Ten things you should know about Christian Hedonism

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Sam Storms:

Christian Hedonism often goes misunderstood and thus maligned. Let’s look closely at ten things that bring clarity to what is meant by the label.

(1) When it comes to Christian Hedonism, the adjective is everything. Hedonism is itself a godless approach to life that says we should pursue whatever brings us optimum pleasure. Hedonism judges right and wrong on the basis of whether or not an action brings pleasure or pain. But Christian Hedonism is an entirely different thing.

The pleasure we seek as Christians is pleasure and satisfaction and delight in God. God is not the means to some other pleasure but the object of it. It is in him, his beauty, power, and presence that we find our deepest delight.

(2) Christian Hedonism insists that the most effective way to glorify God is to enjoy God. It was Jonathan Edwards who helped me see that God’s glory and my gladness were not antithetical. He helped me see that at the core of Scripture is the truth that my heart’s passion for pleasure (which is God-given and not the result of sin) and God’s passion for praise converge in a way that alone makes sense of human existence. I should let you read it for yourself:

“Now what is glorifying God, but a rejoicing at that glory he has displayed? An understanding of the perfections of God, merely, cannot be the end of the creation; for he had as good not understand it, as see it and not be at all moved with joy at the sight. Neither can the highest end of creation be the declaring God’s glory to others; for the declaring God’s glory is good for nothing otherwise than to raise joy in ourselves and others at what is declared” (The Miscellanies [Entry Nos. a-z, aa-zz, 1-500], The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 13, ed. Thomas A. Schafer [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994], no. 3, p. 200).

Enjoying God is not a secondary, tangential endeavor. It is central to everything we do. We do not do other things hoping that joy in God will emerge as a by-product. Our reason for the pursuit of God and obedience to him is precisely the joy that is found in him alone. To come to God or to worship him or to yield to his moral will for any reason other than the joy that is found in who he is, is sinful.

(3) Foundational to Christian Hedonism is the belief that all people desire happiness. Many have rejected Christian Hedonism due to their misguided belief that to the degree they seek their own well-being they diminish the virtue or moral value of a choice or deed. Doing something because we enjoy it threatens to empty the deed of its moral worth, or so they think. Christian Hedonism contends that nothing could be farther from the truth. Consider the observation of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662):

“All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.”

The immediate response of many is to say: “But doesn’t someone commit suicide because they are unhappy?” Yes, but they choose suicide precisely because they are persuaded that death will bring them more happiness than life ever could. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they believe death will deliver them from the miseries of life. In either case, they hang themselves because they can no longer endure the misery and depression that life has created, and they believe that nothing can be done to bring them the happiness and sense of value and meaning they so desperately desire.

People struggle with this because it strikes them as experientially misguided. “How can you say I want happiness and joy and satisfaction when I’m always making decisions that I know are painful and sacrificial?” The answer is that we always choose what we think will ultimately maximize personal happiness and minimize personal misery. If you make a decision that is immediately painful and uncomfortable or unsettling, I assure you it is because you believe that such a choice in the long term will generate more pleasure than not. In other words, you gladly forego present pleasures if you believe the long-term benefits outweigh whatever short-term discomfort you might experience or sacrifice you might make. Likewise, you will ignore long-term consequences if you believe the immediate pleasures of a decision are worth the risk.

(4) God places no restraints on the depths of delight in himself that he commands us to pursue. When it comes to satisfying our spiritual appetites, there is no such thing as excess. There are no limitations placed on us by God. There are no rules of temperance or laws requiring moderation or boundaries beyond which we cannot go in seeking to enjoy him. We need never pause to inquire whether we’ve crossed a line or become overindulgent. You need never fear feeling too good about God.

That’s not to say our sensual appetites should be left unchecked. The Bible is full of prohibitions and restrictions on how and to what extent we indulge our fleshly and bodily desires. But no such rules exist for our spiritual appetites. Christianity forbids us no pleasures, save those that lead to temporal misery and eternal woe. You cannot desire pleasure too much. You can desire the wrong kind of pleasure. You can rely on the wrong things to satisfy your soul, things that God has forbidden. But the intensity of the soul’s search for joy cannot be too great or too deep or too sharp or too powerful.

(5) Some respond by pointing to Paul’s warning in 2 Timothy 3:4 that in the last days there will appear people who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:4)? The key words in this verse are “rather than,” for they highlight options that are mutually exclusive. The “pleasure” that people love, and Paul condemns, is sensual, self-indulgent satisfaction that shuts God out. The “pleasure” that I have in mind, and Paul approves, is precisely pleasure in God as God. He is our exceeding great reward. He is the treasure (and pleasure) we seek. Christian Hedonism deplores any pursuit of pleasure that does not have God as the foundation and focus of its enjoyment.

