reload The Race by Maurice McCracken

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Christian Hedonism - not quite there...

posted by Little Mo | Permalink |

Ok, I know it’s practically considered heresy to disagree with John "the magic" Piper in some circles, and I want to caveat what I am about to say by saying that there is no one Christian writer who has influenced me more over the last few years than that distinguished American gentleman.

Yet, on reflection, I find myself unable to totally wholeheartedly subscribe to Christian hedonism. My questions may be answerable, I don’t really know – but here are my objections.

1) Some of the examples used to “prove” that God is not glorified properly unless we give him what he deserves joyfully don’t really prove that. So Piper (and Sam Storms who I have been reading recently as well) makes a big deal about honouring one’s wife by loving her so much that you honour her, rather than because one feels obligated to. Not being married I can’t fully comment on that. But doesn’t it speak even more of her worth, and the worth of the relationship that I honour her, do what is best for her at my own cost even when she is doing my head in and getting on my nerves? Isn’t sometimes more honouring to God that I don’t feel the pleasure of obeying him and yet do so?

2) Scripturally I am not convinced. Experientially there is sometimes joy in obeying God. But sometimes not. Jesus expressed loud groans to God when facing death. Particularly, I don’t know how the command often expressed by Chrstian Hedonists to pursue one’s own joy as hard as you can fits in with the command to deny yourself, which is key to repentance. Denying yourself is sometimes not joyful, and surely actually means that the heart of Christian discipleship is NOT doing what will bring you most joy but denying yourself that.

3) Lastly, and this is a really major question, I’m not sure how one teaches Christian hedonism evangelistically without it being therapy Gospel: “These sins make you happy, but Jesus will make you really happy.” It’s actually been Sam Storms rather less complex presentation of Christian hedonism that has most raised this question for me, for that is what he recommends saying pastorally to people who want to sin. How is that not the therapy Gospel? I’m not sure.

So there you have it – perhaps I am a heretic, but that’s why I can’t sign up to be a full blown Christian hedonist.

Of course, it could just be that I am on a very delayed train home with a sore throat and so I don’t feel much like rejoicing in the Gospel at the moment…


Blogger Levi said...

Well I've checked my Relay folder and I'm pretty sure I can't be fired for disagreeing with you so here goes...

I'm basing this mainly on what I remember of Piper's books that I've read and also on my own understanding of the 'doctrine' of 'Christian Hedonism'.

1) I guess I'd dispute this depending on what you mean by 'glorified properly'. If Piper/Storms do argue that God isn't honoured at all unless we enjoy obeying Him then I'd probably agree with you but I would say that He is definitly honoured more fully when we're enjoying Him than when we obey Him against our feelings, in the same way that a wife is indeed honoured to a degree when her husband buys her a present because it's their anniversary and he feels he must but she is surely honoured much more when her husband buys her a present just because he loves her and it delights him to see her smile.

I also think there's a difference between obeying God when we don't feel like it because we fear His displeasure if we don't (i.e. legalism) and obeying when we don't feel like it because we believe His promises that e.g. 'No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly'. (Psalm 84:11)

2) I think even with a 'secular-hedonist' (is that the right term?) it is clear that denying yourself is not mutually exclusive with seeking your own joy. For example someone might deny themselves evenings of getting drunk for a month so they can work overtime to pay for a holiday to Ibizia but they would not cease to be a hedonist at that time, they would merely be working of the logic that the joys of Ibizia outweigh the hardship of a few weeks overtime. In the same way Christians can deny themselves the 'deceitfulness of riches' (Mark 4:19), etc. because they know in doing so they will gain an eternal life of knowing Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Linking to your first point it seems more honouring to God that repenting and deny ourselves so that we can experience the indescribable joy of seeing Jesus face to face and being freed of our sinful nature (1 John 3:2) is more honouring than merely denying ourselves to avoid hell.

3) I may be treading a fine line near heresy here but isn't this 'therapy gospel' you describe the same thing that Jesus Himself at times taught? For example to the Samaritan woman at the well,

'Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."' (John 4:13-14).

Again I don't see how the claim that Jesus will satisfy our desire for joy is incompatible with the claim that without Him we will face the wrath of a perfectly just and all-powerful judge.


2:47 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

I think I'm with you Mo.

It's definitely a case of nuance, rather than overhaul.

One other nagging question: God being "more" glorified, or "most" glorified? How does one quantify that? Is that even a concept in Scripture?

Happy to be corrected, of course!

Nice to see you earlier today anyway. I do enjoy Mo Tuesdays. Looking forward to our exciting conferences this Winter!


