Two men set out on a journey. They walk at the same pace, and profess to have the same destination – due north. However, one thing separates the friends: one of their compasses has a defect. It’s just slightly off, pointing one degree away from north. The man with the good compass has a sharp eye, and notices the defect in his compatriot’s device. But he thinks nothing of it since, as they walk, they appear to be heading in the same direction. After 15 minutes, they seem just as close to each other as when they began. Another 15 minutes, and there is still little difference. An hour passes, and it’s definitely harder to deny that the space between them has increased, yet they’re still able to converse just fine. Another hour, and they have to talk noticeably louder to hear one another. Finally, the travelers are out of sight altogether. This small difference, which at first seemed so trivial and inessential, revealed itself to be quite important the further the men went, ultimately separating them completely. In the end, this small difference resulted in utterly different destinations…
There is much truth in Christian Hedonism, and undoubtedly there has been much good produced by its chief advocate, John Piper. Much of what they assert comports well with Scripture, and it rightly rejects the misconception some have that the Christian life is meant to be dry and joyless. However, there’s a defect in their compass: it’s not pointing due north. They may be doctrinally right on everything else, but if their focus is off, their emphases are wrong, and they aren’t guiding their steps toward the proper goal, then they will progressively deviate from the right path, causing great damage to themselves and others. If you think I’m overstating the potential effect of the doctrine, its intended all-encompassing nature is confessed by no one more proudly than its chief advocates themselves, who say, “Christian Hedonism touches, and reshapes, our vision of essentially all of life and ministry — from conversion to worship to the Scriptures to prayer to marriage to missions to suffering, and even the very nature of God himself.” Unfortunately, I believe they’re correct. This article is my plead to the Christian Hedonist – who may yet not be far along the path – to correct his course before he strays into the wilderness entirely.
What is Christian Hedonism?
John Piper succinctly summarizes Christian Hedonism as the conviction that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” On the bare face of it, there is truth to this statement, because there is indeed a strong link between our love of God and our glorification of God. The more we know the One we’re to glorify, and the more we understand what pleases Him, the better we can do it. And as we come to know Him better, we can’t help but to love Him and be satisfied in Him more because of who He is. God is so great, that it’s impossible not to experience more joy as we know Him better, unless we’re reprobates who love darkness rather than light. However, Christian Hedonism is much more than noticing a link between joy and pleasing God; it makes pursuing our own joy the chief means of glorifying God. Piper goes on to say, “The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy, you cannot love man or please God.” At the 1997 Passion Conference, he expresses his view even more strongly: “If this is true, that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him, then the vocation of your life is to pursue your pleasure.” This is where his error comes out glaringly; it’s a fixation on the self and personal joy that’s impossible to reconcile with the words of the Lord Jesus, Who commands the believer to “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
The Biblical View
The Bible never tells us to make our joy our goal. Rather than advocating self-centeredness, the New Testament promotes the most radical selflessness of any book ever written. It tells us to deny ourselves, and to be indifferent – even to rejoice – when persecuted (Matthew 5:12), when taken advantage of (Matthew 5:44), when defrauded (1 Corinthians 6:7), and tells us even to hate our own life for Jesus’ sake (Luke 14:26). The model that Christ gives us to follow is the Crucifixion. The servant is not greater than his Master, and so if He was willing to be beaten, spit-on, mocked, tortured, left to die, and finally killed, how much more should we be? This is also the attitude Paul instructs us to have in Philippians 2:4-8, the well-known passage where we’re told to mimic the Savior who was humble and obedient even unto death on the Cross. And rather than being focused on ourselves in this endeavor, he there tells us plainly to “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” (v. 4).
