A review of John Piper’s book, When I Don’t Desire God, How to Fight for Joy
I was confused when I started reading this book. I had heard of John Piper but did not know anything about him, his teaching, or his books. So, I did not make it through the first sentence before having to stop and look up the term “Christian Hedonism”. This was startling because I had been a Christian and Bible student for decades, but none of the pastors or teachers I had listened to used that term. In my experience the word “hedonism”, though rarely encountered, was always used in a negative sense, so adding “Christian” in front of it was a big leap that was required to understand the first chapter titled, “Why I Wrote the Book”.
Piper also addressed difficulty and sacrifice, neither of which are associated with hedonism at all. That did not help my confusion. However, I did like his reference to historical Christian leaders such as Johnathan Edwards and Saint Augustine who discussed the joy that his book is about.
Chapters two and following made sense to me, it was just the beginning of a book that did not. Therefore, if you are new to John Piper, as I was, I’d recommend starting with one of his earlier foundational books, or starring with chapter two of When I don’t Desire God.
The basis of the book is that since “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him” we should pursue joy in God. (p13) However, when we don’t feel like it because of circumstances, we still need to fight for joy because the Lord told us to and it’s vital to the Christian life.
While we pursue joy in the Lord, Piper correctly drove home the point that “God and God alone is the final, ultimate goal of our quest” (p. 31) not just happiness for the sake of being happy. It is easy and natural to delight in the things of earth, and there is a danger that people could like God’s blessings more than God Himself. Therefore, Piper says it is vital to fight for joy and delight in the Lord. If we don’t learn to joy in God Himself, when suffering comes, we will lose faith. Sadly, this “frail faith” has become a great tragedy in the western church. (p.37) So, Piper’s book is to help us develop the faith described in James 1:12, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
So how does one fight for joy in God? Piper commends several disciplines and tactics including looking at life from a spiritual perspective as the Apostle Paul described with “the eyes of your heart.” (Ephesians 1:17) Our enemy wants to blind us to the glory of God and thus steal our joy. We must fight against that using God’s Word. “The fundamental reason that the word of God is essential to joy in God is that God reveals Himself mainly by His Word.” (p.95) Therefore, reading, studying, memorizing, and sharing the Bible is the key to the fight. God’s Word gives us the spiritual perspective and eternal outlook necessary to overcome the temporary problems and circumstances of Earth that are against us.
Piper also commended prayer as the other key to joy in God. He called readers to think, do we pray for spiritual things or only about are earthly concerns? The psalmist prayed for joy. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (Psalm 90:14) Early Christians prayed to comprehend the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:14,18) and that the lost would be saved (Romans 10:1). Such prayers impact our perspective and posture for joy. Readers will find it helpful that Piper also gave tips to make time in God’s Word and in prayer meaningful and not boring or repetitive.
It was interesting that Piper made the case that our bodies and its five senses should help us joy in the Lord. He cited, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1) Creation is designed to point us to the Creator so we can joy in Him! “For you O Lord have made me glad by your work: at the work of your hands I will sing for joy.” (Psalm 92:4) This is not singing to the creation, but singing to God for joy at what He has given – to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.
The final chapter of the bookis titled “When Darkness Does Not Lift”. It reminded readers of the fact that Christians can have seasons of no joy and even long seasons of darkness. Piper correctly pointed out that there can be either or both spiritual and or physical causes to times of darkness because both body and spirit are linked. So, people should not discount brain problems and the usefulness of medicine. However, it not wise to assume that medicine alone can cure depression.
While waiting for darkness to lift, we must not put faith in self or lose hope and doubt – that will only make it worse. “It is utterly crucial that in our darkness we affirm the wise, strong hand of God to hold us, even when we have no strength to hold Him.” (p. 316 and 2 Corinthians 1:9) Piper also advised that, while waiting we must not sit still, but do what we can to joy in the Lord. Serving and loving people as we are commanded can help take our mind off our problems and bring joy to us and others. (Isaiah 58:10-11)
I would recommend this book for Christians who have lost their spiritual drive or excitement and those who are struggling in a season of darkness. Piper’s reminders, insights, and admonitions point readers in the direction of joy in God and encourage us along the way. Books like this are needed because joy doesn’t just happen, like happiness. It takes work but the effort is very worthwhile.
About the Author: John Piper is a teacher and founder of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College and Seminary. He served for 33 years as senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis and is the author of more than 50 books.