3:00 PM  
Anonymous christy said...

No it works both scripturally and experientially. But my head is not working enough tonight to write a long synopsis like these chaps. I will think about it and explain later.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

Levi - I'd check that folder again and start looking for something to do for then rest of the academic year ;o)

Mo - I think the whole Christian Hedonism thing is too focussed and a bit of a limited hermeneutic but has real resonance in a super-religious church context. Joy rather than 'obedience' is the key in deconstructing religiousity.

If we settle for 'holywood' joy (happiness) then the whole thing breaks down and THERE the use of the wife illustration is useless and alien to the truth of scripture. I agree with you that love is born not only in the best of our moments but in the worst. Love for God is the painful surrendering in repentance as much as the joyful obedience in holiness.

Where I think you're selling Piper ('the magic' - I love that) short is I think that he talks of joy rather than happiness. Hedonism in Piperian discourse is about the pursuit of the joy of obedience rather than joy in obedience.

The words of the old hymn have just popped into my head

"Trust and obey,
for there's no other way,
to be happy in Jesus,
than to trust and obey"

Evangelistically - you'd nuance that sin makes you happy for a season, knowing God is what life is for about and results in a joy which is not passing. A joy which bears sorrow better and robs sin and death of their victory. A joy which kept Jesus through the cross.

Hope the sore throat and the train journey didn't diminish your joy too greatly. ;o) Looking forward to seeing you soon.

10:38 PM  
Blogger My vindicator is El said...

The idea of genuinely disinterested kindness is a Greek ideal, not a biblical one. It's recently been critiqued (in very different ways) by John Milbank and Oliver O'Donovan. Milbank makes the case that disinterested self-sacrifice is impossible, and proposes a "gift-exchange" model of human fellowship.

O'Donovan favors instead a "sharing" model: what's "mine" becomes "ours". This, I think, fits well with the Christian Hedonism concept. It's important to realize that CH works only in an eschatological perspective: I not only won't but can't obey God as long as it's fun, because it just isn't always fun. But it is always connected to joy: Jesus obeyed not because of present joy but "for the joy set before Him."

All kinds of merely human kindness can be viewed through this lens. When my infant daughter squalled at 2:00 a.m., I didn't get up and care for her because it was enjoyable - if there was any positive experience it was simple relief that she had stopped making noise for the moment. There has been much more joy and satisfaction as she gets older, and is able to interact, walk, think, talk. There will be more joy yet (I pray) as she becomes an adult, and our relationship becomes something akin to friendship (as mine is with my parents).

It would be silly to think that my obedience to God is at any point disinterested. Can we agree on that point? Piper simply takes it further: the problem is that we do not take joy seriously enough, because we seek it in the wrong places. The relationship most full of promise, the experience most joyful, the blessing that doesn't end, is to be sought through obedience to God - often hard, grinding, suffering obedience.

I can't help but agree.

6:06 AM  
Blogger thebluefish said...

I'm not awake enough to engage, but Quest for Joy is something of how Christian Hedonism goes in evangelism.

I guess I say, God's glory first, our joy second, but actually having the first equals the second for a Christian.

7:37 AM  
Blogger Pete said...

Good post Mo. I think you speak for a lot of people in your doubts/questions. I suspect it's all about emphasis and nuance, carefully measuring the balance of scripture and holding all parts to be true. I think Piper's ministry as a whole does this more than a book like 'Desiring God' might imply taken on its own.

I'm not sure my comments add anything to what others have said, but, here goes.

'Isn’t sometimes more honouring to God that I don’t feel the pleasure of obeying him and yet do so?'

yes, more honouring, that is, than disobedience. Surely not more honouring than joyful obedience though? (think of one example of sacrificial obedience - giving, to illustrate)

'Denying yourself is sometimes not joyful, and surely actually means that the heart of Christian discipleship is NOT doing what will bring you most joy but denying yourself that.'

Surely it's the 'most' in 'most joy' that the Pipes is on about. We deny ourselves for the sake of the maximal joy Jesus offers. This would not be masochistic joy about the suffering in and of itself, but in what it achieves (Romans 8:17-18), symbolises, means etc.

'Lastly, and this is a really major question, I’m not sure how one teaches Christian hedonism evangelistically without it being therapy Gospel'

I think we can be too scared sometimes of sounding therapy/prosperity etc. We must embrace all of the bible's language about the gospel. God is good, creation is good, glory, not suffering, is the final goal/destination of the Christian life, living God's way is better than not living his way. We've got to be able to say all of these things alongside the stuff about sacrifice, denial, suffering, service, and fit them together coherently. In avoiding one extreme we mustn't swing to the other.

