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E. J. Carnell points toward these same stages when he says, Rectitude, we know, is met in one of two ways: either by a spontaneous expression of the good or by spontaneous sorrow for having failed. The one is a direct fulfillment; the other is indirect fulfillment.10 Worship is a way of gladly reflecting back to God the radiance of His worth. This is the ideal. For God surely is more glorified when we delight in His magnificence than when we are so unmoved by it that we scarcely feel anything and only wish we could. Yet He is also glorified by the spark of anticipated gladness that gives rise to the sorrow we feel when our hearts are lukewarm. Even in the miserable guilt we feel over our beastlike insensitivity, the glory of God shines. If God were not gloriously desirable, why would we feel sorrowful for not feasting fully on His beauty?
Yet even this sorrow, to honor God, must in one sense be an end in itself— not that it shouldn’t lead on to something better, but that it must be real and spontaneous. The glory from which we fall short cannot be reflected in a calculated sorrow. As Carnell says, “Indirect fulfillment is stripped of virtue whenever it is made a goal of conscious striving. Whoever deliberately tries to be sorry will
9. Quoted in E. M. Bounds, The Weapon of Prayer (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1975), 136.
10. Carnell, Christian Commitment, 213.
11. Ibid., 213–4.
never be sorry. Sorrow cannot be induced by human effort.”11
THE MORAL ENEMY WORSHIPOF I conclude from this meditation on the nature of worship that the revolt against hedonism has killed the spirit of worship in many churches and many hearts. The widespread notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest is a great enemy of true worship. Worship is the highest moral act a human can perform, so the only basis and motivation for it that many people can conceive is the notion of morality as the disinterested performance of duty. But when worship is reduced to disinterested duty, it ceases to be worship. For worship is a feast.
Neither God nor my wife is honored when I celebrate the high days of our relationship out of a sense of duty. They are honored when I delight in them!
Therefore, to honor God in worship, we must not seek Him disinterestedly for fear of gaining some joy in worship and so ruining the moral value of the act.
Instead we must seek Him hedonistically, the way a thirsty deer seeks the stream—precisely for the joy of seeing and knowing Him! Worship is nothing less than obedience to the command of God: “Delight yourself in the LORD”!
Misguided virtue smothers the spirit of worship. The person who has the vague notion that it is virtue to overcome self-interest, and that it is vice to seek pleasure, will scarcely be able to worship. For worship is the most hedonistic affair of life and must not be ruined with the least thought of disinterestedness.
The great hindrance to worship is not that we are a pleasure-seeking people, but that we are willing to settle for such pitiful pleasures.
The prophet Jeremiah put it like this:
“My people have changed their glory for that which does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:11–13)
The heavens are appalled and shocked when people give up soon on their quest for pleasure and settle for broken cisterns.
WE ARE FAR TOO EASILY PLEASEDOne of the most important things I ever read on my pilgrimage toward Christian Hedonism was from a sermon preached by C. S. Lewis in 1941. He
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.
We are far too easily pleased.12 That’s it! The enemy of worship is not that our desire for pleasure is too strong, but too weak! We have settled for a home, a family, a few friends, a job, a television, a microwave oven, an occasional night out, a yearly vacation, and perhaps a new personal computer. We have accustomed ourselves to such meager, short-lived pleasures that our capacity for joy has shriveled. And so our worship has shriveled. Many can scarcely imagine what is meant by “a holiday at the sea”—worshiping the living God!
lost almost all capacity for delighting in God—not unlike what happened to
Charles Darwin. Near the end of his life he wrote an autobiography for his children in which he expressed one regret:
Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare.… Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music.… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.13 Worship services across the land bear the scars of this process. For many, Christianity has become the grinding out of general doctrinal laws from collections of biblical facts. But childlike wonder and awe have died. The scenery and poetry and music of the majesty of God have dried up like a forgotten peach at the back of the refrigerator.
And the irony is that we have aided and abetted the desiccation by telling people they ought not seek their own pleasure, especially in worship.14 We have
13. Cited in Virginia Stem Owens, “Seeing Christianity in Red and Green as Well as Black and White,” Christianity Today 27, no. 13 (2 September 1983): 38.
