The Sweetness of Christ in 2020
As I look back over 2020, the most fundamental experience for me, which colors everything else and has shaped everything else, is the experience of sweeter fellowship with God, and with Jesus through his word, and through the mercies of the Holy Spirit. As I have tried to figure out why this is, I think the most persistent reason that I come up with is that I have lived this year as though walking along the precipice of eternity.
COVID-19 means that floating around me in the air are invisible viruses that specialize in killing 74-year-olds. And then add to that: my city blew up last summer, and 1,500 businesses near my home were burned. And even through the election, buildings just blocks from my house were boarded up out of fear of what might happen with the election results. And as Noël and I have sat together in the evening, night after night, month after month, she would read to me the statistics of the thousands in Minnesota who are infected anew with the virus, and the numbers of how many had died and what their ages were.
So, more than any other year of my life, this one has been lived with an almost daily consciousness of my mortality and the ease with which the entire infrastructure and social order could dissolve — all of this while causing us grief for so many who suffer. It sounds odd, I know, for me to say this year has been good for me when so many have died, so many suffer — I mean, not just suffer from the disease, but suffer economically.
When all of that is taken into account, I have to say this has been very good for me — very good for me. A keen sense of my own mortality, and a realistic view of the inevitability of meeting Jesus face-to-face momentarily, perhaps, or quite soon, has had the effect, both privately and with my wife, and with others, of making the bread of heaven sweeter and the living water more satisfying.
I just read, in fact, yesterday in John 10:9, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” And I suppose I’ve read John a hundred times. Why would it be that now, just now in the closing of this year, that phrase “find pasture” would stand out to me as obvious and real and precious and sweet and a palpable reality?
Jesus promises me that during the pandemic, if I come to him, and he becomes for me the single door to God, to reality, to life, to joy, then I’ll be like a sheep going in to his secure sheepfold, and coming out to graze in pastures of beautiful provisions and perfections of Christ — right in the very midst of the pandemic and the crumbling culture. So, in answer to your question, Tony, it’s been a sweet year — it has.
You said that this experience of sweeter fellowship has colored and shaped everything else this year. What did you mean by that? Do you have any specific examples?
I suppose one of the easiest things to say about the effect of a pandemic on my life would be to say that it shut down all travel and a good many speaking engagements, and therefore freed me up to have a lot of time left over for productive writing. That’s an easy thing to say quantitatively. But what I want to focus on is not so much the quantity of time that this enforced seclusion has produced, but the nature of it — the nature of the time, the nature of the seclusion, the nature of the effect, and the way it connects with this sweetening of the fellowship with Jesus.
For example, I finished three books this year — finished three; I didn’t write three whole, but finished three. But the one that has occupied my mind the most is called What Is Saving Faith? Reflections on Receiving Christ as a Treasure. Now, that book, which I wrote during my writing leave last summer, is riveted on the question of what the actual experience of saving faith is like. And the answer to that question is this: It is like drinking living water with satisfaction.
Saving faith is like eating bread, the bread of heaven, with pleasure. It’s like basking in the light of the world with delight. In other words, the very subject matter of that book has been my experience, especially during this year. That’s what I meant when I said that the experience of sweeter fellowship with Jesus — sweeter drinking, sweeter eating — colors everything, like the books I wrote.
And then, besides that book, I finished the two-year project on Providence, which I think is supposed to be available in January. And the point of that book is that God’s all-pervasive, all-embracing providence — his purposeful sovereignty — will guarantee that God’s elect people from every tribe and language and nation will perfectly glorify him in the age to come, precisely through the enjoyment of eating the bread of heaven, and drinking the living water, and basking in the light of the world: Jesus Christ. So, this purpose that God has for all the world, in all the details, by his providence, this purpose cannot fail because of God’s all-embracing providence.
And then thirdly, I wrote that little book Coronavirus and Christ back in April, which was simply an application of providence and the purposes of saving faith to the pandemic. One of God’s purposes in the pandemic, I argued, is to summon the world, the whole world, to bring their lives into alignment with the infinite worth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And of course, that alignment means drinking the living water with satisfaction, eating the bread of heaven with pleasure, basking in the light of the world with joy, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
So, that’s what I had in mind, Tony, when I said that this experience of the sweetness of fellowship with Jesus has shaped everything else I’ve done this year.
That’s really good. I know book writing is a passion of your life, but that’s not the only thing that you do. I mean, obviously we do this podcast as well. And before the month ends, before the new year begins, we’re actually going to devote a whole episode just to looking at the stats of APJ. I’m going to do a whole episode just by myself, just walking through those stats. There are a lot of updates to give on the year of 2020 and what it has meant for the podcast. What about the effect of this — you called it “enforced seclusion” — what has been the effect of that on your video series that you do, Look at the Book?
When I realized that I would have weeks (I forget how many, but weeks) of unplanned time that was supposed to be dedicated to international travel, what filled my heart — and I didn’t see this coming, frankly. I think it’s of God. That’s what I’m counting on. What filled my heart was the desire to give myself to this online Bible teaching method we call Look at the Book as never before, and to set a goal for the rest of my life (and of course, only God knows whether that’s conceivable in his providence) — namely, to work my way through all the letters of the apostle Paul, all thirteen letters in Look at the Book.
