In the introduction to his book Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Dr. John Piper warns his readers, “Beware of conjecture about what lies in the pages of this book!” because “Quick and superficial judgments will almost certainly be wrong.”[i] I believe I can honestly say that I am safe from any accusation of failing to heed this warning because it has been at least 12 years since I first read the book. The idea of “Christian Hedonism” as presented in this book has afforded me many hours of thoughtful contemplation as well as instigated numerous lively conversations. I’ve spent hours upon hours discussing the topic with those who love it as well as with those who find it objectionable. I just read the book again (much of it twice), and I think I can present a fair, thoughtful and gracious evaluation of “Christian Hedonism” as it is set forth in Desiring God.
I want to begin by stating emphatically that this book contains a lot of wonderful doctrine. Dr. Piper treats the subject of God’s sovereignty in a compelling and God-glorifying fashion. His explanation of God’s delight in Himself as the highest good is quite commendable. His love of Scripture comes forth throughout the volume, especially in the chapter specifically about the subject. The chapter on suffering is fantastic! There is so much good in this book that it really bothers me that I have to say negative things about it.
I’m not sure who it is who teaches that doing something good to make yourself happy is sinful, or that enjoying God is not a Biblical motive for obedience and worship. I certainly have never come across this idea anywhere in the Reformed and Puritan tradition to which my reading is generally limited. But Dr. Piper certainly, without any trace of doubt, demonstrates from Scripture that any such idea is completely unfounded and unbiblical. If he had simply set out to prove that seeking satisfaction in Christ, enjoying and delighting in God, and actively yearning for comfort in the Almighty are good and Biblical motives for obedience and worship and a necessary element of the Christian life, I think I could have recommended the book.
A Part for the Whole
In the opening of the book Dr. Piper famously alters the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He changes the answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” from “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever”[ii] to “To glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”[iii] In his immediate explanation for this change he makes the comment “Not that I care too much about the intention of seventeenth-century theologians.”[iv] Perhaps if he had concerned himself more with the intention of the catechism’s authors he would not have been so quick to change their answer. You see, the Puritans did not begin the catechism with a question regarding the purpose of man’s existence and then move on to something else, leaving it up to us to figure out how to fulfill that purpose. Please observe with me:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Q. 2. What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A. The word of God, which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.
Q. 3. What do the scriptures principally teach?
A. The scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.[v]
You see clearly that they do not change the subject at all. 1. Man exists to glorify and enjoy God. 2. It is the Bible alone that teaches us how to glorify and enjoy God. 3. The principle teaching of the Bible instructs us in two areas: what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. The remainder of the catechism expounds what it is we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. So the entirety of the catechism directs us how we are to glorify and enjoy God. How do we glorify God? We glorify God by believing everything He teaches us in His word, especially with regard to Himself and by willfully obeying every command He gives us. How do we enjoy God? We enjoy God by believing everything He teaches us in His word, especially with regard to Himself and by willfully obeying every command He gives us.
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all.” Ecclesiastes. 12:13
Before anyone objects that it is possible to believe what God says and do what He commands from improper motives that do not glorify God, please realize that the catechism sets forth what form of faith and obedience truly glorify God. It is made perfectly clear that a mere intellectual acknowledgement of the truth of Scripture is not God glorifying. A living, active and vibrant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that results in a life lived in willing obedience to, and adoration of Him glorifies God. And no one, upon completion of a study of the catechism, could rightly conclude that begrudging compliance or obedience in order to earn favor with God are in any way fulfilling the duties God requires of us.
This is why so many of those who criticize “Christian Hedonism” accuse it of being reductionistic. The means by which men are to glorify God and enjoy Him forever are manifold. All 107 questions have direct reference to man’s chief end. But Dr. Piper has reduced those multiple means of glorifying God to one, enjoying Him. While he does not altogether neglect all the other God given means, I believe the exaltation of this one above all others necessarily results in the overlooking of many.
I by no means wish to take away from the fact that God is indeed glorified by our enjoyment of Him. In fact I would argue heartily that the statement “A chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever” is a thoroughly Biblical statement. If only he had changed two words instead of one….
The Means to the End
Dr. Piper is absolutely correct in his insistence that we must delight in God. He must be our treasure, our all in all. We need nothing but Him. We must seek all satisfaction and comfort in Him. We must desire God. This is the clear teaching of the Bible. It is also taught throughout the Reformed and Puritan tradition, as can be seen in the WSC and Heidelberg Catechism. I heartily agree with him. My problem arises with regard to the means he insists upon to achieve this end.