Paul rightly denounces lovers of pleasure without God. Christian Hedonism rightly applauds lovers of pleasure in God. To be a “lover of God” rather than “pleasure” is to find in him, not it, the satisfaction our souls so desperately crave. God is loved when he is the rock on which we stand, the shelter in whom we seek refuge, the oasis where we find refreshment. 2 Timothy 3:4, therefore, is not a problem for Christian Hedonism but a proof text!

(6) Even self-denial is a hedonistic choice. I say this in response to those who argue that the words of Jesus in Mark 8:34-37 contradict Christian Hedonism:

And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life?”

Our Lord’s appeal that we deny ourselves and take up our cross is actually grounded upon the concern that each person inescapably has for his or her own soul. The only way you can respond appropriately to his call for “self” denial is if you are wholeheartedly committed to the happiness and eternal welfare of your “self.” If you lacked concern for the eternal welfare of your soul you would lose all incentive for obeying Christ’s command. His exhortation is persuasive because of the intensely passionate concern you have for what might happen if you don’t obey. Jesus calls on us to deny ourselves because otherwise we’ll die! We must “lose” our lives if we hope to “save” them. And it is the legitimacy of that personal hope on which Jesus bases his appeal. Clearly, Jesus grounds his exhortation in the inescapable reality of human desire for one’s own welfare and happiness and well-being (let us never forget that self-interest is not the same as selfishness). C. S. Lewis explains it this way:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire (The Weight of Glory, 25).

Jesus is simply asking that you sacrifice the lesser blessings of temporal and earthly comforts in order to gain the greater blessings of eternal and unending pleasure. Do what is best for your “self,” says Jesus, and deny your “self”! To refuse to follow Jesus is to deny your “self” the greatest imaginable joy. His call is for us to renounce our vain attempt to satisfy our souls through illicit sex and ambition and earthly fortune. Instead, do yourself a favor. Follow Jesus and gain true life, true joy, true pleasure.

(7) As John Piper is often heard to say, God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. The best gauge or standard by which to judge the value of any treasure is the intensity and depth of the pleasure it evokes. Thus the greatness and glory and majesty of God is most clearly seen in the extent to which our souls find satisfaction in him and all that he is for us in Jesus. Or, to put in other terms, God’s preeminent glory is in our passionate gladness in him.

We exult when we find deep satisfaction in an individual or experience. Whether we say it, shout it, or merely sigh with a profound sense of delight, there is fascination and joy and gladness of heart. There is an emotionally explosive dimension to exultation. To exult in something or someone is to find in them happiness, gladness, joy, complete and utter satisfaction; it is to savor them.

Christian Hedonism contends that exulting in God is the most biblical and effective means for exalting him! Or to put it in other terms: God is praised when he is prized! Understanding God is but a means to enjoying God. We tell others of this glory so that we might raise joy in ourselves and in them at what we have told.

That is why if you want to elevate God, celebrate God! Treasure him. Prize him. Delight in him. Enjoy him. In doing so you magnify him, you show him to be the most wonderful and sweet and all-sufficient being in the universe. Enjoying God is not a momentary diversion from more important responsibilities you have as a Christian. Enjoying God is not a means to a higher end. This is the end. Enjoying is not a pathway to the pinnacle. It is the pinnacle, the purpose for which you and I live. As such, it is the solution to our struggle with sin. The antidote to apathy is the enjoyment of God. It is the divine catalyst for human change.

(8) Christian Hedonism insists that we be deadly serious about joy. Why is joy so central to Christian Hedonism? What is it about joy in God rather than simple obedience or fear or service that uniquely honors and exalts him?

Joy, unlike any other human experience, requires the engagement and expression of the whole soul. There are things that I understand but in which I find no joy. There are things that I choose, such as eating squash, which bring me no immediate delight whatsoever. But when I genuinely enjoy something there is both an intellectual and volitional, as well as emotional, satisfaction. Simply put, joy is more wholistic than any other human experience. We must also remember that there is no such thing as hypocritical or insincere joy. You can pretend to have joy when you really don’t (as when I’ll pretend to enjoy the squash you serve me at your home). You can fake having joy, but you can’t have fake joy. There’s something pure and sincere and authentic and genuine about joy that isn’t the case with any other human affection.

Most importantly, joy—more clearly and thoroughly than any other response—reveals the worth and value and splendor of whatever has captivated your heart. When you experience and express joy in God, perhaps in the midst of suffering or loss, others will typically take note and ask: “What must this God be like that he is deemed worthy not simply of acknowledgement but delight, not simply recognition but rejoicing?” Or, as Piper has put it, “Joy is the clearest witness to the worth of what we enjoy. It is the deepest reverberation in the heart of man of the value of God’s glory.”

