This summer our Middle School group at my church is going through a video series called “The Blazing Center” by John Piper. Piper here is speaking on his infamous topics that he describes in detail in his books “The Pleasures of God” and “Desiring God.”
To be clear, I have read most of the former book, and much of the latter. Recently, I have reviewed important chunks of “Desiring God” to collect my thoughts on the subject of Christian Hedonism. Before I express my thoughts on this subject I do want to say that I appreciate deeply Piper’s passion for pursuing a life that is dedicated to worshiping Christ and His Kingdom. Piper is a man of deep faith, and profound integrity, and I hope one day I can live a life of faithfulness that he has.
In the Blazing Center video Piper gives a Webster dictionary definition of the term “Hedonism” as “a life in the pursuit of pleasure”. A couple things can be said about this.
First, my initial understanding of hedonism is that it is a inherently a selfish act. It is completely and utterly contrary to the virtues of temperance and prudence. It is entirely about pursuing what is most pleasurable in the moment without regard for those joys in life that come only from waiting and enduring through trials of life.
Secondly, the focus of hedonism seems not to be to find pleasure because this leads to a higher good of happiness, but rather you are pursuing the pleasure for the sake of pleasure. The pleasure is the end. It is not the means to something better. It is the very reason you do anything.
Those who participate in this form of hedonism mostly likely have the mistaken notion that pleasure is happiness. Therefore, to revel in a binge of physical pleasures whether it be sex, drinking, eating, etc is to reach the highest level of human ecstasy. And the more the merrier.
Now the question comes to this: How can a Christian be a Hedonist? Piper believes we can be a Christian Hedonist if we have a life that is in pursuit of pleasure in God. That is, he is redefining where it is we are to find pleasure. No longer are our pleasures founded in the sinful enjoyments of worldly things, but rather our pleasure comes to be founded in that which it can only be founded, namely, God Himself.
There are a few difficulties I find with the idea of Christian Hedonism. First is the notion that it seems to be very misleading. The types of pleasures the Christian life brings are often categorically different than those types of pleasures that worldly hedonism brings. For example, what does happiness, delight, joy, etc. look like in Job’s life when he has lost everything? Can this really be compared to having pleasure in God in such a way as to be called a “hedonist” albeit in a redefined Christian sense? Furthermore, how is this pleasure in God evidenced in Jesus’ life when He is hanging on the cross? Can we really say that he is “delighting” in the Lord? And, if not, is this failing to glorify God, as it seems Piper implicitly suggests? Piper seems to assert at times that if we are not “delighting” or having “joy” in the Lord then we are failing to glorify God. He terms this idea “Disinterested benevolence.”
My assertion is this: There are times in our life where we have no feelings in the moment of happiness, delight, or joy in following God. But, is this wrong? I say it is only wrong if these lack of feelings are matched with an attitude of distrust towards God’s promises, and consequently result in our rejecting God’s ways so that we can pursue happiness elsewhere. The point is this: The mere lack of joyful feelings, etc. is not grounds for saying that we are failing to glorify God if our actions are still guided by obedience because we trust that God’s promises are ultimately good and worthy of pursuit. This is exactly the attitude Jesus’ had in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus felt pain and anguish. He felt nothing of delight, gladness, or any other pleasure yet went to the cross because he trusted in the goodness of God’s promises. He had a trust that His “joy was set before him.” And, I assert (indeed, how could I not?), that Jesus is glorifying God through his act of obedience in the absence of joyous feelings just as much as he does in his, say, high priestly prayer.
Furthermore, I assert that Jesus does not go to the cross because ultimately his happiness awaits him. He does this because He has complete trust in the Father and He seeks to magnify Him in His life. Now, Piper would undoubtedly say that these two pursuits are not mutually exclusive, or in contradiction. Indeed, in the videos He says that growing up he was always told that he could either glorify God, or pursue his own happiness. I, too, agree that these things are not in contradiction. Yet, one follows logically from the other. In this sense, I whole heartedly agree with this philosopher (who writes to Piper after hearing a sermon on Christian Hedonism) and who Piper denounces as being (unintentionally) dishonoring to God:
Is not the contention of morality that we should do the good because it is the good?…We should do the good and perform virtuously, I suggest, because it is good and virtuous; that God will bless it and cause us to be happy is a consequence of it, but not the motive for doing it.”
I believe Piper makes the mistake, not of placing two contradictory things together, but of making a secondary thing equal to a first thing. A starving man has the motive of seeking to find food for nourishment (a first thing); whether or not the food has a “tastyness” is of secondary importance. One should not tell him that both are equally important. Piper has stressed that our pursuit of happiness is not against our pursuit of glorifying God because our happiness is found in glorifying God. Yet, this does not mean that we should make it our goal and emphasis to pursue happiness! It should be our goal to Glorify God! And, it will then logically follow that we are happy. It comes as a consequence of pursuing something other than our own happiness. I would rephrase Piper’s understanding as, “our desire to attain happiness in life is not against our glorifying God only it is something that must be renounced in order to truly receive.” I must put death my understanding of happiness, and pursue glorify God!
By forgetting ourself and our wants we attain life abundantly. By forgetting our happiness, we ironically find sweet and full happiness. Yet, -lest anyone be confused- we should not now pursue glorifying God because we know that it logically follows that we will be happy. We pursue glorifying God because He is Himself complete and utterly worthy of glorifying. We should praise that which is good and noble, and do that which is good and noble precisely because they are good and noble! And, enjoyment, pleasure comes through as a consequence.