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The joyful God and our life

"A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." These words from Gen. 17,22 has been chosen as main theme of this camp. During these days I want to analyze and unfold the meaning of this verse. Each day we won't study a single text as in a common Bible exposition. Instead I will give some kind of biblically based lectures. Today we will concentrate on the connection of body and soul and the results of science; then we will focus on God himself, and finally on the meaning of our human existence – "To enjoy him for ever". The next day we will turn to the 'darker’ side of life: joy and serving, joy and suffering and the longing for eternal life. And on Saturday we will turn to the challenges of modern culture – joy and "positive thinking".

Body and soul

Many verses in the book of Proverbs are describing a close connection between body and soul. "A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones", is said in 14,30, or "An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up" in 12,25 (see also 13,12; 18,14). The basic message is always that our inner self has an impact on our physical being.

The Bible gives us a good explanation of this connection. On the one side, a human being is a very complex creation. But next to this diversity there is also a fundamental wholeness: Man is a unity of body, heart and soul.

Heart mostly describes our whole inner world of feeling, thinking, willing, longing etc. It is the centre of human beings, the place where obedience, sin and faith are located. Thus it can be far from or close to God. The body is in no way less important. This is underlined by the future bodily resurrection of all people.

Especially in the OT the "soul" refers to this unity. Soul may be something in human beings, but more often it is simply us as a whole being (and sometimes could be simply translated "I"). In Gen. 2,7 we read, that man was created a "living being" (NIV), literally it is said "a living soul".

This is the background to the teaching of Proverbs which says that peace of mind leads to longer and healthier life. But this book, part of the OT wisdom literature, goes even further including a spiritual dimension. Keeping God's commandments leads to a good conscience, and finally results in health. In 4,20–22 it is said: "My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words. Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to a man's whole body."

So there is this psychosomatic connection. Yet we must not formulate too strict here as if a heart in peace or obedience always (or almost always) lead to good health. Obviously, this is not so. The Bible portrays many godly people who suffered, were in ill health and did not recover. Jesus made clear that not all suffering is rooted in disobedience (e.g., Jn 9,3). The truths in Biblical Wisdom literature are always describing a broad tendency, not a strict law. This means that in counselling we must be very careful in applying these principles.

Today these old truths, part of common human wisdom and of Proverbs expressed in non-technical language, are confirmed by science. I am just going to mention the placebo effect as an example of close relation between our inner, psychological life, and our bodily well-being, even healing.

During a common placebo treatment, a patient is given an inert "sugar pill" and told that the pill may improve his condition. The fact that the pill is inert is withheld from the patient. The intervention causes the patient to believe that the treatment will change health condition; this belief sometimes causes the patient's condition to change, a phenomenon known as the placebo effect.

This effect explains why every kind of medical or psychological attention can release self-healing powers of the body. Our imagination can induce a process which is as strong as medication. Some even say that the placebo effect is probably the most important agent in the process of healing (American cardiologist B. Olshansky estimates that the placebo effect contributes some 30–40 proc.).

The undoubted successes of modern surgery and pharmacology since the 19th century tempted us to forget that healing is very often due to psychological factors. The German magazine "Spiegel Spezial" (6/2007) even states that "most methods in the history of medicine were based on nothing else but the sheer power of suggestion".

The "power of suggestion" or the placebo effect – this is why just seeing pills has an effect on patients, and the bigger these are the better; taking them four time a day is better than just once or twice. Having an injection or an operation is much more effective, by itself, than a pill. Treating depression half of the final impact of drugs is due to the placebo effect.

The impact of our mind on our body makes homeopathy and acupuncture work. There is no molecular and physiological basis to explain the effectiveness of these treatments. But patients often strongly believe in them, and that makes up their healing-power.

All this may sound quite humbling for doctors and medics. But it just switches the focus a little – from the only emphasis on medication to the personal relation with the patient and his well-being as a whole person. A doctor has to induce hope, and this he can achieve by showing, first of all, empathy. It is proven, for example, that doctors who are intensively informing patients about medication and treatment need a smaller dose than those who superficially communicate with them. And this is, I guess, the homeopath's recipe of success. They are used to listen carefully to patients, take time; people are feeling being treated individually and personally.

