is a sad, boring, stifling, anxious way of life, and we only do it because we think we have to! We believe God is there and that he wants us to squash all our desires and miss out on all the good stuff, and if we don’t – worse things will happen! If only we could be convinced that God really isn’t there, or that at least, it’s pretty unlikely, then we’d give up on Christianity and get on with the good life.

It’s a common point of view! Many people see Christianity as a bit of a straight-jacket – an enemy of the great modern value: the freedom to just be yourself and do what you want.

Have you felt the pull of that kind of thinking? Have you felt, or perhaps even feel now, that God is a bit of a killjoy? Whether you’re figuring out what it means to be a Christian and if you want to commit, or whether you’ve been a Christian for many, many years… perhaps you have the impression that to be a Christian means squashing your real desires and just ‘doing the right thing’. What does God think about your desires? Your emotions? Does he want you to experience joy? If you’re going to take being a Christian seriously, does that mean downplaying your desires, killing them off even, and just getting on with the ‘good Christian life’ of giving stuff up and not doing bad things?

What’s surprising for many people to realise is that God doesn’t have a problem with us having strong desires and wanting to be happy. What he has a problem with is when our desires and hopes for happiness are directed towards the wrong things. God takes issue with us being satisfied in things that are not worthy objects of our devotion. As C.S. Lewis, the great Christian thinker and writer of the 20th Century wrote, ‘We are far too easily pleased.’ Seeking joy and satisfaction is not the problem – it’s being too easily pleased.

C.S. Lewis writes in his sermon ‘the weight of glory’: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Psalm 84, which we’re looking at today, is an invitation to find joy in God. It’s an invitation, not to squash our desires to please God, but to redirect our desires towards the hope of dwelling in the presence of God himself, understanding that this really is our greatest good. Through this Psalm, God wants us to realise that there is no greater joy than dwelling with him, and so there is no happier life than one which is directed towards the hope of dwelling with him. Christianity isn’t a straight-jacket, and God isn’t a killjoy. God wants us to live with longing. He wants us to be full of desire. He just wants us to live with longing for lasting and real joy, rather than being distracted by superficial comforts that will inevitably disappoint or even hurt us. God wants us to live with longing for him.

 

Psalm 84 – Longing for God’s Presence

As you read through the Psalm, there are a couple of movements, or points being made, but they all really flesh out the same message – there is no greater good than being in the presence of God!

 

Longing to be in God’s temple (v1-4)

In the first section, verses 1-4, the psalmist declares his longing to be in the temple – the dwelling place of God. On the one hand he states his opinion: “how lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!” and “Blessed are those who dwell in your house – those who are ever praising you.” And between these statements is his own confession of longing and desire: “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.”

This guy REALLY wants to be at the temple! I don’t think romance novels even use more emotive or powerful language of longing. This is gut-wrenching, desperate longing.

It’s like an Ed Sheeran fan wanting to be at his concert with all their friends, but stuck at home, grounded by their parents. Or a lovesick 16-year-old separated from their crush. “My heart and my flesh cry out!”

The psalmist even pictures birds making their nest in parts of the temple building, near the alter of God, and is basically saying, “How lucky are they! I wish that was me!”

We’re all familiar with the feeling of longing to be somewhere else: Daydreaming about travelling or about a particular holiday destination; maybe even just longing to be home in the middle of a long day at work or in the middle of a class, or away from home in the middle of a long day with the kids! We know what it’s like to wistfully long to be somewhere, thinking ‘how good would that be!’

That’s how the Psalmist feels about the temple. Not because the stone walls are so nice or because the view is to die for. It’s because of what the temple represents – the presence of the LORD Almighty, his God and his King. The psalmist confesses a desperate longing to be in the presence of God. And this Psalm, right from the outset is confronting us with the objects of our wistful longing, suggesting to us that there might just be some-where, some-thing, some-one more worthy of our longing.

 

The blessing of pilgrimage (v5-7)

From verse 5, the Psalmist now shifts, or broadens, their focus to pronounce blessing over anyone who sets their heart on pilgrimage to go and worship God at the temple. The logic is, if being in the presence of God, if worshipping and praising in the temple courts is so good, then the next best thing has to be heading to the temple to do just that!

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage… They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.”

The Psalmist is picturing someone who understands that God is the source of their strength and that ultimately success in life depends on putting God at the centre, and so they make the journey to worship God in Jerusalem (on mount Zion) as the law of Moses calls them to.