7:50 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

hi mo! just saw the pixar chic relay video and thought of you! brand brand brand. love it!

ps doesnt the whole kingdom secret turn on the fact that repentance is in our interest, whereas rejecting christ to live for yourself will be the ultimate self denial? Or to put it posher, Kant's ethics-of-duty never tells you what's good about good - you need some kind of personal gain to provide the moral compulsion that makes evil unjustifiably inexcusable.

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

love you mobro. stay big and bad.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup, I’ve frequently been hammered by folks who didn’t like that I found flaws in Piper’s illustrations and occasional poor exegesis. But here goes anyway.

The flower thing is both extrabiblical and really bad logic. Since it is extrabiblical, who cares what it proves? Since it is bad logic, does it really prove what he thinks it proves?

Rather than me go through it, here is a quote from a blog archive:

The strawman story goes something like this: A man always brings home flowers to his wife out of romantic passion, not duty. If he said to his wife, "I only brought you flowers out of duty" his wife would hate him, and the gesture of giving flowers is wasted. So a man may only bring home flowers out of romantic passion, never out of duty. Similarly, a man may only serve God out of passion and never out of duty.

This silly illustration is so very flawed on a great many levels. In real life, no man would ever tell his wife, "I only brought you flowers out of duty," for it is never only out of duty that he buys the flowers; so the illustration itself is a strawman.

A man buys flowers because he is in a committed relationship (the duty part) and wishes to bestow a compliment on his wife, desires to please her, or intends to show his appreciation to her (the love part). [Note: Of course, some truly hedonistic types give flowers not so much to give their wife a little taste of joy, but to leverage her joy for their own pleasure--an end so selfish we will not further consider it here.] The purchase of flowers for a wife is always a combination of duty and love.

Now for the flip side, turning the story on its head.

A man loves his wife more than any other person on Earth. Yet, he never once brings home flowers: not for Valentines Day, not for their wedding anniversary, and not for her birthday. Is there any woman in America who actually believes that this man loves his wife? Possibly not even one. And why do they feel this way? Because giving flowers is an expected duty, a normal part of romance, in America.

Over the course of my 28 years of marriage to my wife, I have always brought home one red flower on Valentine’s Day (symbolic of the one red flower she carried in lieu of a bouquet at our wedding). Except this past Valentine’s Day. This past February 14th I worked late, preparing for an anticipated coming upheaval in our family life, and simply did not make the effort to stop by the store on the way home. Though she knows I love her more than any woman on the planet, she was hurt that I had not bought the flower, for the expectation of the flower had become, in her mind, a duty, albeit a duty born of love.

The above is quoted from


9:48 PM  
Anonymous Simon said...

We've been having this debate in my Church recently...

I think a bit of a mis-conception happens when we think of the word joy or happiness. Happiness is carnal putting a smile on your face after recieving what you want for your birthday. Joy sounds slightly like this aswell. The joy that is being described can be compared to the joy that Paul went through whilst in Jail: 'Sorrowful yet always rejoicing'.

I think a better way to phrase it is 'satisfaction in God'. This involves and is joyful. I would argue that on the cross Jesus was 'joyful' in the sense that he was satisified to be doing his Fathers will. Although a great amount of pain and spiritual torment is being inflicted, Christ was motivated by joy (Hebrews 12v2).

I reckon that true obedience involves this satisfaction or joy. It's sin for me to forsake the gathering of the saints. It's also sin for me to go to Church for the sake of Church. What drives me to Church is the joy of worship and adoration. Knowing that the command in Hebrews is to be obeyed out of a satisfaction in who God is not just a satisfaction in the command itself.

Also in response to your last point: A satisfaction in God's will lead to a complete recognition that all He does is good and for His glory. Therefore we can be have joy in God over him punishing people becasue we know that he will always do what is right and just. I find it hard to take but I have to acknowledge that God gets glory from people being punished in Hell because their circumstance is the reaction to His perfect character-we can be satisfied in this.

Sorry for ranting on!!

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Nicko said...

Isn't the issue here that there's often a time-lag between our acts of obedience and our joy/satisfaction in God?

Jesus endured the cross 'for the joy set before him' Heb. 12 but during the cross he was neither joyful nor satisfied in God - he cried out in agony because God had deserted him.

So the famous strapline of Desiring God Ministries 'God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him' is just plain wrong. God the Father was most glorified in Jesus when Jesus was least satisfied in him.

