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Notice that he says, “I could wish that I myself were accursed.” The reason for translating the verb as “I could wish” is that the Greek imperfect tense is used to soften the expression and show that it cannot be carried through. Henry Alford says, “The sense of the imperfect in such expression is the proper and strict one…the act is unfinished, an obstacle intervening.”8 Buist Fanning says that this “desiderative imperfect” is used “to contemplate the desire, but fail to bring oneself actually to the point of wishing.”9
7. George Bush, Notes on Exodus, vol. 2 (Minneapolis: James & Klock, 1976, orig. 1852), 225.
8. Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament, vol. 2 (Chicago: Moody, 1958, orig. 1852), 225.
9. B. M. Fanning, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999), 251, cited in Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1996), 552 n. 27. Wallace translates it, “I could almost wish myself accursed.”
The obstacle is the immediately preceding promise of Romans 8:38–39:
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul knows it is impossible to take the place of his kinsmen in hell.
But he says he is potentially willing to! This is the problem for Christian Hedonism. We simply must take this seriously. Paul ponders the hypothetical possibility of a world in which such a thing might be possible. Suppose there were a world in which an unconverted sinner and a man of faith could stand before the bar of God to receive judgment. And suppose that if the saint were willing, God would reverse their roles. If the saint were willing, God would withdraw His saving grace from the saint so he becomes fit for hell in unbelief and rebellion, and He would give converting grace to the unbeliever so that he trusts Christ and becomes fit for heaven.
In such a world, what would love require? It would require total selfsacrifice. And the principle of Christian Hedonism would cease to apply. But mark well! This hypothetical world does not exist! God did not create a world in which a person could be eternally damned for an act of love.
In the real world God made, we are never asked to make such a choice: Are you willing to become damnable for the salvation of others? Instead, we are constantly told that doing good to others will bring us great reward and that we should pursue that reward.
Paradoxically, Paul’s willingness to reach for a hypothetical case of ultimate sacrifice is a deep and dramatic way of saying with as much force as he knows how, “This, even this, is how much I delight in the prospect of Israel’s salvation!” But immediately we see the impossibility of carrying through the wish: If their salvation were such a great delight to him, would hell really be hell? Could we really speak of hell as the place where Paul could achieve his deepest and noblest desire of love? This is the sort of incongruity you run into in hypothetical worlds that do not exist.
Happiness would be impossible in any case in such a world. For if God were to give a saint the option of becoming damnable to save another, such a
W H Y I H AV E W R I T T E N T H I S B O O Ksaint could never live with himself if he said no. And he would suffer forever in hell if he said yes. He loses both ways.
But Christian Hedonism is not a philosophy for hypothetical worlds. It is based on the real world God has established and regulated in Holy Scripture. In this real world we are never urged or required to become evil that good may abound. We are always required to become good. This means becoming the kind of people who delight in the good, not just doing it dutifully. The Word of God commands us to pursue our joy.
REASON FOUR: AFFECTIONS ARE ESSENTIAL
TO THE CHRISTIAN LIFE, NOT OPTIONALIt is astonishing to me that so many people try to define true Christianity in terms of decisions, and not affections. Not that decisions are unessential. The problem is that they require so little transformation to achieve. They are evidence of no true work of grace in the heart. People can make “decisions” about the truth of God while their hearts are far from Him.
We have moved far away from the Christianity of Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards pointed to 1 Peter 1:8 and argued that “true religion, in great part, consists in the affections.” Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. (1 Peter 1:8) He points out that “true religion” has two kinds of operation in the souls of the saints, according to this test: love to Christ (“though you have not seen him, you love him”) and joy in Christ (“you rejoice with joy inexpressible and filled with glory”). Both of these operations in the soul are affections, not merely decisions. Edwards’s conception of true Christianity was that the new birth really brought into being a new nature that had new affections.10
10. Jonathan Edwards, Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 236.
I find this supported throughout Scripture. We are commanded to feel, not just to think or decide. We are commanded to experience dozens of emotions, not just to perform acts of willpower.
For example, we are commanded not to covet (Exodus 20:17), and it is obvious that every commandment not to have a certain feeling is also a commandment to feel a certain way. The opposite of covetousness is contentment with what we have, and in Hebrews 13:5 this is exactly what we are commanded to experience (“Be content with what you have”).
We are commanded to bear no grudge, but to forgive from the heart (Leviticus 19:17–18). Note: The law does not say, “Make a mere decision to drop the matter.” Rather, it says, “Experience an event in the heart” (see Matthew 18:35). Similarly, the intensity of the heart is commanded in 1 Peter 1:22 (“Love one another earnestly from a pure heart”) and in Romans 12:10 (“Love one another with brotherly affection”).
Among other examples of emotions that the Scriptures command are these:
intensity of affections appropriate for God or His cause. It is true that at those times we must, insofar as it lies within us, exert our wills and make decisions that we hope will rekindle our joy. Though joyless love is not our aim (“God loves a cheerful giver!”), nevertheless it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided there is a spirit of repentance for the deadness of our hearts.