Now as Christians reading this Psalm we know that the symbol of the temple has been replaced by the reality it represented. God himself came to dwell amongst us by taking on flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus Christ showed us just how good it is to be in God’s presence as he showered the blessings of life, healing and reconciliation around him wherever he went. And in the good news of Jesus, we proclaim both the blessing of God’s Spirit in our lives here and now and the hope of dwelling in the very presence of God in a renewed creation. We no longer need to travel to a particular mountain to worship God in a particular temple. As Jesus explains to the woman at the well in John’s gospel, the time has come when we worship in Spirit and truth. The body of Christ, the people of God, is the temple of God’s Holy Spirit.

And so, in some ways, there is a great difference between our situation and the context and ideas in this psalm. There is no particular blessing to be found by travelling to Jerusalem and praying around the ruins of the temple complex. Of course, many find it an encouraging experience and helps connect their faith with historical realities. But there’s a difference between a ‘spiritually enriching experience’ and blessing granted through pilgrimage to the dwelling place of God!

And yet, despite all the great differences, and the fulfilment of God’s promises already through Jesus, our situation is not so different in the end. The Christian life is still a journey towards a destination. The reality of experiencing God’s presence in Jesus is fulfilled ‘now’ by faith, but ‘not yet’ by sight. We journey through life as pilgrims, looking forward to the goal of ‘appearing before God in Zion’ – the heavenly Jerusalem.

 

And the psalmists’ real point here is there is great blessing in the journey itself!

As the pilgrim makes the journey, the Psalmist pictures blessing and joy falling on them along the way like autumn rains. “As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.” Commentators assume the Valley of Baka is a barren and dry place, largely because of the contrast with ‘making it a place of springs’ and the autumn rains covering it.

But did you notice it’s not just a picture of God blessing the pilgrim by sending rain? The pilgrim makes the valley a place of springs – not that it just becomes a place of springs conveniently as they happen to pass through. Have you heard the saying ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’? It’s kind of like that here – the valley is dry and the journey is difficult, but the pilgrim makes it a place of springs. And it’s all because of where they are headed. Their hearts are set on pilgrimage, their strength is in God, and so the journey is sweet, no matter how bitter or grim it appears on the surface to others. They find joy even in the difficulty of the journey.

 

Have you met people who talk and smile as if their life is full of blessing and good things, but in reality, things look pretty grim?

My grandparents lived a very simple life. They didn’t live in poverty, but it was far from luxury. And they both had to deal with some pretty difficult things over the course of their lives. But I always loved visiting them. I always felt happy at their place, because there was a spirit of contentment with life. There was a quiet joy in knowing Jesus and heading towards eternity with him that had nothing to do with their circumstances.

I think what this Psalm is trying to remind us of is that the more our hearts and minds are captured by the end goal of enjoying God and living in his presence, the more our present experience of life is transformed to actually be filled with joy. It’s not that God rewards us by giving us health and prosperity to make life comfortable and successful now… that’s what we call the ‘prosperity gospel’, and it’s a big lie. No, our hope, and our joy in that hope, transforms our experience of the present. It makes ‘the valley of Baka’ into a place of springs. You can live your life trying to chase joy, comfort and pleasure in your circumstances and achievements – but you’re likely to be disappointed and frustrated. Far better, God is saying, for your strength, your hope, your joy to be in Him, and to find a strength and joy that surpasses your circumstances.

 

A prayer for blessing (8-9)

Then we get to verses 8 and 9, which are the odd ones out in this Psalm. The rest of the psalm is statements of conviction – pronouncements about blessing in the presence of God. But suddenly here in these verses we have a request to God:

“Hear my prayer, LORD God Almighty; listen to me, God of Jacob. Look on our shield, O God; look with favour on your anointed one.”

The language of ‘our shield’ and ‘your anointed one’ indicate that he’s talking about the king. This is a prayer that God would look with favour on the king of Israel – either because the psalmist is the king himself, or because they see that God’s favour on the king means favour on the nation as a whole.

In and of itself, the request seems like a pretty vague prayer for God’s general blessing and favour on the king of Israel. But in the context of this Psalm, what greater favour can God show than bringing the king into his presence and keeping him there? It’s a prayer that recognises that this great blessing of being with God and experiencing the joy of the pilgrim who’s hopes and strength are firmly placed in God is something that God himself needs to grant.

Certainly, for us, as we respond to the encouragement to set our hearts and minds on the goal of God’s presence, journeying through life as faithful pilgrims, we know we need God’s help. Proclaiming the good of dwelling with God, encouraging each other to see that as our greatest good; it goes hand in hand with praying that God might look on his people with favour and grant us this great good.

 

Nothing else compares! (v10-12)

Finally, after this request, the psalmist returns in verses 10-12 to declare once again how much and why he wants to dwell in God’s place.

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

It’s a striking comparison and it makes the point loud and clear. This guy wants nothing more than to be near to God. Nothing else compares.