A joyful God

So far non-believers probably more or less agree with me. But let's dig a little deeper now. Why is joy, this "cheerful heart", of any importance for us? Why is joy good? Why should we care for this joy? What is the basis for joy, all kinds of joy?

Joy is important and good for us because God himself is God of joy, and we are made in his image.

God delights in himself. He does whatever he pleases. Psalm 115,3 says, "Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him." In this sense we may say that God is selfish, he is always concerned with his glory, his joy. "For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another", he says in Isaiah 48,11. God always acts to preserve his maximum happiness. American pastor, theologian and author John Piper said: "We may be sure, therefore, that God is infinitely happy because he has absolute right and power as Creator to overcome every obstacle to his joy."

Who does God think he is? The center of his own universe? Yes. God is rightly self-centered. But we must not stop here. God has delight in his Son who is the image of that glory. When Jesus entered the world, God the Father said "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Mt 3,17). He called him "my chosen one in whom I delight" (Isa 42,1).

The Son was chosen with a purpose, the salvation of humans. Paul says in Eph 1,5, "he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will" (see also v 9). God shows mercy because he delights in it. In Jer 32,40–41 announcing the New Covenant it is said: "I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them the fear of me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul." (see also Jer 9,24) Jesus himself told his disciples: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom" (Lk 12,32). God does good to you because he enjoys it so much!

Yet we must not be naive. Got not only loves certain things. He hates wickedness (Ps 45,7), he "laughs at the wicked for he knows their day is coming" (Ps 37,13). With Ps 11,5.7 we can say that he loves only justice, and only upright men will see his face. God does not delight in but anything, he "delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love" (Ps 147,11).

God's happiness is the foundation of our Christian life because his happiness spills over in mercy to us. God delights in himself, and we are summoned: "Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps 37,4) But these our desires are not all the wishes we have or whatever we may enjoy. God has shown us what is good and doing it ought to bring us fulfilment. Blessed or happy, or joyful is the man whose "delight is in the law of the Lord" (Ps 1,2; see also 112,1; 119,16.35; Rom 7,22) Doing the will of God ought to bring us joy.

These are very fundamental thoughts. Let's think for a moment about alternatives. Piper is asking rhetorically:
"Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy? What if God were given to grumbling and pouting and depression like some Jack-and-the-beanstalk giant in the sky? What if God were despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected and frustrated? Could we join David and say, 'O God, thou art my God, I seek thee, my soul thirsts for thee; my flesh faints for thee, as in a dry and weary land where no water is’ (Psalm 63:1)?"

We also have to keep in mind that the gods of ancient religions were very different from the one portrayed in the Bible. In Greece and Rom it was not assumed that the gods really cared about humans, it was taught that gods could not and do feel love for mere humans. Classical mythology abounds in stories in which the gods do wicked things to humans – often 'just for fun'. They did not delight in themselves, they were unpredictable, often cruel, always much too human-like. Only Jews and Christians were preaching a different God, the centre of the universe, and the only one in which we can really put trust and can hope.

"To enjoy him for ever"

There are many perspectives from which we can take a view onto the whole Christian life, these could be faith, or worship, or obedience. We can also choose joy. Right in the first question the reformed Westminster Shorter Catechism says: "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever".

To enjoy God – this is what we are made for. Yet, after the Fall and the separation from God, man is an unsatisfied being, one who is driven to look after something that is missing in his life. Now human beings are desperately seeking happiness. B. Pascal even said that "this is the motive of every action of every man." The French philosopher in his "Pensees":

"What is it then that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings... But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself."

Or with the famous words of Augustine in his "Confessions": "You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You." (see also Ecc 3,11 or Ps 63,1)

Man is incomplete without the God of joy. But the good news is that God took initiative to change this. C.S. Lewis told us in his autobiography about flashes of "joy" – an unfulfilled longing, not happiness and not pleasure. These glimpses of joy were showing to him, still non-believer, that ultimate satisfaction is somewhere else to find. And they gave the assurance that this desire is for something real, not an illusion. In retrospective he described these as signposts to God.