But having said that, Jesus did endure the cross with a view to the joy he would have after the work was finished. So Piper is onto something very true and right when he encourages us to do what will lead to the greatest joy for us. John 15 would back that up, and lots of other passages. Jesus wants to be rejoiced in, and he is the most worthy object of our affections. But the path to that joy in him lies thru determined and often utterly joyless obedience.

Putting our sinful nature to death is hardly likely to be enjoyable! Since when was killing something an enjoyable process? But the joy in Christ will follow afterwards.

4:21 AM  
Blogger étrangère said...

I find the language unhelpful sometimes, because it requires such Biblical understanding to qualify it so that it's not misunderstood - or twisted by our hearts which are so slow to delight in God and so quick to pursue what we think is our own interest in idols. I like Piper best when he's preaching through a book, ministering it to the people he pastors - I listened to his Hebrews series for a year and he only occasionally got distracted onto Christian hedonism when it wasn't fully in the text. Found his latest blog post fascinating. The pursuit of joy / delight in God & his Christ is in texts a lot more than I expected, and I thank God for using Piper to open my eyes to that. But you've got to take the emphasis of whatever passage you're in, whatever book you're in. That's why I prefer listening to him preaching through a book of the Bible, rather than reading one of his books which set out to establish the theory (The Pleasures of God and Let the Nations be Glad are 2 of my favourite books, where he's not really seeking to establish Christian Hedonism).

2:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do get disheartened hearing that Jesus was motivated to go to the cross so that he could get the joy set before him. Why do we forget that Jesus was primarily motivated by love, which is seeking the profit for others and not for myself, and also by his sense of duty, mercy, etc?

Just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ. (1Corinthians 10:33,11:1)

Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and have come from God, for I have not even come on My own initiative, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word." (John 8:42,43)

He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:5,6)

When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:34)

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (John 13:1)

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me. Romans 15:1-3

The whole counsel of the Word, not just pet phrases. Jesus did not even please himself. How does that mean "for the joy set before him?" Jesus was the example of self-sacrificing love, not of a joy-hound. Remember, man of sorrows?

Anyway, here is an answer to Piper's blog from His Master's Voice:


11:29 AM  
Blogger My vindicator is El said...

Dude, seriously?

How could Jesus' joy be separated from His love for His bride? "As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you," (Isa. 62:5).

At a certain level, theodicy is at stake. Was Creation a cosmic mistake - and Jesus' work a patch-up job that at its very best leaves behind a wake of sorrow? I think that's your implication if you DON'T think Jesus was "after" infinite joy. (By the way, it's Paul you're disagreeing with, not Piper.) If joy is off-limits in Jesus' loving sacrifice, then you leave him forever on the cross, or at least still in pain, rather than risen and triumphant and glorious. Joy and glory go together.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

myvindicatorisel wrote: "How could Jesus' joy be separated from His love for His bride? Was Creation a cosmic mistake - and Jesus' work a patch-up job that at its very best leaves behind a wake of sorrow? I think that's your implication if you DON'T think Jesus was 'after' infinite joy. (By the way, it's Paul you're disagreeing with, not Piper.) If joy is off-limits in Jesus' loving sacrifice, then you leave him forever on the cross, or at least still in pain, rather than risen and triumphant and glorious. Joy and glory go together."

The post quoted above is the kind of absolutism logic that fails to embrace all that the Word says about our Christian motives and life. Why would one think that joy was Christ's ONLY motive when there are so many passages about why Jesus died? Why would they think joy was Christ's PRIMARY motive when Romans 15:1-3 says that Christ did not "please himself" by going to the cross? And whose joy was he seeking? Do people actually think Christ was lacking joy in heaven so he went to the cross to add to it? Not hardly. He was seeking to bring joy to us and to the Father, not get it for himself.

Being motivated to give away love (like Jesus did) or being motivated to grab pleasure for oneself is the difference between setting up the Foremost Commandment or Christian Hedonism as one's philosophy of life.

To ignore all the different motives Jesus had in redeeming man (pity, mercy, love, compassion, etc) is to throw away 99% of the Bible just so that one can nurse a pet theory about hedonism. If glory and joy go together, then love and obedience even more so.


7:34 AM  
Blogger My vindicator is El said...

Hee hee. I enjoyed Stan starting out with "The post quoted above is the kind of absolutism logic that fails to embrace all that the Word says about our Christian motives and life" and ending with "Blessings."

I would never in a zillion years disagree with you that the atonement was motivated by many different things: love, joy, kindness, compassion, faithfulness to His promises. But I would ask conversely whether you think joy is to be excluded as a motivation? And whether, from an eschatological perspective, the sharing of love does not result in a joyful celebration: the wedding feast of the Lamb?

