“Christian Hedonism” — A Response | thebereancall.org

Hunt, Dave

Some readers complained that my response last month in the Q&A about John Piper and his "Christian Hedonism" (CH) showed that I hadn't read what he's written. But I have. Some form of CH has been present in his writings for the past 20 years. He says he's been "brooding over these things" for nearly 40 years.

I appreciate the letters rebuking me. Most were kind, though firm. Some were angry.  All were erudite, quoting Scripture, and so well-versed in Piper's writings that it must encourage him. I was sorry to learn of his diagnosis with prostate cancer. I will pray for him and encourage you to do likewise. Many testify of great blessing through his writings. He commendably seeks to awaken Christians to rejoice in the Lord.

Much that Piper writes is biblical and glorifying to God. But I have concerns. Scripture was not the source of his CH. He says, "I found in myself an overwhelming longing to be happy...to seek pleasure." For that, he felt guilty until he found support in the Westminster Catechism ("The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever") and certain authors, especially Jonathan Edwards. Desiring God, which introduced CH openly to readers in 1986, develops it more from philosophical reasoning than exegesis: "Human life should be a ‘living for pleasure.'" Elsewhere: "You can't love your own happiness too much." Biblical references, please!

Three basic concepts make up Piper's CH: 1) God's passion for His glory; 2) Man's obligation to find pleasure in God; and 3) God's total sovereignty to the exclusion of man's free will.

Piper writes, "...the message of this book [CH]...is my life. That God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him...." That saying is repeated almost mantra-like by his followers. I find it troubling and its meaning elusive. Surely, this idea, so important that Piper calls it his "life," must be a major theme of the Bible—but I can't find it there. The phrase "glorified in" is used seven times in the KJV, and none comes close to this slogan. That is disturbing.

"Satisfaction" depends upon one's taste. David said, "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Ps:34:8), but even many Christians have little "taste" for God. It hardly seems biblical that God's glorification (even in me) should depend upon my satisfaction in Him. Was it the martyrdom of the young men killed by the Aucas, or the degree of their satisfaction in God at the time, that glorified God? Aren't these two different ways for God to be glorified in us?

He justifies Christian Hedonism first of all not with Scripture but with a quote from Blaise Pascal: "All men seek happiness....The will never takes the least step but to this object." Pascal often speaks truth—but not in this case. The soldier who throws himself on a hand grenade to save the lives of his buddies is seeking happiness?! Every act of the will is for happiness? People are driven by ambition, revenge, pride, lust, impulse. Furthermore, Pascal's statement about the will contradicts Piper's Calvinism: "...it is not within the power of our will to determine what that sovereign joy will be [i.e., what will delight us]" (The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 59).

He says that the idea that "Glorifying God and enjoying Him are the same" is what CH is all about. Pleasure, joy, satisfaction—the stuff of CH—are only part of our relationship to God, but Piper has made them everything. God is glorified in us by more than our being satisfied in Him. When David went against Goliath "in the name of the LORD of hosts" (1 Sm 17:45) and delivered Israel, wasn't God glorified in him? When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego defied Nebuchadnezzar and declared, "We will not...worship the golden image" (Dn 3:18) and walked with the Son of God in the midst of that furnace, wasn't God glorified in them? Piper's theology is at least one-sided!

Yes, CH is pleasure in God, and that is good. It is one part of our worship of the Lord, but Piper has made it the sine qua non: "it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him." When I pray, "Lord, I love You! I want only that You be glorified," am I being "unbiblical and arrogant"?

He reasons that if we delight in God, there will be pleasure in worshiping Him. But that doesn't make such pleasure the only proper reason for worshiping. What about awe, fear, love? The result of worship will surely be supreme joy, but this can't be the only reason for worship! We are told that we must worship the Father in spirit and in truth but not alone for the "pleasure to be had in Him." This is not exegesis but philosophy.

Attempting to support Christian Hedonism from God's Word, he fails to show us how it comes from Scripture (except by implication). He refers to CH as a "discovery" with "stunning implications...that all the omnipotent energy that drives the heart of God to pursue His own glory also drives Him to satisfy the hearts of those who seek their joy in Him." Here is another slogan with elusive meaning that sounds good but cannot be found in Scripture. God is the I AM, infinitely glorious, unchangeable from eternity to eternity. How, where, and why would He pursue His own glory? And, again, what would that mean? This is philosophy, not Bible, but Piper writes an entire book to promote it (God's Passion for His Glory) based upon Jonathan Edwards' writings.

His attempts to find biblical support seldom follow from the verses cited. For example, to justify his idea that "the quest for joy in God relate[s] to everything," he quotes: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God" (1 Cor:10:31). But the verse says nothing about a quest for joy in God—nothing!

His strongest effort to find support in Scripture comes in Chapter Four: "LOVE: The Labor of Christian Hedonism." He has problems with, "[love] seeketh not her own [i.e., is not motivated by self-gain]" (v. 5), but emphasizes, "though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and...give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing" (v. 3). From "profiteth," he argues that true love can be motivated by what one hopes to get in return. But Paul's entire argument is to extol love as that without which all else is worthless—and it would be consistent to interpret "profiteth me nothing" in that way. Certainly it doesn't directly say that we are to love in order to get a reward. Piper quotes, "[love] rejoiceth in the truth" (v. 6) and reasons, "if love rejoices in the choices it makes...it cannot be indifferent to its own joy!" No. It rejoices in the truth; there is nothing about rejoicing in its choices.

What about Christ enduring the Cross "for the joy set before him"? It was the joy of purchasing our redemption and of fulfilling the Father's will that motivated Him—not of what He would get out of it.

He even applies his theory to God: "...the ultimate ground of [CH] is the fact that God is uppermost in His own affections: The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever....God's overwhelming passion is to exalt the value of His glory....He loves His glory infinitely....God's passion to be glorified and our passion to be satisfied are one experience in the Christ-exalting act of worship." That's Piper's statement, but where is it stated in the Bible?!

Piper says, "Not to enjoy God is to dishonor Him. To say to Him that something else satisfies you more is the opposite of worship." But to seek God for who He is without any thought of one's own pleasure does not mean that "something else satisfies [one] more." He goes on to say, "I must pursue joy in God if I am to glorify Him...." No, pursuing Him brings joy.

If I seek joy in God, it is still joy that I seek—and that detracts from Him. Yes, my supreme delight is in God, but that delight is not why I pursue Him. It is true that if I obey the command to love God with all my heart I will be supremely happy. But I do not love Him in order to be happy. Happiness is the by-product, but Piper makes it the compelling reason.

Yes, God promises satisfaction in the future kingdom: "I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness" (Ps:17:15); "My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; and my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips" (Ps:63:5). But that does not tell us to seek satisfaction—even in God.

He writes: "God's pursuit of praise from us and our pursuit of pleasure in Him are one and the same pursuit....God, in seeking [the creatures'] glory and happiness, seeks himself...." I find such ideas troubling because they result from human reasoning and are not stated directly in God's Word. It seems that what began as Piper's desire to justify his passion for pleasure became the belief that God has the same passion—and, finally, that they are one and the same.