According to 1 John 1:4, the very goal of the gospel of the covenant of grace is that we may experience the fullness of joy. It is certainly our prayer as pastors that you yourselves live in the consciousness of the joy of your relationship with our covenant God in Jesus Christ.
In the light of Psalm 43 we are given to see that this exceeding joy is ours even in darkness. This is an important perspective. It addresses the struggle of our own experience. Trials seem to us the threat that would remove joy from us. Yet the Holy Spirit through James tells us to consider even our trails “all joy.” How does that come to expression? Psalm 43 gives confession to my exceeding joy—even in darkness.
The psalmist identifies God as his exceeding joy (verse 4).
It is important that we immediately notice that, because you and I quite stupidly seek our joy elsewhere. Almost without thought we find ourselves seeking our joy in earthly things, earthly activities, and earthly relationships. We can take those things that in themselves are good gifts of God and make them idols. We could mention money, toys, entertainment, friends, sex, wine, food—you get the idea—all of which are good gifts of God when used for the purpose for which he gave them. But any one of them can become a snare to the soul when we give them a place never intended by God.
So we easily move from one idol to another.
To have friends—it doesn’t matter what we have to do to keep them—that promises to be the source of joy.
Then comes work, and money becomes a focus.
And if you are old enough to drink, what place is that going to occupy? For some, that drinking becomes slavery to an idol.
The culture that we live in today is overtly sexual. The Bible speaks openly about sex as a precious gift of God to his people from the beginning. But that precious gift of God was so special that it was given solely for marriage, and that between one man and one woman for life. Today we are told that sex is for anyone to indulge in. After all, if you’re going to be happy, you have to do what makes you feel happy. Not only are we told that sex is the source of joy, it’s “in your face” promoted as a necessary part of a happy life. And it doesn’t even have to be for marriage. In fact, it can be for yourself as you sit before the computer screen or your smart phone.
The Bible talks about the pleasures of sin. There’s a recognition that sin satisfies a certain lust for pleasure. But the Bible also makes very clear that if you are looking for those sinful pleasures to provide you a life of joy, of happiness, you are going to be devastated by the disappointment, because the pleasures of sin are only for a season. Then what? That’s the problem with idols, you see. It doesn’t matter what form an idol takes. It promises to give you what you want, to make you feel good, to give you happiness, maybe even to help you cope. But the promises turn out to be big lies. Deception is never going to lead you to joy.
The psalmist prays, “O send out thy light and thy truth: let them lead me; let them bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy tabernacles. Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.”
God is the identity of our joy, yes, our exceeding joy. While deception will never lead us to joy, God’s light and truth will. For there is only one joy, that found in God himself and in the fellowship of his own covenant life as the triune God.
Probably the most astounding aspect of the Christian religion is the wonder of God choosing to take a people into the joy of his own covenant life. That’s the heart of the gospel!
To live in the fellowship of God, as partakers of his covenant life, is alone our exceeding joy (1 John 1:3–4).
That’s what the psalmist is speaking about. Do you know something about that? Are you growing in the consciousness of that? Without that all is vanity. Life is empty without the joy of living in the consciousness of the fellowship of God in Jesus Christ. You must know that. But we also have to grow in our consciousness of that wonder and of that joy. Because as is also evident from this psalm, we live facing a multitude of threats to our joy, and Satan would like nothing better than to obstruct our sight of that wonder and to lead us in a pathway that brings us to despair.
The psalmist himself speaks of matters in his own life that threatened his joy, that obstructed his sight of God’s fellowship and favor.
It is thought that David wrote these psalms during his flight from Absalom, his own son. David therefore was cut off from the sanctuary of God and the fellowship with Jehovah that at that time centered in the tabernacle. But the occasion for that disruption was certainly found in the attacks upon his faith.
The psalmist had enemies, and not just a few either. It may well have been Absalom leading the pack. But when you look at verse 1, David asks of God, “Judge me, O God, and plead my cause against an ungodly nation.” Considering that David was God’s chosen king, the very type of the Messiah, their rejection of David was the rejection of Christ. It was apostasy. And as always has been the case, where there is apostasy, there is deepest hatred for the church.
If you have ever been misrepresented, been slandered, had your motives falsely judged, then you know of what David speaks. We certainly do as churches. And we have to expect that. Not only that, but you know as well as I that if someone wants to find something to criticize, a reason to hate, they don’t have to look very hard. The sins in our midst are many.