There is in every soul an insatiable hunger for happiness, a chronic and unending ache for joy and delight. God has hardwired into us a yearning and longing and unrelenting passion for pleasure. It’s part of what it means to be created in his image. Thus the problem is not that we have deep, passionate, and powerful desires for joy and pleasure. The problem is that we are far, far, far too easily satisfied. We have settled for pathetic little pleasures like illicit sex and drunkenness and earthly wealth when God offers us fullness of joy and pleasures that never lose their capacity to satisfy and enthrall. The counsel of Christian Hedonism is that we pursue God’s presence where “fullness of joy” may be found (Ps. 16:11) and that we “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8) and that we “delight” ourselves “in the LORD” (Ps. 37:4) and that we “drink from the river” of God’s “delights” (Ps. 36:8).

(9) The foundation of our delight in God is God’s delight in himself. Our glad-hearted passion for God is exceeded only by God’s glad-hearted passion for God. If the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever, the chief end of God is to glorify God and to enjoy himself forever! The pre-eminent passion in God’s heart is his own glory. God is at the center of his own affections. God is pre-eminently committed to the fame of his name. God is himself the end for which God created the world. God relentlessly and unceasingly creates, rules, orders, directs, speaks, judges, saves, destroys and delivers in order to make known who he is and to secure from the whole of the universe the praise, honor, and glory of which he and he alone is ultimately and infinitely worthy.

(10) God’s passion for his glory is the consummate expression of love for his people. God, says Piper, is the one being in the universe for whom self-exaltation is the supremely loving act.

This strikes us as problematic because we want to think that God is preeminently concerned with us, not himself. We want a God who is man-centered, not God-centered. Worse still, we can’t fathom how God could possibly love us the way we think he should if he is so unapologetically obsessed with the praise and glory of his own name. How can God love me if all his infinite energy is expended in the love of himself? C. S. Lewis struggled with this because he did not see that

it is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men. It is not of course the only way. But for many people at many times the ‘fair beauty of the Lord’ is revealed chiefly or only while they worship Him together. Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship of course this is far clearer—there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive. The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard him, is implicitly answered by the words, ‘If I be hungry I will not tell thee’ (50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.”

Lewis continues:

But the most obvious fact about praise—whether of God or anything—strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.

What Lewis is touching on here is how the love of God for sinners like you and me is ultimately made manifest. God desires our greatest good. But what greater good is there in the universe than God himself? So, if God is truly to love us, he must give us himself. But merely giving us of himself is only the first step in the expression of his affection for sinners. He must work to elicit from our hearts rapturous praise and superlative delight because, as Lewis said, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” That’s the way God made us. We can’t help but praise and rejoice in what we most enjoy. The enjoyment itself is stunted and hindered if it is never expressed in joyful celebration. Says Lewis: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.”

If God is to love you optimally, he must bestow or impart the best gift he has, the greatest prize, the most precious treasure, the most exalted and worthy thing within his power to give. That gift, of course, is himself. Nothing in the universe is as beautiful and captivating and satisfying as God! So, if God loves you he will give himself to you and then work in your soul to awaken you to his beauty and all-sufficiency. In other words, he will strive by all manner and means to intensify and expand and enlarge your joy in him.

How could it be otherwise? If God is as excellent and gloriously ineffable and unfathomably majestic as Scripture contends, he wouldn’t love us unless he did whatever was necessary to bring us into the knowledge and experience and enjoyment of himself. All other, necessarily lesser, gifts are good only to the extent that they facilitate the higher, indeed highest, goal of getting God! Making himself known to us in Jesus and working through his Spirit to bring us into white-hot admiration and enjoyment of who he is (that’s worship, by the way) is the ultimate and unparalleled act of love.

Therefore, God comes to us and says: “Here I am in all my glory: incomparable, infinite, immeasurable, and unsurpassed. See me! Be satisfied with me! Enjoy me! Celebrate who I am! Experience the height and depth and width and breadth of savoring and relishing me!” Does that sound like God pursuing his own glory? Yes. But it also sounds like God loving you perfectly and passionately. The only way it is not real love is if there is something for you better than God: something more beautiful than God that he can show you, something more pleasing and satisfying than God with which he can fill your heart, something more glorious and majestic than God with which you can occupy yourself for eternity. But there is no such thing! Anywhere! Ever!

In summary, your greatest good is in the enjoyment of God. God’s greatest glory is in being enjoyed. So, for God to seek his glory in your worship of him is the most loving thing he can do for you. Only by seeking his glory pre-eminently can God seek your good passionately. For God to work for your enjoyment of him (that’s his love for you) and for his glory in being enjoyed (that’s his love for himself) are not properly distinct.

 

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.