Life + Culture

Three Disciplines of a Happy Christian Leader: Learning from the Theologian of Joy

Three Disciplines of a Happy Christian Leader

During a particularly stressful period of pastoral ministry, I began to more intentionally seek out joy in God as the dire remedy for my own frayed and threadbare heart.

I had diagnosed myself as markedly joy-deficient when I searched for evidence of the fruit of the Spirit in my life (Galatians 5:22). At age 35, leading a midsize Presbyterian church was already wearing me out. I became stressed at home and frustrated in the office. My coworkers could see it on my face. I needed a deeper source of joy than the world could give, despite its barrage of empty-promise advertisements and panaceas.

So, for nearly three years, I plunged headlong into a deep study on eternal happiness from the theologian of joy, Jonathan Edwards. I surveyed large swaths of his major works and personal writings, mining for gladdening gold.

In my study, I learned at least three methods for maintaining joy in God that Edwards practiced in his own life amid the relentless trials and strains of pastoral ministry. Although most Christians are already familiar with these methods, I discovered that studying the writings of a pastor-theologian from a different historical context opened my eyes for seeing well-worn paths in new ways. The means of grace discussed below are not new or innovative concepts, but rather the ancient paths reinvigorated by considering them afresh through the lens of a joy-absorbed sage.

Creation: God’s Beauty on Display

First, Edwards rejoiced in the natural world and the beauty of creation. Edwards saw a strong connection between beauty and joy. Both beauty and joy are to be found in the “excellencies” of God’s nature, by which Edwards meant the praiseworthy attributes of his essential being. These include God’s holiness, love, power, mercy, and righteousness, just to name a few.

One of the ways that Edwards savored the excellencies and beauties of God was through engaging with, and enjoying, his natural creation. For Edwards, being in and among the creatures in the natural realm stirred his affections for God’s creative power and beauty, in turn stoking the fires of joy in his heart.

Edwards in the Woods

In his Personal Narrative, Edwards described what may have been the most ecstatic experience of his life, a vision of Jesus that he beheld in the woods when riding his horse:

Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health . . . as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer; I had a view, that for me was quite extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God; as mediator between God and man; and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension . . . which continued, as near as I can judge about an hour; which kept me, the bigger part of the time, in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:801)

Although Edwards was constantly in his study and among his books, he also greatly treasured the outdoors and drank in the beauty of God’s created world whenever possible. He drew upon natural themes for his sermon illustrations, and spoke often of the light of the sun, the taste of honey, water from spring fountains, and the like. Just as John Calvin wrote in the Institutes, Edwards saw the universe as the beautiful “theater” of God’s glory (1.6.3).

Walk Out of the Study

One of the very practical things that I learned from Edwards is to see vestiges of the gospel in the creation itself. In his notebook on Images (or Shadows) of Divine Things, Edwards constantly peered through creation to see the gospel everywhere around him.

For Edwards, “roses upon briers” are a type of Christ’s glory (the flower) wrought by suffering (thorns). In lightning, he saw a type of the wrath of God, threatening judgment. The rising and setting of the sun he viewed as a type of the death and resurrection of Christ. Even in the lowly silkworm, Edwards saw a type of Christ’s righteousness given to men (the silk) through the suffering and humiliation of Christ (the lowly worm). We too can begin to make these types of observations.

Almost every pastor or Christian leader would do well to spend more time in nature. We could start, for example, by using a day each month to take an intentional prayer walk through a local park, or even by doing some simple gardening in our own yard. I recently listened to the story of another pastor in my city who took a four-week sabbatical, not to study or write in a library, but to spend eight hours a day among the trees in a nearby nature preserve, thinking and praying. He came back refreshed and renewed for his third decade of ministry. At the very least, pastors could make it a regular practice to journal about spiritual insights gleaned from nature and creation in a journal similar to Edwards’s Images of Divine Things notebook.

Scripture: Window to Glory

Second, Edwards rejoiced in the study of Scripture. Edwards saw the glory of eternal joy not only in natural revelation (creation) but also in special revelation (the word of God). Edwards is practically famous for his long thirteen-hour days in the study, surrounded by his books and Bible texts.

Edwards with His Bible

The Holy Scripture itself was an undeniable and unequaled source of divine joy for Edwards. He writes, “How little do most persons consider how much they enjoy in that they have the possession of that holy Book the Bible which they have in their hearts and which they may converse with as they please” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 104).

Once, Edwards preached to the Mahican Indians that “God gave his Word for the sake of men, for their happiness” (Edwards on the Christian Life, 111). This is true for Edwards, because the Bible contains the message of Christ, the purest source of real joy for the believer. The Bible is the window through which the glory of Christ is perceived. Tellingly, he wrote, “This course of employ in my study . . . [has] been the chief entertainment and delight of my life” (A Jonathan Edwards Reader, 322).

