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Second, Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of pleasure. It says that one has already made a god out of whatever he finds most pleasure in. The goal of Christian Hedonism is to find most pleasure in the one and only God and thus avoid the sin of covetousness, that is, idolatry (Colossians 3:5).
Third, Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when we seek Him out of self-interest. A patient is not greater than his physician. I will say more about this in chapter 3.
Fourth, Christian Hedonism is not a “general theory of moral justification.” 7 In other words, nowhere do I say: An act is right because it brings pleasure. My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion.
My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected, fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all true worship and all virtuous acts. I do not say that loving God is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands
7. One of the most extended and serious critiques of Christian Hedonism to appear since Desiring God was first published is in Richard Mouw, The God Who Commands (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 1990). The quotation is taken from p. 33 (emphasis added).
that we find joy in loving God: “Delight yourself in the LORD” (Psalm 37:4). I do not say that loving people is good because it brings joy. I say that God commands that we find joy in loving people: “[Let] the one who does acts of mercy [do so] with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8).8 I do not come to the Bible with a hedonistic theory of moral justification.
On the contrary, I find in the Bible a divine command to be a pleasure-seeker— that is, to forsake the two-bit, low-yield, short-term, never-satisfying, persondestroying, God-belittling pleasures of the world and to sell everything “with joy” (Matthew 13:44) in order to have the kingdom of heaven and thus “enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23). In short, I am a Christian Hedonist not for any philosophical or theoretical reason, but because God commands it (though He doesn’t command that you use these labels!).
Fifth, I do not say that the relationship between love and happiness is this:
“True happiness requires love.” This is an oversimplification that misses the crucial and defining point. The distinguishing feature of Christian Hedonism is not that pleasure seeking demands virtue, but that virtue consists essentially, though not only, in pleasure seeking.
The reason I come to this conclusion is that I am operating here not as a philosophical hedonist, but as a biblical theologian and pastor who must come
to terms with divine commands:
• to “love mercy,” not just do it (Micah 6:8, KJV),
• to do “acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:8),
• to “joyfully” suffer loss in the service of prisoners (Hebrews 10:34),
• to be a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7),
• to make our joy the joy of others (2 Corinthians 2:3),
• to tend the flock of God willingly and “eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2), and
• to keep watch over souls “with joy” (Hebrews 13:17).
8. Additional texts revealing the God-given duty of joy in God include Deuteronomy 28:47; 1 Chronicles 16:31, 33; Nehemiah 8:10; Psalm 32:11; 33:1; 35:9; 40:8, 16; 42:1–2; 63:1, 11; 64:10; 95:1; 97:1, 12;
98:4; 104:34; 105:3; Isaiah 41:16; Joel 2:23; Zechariah 2:10; 10:7, Philippians 3:1; 4:4. Additional texts mentioning the divine command of joy in loving others include 2 Corinthians 9:7 (cf. Acts 20:35);
Hebrews 10:34; 13:17; 1 Peter 5:2.
When you reflect long and hard on such amazing commands, the moral implications are stunning. Christian Hedonism attempts to take these divine commands with blood-earnestness. The upshot is piercing and radically life changing: The pursuit of true virtue includes the pursuit of the joy because joy is an essential component of true virtue. This is vastly different from saying, “Let’s all be good because it will make us happy.” Sixth, Christian Hedonism is not a distortion of historic Reformed catechisms of faith. This was one of the criticisms of Richard Mouw in his book,
The God Who Commands:
Piper might be able to alter the first answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism—so that glorifying and enjoying God becomes glorifying by enjoying the deity—to suit his hedonistic purposes, but it is a little
more difficult to alter the opening lines of the Heidelberg Catechism:
That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.9 The remarkable thing about the beginning of the Heidelberg Catechism is not that I can’t change it for hedonistic purposes, but that I don’t have to. It already places the entire catechism under the human longing for “comfort.” Question one: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The pressing question for critics of Christian Hedonism is: Why did the original framers of the four-hundred-year-old catechism structure all 129 questions so that they are an exposition of the question “What is my only comfort?” Even more remarkable is to see the concern with “happiness” emerge explicitly in the second question of the catechism, which provides the outlines for the rest of the catechism. The second question is: “How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou in this comfort (Troste) mayest live and die happily (seliglich)?” Thus, the entire catechism is an answer to the concern for how to live and die happily.