So, I’ve plowed into Ephesians. Actually, that’s a lousy analogy, because you don’t plow into Ephesians. It’s the Matterhorn; you don’t plow the Matterhorn. In fact, it would be wrong to say, “I started climbing the Matterhorn of Ephesians,” because the book starts at the top of the mountain. You’ve got to have a helicopter of the Holy Spirit to drop you in verse 4 at the top of the mountains. So, that’s not right either.
However you describe it, I’ve done at least 175 labs, up through chapter 4 in Ephesians, and I’m eager to finish it very soon and get on to the next book. And I’m not even sure what book is going to be next. So, that’s my answer to the question of, Okay, you’ve got extra time here — what are you going to do with it? And we’ve got new sights set on some major efforts with Look at the Book.
Yeah, amen. You not only work full-time for Desiring God, but you’re also the chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, and 2020 was a big year for that side of your life. Can you walk us through some of the highlights of what 2020 meant for the school?
The most important thing that I was a part of at the college and seminary was the search process for discerning God’s call on the next president of the school. Tim Tomlinson has led us for about twelve years now, since the school’s founding. And Tim announced last year his readiness to hand off the leadership after a long and fruitful — amazingly fruitful — tenure. And after a long process, over a year long, the trustees voted unanimously to call Joe Rigney, who is assistant professor of theology and literature at the college now, to be the next president of Bethlehem College & Seminary.
And to watch God work in this process was a beautiful thing. It had its ups and downs, but overall, I stand back, and I say, “Wow, what a privilege to have been a part of God’s work in setting the stage for the next decades of our beloved school.” I am profoundly thankful for Tim’s founding leadership, and I am profoundly hopeful and thankful for what Joe brings to the school. That has been a historic moment for the school, and in my life in particular.
And I know it’s getting long, Tony, but before we sign off, I should throw a question back to you. I’m not the only senior teacher at Desiring God. David Mathis, for example, our executive editor and senior teacher, published a book this fall for Advent. Some of us are right in the midst of using it for our Advent celebration. It’s called The Christmas We Didn’t Expect. So, he’s a productive teacher.
And you not only do Ask Pastor John, but you have a writing life of your own. And so, I’m pitching it back to you, Tony: What have you been doing this year in your amazingly productive writing efforts?
I appreciate that. Normally, I love asking the questions.
Right — my turn.
Here I am finishing a big project. This next book for me is the most ambitious one I’ve ever attempted to write. It’s my most intense writing project. And it’s due at the end of next month, at the end of January. It’s titled God, Technology, and the Christian Life. And it’s with our friends at Crossway, and it will be out, Lord willing, in January of 2022. It’s kind of a capstone book to my smartphone book, 12 Ways, and then a book I wrote on mass-media culture called Competing Spectacles. This is sort of like the third book in a series.
Tony, pause right there. Say something about the translation of that book.
Competing Spectacles has been translated now into four different languages, and continues to grow (French, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish).
Yeah, I think 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You is now available in ten other languages (Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Malayalam, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Turkish). And so, it’s just amazing. It’s the work of Crossway. And they have a whole team devoted to this. And DG has a team devoted to translations. It’s amazing. It seems like every other week I’m getting an email or a picture on Instagram of a new edition. It’s incredibly encouraging.
This book, God, Technology, and the Christian Life, is the hardest book I’ve ever attempted to write because I wanted to press into nine key sections of Scripture, and see if we can come up to some clarity over how God relates to human innovation. And very specifically, is God inside of Silicon Valley, or is he on the outside of Silicon Valley? How does he relate to scientists and innovators, men like Einstein, men like Steve Jobs? Does God make these men? Does he gift these men? Does he merely permit them to exist? Or are they sort of flukes in the system? How do we think about them?
And then on top of that, I try to answer whether or not, just as we look around the material creation, are there any clues to tell us how God designed technology to unfold over time? I’ve been writing this for over eighteen months now. I wanted to spend a lot more time researching this book. I wanted to spend several years researching it, but as my travel got shut down, and the coronavirus hit, the Lord seemed to say, “Nope, travel’s ended; get to work on this book.” So again, it’s the hardest book I’ll probably ever try to write, and here I am coming to the end of it. So, I would appreciate prayers in these final weeks as we get to the end of that writing project.
But we need to wrap this episode up. Pastor John, do you have any closing thoughts to share with us as we end today?
Well, before I say anything by way of closing, let me just observe, Tony, that I’m not aware of anybody doing quite what you’re doing with regard to technology and Scripture. I mean, lots of people think about technology and write about that. Lots of people think about Scripture and write about that. But I don’t know of anybody doing what you’re doing, and I commend it; I’m excited about it. To put together God’s word with God’s world in this way is really quite a remarkable thing.
To close this up, let me just say thank you to our listeners here near the end of the year who support Desiring God and make our work possible. My prayer for the new year for you is that you would drink deeply from the fountain of life, and that you would eat the all-satisfying bread of heaven, and that you would bask in the light of the world, Jesus Christ, and that he would become more precious to you in 2021 than ever before.
Thank you, Pastor John. And thank you to our generous ministry partners who make all of these labors possible. We are grateful that we get to do what we do. And speaking of that, we return Friday with another one of your excellent questions. Until then, I am Tony Reinke. We’ll see you Friday.John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.