He’ll take whatever tiny crumb of God’s presence he can get over anything else. “I’ll take a day in your courts over a thousand anywhere else!” Really? Even over a thousand days lying on a beach in Bali? Even a thousand days in mansions overflowing with luxury? “Yep. Without hesitation. I’d trade it all for one day in God’s courts.” He would rather be a doorkeeper, or actually, the Hebrew words seems to indicate something even less dignified – someone lying near the doorway like a beggar; the psalmist would rather be an undignified beggar on the edges of God’s house than live comfortably in the tents of the wicked. Whatever he can get of God’s presence, he’ll take, at whatever sacrifice – nothing else compares.

Why? Because God’s there! His flesh and his heart cry out for his God! He lives with longing to be in God’s presence – to experience the goodness of his God. Everything else seems drab in comparison. Like a man or woman overseas for work, gazing at the incredible landscape and architecture of some foreign city, tasting the delights of their local cuisine… and just sighing and wishing they were home with their family. It’s about who you’re with in the end isn’t it? And this Psalm reminds us that who we really want to be with is the LORD God Almighty. Once we’ve grasped the wonder of life in his presence, everything else will seem drab.

The Psalmist goes on to explain that he’d give everything for a day in God’s courts because God is the source of all life, protection and blessing. “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favour and honour; no good thing does he withhold from those who walk is blameless.” He longs to be in the temple above all because he wants to be with God, and he wants to be with God because of who God is. God is life and safety, blessing and goodness.

And so, where else would he rather be? – not to have the stuff that God gives, but to be with the God who is the source of it all.

The Psalmist finishes then with a final declaration of blessing: “LORD Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.” How happy are those who direct the hopes and needs of their hearts towards God – who put their confidence in him – because he doesn’t disappoint.

 

Is enjoyment of God the goal of your life?

So, as I said at the beginning, the overall message of the Psalm is pretty clear – there is no greater good than being in the presence of God. And so the only reasonable response is to live with longing to be in the presence of God. We are to see our lives as a pilgrimage towards the end goal of enjoying God for who he is. And this hope, this orientation of our hearts affects us now – it affects our experience of the journey and our circumstances along the way.

This Psalm gives us a certain perspective on what it really means to be a Christian doesn’t it? It’s to be someone who has the enjoyment of God in Jesus Christ as the goal of their lives. A Christian is someone who has grasped that there is no greater good, no greater offer of joy, and so they’ve willingly sacrificed whatever stands in the way of enjoying this great good. God has offered himself to us in Jesus Christ and invites us to repent and find joy in him – not squash our desires and quest for joy, but to redirect it towards him. Is this you? Is enjoyment of God the goal of your life? Or are your desires still fixed on some-place, some-thing, some-one else?

 

Now it’s really important to distinguish this understanding of Christian faith from two common alternatives – two types of prosperity gospel.

One is the more obviously wrong distortion of the gospel that we typically mean when we talk about the ‘prosperity gospel’. It’s that rather self-absorbed approach to Christianity that sees God as a means of getting the life we want here and now. Certain preachers and churches will tell you that if you are faithful to God, especially by giving lots of money to the church, then God will honour that faithfulness by blessing you here and now with wealth, success and happiness. The more you give, the more you get! And of course, the opposite is true – if you’re experiencing tragedy and failure in life, then you mustn’t be trusting God enough or you’re holding back from God.

Hopefully you know this is wrong. You only have to look at Jesus, who was crucified horribly despite his faithfulness to God to see that there’s something terribly wrong with this approach to Christianity. If you come to church or pray to God to get the life you want from him now, so that he’ll bless your plans and ambitions and grant you success… then you’ve missed the point of Christianity. It’s about getting God himself – not success from God! It’s about being reconciled to God and welcomed into his presence for eternity, not using him as a genie to give you ‘your best life now’.

 

But this also points to a more subtle form of prosperity gospel – one that many more of us may be deceived by.

This version of Christian faith is still ultimately focused on securing what we want from God, but we just accept that we need to wait till the next life to receive it. Do you see the problem? Sure, we accept that being faithful to God doesn’t mean he will bless us here and now, but we’re still seeing God as a means to an end – the stuff we want from God, rather than seeing that God himself is the goal.

John Piper is a Christian writer and preacher who has been the most significant advocate in our time for the idea that God is most glorified in us when we find our joy in him – that this is what the Christian life is ultimately about. And he writes in his book ‘God is the gospel’: “the 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.”

Do you see the difference? Have you been seeing Jesus as a ticket out of hell and into heaven? Or have you seen Jesus as God giving himself to you – giving himself up on the cross so that we might be reconciled to him and enjoy him forever?

