I love, respect and appreciate the ministry of John Piper. I have learned a great deal through his teaching and am convinced that I will continue to do so in the years ahead. Much of what Piper has taught has resounded deeply within my soul and has helped shape and mold my faith. Yet despite all of this, I find his books difficult to read and truthfully, often finding reading them to be something of a chore. I don’t really understand it. Still, because I have always benefitted from reading his books, I do try to read new ones as they are released.
Yesterday, after seeing it on my shelf for the better part of a year (first in pre-release and now in a printed copy), I decided I would read God Is The Gospel (perhaps because we are moving this week and it is one of the few books that has escaped my wife’s attempt to corral and contain my entire library in cardboard boxes). I was only a few pages into the book when I found a passage, a question, that left me nearly undone. Piper is discussing the gospel and the full message it contains. He asks about heaven:
The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?
That question led me to put down the book and to spend a few moments in self-examination. I had to admit, to my great shame, that there are many times in my life where I feel that I could be perfectly content to consider a Christless heaven—a heaven that did not include the one who purchased my redemption so that I could be there in the first place.
This took me back to the very first page of God Is The Gospel. There Piper, having challenged the reader to understand that “The best and final gift of the gospel is that we gain Christ,” says, “In place of this, we have turned the love of God and the gospel of Christ into a divine endorsement of our delight in many lesser things, especially the delight in our being made much of.” Of all the gifts God offers, I continue to embrace the love of God as the gift of everything but Himself. I have a faulty understanding of what it means to be loved. “Our fatal error is believing that wanting to be happy means wanting to be made much of. It feels so good to be affirmed. But the good feeling is finally rooted in the worth of self, not the worth of God. This path to happiness is an illusion.”
And he is right. And so we return to the question: If I could have a heaven that was built around all I wanted and all I loved and all I desired at my weaker moments, would this satisfy me? I know in my heart of hearts that it would not, for I know that it would not be heaven if Christ were not present. But in my day-to-day life, I know that I often consider heaven as being a place where what is most important to me is what is most important to me here on earth. This would be true, if only Christ were always foremost in my thoughts here and now.
Piper challenges Christian leaders:
Do we preach and teach and lead in such a way that people are prepared to hear that question and answer with a resounding No? How do we understand the gospel and the love of God? Have we shifted with the world from God’s love as the gift of himself to God’s love as the gift of a mirror in which we like what we see? Have we presented the gospel in such a way that the gift of the glory of God in the face of Christ is marginal rather than central and ultimate?
In heaven it will be Christ Himself, not His gifts, that are the supreme pleasure. This makes our culture’s obsession with heaven all the more ridiculous. Surveys of North Americans continue to show that most people want to go to heaven and most feel that they indeed will go to heaven. Yet the vast majority of those surveyed are not Christians. Why would a person want to go to heaven if the ultimate pleasure of heaven is a person they hate or deny? What happiness would be found in such a place? What joys could there be for one who has refused to take joy in Christ while sojourning here on earth? Maybe the most difficult question to face is whether this misunderstanding of heaven is one that exists only outside the church, or whether we, as those who profess Christ, have made heaven out to be a place that exists primarily for our pleasure—a place that substitutes something other than Christ as the great and final gift.
Piper closes this short section with a reflection. “Nothing fits a person to be more useful on earth than to be more ready for heaven. This is true because readiness for heaven means taking pleasure in beholding the Lord Jesus, and beholding the glory of the Lord means being changed into his likeness.”
I wrote this article this morning after spending some quiet time with God. I can’t express the longing that I felt in this time to desire Christ above all else. I can’t describe just how much I wanted to long to be with Christ and to desire Him as the great and final gift of heaven and earth. How I wanted to know Him in that way here and now, and not to have to wait for heaven to delight in the Savior in such a way that He is what I want above all else. Oh, that I would desire Christ above health and friends and food and leisure and beauty and and pleasure and all manner of earthly satisfaction!