How, we may ask, are we to accomplish the goal of enjoying God? The thrust of the book as a whole seems to answer: “by determining that my primary reason for all that I do must be an active, conscious desire to find pleasure, satisfaction and comfort in God.” That really lies at the heart of “Christian Hedonism”. We are to live our lives with the primary goal of finding joy, satisfaction and comfort, but with the necessary qualification that this joy, satisfaction and comfort is to be found in God Himself, not merely in the gifts He bestows.
I have two major objections to this necessity of making the desire for pleasure in God the primary motivation for everything in the Christian life. First of all, while I agree with Dr. Piper, and the WSC that enjoyment in God is a good an proper motive for worship and obedience, I also recognize that in some aspects of the Christian life and in some situations that we as Christians find ourselves, it would not in any way be necessary to insist that a desire for pleasure in God should be our primary motivation.
Perhaps the clearest example from the Bible is found in Genesis 22:1-19. God commands Abraham to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering. We are not privy to all of Abraham’s thought processes as he contemplated this difficult command, but Hebrews 11 sheds light on the matter. Now for the sake of illustration, imagine the scene with me and contemplate how Abraham might have answered Isaac if, once tied to the altar, he asked his father “Dad, what are you doing?”
I think we can imagine, with Biblical insight, that with tears running down his cheeks, he might answer something like this: “Son, the Lord our God has commanded me to offer you up as a sacrifice unto Himself. You know I cannot do otherwise than what He commands. But listen, Son, you need not fear, only trust Him. You see, He who cannot lie has made me many promises that he will accomplish specifically through you. He will not fail to make good on His promises, so I conclude that He must be intending to raise you from the dead.” We recognize in this story that Abraham glorified God by the means that the WSC prescribes, by believing what God says and by doing what He commands, even in the most trying of circumstances.
Now attempt to imagine Abraham’s answer if he had been a Christian Hedonist. “Son, you know that I am a Christian Hedonist and seeking and finding happiness in God is the primary motivation for all that I do. Now God has commanded me to kill you, so my path to happiness requires that I do so…” Even with the further explanation of trusting that God would raise him from the dead, do you see the ridiculousness of the answer? It would be just as silly for Abraham to make such arguments to his own heart as it would be to pose such an explanation to his son.
Please remember, I am not saying that seeking satisfaction and happiness in God is not a legitimate motivation for worship and obedience! I am saying that we ought not to insist that it should always be our primary motive, because, quite frankly, there are situations in the Christian life in which it ought not be. I am also aware that we could go through some sort of mental algebra to show that at some level, satisfaction in God is still a motivating factor in such circumstances. My point is that it doesn’t need to be, and often shouldn’t be our primary motivation for what we do, and that doesn’t mean that we aren’t therefore glorifying God as we should.
When I need to discipline my children, what is my motivation? Is the fact that I love them and know that chastising them for disobedience is the best thing for their souls an allowable motive? (I am one that can honestly say that it often does hurt me more than it hurts them.) Is the fact that I have been commanded to raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord enough? Is Proverbs 23:14, “You shall beat him with a rod, and deliver his soul from hell” a good enough motive? Is the best way to glorify God in the chastising of my children really to go through whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to spank them in order that I may find pleasure in God? Again, I know that at some level that is somehow in play, but to insist that it be foremost in my mind is in my opinion completely unnecessary.
Dr. Piper does not believe his teaching is at odds with the WSC, and he even states of the Heidelberg Catechism “The fact is, the entire catechism is structured the way Christian Hedonism would structure it.” But it is at this point that he is quite wrong. When answering the question, “How are we to enjoy God”, both catechisms could be accurately summarized with the words of the hymn “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Neither catechism has any notion that it is necessary to actively seek happiness and satisfaction in God as the primary motive for all we do in order to accomplish the goal of glorifying and enjoying Him.
The Delight of Duty
My second objection to this aspect of “Christian Hedonism” is the seeming failure to recognize duty as a legitimate and necessary means of both glorifying God and enjoying Him. Much effort is set forth in this book to warn against the danger of performing duties for the wrong reasons. Very little is spent in admonishment against the neglect of duties (the one notable exception being the duty to delight in God, of course). Nearly every time the term duty comes up it is in a negative light.
