You make known to me the path of life;
in Your presence there is fullness of joy;
at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Working with college students forces me to get in a time machine and ask myself, “What did I learn in college?” One lesson that stands out is a simple phrase: Jesus is joy. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus’ famous words are familiar to many people. I think I memorized that verse in high school, but I didn’t start to understand it until my college years. Where are you looking for life and joy right now? If that quest seems frustrating, do you ever ask yourself, “Why?”
When I stepped onto Duke’s campus as a freshman, I thought I knew where I would find joy during my college years. Duke basketball had a great program, and the prospects of a national championship were great. (We got one my junior year.) College was a whole new world of relationships, and the thought of meeting a special someone was exciting. (That never worked out during college.) Being far from home was a little scary, but it also offered the joys of independence and freedom. (I eventually had to learn how to do laundry.) In four years, I found some joy in sports, relationships, and parentless freedom, but the big lesson about joy I never saw coming.
I went to college as a Christian, but I didn’t understand that following Jesus could (and should) be a joyful endeavor. I knew that Jesus was God and that I should worship Him. I knew that He was King and that I should submit to Him. I knew that He was Savior and that I should trust Him. I knew that He was Friend and that I should walk with Him. What I didn’t fully grasp yet—what I’m still trying to work out today—is that Jesus is life and that I should enjoy Him.
Jesus is ______. What would you put in that blank if you were honest? Jesus is…boring? Irrelevant? No fun? Did you think to say, “Jesus is joy?” Like many college students, I thought that God’s glory and my joy were at cross purposes. If God was all about His glory and I was all about being happy, I had a choice to make, right? I could either follow Jesus and be miserable, or I could do what I wanted and be happy.
In those years, the Lord taught me that God’s great design and my deepest longings were not opposed to one another. A pastor named John Piper messed me up—in a good way—with his book Desiring God. His vision statement for his life and ministry gets right to the heart of the matter: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” Piper simply found a different way to say what children have been learning from the Westminster Shorter Catechism for centuries. “What is the chief end of man?” “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Glorifying God and enjoying Him forever come together in the Christian life. We “glorify” whatever satisfies our souls, whether that’s a relationship, a sport, a meal, or success. And if that is true, then God gets the most glory when we find our ultimate joy in Him.
Why does this matter? During college, I started to see that my sinful desires had me looking for joy where it could not be found. I would taste a bit here or there, but apart from Christ, the search for joy was an endless exercise in futility. Much of what happens on campus, and everywhere else, is a picture of insanity—we return again and again to look for life in places where it can’t be found. We turn to the good gifts of God, but we try to enjoy them apart from Him. Trading God for His gifts is the recipe for idolatry and unhappiness, but Christ’s redeeming love brings us back to Him. He gives us a new heart to know Him, a heart that declares, “You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
David says that God makes known to him the path of life. In other words, left to ourselves, we will never find the path. We will go on digging in the desert for water that’s not there. But God’s Word teaches us that Jesus has come into our wasteland, and He has made streams flow in the desert (Isaiah 35:6). Why would He come to earth to taste our sadness? Why would He subject Himself to the pain of the cross? The Bible answers, “For the joy that was set before Him” (Hebrews 12:2). What joy could Jesus find in the cross? It was the joy of glorifying His Father, the joy of obeying His will, and the joy of purchasing a people—a people who would know and show that Jesus is joy.