The Personal Narrative of Jonathan Edwards - Part XII
“Sometimes, only mentioning a single word caused my heart to burn within me; or only seeing the name of Christ, or the name of some attribute of God. And God has appeared glorious to me, on account of the Trinity. It has made me have exalting thoughts of God, that he subsists in three persons; Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel. When I enjoy this sweetness, it seems to carry me above the thoughts of my own estate. It seems at such times a loss that I cannot bear, to take off my eye from the glorious, pleasant object I behold without me, to turn my eye in upon myself, and my own good estate.”
I want to focus on the second half of this remarkable paragraph. Let me begin with this statement: “The sweetest joys and delights I have experienced have not been those that have arisen from a hope of my own good estate; but in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel.”
I often tell people that I’m a “Hedonist” because I believe it is impossible to desire pleasure too much. But I’m a “Christian Hedonist” because I believe the pleasure we cannot desire too much is pleasure in God and all that he is for us in Jesus. Edwards, contrary to what some have alleged, was undeniably a Christian Hedonist! He was unavoidably passionate about his own joy and delight and pleasure. By the way, so are you. But note well: the sweetest joys and delights that Edwards experienced did not arise from a hope that his “own good estate” would improve. His “happiness”, if I am allowed to use that word, was not suspended on the potential for an increase of wealth or personal comfort or the praise of his peers or physical health or any such thing.
When we are asked, “How are you doing?” we typically respond based on the condition of our “own good estate.” That is, we take stock of our stocks, we consider our cash flow, we evaluate a variety of external and physical circumstances that seem to define our lives, and then respond accordingly. Edwards is echoing Asaph in Psalm 73:25 – “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” That’s an easy text to recite until the “things” on earth that we just declared we don’t desire suddenly disappear or are stolen or disintegrate or elude our grasp. That’s when we get honest and confess, “O.K., I’m sorry God, but there are a few things I desire besides you. I like you, God, but I find that I like you more when those things I said I didn’t desire are affordable and easy to come by.”
Can we honestly say that the “glorious things of the gospel” (by which I think Edwards primarily means God himself as he is revealed in the face of Jesus) are the source of our “sweetest joys and delights”? Or is our capacity to enjoy the glorious things of the gospel suspended on the improvement of our “own good estate”?
Edwards continues by saying, “When I enjoy this sweetness, it seems to carry me above the thoughts of my own estate.” This is what the Puritans referred to as the “expulsive” power of a new affection. Edwards declares that the enjoyment of God is so sweet, so satisfying, so utterly transcendent that “thoughts” of his “own estate” are left behind and below. The fear of losing the conveniences that would enhance his “own estate” is trumped by the joy and sweetness and pleasure that can be found in God’s presence, at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). The power to live unaffected by financial loss or physical pain comes not from denying the hunger in your soul for pleasure but from finding the fulfillment of such craving in the glory and beauty and presence of God (what the author of Hebrews referred to as a “better” and “abiding possession” [10:34])!
This is why Paul could declare that he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). He wasn’t anesthetized to earthly pain or disappointment, but neither was he enslaved to it. He was fully in touch with the reality of “wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16) and the inescapable “affliction” (2 Cor. 4:17) that awaits us in this life. But he did “not lose heart” (2 Cor. 4:16) because his hope was fixed on “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). This hope is fueled and energized when “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18), or as Edwards put it, when we engage our souls “in a direct view of the glorious things of the gospel.”
Finally, “It seems at such times a loss that I cannot bear,” said Edwards, “to take off my eye from the glorious, pleasant object I behold without me, to turn my eye in upon myself, and my own good estate.”
That “glorious, pleasant object” beyond ourselves is, of course, God! How painful, said Edwards, how unbearable the loss, when I turn my eye in upon myself and become obsessed with “my own good estate,” whether that be the image I behold in a mirror or the diversity of an investment portfolio or whatever it is in life in the absence of which I cannot imagine being happy. Just think of it: being of such a mind that the only unbearable loss you can conceive is in failing to “see” the splendor and majesty of God in Christ!