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They said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.” (2 Kings 7:9) This was the text from which Daniel Fuller preached at my ordination service in 1975. It was prophetic. For I have been a leper stumbling again and again onto the banquet of God in the wilderness of this world. And I have discovered that the banquet tastes far sweeter when I eat it with the widows of Samaria than when I hoard it in the desert.
I am radically committed to the pursuit of full and lasting joy. And so my
ear has not been deaf to the wisdom of words like these from Karl Barth:
It must be said that we can have joy, and therefore will it, only as we give it to others.… There may be cases where a man can be really merry in isolation. But these are exceptional and dangerous.… It certainly gives us ground to suspect the nature of his joy as real joy if he does not desire—“Rejoice with me”—that at least one or some or many others, as representatives of the rest, should share this joy.… We may succeed in willing joy exclusively for ourselves, but we have to realize that in this case, unless a miracle happens (and miracles are difficult to imagine for such a purpose), this joy will not be true, radiant and sincere.1 The motive for writing this book is the desire to double my joy in God’s banquet of grace by sharing it with as many as I can. I write this to you that my joy might be full.
REASON TWO: GOD IS BREATHTAKINGOne thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)
1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III, 4 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1961): 379–80.
I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of this glory.” (Isaiah 6:1–3) If you are a guide on a sightseeing trip and you know the people are longing to enjoy beauty and you come upon some breathtaking ravine, then you should show it to them and urge them to enjoy it. Well, the human race does in fact crave the experience of awe and wonder. And there is no reality more breathtaking than God.
The Preacher said, [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Eternity is in the heart of man, filling him with longing. But we know not what we long for until we see the breathtaking God. This is the cause of universal restlessness.
When God at first made man, Having a glass of blessings standing by,
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
2. Saint Augustine, Confessions, in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson (London:
Oxford University Press, 1967), book 1, chapter 1.
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie, Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flowed, then wisdom, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay, Perceiving that alone of all his treasure, Rest in the bottom lay.
For if I should (said he) Bestow this jewel also on my creature, He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest, But keep them with repining restlessness;
Let him be rich and weary, that at least, If goodness lead him not, yet weariness May toss him to my breast.
George Herbert, “The Pulley” 3 The world has an inconsolable longing. It tries to satisfy the longing with scenic vacations, accomplishments of creativity, stunning cinematic productions, sexual exploits, sports extravaganzas, hallucinogenic drugs, ascetic rigors, managerial excellence, et cetera. But the longing remains. What does this mean?
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.4
3. George Herbert, The Complete English Poems (Harmondworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1991), 150.
4. C. S. Lewis, A Mind Awake: An Anthology of C. S. Lewis, ed. Clyde Kilby (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 22.
It was when I was happiest that I longed most.… The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing…to find the place where all the beauty came from.5 The tragedy of the world is that the echo is mistaken for the Original Shout. When our back is to the breathtaking beauty of God, we cast a shadow on the earth and fall in love with it. But it does not satisfy.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.6
I have written this book because the breathtaking Beauty has visited us:
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory [His beauty!], glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). How can we not cry, “Look!”
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
And the Word of God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy:
5. Ibid., 25.
6. Ibid., 22–3.
Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you.
(Deuteronomy 28:47–48) But there are numerous objections to Christian Hedonism at this point.
Objection One Someone may object, “No, you should not pursue your joy. You should pursue God.” This is a helpful objection. It forces us to make several needed clarifications.
The objector is absolutely right that if we focus our attention on our own subjective experience of joy, we will most certainly be frustrated, and God will not be honored. When you go to an art museum, you had better attend to the paintings, and not your pulse. Otherwise, there will be no delight in the beauty of the art.
But beware of jumping to the conclusion that we should no longer say, “Come and take delight in these paintings.” Do not jump to the conclusion that the command to pursue joy is misleading, while the command to look at the paintings is not.
What would you say is wrong with the person who comes to the art museum looking for a particular painting because he knows he can make a big profit if he buys and resells it? He goes from room to room, looking carefully at each painting. He is not the least preoccupied with his subjective, aesthetic experience. What is wrong here?