Another writer, Jimmy Needham, influenced by John Piper gives a helpful comparison with marriage. If you’re married, and you found out one day that your spouse only married you because they were afraid of being single, how would you feel? You’d feel insulted and used! They don’t want to be with you, they just used you to get something they wanted. If we think of Jesus simply as our ticket out of hell and into heaven, so that we can secure the life we want into eternity, then we’re missing the point of the gospel. We’re using Jesus, and we haven’t realised that the greatest good God offers us in Jesus is himself.

Is the enjoyment of God in Jesus the goal or your life? Or have you been using Jesus to get stuff from God – either here and now, or even in heaven?

 

What if it isn’t?

But what if you don’t have a very comfortable answer to that question? What if this Psalm really just seems to highlight your lack of joy in God? What do you do if you don’t long for God like this?

 

Remember emotions are part of a bigger picture

The first thing I want to say is remember that emotions are part of a bigger picture. We need to be clear what we mean by living with longing for God, and not confuse it just with our feelings.

Biblical faith – even when we talk about it as desire to be with God and the conviction that there is no greater good that God himself – biblical faith is a reality that involves our thinking, our feelings and desires, and our behaviour. Faith in God involves correct understanding and thinking about who God is and what he has revealed to us. And it involves attitudes, desires and emotional responses to this ‘correct thinking’ as the truths and ideas shape us deep down. And it involves actions, responses, decisions and behaviours that flow from our convictions and reshaped desires. And if your faith in Jesus only really involves one of these aspects, it’s not healthy – that’s not the way it’s meant to be. It’s not just correct theology, it’s not just feeling happy and excited when you’re singing to God, and it’s not just doing the right thing.

What this means is that faith in God as your greatest good will not just be a feeling. It can and should engage your emotions, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on what’s going on for you and where you’re at in the journey. But it is more than a feeling. It’s conviction, beliefs, attitudes, decisions and actions. It’s a whole life that is directed towards God as your greatest good, because your hope and your confidence is in him. And sometimes your body will react with gut-wrenching emotion to reinforce all this – and sometimes you’ll feel pretty empty. You don’t want to equate finding joy in God with mere feelings.

And it’s helpful to note the way this is reflected in the Psalm itself, even with its strong emphasis on longing and desire to be with God. The psalmist expresses convictions about the value and goodness of God as well as expressing overwhelming desire to be with him. He describes the pilgrim, determined to reach Zion, finding strength and contentment in God along the way. And finally, there’s the simple description of the one who trusts in God. The Psalm is spurring us on to a life that is directed towards God as our hope and joy – as our greatest good. It’s not telling us to have certain feelings all the time.

 

We can do things that help

But chances are, even with this more ‘rounded view’, that your life, your heart and mind, just like mine, is not characterised by the same convictions and longing that are expressed here in this Psalm. And we should take heed of the prod to reflect on that and take action. Because the truth is that whilst we can’t make ourselves long for God – we can’t just decide to be captivated by God’s goodness and treasure his presence above all else and experience it with a click of our fingers; whilst this is true, we can do things that will help. We can form habits, we can make decisions, and we can do things that help us grasp more and more the supreme value of Jesus Christ and to begin to long for life with him in his renewed creation. John Piper talks about this as ‘fighting for joy in God’ in his book When I don’t desire God – working hard, fighting even, to continue to put ourselves in a place where God’s Word and Spirit will work on our hearts and minds to be transformed.

I spoke about very similar ideas towards the end of last year – doing things that will help us embrace God’s agenda for our lives. However you talk about it and whatever labels you give it, basically we need to keep exposing our hearts and minds to the truth of God’s word, alongside other people who are doing exactly the same thing, and praying for God to reshape our convictions and desires around him. We need to do things that help us see how good God is.

It’s going to involve regularly reading God’s word and praying over it – on your own and with others. It’s meeting at church to sing and celebrate and acknowledge God’s goodness together. It’s meeting in each other’s homes to share burdens and talk through the difficult decisions that we face as we journey faithfully towards our heavenly home. It’s getting on with loving your neighbour because you know it honours God. It’s all sorts of things!

 

So if this Psalm has highlighted a problem with your desires and affections – if there’s more longing for the stuff of life than for God himself; don’t beat yourself up for not having the right feelings – take some action this year, this week even! – to help yourself see just how good God is and to cultivate a longing to be with him. Let’s keep encouraging each other to live with longing for the presence of our God.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that God doesn’t care about your desires – that he doesn’t want you to experience joy and fulfilment. He just wants you to know where to find it. He wants you to realise that there is no greater good, no greater joy, no greater goal more worthy of your life, than being in his presence.