I sure wouldn't want to be caught crucifying the Bible on a wooden theological construct. But I don't think I am. I'm simply pointing out: (a) that Jesus' triumphant joy was a goal, and not an accidental result, of his atonement, (b) that something changed - God was more glorified - in the triumphant finished mediatorial work of Jesus Christ than beforehand (and I affirm this with the Calvinian and against the Lutheran and most Anabaptist theological traditions), and (c) removing "self-interest" from one's relationship with God is a futile modernist project, a disguise for despair.

All in all, a pretty humble set of assertions. Wouldn't you agree? ;)

8:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

myvindicatorisel wrote: "I would never in a zillion years disagree with you that the atonement was motivated by many different things: love, joy, kindness, compassion, faithfulness to His promises. But I would ask conversely whether you think joy is to be excluded as a motivation? And whether, from an eschatological perspective, the sharing of love does not result in a joyful celebration: the wedding feast of the Lamb?"

Hoorah!!!! When you embrace that holiness and life are motivated by many things (love, joy, anger towards sin, compassion, mercy, etc) they you reject "Christian Hedonism" because hedonism is motivated ONLY by its pursuit of pleasure. Hedonism always requires that the tradeoff for any good work is that it gets back more pleasure than it has to put into the act. In other words, selfishness.

Is pleasure a part of life, yes. Is the pursuit of pleasure a biblical command? No. Pursue love is. Pursue holiness is. But not "pursue pleasure." Try it, use your electronic Bible and see if "pursue pleasure" comes up.

This preoccupation that hedonists have with pursuing pleasure, and their conviction that pleasure is the root motive for all acts of virtue, is unbiblical.

Express joyfilled thanksgiving back to God for all He has done! Amen! And then go out and pursue holiness and love, and let pleasure take of itself.

Blessings as you serve Christ!

9:46 AM  
Blogger Sam said...

Hi Mo. When everyone else is talking...

Piper-loving is hard in some contexts, Piper-bashing is hard in other contexts... but anyway:

The Christian Hedonism idea is far too often used to straight-jacket verses in the bible - the father running towards the prodigal son (meaning he lets go of his dignity) to give him a hug and a ring and take him home to a feast, when pressed through the Christian hedonism mangle, means that the Father wanted to glorify his name - look at me, at what a great Father I am!

If that's what Luke wanted us to understand about Jesus' parable, then I'm the pope.

On the other hand, the "my name shall be glorified in all the earth" theme is very important in the Scriptures and shouldn't be reduced or twisted to sugardaddyness.

In other words: Let the text do the talking, and not the hermeneutical system!

9:53 AM  
Blogger Martin said...

I think Levi already said most of what I wanted to say. I would add the following: I think the real issue is a question of motivation. Firstly, what motivates us to obey or do our duty? What others think of us? What we think of ourselves (I've done my duty) or a desire to please God borne out of a sure knowledge that there's nothing I can do to earn any favour with God, that I can give God nothing, and that Christ has done it all for me and my only desire, in response, is to please Him and glorify Him? And, secondly, why do I seek God? Why do I seek to glorify God? So that He will bless me and grant me joy in Him? Or just because I can't help it, because my heart is bursting with desire for Him, as the bride for the groom, in response to the knowledge of His everlasting love for me, chief of sinners, and of the riches of His kindness unto me who once was sold in slavery but now is free to soar on eagle's wings all because He took my punishment in my place?

Of course, no one has perfect theology or teaching so we will always find things we disagree with. That is why we should not confine ourselves to a particular emphasis or teaching but, though there be warts, nevertheless he brings a perspective that has helped many. However, we need to be careful of our own tendencies to either side with people such that we find a part of our identify through their teaching and then are unable to discern error or accept criticism on the one hand or we seek to feed our own pride and get our sense of value from being able to find 'chinks' on the other.


8:15 AM  
Blogger Martin said...

I hear you Sam. Although I hope you don't make it an either/or choice? The parable teaches us about ourselves as well as the character of God and of redemption. In fact the parable ought to be called the parable of the two sons, because we find a lot of ourselves in the son who stayed at home and failed to recognise that he was an heir, that his father's riches were his, and more importantly still thought the reason that his father loved him is because he did his duty and who thought his father should deal with his sons on the basis of what he thought was fair and even worse still wanted his father to withhold his love to his brother, etc. That second brother, that religuous pharisee in all of us who wants to think that we are accepted on the basis of something good about us, who looks all righteous on the outside, needs the gospel as much as the wild-living hedonist.


8:26 AM  

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