I was recently introduced to John Piper’s term, “Christian Hedonism,” which I believe he coined in the 1986 classic, Desiring God, but which I came across in reading his recent mini-book, The Dangerous Duty of Delight. It’s a pretty radical concept… and yet it struck me as wonderfully, profoundly true.
Webster defines hedonism as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.” We’ve always been taught the Christian life was exactly counter to this, right? So what is Christian hedonism?
According to Piper, Christian hedonism is the truth that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him." Therefore, if we are going to glorify God as we ought, the pursuit of joy is not optional—it is essential. We not only may, but ought to pursue our maximum pleasure—in God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism summarizes the "chief end of man" as "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Piper has suggested that this would be more correct as "to glorify God by enjoying Him forever."
Essentially the idea is that the Christian life is not joyful or happy or blessed as a result of our devotion and service and worship of God. Being joyful and happy and blessed is HOW we worship God. It’s not a byproduct of our faith. It is our faith.
Seeking happiness as a “reward” for being a Christian is not something we should be ashamed of—it is precisely the motivation we should be pursuing. Put off all notions of self-pity and self-sacrifice and guilt for feeling discontent or desiring more. Acknowledging the desires of our restless souls is vital to our pleasure in God.
Piper looks to Augustine and Jonathan Edwards as examples of “Christian hedonism,” but perhaps most often he turns to C.S. Lewis, who Piper thinks summarizes the radical (and radically true) concept best in The Weight of Glory:
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Here are some of the controversial implications of being wholly devoted to a holy hedonistic lifestyle:
- It is okay (and right) to do good deeds because it will bring you pleasure. Does that mean our motivation in giving money to the poor or bringing flowers to someone in a hospital should be our happiness first and foremost??? Yes. Piper says “The pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. If you aim to abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.”
- We should reject the well-intentioned philosophy that says “For the Christian, happiness is never a goal to be pursued. It is always the unexpected surprise of a life of service.” No, we must do the opposite. Happiness is our service.
- When we come to a worship at church, we should be there to get, not to give. We should hunger for the joy that God provides us in worship, not concerned with what we could possibly give to Him.
- We should not pursue the wealth and material pleasures of this world, but we should pursue the greater gains awaiting us in eternal life. In other words, doing things for a crown in heaven is not a bad motivation at all.
- We should deny ourselves for God’s sake, but not feel sad or self-pitied as a result. We are denying ourselves a lesser good for a greater good; we must not think of sacrifice in terms of self-pity, but in terms of the reward at the end (“whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it,” Mark 8:35). We should live under the credo of slain missionary Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
Anyway, I’m sure this is already a familiar concept to most of you, and it’s pretty common sense when you think about it. But it seems like Christianity has been branded as a religion of legalism and self-denial and, well, no fun. Even from the pulpit we get messages that seem to argue for a worship of God that is all about what we can give to Him, or do to make Him happy, etc… How much more radical, then, is Piper’s notion that the chief aim in life should be OUR happiness and OUR pleasure in God? It’s extreme. But if Christianity is, after all, the one and true answer among all others, it should be extreme, right?
Note: The picture above depicts late night frivolity at Oxbridge 2005, a fantastic conference for Christian artists/academics/C.S. Lewis enthusiasts that takes place in Oxford and Cambridge, England, every three years.