Few moments can feel quite so alarming as late at night and on unfamiliar roads, when you realize your car is almost out of fuel. Will there be somewhere to fill up nearby? Will the place be open? Your eyes are fixed on the fuel gauge. With heart thumping and palms sweating as the miles go by, you envision your car sucking up the last drops and fumes from the tank before sputtering to a halt, leaving you stranded.
For too many of us, our experience of the Christian life and ministry feels similarly precarious. The fuel light is flashing; very little seems to be left in the tank.
All too often, however, we’re running on empty because our view of God is empty. Amid life’s trials and exigencies, our view of God has slowly shrunk and become distorted and skewed, such that we do not set out filled with joy and satisfaction in him. We may feel that our ministries are vital and that God is relying on our courage, faithfulness, and brilliance: a burden we can’t really bear. We begin to imagine that God needs us and leans on us unfairly. We begin to imagine him as a demanding taskmaster and quietly resent his calling.
In all our efforts to serve Christ dutifully, we may not truly enjoy our all-generous, giving God, but instead run on the fumes of our own devotion and spiritual energy. And if our God is not full, neither will we be. Only a renewed vision of God’s glorious fullness will help us. So where might we look for fresh vision?
How to Take Heart
Jesus knew his disciples would run out of gas. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). As he prepared to leave this world, he knew that they, as his holy people in a hostile world, would face trouble, hardships, discouragements, and persecutions. And he wanted them to know something when they did: he had already overpowered the fleeting darkness of this passing age. So, he tells them, take heart.
Yes, but how?
In every Christian’s life, we have tribulations that, of themselves, might easily cause us to lose heart. Family life eked out in the shadow of depression and anxiety. Local church ministry in what seems like a spiritual desert, painfully low on encouragements and visible fruit. A calling to overseas missions attended by loneliness, isolation, and homesickness. How can we, day by day, in the pressure and pain, find perspective, peace, and joy?
When Jesus said he had overcome the world, it was the conclusion to a longer discussion. “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace” (John 16:33). When the world is trying, our spiritual energy is drying up, and we wonder if we can go on, we need to plug ourselves into the darkness-conquering words of Jesus. These things are the key to taking heart and persevering.
Sustained by His Fullness
In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that, after his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the disciples will have the privilege of direct approach to God in heaven in his name when they pray (John 16:26). With the Lord’s ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the endless resources of heaven will be at their disposal to ask whatever they need (John 16:23). So, says Jesus, “no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22), and “your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
In Christ, the superabundant Father of glory is our own Father, lovingly attending to our needs and requests. And he has joy to spare for struggling saints. In the challenges and troubles of our lives today, this is the vital source of overcoming joy and peace: our God is full and loves to fill us.
God revealed himself to Moses as “I AM”: “the One Who Is.” Unlike us, who are born and named, God does not receive his name, identity, or existence from anyone or anything else: his life is self-contained and self-sustaining. As Paul tells the Athenians,
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything. (Acts 17:24–25)
Far from needing anything, our God is the very definition of fullness. God alone is gloriously, completely, independently himself.
Sustained by His Filling
Yet the life of God is not a fortress, shut up against the world. God’s satisfied self-existence does not mean grand isolation, vacuum-packed and hidden away. No, the very life of God — all that he is in himself — overflows and is the source of our happiness as well as his own.
Jonathan Edwards imagined God in this eternity and wrote, “God undoubtedly infinitely loves and delights in himself. . . . The infinite happiness of the Father consists in the enjoyment of his Son” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:117). In other words, God’s full and happy life is triune. The Father has eternally loved his Son (John 17:24). The “infinite delight” of God, Edwards says, is “in the Father and the Son loving and delighting in one another” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 21:118).
Here is a God who, even before, beyond, and above all created things, exists in loving and delighted fellowship. Here is a God for whom a creation makes sense: an opportunity “to communicate and spread his goodness,” as Richard Sibbes put it (The Works of Richard Sibbes, 6:113). Here is a God who would not condemn rebels and sinners to perish without first giving his one and only Son in measureless love for the world (John 3:16). To this God, Jesus now assures his friends, they may go in all their need and weakness.
Sustained by His Sacrifice
Jesus spoke his promise that he has overcome the world just hours before he went to his death. His timing is perfect, because the cross at once exposes the sin and emptiness in us and reveals the fullness of God: the cross is the key to our overcoming.
While we are often tempted to pursue our callings in our own strength (and risk burnout and bitterness in the process), the cross exposes us as helpless sinners who can offer nothing to God. It shows us what we deserve as all our ways are condemned in the flesh of Christ (Romans 8:3). At the cross, we are relieved of the illusion that the purposes of God rely on us.
And the cross relieves us of the illusion that God is demanding and cruel. Our Father has not withheld from us his own Son and will not hold out on us for anything else (Romans 8:32). His death is the seed of our eternal life and the promise of our resurrection. At the foot of the cross, we are humbled again and again and shown our own natural emptiness, yet there we also fill our gaze afresh with the glorious self-giving of God in Christ.
Nowhere is God’s heart on display in brighter colors than on the cross of Christ. God is so full of life that he lays his own down for his enemies. God is so full of love that he pours it out on the unlovely. God is so good that even the darkest night of death will turn to bright morning.
If we want to last — in life, in marriage, in parenting, in ministry — we need a vision of God that is not only big enough, but good enough. A grand and majestic God could intimidate or scare us; his hard callings might appear harsh and unkind to us. But the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is eternally good and giving. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. And if you draw strength from his fullness, you will, as John Howe writes in his treatise on delighting in God, “still find a continual spring, unexhausted fullness, a fountain never to be drawn dry”.