He is mercenary. His reason for looking is not the reason the painting was created. You see, it is not enough to say our pursuit should simply be the paintings. For there are ways to pursue the paintings that are bad.
One common way of guarding against this mercenary spirit is to say we should pursue art for art’s sake. But what does this mean? It means, I think, pursuing art in a way that honors art, not money. But how do you honor art? I would answer: You honor art mainly by experiencing an appropriate emotion when you look at it.
W H Y I H AV E W R I T T E N T H I S B O O KWe know we will miss this emotion if we are self-conscious while beholding the painting. We also know we will miss it if we are money-conscious or fameconscious or power-conscious when we look at the painting. It seems to me, therefore, that a helpful way to admonish visitors to the art museum is to say, “Delight yourself in the paintings!” The word delight guards them from thinking they should pursue money or fame or power with the paintings. And the phrase “in the paintings” guards them from thinking the emotion that honors the paintings could be experienced any other way than by focusing on the paintings themselves.
So it is with God. We are commanded by the Word of God: “Delight yourself in the LORD.” This means: Pursue joy in God. The word joy, or delight, protects us from a mercenary pursuit of God. And the phrase “in God” protects us from thinking joy somehow stands alone as an experience separate from our experience of God Himself.
Objection Two The most common objection against the command to pursue joy is that Jesus commanded just the opposite when He called for our self-denial: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). We have dealt with this already (p. 241), but it may be helpful to draw in one other text to illustrate that biblical self-denial means “Deny
yourselves lesser joys so you don’t lose the big ones.” Which is the same as saying:
Really pursue joy! Don’t settle for anything less than full and lasting joy.
Consider Hebrews 12:15–17 as an example of how one person failed to
practice self-denial, to his own destruction:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
Esau lost his life because he preferred the pleasure of a single meal above the blessings of his birthright in the chosen family. This is a picture of all people who refuse to deny themselves the “fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25). But note well! The main evil is not in choosing a meal, but in despising his birthright.
Self-denial is never a virtue in itself. It has value precisely in proportion to the superiority of the reality embraced above the one denied. Self-denial that is not based on a desire for some superior goal will become the ground of boasting.
The third objection to the command to seek our joy can be stated like this:
You have argued that the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. You have said that if we try to abandon this pursuit, we cannot honor God or love people. But can you make this square with Romans 9:3 and Exodus 32:32? It seems that Paul and Moses do indeed abandon the pursuit of their own pleasure when they express a willingness to be damned for the salvation of Israel.
These are startling verses!
In Romans 9:3, Paul expresses his heartaches over the cursed condition of most of his Jewish kinsmen. He says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” In Exodus 32 the people of Israel have committed idolatry. The wrath of God burns against them. Moses takes the place of a mediator to protect the people. He prays, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of your book that you have written” (vv. 31–32).
First, we must realize that these two instances do not present us with the same problem. Moses’ prayer does not necessarily include a reference to eternal damnation like Paul’s does. We must not assume that the “book” he refers to here carries the same eternal significance that the “book of life” does, say, in Philippians 4:3 and Revelation 13:8; 17:8; 20:15; and 21:27.
W H Y I H AV E W R I T T E N T H I S B O O KGeorge Bush (the Old Testament scholar, not the president of the United
States!) argues that in Exodus 32:32 being blotted out of the book is tantamount to being taken out of life while others survive:
There is no intimation in these words of any secret book of the divine decrees, or of anything involving the question of Moses’ final salvation or perdition. He simply expressed the wish rather to die than witness the destruction of his people. The phraseology is an allusion, probably, to the custom of having the names of a community enrolled in a register, and whenever one died, of erasing his name from the number.7 A person’s willingness to die is not necessarily at odds with Christian Hedonism. Hebrews 11:26 says that Moses “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” There is no reason to think Moses stopped looking to the all-compensating reward when he struggled with the sin of Israel.
But this, of course, does not remove the main problem, which is Romans 9:3. Paul had written, “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers.” This appears to be a willingness to abandon the pursuit of happiness. Did Paul then cease to be a Christian Hedonist in expressing this kind of love for the lost?