Linger in the Book

A couple practices that I have lifted directly from Edwards himself is in beginning my own “Miscellanies” notebooks, as well as my own Blank Bible. In his “Miscellanies” system, Edwards began to categorically compile a large system of general observations on theology and doctrine as well as other pertinent thoughts on human life, philosophy, and ethics, titled and cross-referenced for later recollection and study. Edwards’s system of miscellaneous thoughts grew to over 1,400 in number, all classified and organized by subject heading. Although my own approach is far from perfect, I have begun to formulate a similar notation and observation system, greatly advancing my joy of the study of God’s word.

More than that, I also acquired an interleaved Bible with a blank leaf between each page of text, again directly modeled after Edwards. I use this interleaved Bible to record brief observations on the words and phrases of Scripture, creating what I hope will be a lifelong system of observations and textual analysis. I am convinced that Edwards rejoiced in Scripture study precisely because it was a lifelong obsession with the most gladdening subject matter, the glory of God in the gospel.

As a pastor, these kinds of organized note-taking systems for collecting thoughts on Scripture and theology not only increase my joy in studying God’s word more deeply now, but they also will pay off in the future. Since stress is one of the primary joy-killers in ministry, then reducing the stress of relentless sermon preparation over the long haul is a worthy end. The short time I expend to take notes in my miscellanies journals and interleaved Bible in the present will one day pay me back in dividends of delight in future sermon and lesson planning.

Fellowship: Where Earth Is Most Like Heaven

Third, Edwards rejoiced in the body of Christ, the fellowship of the church. We would certainly be mistaking Edwards’s views on joy if we were to think of these pursuits as individualistic. Edwards himself loved the local church and saw it as the matrix of Christian joy, celebrated corporately. He wrote once, “Union is one of the most amiable things, that pertains to human society; yea, ’tis one of the most beautiful and happy things on earth, which indeed makes earth most like heaven” (God’s Grand Design, 170).

Edwards with God’s People

Edwards understood the brutal realities of life, that one’s pilgrimage of faith could be difficult and lonely. Therefore, he said,

Let Christians help one another in going this journey. There are many ways that Christians might greatly help and forward one another in their way to heaven: by religious conference and otherwise. . . . This is the way to be more successful in traveling and to have the more joyful meeting at their Father’s house in glory. (God’s Grand Design, 175)

Of particular importance to Edwards was the sacrament of Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. Edwards held a very high view of the Lord’s Table, seeing it as the place where Christians meet their Lord in covenant renewal, and get a glimpse of joy on earth as it is beheld in heaven. Very early on in his career, he preached on the joy to be had at the Lord’s Supper: “In that ordinance, we may have the foretaste of that eternal feast with Christ in glory. That spiritual food is afforded us in the Lord’s Supper and is given to the worthy partakers as a foretaste and earnest of that future happiness” (God’s Grand Design, 157).

Prepare for the Table

My study of Edwards makes me concerned that many may approach the Table far too casually today. We saunter into the sanctuary and are almost surprised by the presence of the prepared elements: “Oh yeah, I guess it’s the first Sunday of the month again. Today’s service will be fifteen minutes longer I suppose.” For Edwards and the Puritans, the Lord’s Supper was a banquet to be longed for. The heart was to be prepared in advance. The individual Christian, as well as his family, was to be made ready in advance for an encounter with Christ.

For this reason, I have cultivated the habit of reading question 171 of the Westminster Catechism with my family on the eve of Communion Sunday as part of our family devotions. In addition, the elders and I have been more purposeful about announcing the Communion service a week in advance, suggesting devotional content for our people to consider before coming to the Table.

We remember, of course, the old adage that influencing people is as much about what is caught as what is taught. This is true for pastors, their congregations, and the Lord’s Supper. Our people must sense that this event is special for us as ministers, that we personally long for the delights of the Table, that for us this sacrament (or ordinance) is the very place where we meet with our Lord in covenantal renewal. If I treat this Supper casually, or matter-of-factly, my people will sense that over time. It is not a mere routine. It is an encounter with Christ, and it should be anticipated and rejoiced in every time God’s people gather around his banquet table. The joy of Communion can be seen in the pastor’s eyes by his own people.

Resolved: To Be Happy

My stress and exhaustion as a now 42-year-old pastor have not fully gone away since I started studying the works of Edwards. But through a study of his theology of joy, I have acquired more tools by which to pursue holy happiness. For this, I am deeply grateful.

Christian joy, Edwards taught me in his twenty-second resolution, is to be a lifelong pursuit. As a 19-year-old, he wrote, “Resolved, to endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness, in the other world, as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 16:754). Would that we too could make this resolution our own.

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