Again, seeking pleasure in God is a legitimate motive for obedience. The Bible presents us with a multitude of legitimate motives to obey God: love, gratitude, fear, as a response to mercy, in awe of God’s holiness, in order to fulfill the purpose of displaying God’s image aright, to name a few. But in Dr. Piper’s zeal to extol this motive, I fear an important truth may be obscured. We owe to God perfect, perpetual, willing obedience for the simple reason that He is God. If God tells me to do something, and I require any other reason than the mere fact that it is God who gave the command, it is sin and provocation on my part. God graciously gives us a multitude of further motives, but if the fact that God commanded it isn’t enough, we have an immense spiritual problem. A sad fact is that I have run into far too many “Christian Hedonists” who actually think that obeying God simply because He’s God is wrong. I wish Dr. Piper had been half as concerned about the tendency of fallen men to fail to recognize and fulfill their duties as he was to make sure they don’t perform their duty for the wrong reasons.
But here is the fact that Dr. Piper seems to miss. If we recognize our duty toward God and determine to fulfill it, if we willfully obey God’s commandments for any or all of the Biblical motives, the result is satisfaction in God. We do not need to make that satisfaction the primary reason for obedience. I believe every true Christian has felt the satisfaction that comes from obeying God simply because He is God. Not satisfaction in a job well done, NO! Satisfaction in God Himself: the satisfaction promised in John 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.”
I guess my point is two-fold. 1. Heartfelt, willful obedience results in happiness in Christ, whether we make that happiness the reason we obey or not. 2. Failure to obey results in a loss of happiness in Christ, even if we are attempting to make happiness in Christ the primary motive for everything we do. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Christian Hedonism rightly emphasizes the duty of delight, but woefully neglects the delight of duty.
The most frustrating aspect of the book when I first read it was what I will here refer to as equivocation. You see, Dr. Piper seems to have two distinct definitions for Christian Hedonism that he uses interchangeably without seeming to notice. He begins with what I will refer to as definition #1. Here a Christian Hedonist is someone who willfully determines to make the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction in God their chief motive for life. An example of the use of the term by def. #1 is “Then I was converted to Christian Hedonism. In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.”[vi] The definition I will refer to as def. #2 is anyone who recognizes God as their greatest good and actively seeks pleasure and satisfaction in Him. This definition is clearly in view in chapter 2 for instance which he entitled “Conversion, the Creation of a Christian Hedonist.” When he speaks of his becoming a Christian Hedonist he does not seem to be speaking of his original experience of being savingly joined to Christ by faith. But in his chapter on conversion, he points to the fact that in every true conversion there is a fervent seeking after God as our greatest good and declares it the creation of a Christian Hedonist.
As far as these definitions go, I would say that in the case of the first, the term is an accurate description of the philosophy, but the philosophy is unbiblical at points. In the case of definition #2 the term Christian Hedonism is not a very good description, but at least the philosophy it describes is Biblical. If a hedonist is someone who’s primary motivation is to find pleasure, then a Christian Hedonist would be a good description for someone who makes the pursuit of pleasure his primary motivation, but seeks that pleasure in God alone. But someone who delights in God, and recognizes that seeking pleasure and satisfaction in God is a Biblical motive is not therefore rightly called hedonistic, but does have a clear Biblical foundation for that way of life.
The problem is that in chapter after chapter Dr. Piper provides solid Biblical evidence for the definition #2 Christian Hedonist, but continues to press us to become definition #1 Christian Hedonists, for which I see no Biblical support.
Another frustrating aspect of the book is Dr. Piper’s repeated use of false dichotomies. He makes his argument for Christian Hedonism, and then defends it with an argument that assumes there are only two possibilities, and Christian Hedonism is the right one.
Consider this example:
Someone might object that in making the joy of worship an end in itself, we make God a means to our end rather than our being a means to His end. Thus, we seem to elevate ourselves above God. But consider this question: Which glorifies God more—that is, which reflects back to God more clearly the greatness of His glory—(1) a worship experience that comes to climax with joy in the wonder of God? Or (2) an experience that comes to climax in a noble attempt to free itself from rapture in order to make a contribution to the goal of God?