The same is true in the broader Christian church. A powerful evidence of the increasing hatred toward Christianity in our own country can be seen if you read any news articles online and just glance at the “Comments” section that often follows those news articles. Christians are being blamed for just about every heinous sin and every social problem seen in this country. When you are slandered, when you see the name of your God defiled, don’t you find that a disruption of the joy of your life? David did.
In addition, when we think about that which threatens our joy, we certainly have to consider our own infirmities. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that in that brief period of time that we live in the strength of youth. But even the strength of youth is no guarantee that you won’t face affliction and serious trial in your own life or that of a loved one. That’s part of life, even as Christians. But Satan would use those things to obscure our sight of the glory of God and the riches of our joy of living in the fellowship of his love.
Then there are the sins that mar our lives, which rob us of the joy of the gospel. We know that God cannot have fellowship with those who walk in sin. And while the gospel would point us to Christ, our righteousness, who himself paid the debt of our guilt and sin, we still stumble and fall. And those sins that we commit remove from us the consciousness of God’s favor. And God forbid, should we walk in sin, impenitent, clinging to whatever idol we insist on worshiping, we can only experience what David himself experienced during the course of his life when he had been ensnared in an impenitent walk. He would later write about it in Psalm 32: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer.” No peace, no joy, because no fellowship with him who alone is our joy. Yes, there are many threats to our joy.
But the chief threat is our own perspective, improperly colored by our own sinful nature.
That too is clearly faced in Psalm 43. The psalmist gives expression to the struggle of his own soul. He relies on the God of his salvation, confessing, “For thou art the God of my strength.” But in the very next phrase he calls into question God’s faithfulness. “Why dost thou cast me off?”
Do you think God doesn’t know your needs, your struggles? Read the psalms. The Holy Spirit inspired them as God’s word to us in answer to our needs and struggles. Have you sometimes felt like God is far away? Don’t think you are alone in that.
It is important to see here, though, that even in his struggle David is being upheld by the tender mercies of God and his almighty hand. That is true with you and me as well.
But that struggle is a matter of our own perspective nevertheless. We want things to go “our way.” And when we face disruptions to that way that we determine is our way, our faith is tried. We want God to show us that our way is right. “Take away the trial; remove the enemy; deliver me from this problem.”
But God reminds us and would have us remember that he is God. He’s not there to give us whatever we ask for. He’s not there to show us that our way is the right way. He will answer us according to his will, because he knows in perfect wisdom what the best way is for us and how to accomplish his perfect purpose in our lives and for our salvation. We tend to mope in our own self-pity, rather than fixing our eyes upon the wonder who is God our Savior.
So David needed to be drawn to the strength of his joy. That’s true for you and me too.
By the Spirit’s work in him, David asked that God lead him, not out of his oppression, but to God’s holy tabernacle. What he needed for the restoration of joy was the fellowship of his God.
That’s true for us too in the trials that are ours. We might express to God our desire for a change of circumstances. But we have to realize that joy does not come by the change of our circumstances, but by living in the fellowship of God, our exceeding joy.
To live in that joy we have to be led by God’s light and his truth.
Our perspective has to be changed from the earthly, naturally self-centered focus that is ours to one that focuses on the wonder that God has taken us in Jesus Christ into the tabernacle of his own covenant life and love. God’s light and truth, applied by the Holy Spirit, alone change us and our spiritual perspective. God’s light and his truth alone are able to lead us into God’s holy hill, into the spiritual consciousness of what it is to live in the fellowship of God.
“Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy.” That altar pointed God’s people to Christ, to the cleansing of their sins by the shed blood of the sacrifice. Only by our sins being taken away, covered by Christ’s blood, do we have that fellowship with the Holy One. By God’s light and truth leading us to Christ, we are given to see the wonder, the absolutely amazing wonder, that God has taken us with all our sinfulness, with all our struggles, with all our weaknesses, with all our afflictions, with all our sorrows—God has taken us and has said, “You are mine. I have loved you with an incomparable love. I have cleansed you. I am sanctifying you. I am leading you to joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Stand in awe before the wonder. “I belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Is that your confession? Then you will see in God himself your exceeding joy — even in darkness. And you will be able to say, “For I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.”
This article is an abridged version of a speech given at the Colorado Young Adults Retreat, March 16, 2016, the theme text of which was Psalm 118:24