Thus for Lewis "joy" is an experience pointing to the Ultimate, and at the same time God himself. His book is called "Surprised by Joy" – the joyful God himself was surprising him, sending these glimpses. He was after Lewis. We can see Lewis' genius in combining this theme of joy with the almost violent one of a hunt. For some time before his conversion Lewis was aware that God was hunting him. Through the whole book we find spread out metaphors like God as the great angler, the cat chasing the mouse, a pack of dogs chasing for the fox, the divine chess-player (chapter 14 – "Checkmate"). Therefore Lewis called himself "the most reluctant convert in all England".

Lewis captured an important truth. If we are really dead in sins, it has to be God to change this. It has to be first of all him who is looking after us; if we are longing for God, it is because God is already longing for us; if we love God, it is because he loved us first (1 Jn 4,19). And in Lewis' Third Narnia Chronicle Edmund is asked "Do you know Aslan?", to which this replies "Well – he knows me." And in John Newton's great hymn Amazing Grace one line says "I once was lost but now am [not have!] found".

We are, as non-regenerate, dead in sins, and that also means foolish. God has to open non-believers' eyes to comprehend that faith is good for us, that it fits well to our being and nature, that there is a benefit for us. The Bible combines both aspects: we are there for God's sake, for his glory, to worship and obey him; and we benefit from all this, too. We do not disappear or become unimportant.

Paul says in Eph 6,8: "the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does". And Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount to the disciples: "great is your reward in heaven", and "Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them... Then you reward will be great..." (Lk 6, 23.35)

This theme of reward runs through the whole Bible. The OT stresses more the benefits on this earth: "Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones" (Prov 3,7–8); "Humility and the fear of the Lord bring wealth and honour, and life" (Prov 22,4); "Do what is right and good in the Lord's sight, so that it may go well with you..." (Dt 6,18); be obedient to the precepts of the "Book of the Law", "Then you will be prosperous and successful" (Jos 1,8).

Again, there is no strict scientific law between obedience and success (we will see that the positive thinking authors are stressing this scientific aspect); and, of course, there is nowhere in verses of this kind justification through works. The main thought is simply that living under God and his commands is good for us, good in every sense.

To conclude this talk, I am going to mention two things we have to do. First, to our non-Christian culture we should stress that only glorification of God brings us this ultimate enjoyment. Everyone longs for happiness. And it is not wise to encourage people to deny or repress that desire. Their problem is not that they want to be satisfied, but that they are far too easily satisfied. We have to instruct them how to satisfy their soul-hunger with the grace of God. And that all the exhortations, commands, truths of the Bible have a very positive goal: they are given for our benefit and well-being.

Christianity is often perceived as something restricting, humility as something suppressing our natural desires. It is true that our Christian life is a fight, and we are constantly struggling with our old, sinful nature. But C.S. Lewis was right too: "It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can." Puritan theologian and preacher Jonathan Edwards said in his "Resolutions" (1723), and this is what Lewis certainly had in mind: "to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can".

Therefore it is important to remind ourselves and our fellow Christians that we have to strive for joy in all aspects of our life. This is of great significance in ethics. The Bible clearly teaches that we have to do the good thing joyfully, with all our heart. Paul, for example, in Rom 12,8: "Let him who does acts of mercy do them with cheerfulness". German philosopher Immanuel Kant thought different. He was probably the most powerful exponent of the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is "disinterested". We should do the good because it is good. Any other motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act.

It is true that we should do the good also because of its goodness. There is moral obligation to obey, to act according to God's law – just because he is God. We can agree with Kant that duty is an important aspect of morality. But duty only for duties sake goes beyond that, and it's not biblical. Totally disinterested morality is impossible; and it is undesirable. Kant loves a disinterested giver. God loves a cheerful giver (see 2 Cor 9,7). Disinterested performance of duty displeases God. He wills that we delight in doing good.

Based on a lecture given at the Baltic Christian medical students summer camp, Aukštadvaris, July 15-19th.