This is a subtle thing. We strive against God’s all-sufficient glory if we think we can become a means to His end without making joy in Him our end.[vii]
First notice the false dichotomy: either our worship culminates in climax of joy and wonder in God because we made joy in Him our end, or we seek to worship God with a strange desire to avoid satisfaction in Him. From where does the idea come that the only alternative to worshiping for the purpose of finding pleasure and satisfaction in God is to worship with the motive of not finding satisfaction? This is a non sequitur. But I find the final statement here to be the most difficult. “We strive against God’s all-sufficient glory if we think we can become a means to His end without making joy in Him our end.” If we come to worship our Savior simply because He is worthy of worship, with no conscious motivation of seeking joy in Him, we are not worshiping Him, but rather striving against His all-sufficient glory? This is a troubling statement indeed.
I believe this passage, along with his statement in the introduction are very problematic. There he said, “In a matter of weeks I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.” (I understand how he could argue for the truthfulness of this statement. If all men always seek happiness, then to worship God while not seeking happiness in Him would necessitate the seeking of happiness in something else instead. But please read the statement again and consider the following.) There are countless motivations to worship the living God! Countless Biblical motivations: love, gratitude, fear, reverence, an irresistible response to even a glimpse of His magnificence, holiness or glory… Yet he can boldly proclaim without qualification “it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him.” These kinds of statements are unhelpful to say the least.
Another example occurs at the beginning of chapter 4, Love, the Labor of Christian Hedonism, where he states “the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Or, to put it another way: If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.” Do you see the false dichotomy? Either the pursuit of pleasure is your motive, or you aim to abandon the pursuit of pleasure. Let me present another example from the Christian life where the pursuit of pleasure will not be the prime motivating factor, but love is. You find that a dear brother in Christ has fallen into serious sin. Your heart breaks as you recognize the destructive influence the sin is having upon him and you fear for the salvation of his eternal soul. You determine that you must confront him, in love and mercy and grace, but you must confront him. Your heart churns and aches, but your love for this dear friend constrains you to admonish him with all the grace and courage that you can prayerfully muster. Are you failing to love your brother and please God because the motive of finding pleasure and satisfaction in God is not your conscious motivation for your actions? Of course not. We could, again, go through the mental gymnastics necessary to find the connection that proves that at some point there is some aspect of our motivation that is indeed the pursuit of happiness, but is that in anyway helpful in this duty? Do I really need to rebuke my brother for the purpose of securing my own happiness? Again, I think this is just silly.
Consider another statement , this one from the epilogue, and test it in reference to the situation with the need to confront a brother in sin. “The pursuit of joy through mercy is what makes love real.”[viii] Is my love for my brother not real because I am not rebuking him in order to obtain joy through mercy? Of course I do go to my brother in the hope that he will repent and receive mercy! But that is not the same thing as insisting that my purpose for rebuking him must be the pursuit of joy.
Emotion in Place
The final feature of Christian Hedonism that we need to address is the great emphasis that it places on the emotional aspect of man. Perhaps the most widely known words of this book are found in the popular slogan “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him”.[ix] This idea sounds wonderfully spiritual, and I would agree that it expresses a truth, but it is my concern that it places undue emphasis on our emotions.
This slogan is tailor made for the conference Christianity that has embraced it. Thousands of zealous Calvinists gather together and worship the Living God through the faithful expositional preaching of the word of God. To those who embrace this slogan, this must be the very essence of glorifying God. Such worship is truly spiritually exhilarating, a mountaintop experience to which little can compare. I have nothing against such conferences, I see them as mighty evidence of the work of God. The problem is that our emotional makeup does not allow us to remain on the mountaintop. When our emotions inevitably enter a valley, the Christian Hedonist response is to put all effort into getting back to the mountaintop, for it is only there that God is rightly glorified.
Consider one of the attendees on the Thursday following an incredibly blessed T4G. The adversary has taken full advantage of the emotional low he knew would come. The demands of his vocation are pressed to unusual heights, his wife misunderstood something he said and is hurt and angry, his teenage daughter is giving him attitude and his toddler is sick. He is informed that a good friend from church has said hurtful things about him and he finds out that the person whose salvation he has been earnestly seeking has hardened himself to the gospel and is hanging out at strip joints. How ought this man go about striving to glorify God in such a situation, when outward circumstances oppress and tyrannize him? Is yearning for the mountaintop and praying earnestly to return to it really the best way to seek to glorify God now? Is it not patently obvious that the means by which he should strive to glorify God are the means laid out in the catechism? The best way to seek the glory of God is to determine to remain faithful regardless of outward circumstances and emotional turmoil. A constant determination to live a life of principled obedience, to conquer every temptation toward unbelief and remain lovingly obedient whether he feels like it or not. Just as Abraham glorified God in the most trying of circumstances so must he, by trusting and obeying his Lord and Savior.