Now the Christian Hedonist will argue that being self-sacrificial is not incompatible with joy, but is actually a means of maximizing it. To disregard the temporal for the eternal is to cast off the lesser pleasures that distract from the greatest and purest pleasure, which can only be found in the service of God. Amen! Who will argue that the joy of the Lord does not stand in contrast to the fleeting comforts of life like the Sun to a candle? But just because self-sacrificial love ultimately results in greater joy does not mean that the joy itself should be our goal! If it was, Paul wouldn’t have had a dilemma in Philippians chapter one. For those in the know, you may recognize Philippians 1:20-23 as one of the passages John Piper attempts to ground Christian Hedonism in. We won’t examine how he twists this passage in depth here, but his conclusion is that Paul’s confidence that his death will glorify Christ stems from Paul knowing he’ll have greater joy in death. Therefore, John Piper sees in this passage a clear teaching that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him, and that we should make it our vocation to pursue our personal happiness (how “clear” this is I’ll leave to the judgement of the reader: would you ever come up with such an interpretation if Piper didn’t tell you that?). But this interpretation of verses 20-23, which Piper thinks is so compelling that he claims to stake his belief in Christian Hedonism in it, is completely undermined by verses 24 and 25: “Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith.”
Did you catch that?
Paul made it clear that, to him, to die was gain (v. 21). His personal joy would have been maximized if he departed to be with Christ. Yet, after wrestling with the issue, he finally decided that he should tarry for a while, because it would be for the benefit of others to remain, not the benefit of himself. If he were a Christian Hedonist, whose vocation was to pursue his own pleasure, the decision to be with Christ would have been a no-brainer. But he wasn’t, and so he was willing to temporarily set aside even the highest pleasure for the service of others. Indeed, is there any other reason besides service of God and His Church for us to want to live in this world, who know that our lives will be so much better when we depart to be forever with the Lord? For those Christians who truly believe in the promises of God, the daily decision to live is a daily rejection of the philosophy of Christian Hedonism.
No Man Can Serve Two Masters…
The chief problem with Christian Hedonism is not so much what it asserts, but what it obsesses over. It’s true that the greatest joy is found in God, and it’s true that God is glorified when we recognize His supreme goodness and are satisfied by Him. But Piper confuses the happy consequences of the goal with the goal itself. The supreme good is to glorify God, because He IS the supreme good. We and our personal happiness are nothing. Contrary to what Piper may hope, we cannot make both God and our own happiness our mission. Our focus must be on one or the other, as the Lord Jesus says: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). God has simply not made us able to fully devote ourselves to two causes; we must choose our ultimate purpose. Otherwise, we’ll be double-minded and unstable in all our ways, serving neither of the masters we profess to serve. The path the Christian should follow is well-illustrated by the famous incident of Jesus leading Peter onto the waters. As long as Peter kept his eye on Christ, he was able to stand on the waters with His Savior. But as soon as he took his eyes off Him and onto his surroundings, he quickly began to sink. So, too, is it with the Christian. As long as our eyes are solely fixed on Christ and His glory, all else – including joy – will be added to us, and we don’t have to give them a second thought. But just as Peter began to sink as soon as he worried about the result (standing on water) instead of the cause (Christ), so, too, will we sink when we worry about the result (joy) instead of the cause (Christ!).
And sink we will. It’s no coincidence that Christian Hedonism is popular among those who love the lassie-faire style of contemporary worship, because concert-style worship’s intent is to please man rather than to please God. It’s no coincidence that John Piper has progressively succumbed to the social justice movement, whose focus is on man and not God. It’s no coincidence also, that Desiring God is one of the few modern books authored by Calvinists that’s popular with Arminians, who can smell a man-centered work from a mile away. Reader, get your mind off yourself and get it onto Christ. We’re not worthy of the joy He gives us! When He tells us to delight in Him, let our focus be on magnifying Him for being the source of so great a delight! When we hear of the rewards stored up for ourselves, let our focus be on praising Him for being so good and merciful that He’d bestow such gifts on us who deserve them the least! That way, even the good we receive from Him will be about Him who is worthy, and not about us.
Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give gloryPsalm 115:1