Theology Thursdays: What is Christian Hedonism???

So today I want to blog about the subtitle of my blog. If I actually have any regular readers and they have actually noticed the title and subtitle of my blog they might be wondering, “what does Michael mean when he says ‘thoughts from a Christian Hedonist.’?”

Well my faithful reader that is exactly what I will be addressing in this weeks THEOLOGY THURSDAY!!!!

Christian Hedonism! What is it? Who came up with that provocative phrase? Why Christian Hedonism? I hope in this weeks blog on theology to, in small measure, unpack the theological position from which I see the scriptures.

The founder of the phrase “Christian Hedonism” is John Piper. However, he in no way claims to be the founder of the beliefs of Christian Hedonism. In his preface to his book Desiring God Piper lays out five points that Christian Hedonism can be understood by.

  1. The longing to be happy is a universal experience, and it is good, not sinful.
  2. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
  3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
  4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation in the praise of God.
  5. To the extent that we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, it put it positively: The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is:

The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.

Now, these are some very serious claims and especially in the church there is a deep seated idea that it is evil to pursue our own pleasure. However, Piper, as always, is not trifle or fleeting in his explanations and neither shall I be. I will now endeavor to look at each of these five points in some depth to give a brief introduction to this philosophical and theological worldview.

1.) The longing to be happy is a universal experience, and it is good, not sinful.

Blaise Pascal writes in his famous Pensees

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. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

The key point that Piper addresses about this quote is that Pascal is not making a moral judgement in his statement. Instead he is simply and only stating the fact that seeking one’s own happiness is not a sin; it is a simple given in human nature.

This moves of nicely into the next point that says:

2.) We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead, we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.

At the very beginning of C.S. Lewis’ sermon “The Weight of Glory” he states,

If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion nor primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. 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.

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit 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 about 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 to easily pleased.

What Lewis, and Piper, show us in and from this passage is the idea that it is not our desires that get us in trouble. It is the fact that we are far too easily pleased with small things like sex and sports that we do not even have the capacity to place our affections on the greatness of God. All of the commands in the bible tend to appeal to our natural desire for happiness and not the contrary. Self-denial appeals to our happiness in the end.

Although this quote from Lewis hits on the third point Pascal will help us most with it:

3.) The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.

It is again Pascal who brings the point home more clearly. He states,

There once was in man a true happiness of which now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present. But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss con only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself.

Piper’s response to this passage is far better than I can do so I will let him speak.

As I look back on it now, it seems so patently obvious that I don’t know how I could have missed it. All those years I had been trying to suppress my tremendous longing for happiness so I could honestly praise God out of some “higher,” less selfish motive. But now it started to dawn on me that this persistent and undeniable yearning for happiness was not to be suppressed, but to be glutted–on God!

Piper emphasizes that the human desire for happiness is not to be suppressed but set free from all fleeting joys and set on God Himself, the only thing that can truly satisfy it. However, this delighting in God was never meant to simply be stagnant, instead it has always been meant to spread. Which leads into point four which states:

4.) The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation in the praise of God.

This point is most clearly understand when we begin to understand what worship is. C.S. Lewis is again helpful here. But before we hear from him we should understand where he is coming from. Lewis, when he was becoming a Christian, was very apprehensive about all that he read in the psalms about God demanding our worship. He questioned why the infinite being of pure essence would long for so despairingly the praises of those whom he created. But this was before Lewis understood what worship truly is. When he began to understand it he said:

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 honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows in praise…. The world rings with praise–lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game…

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.

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.

This is an absolutely amazing passage that states that praise of God is not a command that God gives us because he needs our praise but instead a command that God gives us for our happiness. God it the only thing that can truly satisfy us and true praise is the appointed consummation of enjoyment. Therefore when God commands our praise he is simply commanding us to consummate our enjoyment in the one thing that we can truly enjoy, namely him.

This leaves us with our last point which is:

5.) The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue.

This truth is scattered among the psalms as often as any other theme in the book.

Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”

Psalm 42:1-2 “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

Psalm 63:1 “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water”

Piper states: “I found that the goodness of God, the foundation of worship, is not a thing you pay your respects to out of some kind of disinterested reverence. No, it is something to be enjoyed”

Psalm 34:8 “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Psalm 119:103 “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”

Or perhaps the capstone:

Psalm 16:11 “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”

Although this is a somewhat long blog post it is by all cases a very short introduction to the idea of Christian Hedonism. I am feeling a slight pull to continue on this subject for a couple of weeks so feel free to ask questions by commenting and I will try to answer any that you have.

Ultimately Christian Hedonism is about God. It is the idea that it is not only impossible, but also wrong to approach God with any other intention than to receive joy and fulfillment from him. “God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him.” God is not glorified where he is not cherished.

Hope that this is helpful

Michael

Resources:

DesiringGod.org

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4 comments

  1. Just wanted you to know that your blog hasn’t gone unread. I started reading it last week and have really enjoyed it. I really liked this post especially. Keep it up Michael!

  2. Thanks Michael! I’ve actually been wondering about this myself lately, the pursuit of pleasure. Although some may have a knee-jerk reaction to this language, the Bible indicates that Jesus is the chief desire of every human heart and that there are infinite pleasures at God’s right hand. So true Hedonism will eventually lead anyone to give up on all earthly forms of pleasure and turn to God for satisfaction!

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