I do not think we can overemphasize the danger of placing such importance upon emotions that all other faculties of the soul become subservient to them in the effort to reach the goal of pleasure, even if we are determined to find that pleasure in God alone. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9) When Dr. Piper writes “It is better to say that we pursue our joy in God than to simply say that we pursue God. For one can pursue God in ways that do not honor Him:”[x], it is as if he were blissfully unaware that one can just as easily seek to find joy in God and end up delighting in something else without realizing it. A quick glimpse at the charismatic movement makes this abundantly clear.
John Owen discusses the role of the mind in governing the other faculties of the soul in this way:
The ground of this efficacy of sin by deceit is taken from the faculty of the soul affected with it. Deceit properly affects the mind; it is the mind that is deceived. When sin attempts any other way of entrance into the soul, as by the affections, the mind, retaining its right and sovereignty, is able to give check and control unto it. But where the mind is tainted, the prevalency must be great; for the mind or understanding is the leading faculty of the soul, and what that fixes on, the will and affections rush after, being capable of no consideration but what that presents unto them. Hence it is, that though the entanglement of the affections unto sin be ofttimes most troublesome, yet the deceit of the mind is always most dangerous, and that because of the place that it possesseth in the soul as unto all its operations. Its office is to guide, direct, choose, and lead; and “if the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness!”[xi] (emphasis mine)
Owen’s view is in stark contrast to Christian Hedonism, for to fully embrace Christian Hedonism is to surrender the mind’s sovereignty to the affections.[xii]
A Christian must be careful to govern his emotions and will by his mind, determining to keep them subservient to the word of God, because he recognizes the natural propensity for his emotions to rule over him. Christian Hedonism’s simultaneous exaltation of emotion and neglect of objective obedience is an extremely dangerous combination. It is my sincerest concern that allowing the emotions to reign in such a way will inevitably result in more heartache than satisfaction of soul.
I sincerely hope I have succeeded in my attempt to graciously and thoughtfully assess the book Desiring God and the notion of Christian Hedonism without misrepresenting them in any way. I assure you that any failure on my part was purely unintentional. Much of the book is wonderful. I was quite surprised at how much I benefitted from the chapter on Suffering, considering how much of the book I had disagreed with up until that point, but as I contemplated the matter it became quite obvious why. The desire and hope for joy and comfort and satisfaction in God that far surpasses our understanding is repeatedly set forth in Scripture as the means of sustaining the Christian in times of suffering. I hope no one has understood my position to be a denial of the Biblical truth that a significant part of man’s chief end is to enjoy God forever, because I would never deny such a glorious and blessed truth. I in no way deny that we ought to actively seek pleasure and satisfaction in the Almighty. I would not even represent my position as accusing Dr. Piper of overemphasizing the duty to delight in God. How could that ever be overemphasized?
If Dr. Piper had simply set out to defend the importance of enjoying God as a necessary element of the chief end of man, as the Puritans did, this would have been a much better book. However, his simultaneous insistence upon the need to consciously strive for that enjoyment, along with his neglect of many Biblical means for reaching it, forces me to the conclusion that Christian Hedonism is an unbalanced view of the Christian life and ought not to be followed.
The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever!
Let us all seek to glorify God by all Biblical means and let us enjoy Him forever by every Biblical means.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!
[i] Desiring God p. 27 (All quotations taken from the free online pdf of the 2003 edition found at: https://dwynrhh6bluza.cloudfront.net/website_uploads/documents/e-books/pdfs/desiring-god-1388566181.pdf )
[ii] Westminster Shorter Catechism (hereafter WSC) Question1
[iii] DG p. 18, 28, 94, 96, 111, 307, 371, 372
[iv] DG p. 17
[vi] DG p 18
[vii] DG p. 95
[viii] DG p. 306
[ix] DG p 10, 288
[x] DG p. 306
[xi] Works of John Owen, Vol. 6, p 271 AGES Software (from ch. 8 of The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers…)
[xii] Many thanks to Pastor Dave Chanski for editorial suggestions and directing me to this John Owen quote!