I am often asked what a Christian should do if the cheerfulness of obedience is not there. It is a good question. My answer is not to simply get on with your duty because feelings are irrelevant! My answer has three steps. First, confess the sin of joylessness. Acknowledge the culpable coldness of your heart.
Don’t say that it doesn’t matter how you feel. Second, pray earnestly that God would restore the joy of obedience. Third, go ahead and do the outward dimension of your duty in the hope that the doing will rekindle the delight. (For more practical counsel on fighting for joy, see appendix 4.) This is very different from saying, “Do your duty because feelings don’t count.” These steps are predicated on the assumption that there is such a thing as hypocrisy. They are based on the belief that our goal is the reunion of pleasure and duty and that a justification of their separation is a justification of sin. John
Murray puts it like this:
There is no conflict between gratification of desire and the enhancement of man’s pleasure, on the one hand, and fulfillment of God’s command on the other.… The tension that often exists within us between a sense of duty and wholehearted spontaneity is a tension that arises from sin and a disobedient will. No such tension would have invaded the heart of unfallen man. And the operations of saving grace redirected to the end of removing the tension so that there may be, as there was with man at the beginning, the perfect complementation of duty and pleasure, of commandment and love.11 This is the goal of saving grace and the goal of this book.
11. John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1957), 38–9.
So that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace…so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:7, 9) In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…to the praise of the glory of His grace. (Ephesians 1:4–6, NASB) God chose what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:28–29) Christian Hedonism combats pride by putting man in the category of an empty vessel beneath the fountain of God. It guards us from the presumption of trying to be God’s benefactors. Philanthropists can boast. Welfare recipients can’t. The primary experience of the Christian Hedonist is need. When a little, helpless child is swept off his feet by the undercurrent on the beach and his father catches him just in time, the child does not boast; he hugs.
The nature and depth of human pride are illuminated by comparing boasting with self-pity. Both are manifestations of pride. Boasting is the response of pride to success. Self-pity is the response of pride to suffering. Boasting says, “I deserve admiration because I have achieved so much.” Self-pity says, “I deserve admiration because I have sacrificed so much.” Boasting is the voice of pride in the heart of the strong. Self-pity is the voice of pride in the heart of the weak.
Boasting sounds self-sufficient. Self-pity sounds self-sacrificing.
The reason self-pity does not look like pride is that it appears to be needy.
But the need arises from a wounded ego, and the desire of the self-pitying is not really for others to see them as helpless, but as heroes. The need self-pity feels does not come from a sense of unworthiness, but from a sense of unrecognized worthiness. It is the response of unapplauded pride.
Christian Hedonism severs the root of self-pity. People don’t feel self-pity when suffering is accepted for the sake of joy.
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11–12) This is the ax laid to the root of self-pity. When we have to suffer on account of Christ, we do not summon up our own resources like heroes. Rather, we become like little children who trust the strength of their father and who want the joy of his reward. As we saw in the last chapter, the greatest sufferers for Christ have always deflected praise and pity by testifying to their Christian Hedonism.
“I never made a sacrifice,” said Hudson Taylor in later years, looking back over a life in which that element was certainly not lacking. But what he said was true, for the compensations were so real and lasting that he came to see that giving up is inevitably receiving, when one is dealing heart to heart with God.… The sacrifice was great, but the reward far greater.
“Unspeakable joy [he tells us] all day long and every day, was my happy experience. God, even my God, was a living bright reality, and all I had to do was joyful service.”12 “Giving up is inevitably receiving.” This is the motto of Christian Hedonism and the demise of self-pity. You can see the principle at work among the godly again and again. For example, I knew a seminary professor who also served as an usher in the balcony of a big church. Once when he was to have part in a service, the pastor extolled him for his willingness to serve in this
12. Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret (Chicago: Moody, n. d., original 1932), 30.
unglamorous role even though he had a doctorate in theology. The professor
humbly deflected the praise by quoting Psalm 84:10:
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
In other words, don’t think I am heroically overcoming great obstacles of disinclination to keep the doors of the sanctuary. The Word of God says it will bring great blessing!
Most people can recognize that doing something for the joy of it is a humbling experience. When a man takes friends out for dinner and picks up the check, his friends may begin to say how good it was of him to pay for them. But he simply lifts his hand in a gesture that says, “Stop.” And he says, “It’s my pleasure.” In other words, if I do a good deed for the joy of it, the impulse of pride is broken.
The breaking of that impulse is the will of God, and that is one of the reasons I have written this book.
REASON SIX: CHRISTIAN HEDONISM
PROMOTES GENUINE LOVE FOR PEOPLENo one has ever felt unloved because he was told that the attainment of his joy would make another person happy. I have never been accused of selfishness when justifying a kindness on the basis that it delights me. On the contrary, loving acts are genuine to the degree that they are not done begrudgingly. And the good alternative to begrudgingly is not neutrally or dutifully, but gladly. The authentic heart of love “loves kindness” (Micah 6:8); it doesn’t just do kindness.
Christian Hedonism forces this truth into consideration.