9. Mouw, The God Who Commands, 36.
The answer to the second question of the catechism is: “Three things: first, the greatness of my sin and misery; second, how I am redeemed from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to be thankful to God for such redemption.” Then the rest of the catechism is divided into three sections to deal with these three
things: “The First Part: Of Man’s Misery” (questions 3–11); “The Second Part:
Of Man’s Redemption” (questions 12–85); and “The Third Part: Of Thankfulness” (questions 86–129). What this means is that the entire Heidelberg Catechism is written to answer the question “What must I know to live happily?” I am puzzled that anyone would think that Christian Hedonism needs to “alter the opening lines to the Heidelberg Catechism.” The fact is, the entire catechism is structured the way Christian Hedonism would structure it. Therefore, Christian Hedonism does not distort the historic Reformed catechisms. Both the Westminster Catechism and the Heidelberg Catechism begin with a concern for man’s enjoyment of God, or his quest to “live and die happily.” I have no desire to be doctrinally novel. I am glad that the Heidelberg Catechism was written four hundred years ago.
TOWARD DEFINITION CHRISTIAN HEDONISMA OF Fresh ways of looking at the world (even when they are centuries old) do not lend themselves to simple definitions. A whole book is needed so people can begin to catch on. Quick and superficial judgments will almost certainly be wrong. Beware of conjecture about what lies in the pages of this book! The surmise that here we have another spin-off from modern man’s enslavement to the centrality of himself will be very wide of the mark. Ah, what surprises lie ahead!
For many, the term Christian Hedonism will be new. Therefore, I have included appendix 5: “Why Call It Christian Hedonism?” If this is a strange or troubling term, you may want to read those pages before plunging into the main chapters.
I would prefer to reserve a definition of Christian Hedonism until the end of the book, when misunderstandings would have been swept away. A writer often wishes his first sentence could be read in light of his last—and vice versa! But, alas, one must begin somewhere. So I offer the following
advance definition in hope that it will be interpreted sympathetically in light of the rest of the book.
Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.
Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively:
The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and
virtue. That is:
There has been a wonderful alteration in my mind, in respect to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.… The doctrine has very often appeared exceeding pleasant, bright and sweet.
Absolute sovereignty is what I love to ascribe to God.
The reason this may sound strange is that we are more accustomed to think about our duty than God’s design. And when we do ask about God’s design, we are too prone to describe it with ourselves at the center of God’s affections. We may say, for example, that His design is to redeem the world. Or to save sinners.
Or to restore creation. Or the like.
But God’s saving designs are penultimate, not ultimate. Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These He performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment He has in glorifying Himself.
The bedrock foundation of Christian Hedonism is not God’s allegiance to us, but to Himself.
If God were not infinitely devoted to the preservation, display, and enjoyment of His own glory, we could have no hope of finding happiness in Him.
JOHN PIPER But if He does in fact employ all His sovereign power and infinite wisdom to maximize the enjoyment of His own glory, then we have a foundation on which to stand and rejoice.
I know this is perplexing at first glance. So I will try to take it apart a piece at a time, and then put it back together at the end of the chapter.
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations. (Psalm 33:10–11) And if none of His purposes can be frustrated, then He must be the happiest of all beings. This infinite, divine happiness is the fountain from which the Christian Hedonist drinks and longs to drink more deeply.
Can you imagine what it would be like if the God who ruled the world were not happy? What if God were given to grumbling and pouting and depression, like some Jack-and-the-beanstalk giant in the sky? What if God were frustrated and despondent and gloomy and dismal and discontented and dejected?
Could we join David and say, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1)?
I don’t think so. We would all relate to God like little children who have a frustrated, gloomy, dismal, discontented father. They can’t enjoy him. They can only try not to bother him, or maybe try to work for him to earn some little favor.
Therefore if God is not a happy God, Christian Hedonism has no foundaTHE HAPPINESS OF GOD tion. For the aim of the Christian Hedonist is to be happy in God, to delight in God, to cherish and enjoy His fellowship and favor. But children cannot enjoy the fellowship of their Father if He is unhappy. Therefore the foundation of Christian Hedonism is the happiness of God.
But the foundation of the happiness of God is the sovereignty of God:
“Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3). If God were not sovereign, if the world He made were out of control, frustrating His design again and again, God would not be happy.
Just as our joy is based on the promise that God is strong enough and wise enough to make all things work together for our good, so God’s joy is based on that same sovereign control: He makes all things work together for His glory.
If so much hangs on God’s sovereignty, we should make sure the biblical basis for it is secure.
“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’” (Isaiah 46:9–10) The purposes of God cannot be frustrated; there is none like God. If a purpose of God came to naught, it would imply that there is a power greater than God’s. It would imply that someone could stay His hand when He designs to do
a thing. But “none can stay his hand,” as Nebuchadnezzar says:
1. For a much fuller defense of God’s sovereignty in all that He does, see John Piper, The Pleasures of God:
Meditations on God’s Delight in Being God (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2000), 47–75, 121–55 and The
Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Baker, 1993). See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan), 315–54; John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God, Theology of Lordship Series (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002), 47–79, 274–88, 313–39, and the relevant chapters in Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives on Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Bruce A. Ware (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2000).