14. For example, Carl Zylstra wrote: “The question is whether worship really is supposed to be a time for self-fulfillment and enjoyment or whether it should be, first of all, a time of service and honor to God, a sacrifice of praise” (“Just Dial the Lord,” The Reformed Journal [October 1984], 6). When the question is put like this, it cannot be answered truthfully. It is very misleading. Of course worship is a time to honor God. But we kill that possibility by warning people not to pursue their own enjoyment. We should be telling them again and again to pursue their own enjoyment—in God! If Zylstra means to warn us against seeking fulfillment by looking to ourselves or merely from the experience of music or fellowship, then his warning is well taken.
implied in a thousand ways that the virtue of an act diminishes to the degree you enjoy doing it and that doing something because it yields happiness is bad.
The notion hangs like a gas in the Christian atmosphere.
An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)15 Ayn Rand equated this notion of virtue with Christianity and rejected the whole thing out of hand. But this is not Christianity! It was tragic for her, and it is tragic for the church, that this notion—that the pursuit of joy is submoral, if not immoral—pervades the air of Christendom.
Would that Ayn Rand had understood her Christian contemporary
I don’t assume that renunciation goes with submission or even that renunciation is good in itself. Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is what sin is.… The struggle to submit…is not a struggle to submit but a struggle to accept and with passion. I mean, possibly, with joy. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy—fully armed too as it’s a highly dangerous quest.16
15. Ayn Rand, For the Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), 32.
16. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), 126.
Every Sunday morning at 11 A.M., Hebrews 11:6 enters combat with Immanuel Kant. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” You cannot please God if you do not come to Him for reward!
Therefore, worship that pleases God is the hedonistic pursuit of God. He is our exceeding great reward! In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures forevermore. Worship is the feast of Christian Hedonism.
AN AFFAIR MINDOF THE God seeks people to worship Him “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23). I put tremendous emphasis on the “spirit” of worship in the previous section. Now I must balance the scales and reassert that true worship always combines heart and head, emotion and thought, affection and reflection, doxology and theology.
“True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” True worship does not come from people whose feelings are like air ferns with no root in the solid ground of biblical doctrine. The only affections that honor God are those rooted in the rock of biblical truth.
Else what meaning have the words of the apostle: “They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2)? And did not the Lord pray, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17)? And did He not say, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)? Holy freedom in worship is the fruit of truth. Religious feelings that do not come from a true apprehension of God are neither holy nor truly free, no matter how intense.
The pastoral testimony of Jonathan Edwards has therefore always seemed to me inescapably biblical. He was the foremost defender of the Great Awakening in New England in the early 1740s. It had come under severe criticism because of apparent emotional excesses.
Charles Chauncy, pastor of the old First Church in Boston, opposed the revival strenuously. He pointed out all of its excesses like the “swooning away
17. Cited in C. H. Faust and T. H. Johnson, eds., Jonathan Edwards: Selections (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962), xviii.
and falling to the ground…bitter shriekings and screamings; convulsion-like tremblings and agitations, strugglings and tumblings.”17 Edwards did not defend the excesses, but he earnestly defended the deep and genuine engagement of the affections based on truth. He argued with these
carefully chosen words:
I should think myself in the way of my duty, to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can, provided they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.18
Edwards was utterly convinced of the crucial importance of powerful affections in worship:
The things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts, to their nature and importance, unless they be lively and powerful. In nothing is vigor in the actings of our inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious.19 Yes, the only heat he valued in worship was the heat that comes with light.
In 1744 he preached an ordination sermon from the text about John the Baptist, “He was a burning and a shining light” (John 5:35, KJV). There must be heat in the heart and light in the mind—and no more heat than justified by the light!
If a minister has light without heat, and entertains his [hearers] with learned discourses, without a savour of the power of godliness, or any appearance of fervency of spirit, and zeal for God and the good of souls, he may gratify itching ears, and fill the heads of his people with
18. Jonathan Edwards, Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival in the Great Awakening, ed. C. C. Goen (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 387.
19. Edwards, Religious Affections, 238.
empty notions; but it will not be very likely to reach their souls. And if, on the other hand, he be driven on with a fierce and intemperate zeal, and vehement heat, without light, he will be likely to kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people, and to fire their corrupt passions and affections; but will make them never the better, nor lead them a step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way.20 Strong affections for God, rooted in and shaped by the truth of Scripture— this is the bone and marrow of biblical worship.
Therefore Christian Hedonism is passionately opposed to all attempts to drive a wedge between deep thought and deep feeling. It rejects the common notion that profound reflection dries up fervent affection. It resists the assumption that intense emotion thrives only in the absence of coherent doctrine.