In defence of "Christian Hedonism"


(The following letter is taken from our response to the essay, "A rebuttal to John Piperís defence of the term Christian Hedonism," which appears on the Holy life of Jesus web-site. The essay seeks to respond to Piperís defence by refuting him point-by-point. We have taken their lead and respond to their rebuttal point-by-point. Text in Italics is taken from Piperís defence and the smaller type is from the "rebuttal."


(1) The term "hedonism" means "a living for pleasure". If the chief end of man is to enjoy God forever, then we should live our lives for pleasure -- the pleasure of knowing God.

John Piper cannot rewrite the English language. Here are the definitions for the terms "Christian" and "hedonism" from the Merriam Webster Dictionary: "CHRISTIAN: one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ" "HEDONISM: the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life. The ethical theory that achieving one's own happiness is the proper goal of all conduct." Now, even with the worldly definition of "Christian" from a dictionary, we can begin to see a problem. If a "Christian" by the narrow definition given here is a person who believes in the teachings of Jesus Christ, then it follows that a "Christian" believes Jesus' teachings such as: Mt 16:24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Mt 23:25 "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. By the very definition of "hedonism", and even by this narrow dictionary definition of "Christian" we can see clearly that the term "Christian hedonism" posited by John Piper is an oxymoron. The two cannot exist together, for to obey Christ is to abandon hedonism, and to embrace hedonism is to become a hypocrite like the Pharisees.
 
 

Dr. Piper is not re-writing the English Language, he is merely noting itís constant evolution. Websterís Dictionary is not the only place to provide a definition of "Hedonism". Hedonism can very often just mean "The pursuit of Pleasure" which is very clearly how John Piper uses the phrase.

We would question whether "Christian Hedonism" is an oxymoron and can only assume that you mean that it is contradictory. Yet to go on and say that "to obey Christ is to abandon hedonism" is to beg the very question that we are attempting to answer. If obeying Christ will bring us the greatest joy imaginable, would that be an abandonment of hedonism? What about obeying Godís commands in passages such as Psalm 34:7 and Php. 4:4? Is that obedience an abandonment of hedonism? We cannot see it that way.
 
 

(2) The term does not refer to a single, pagan philosophy but is a generic term that has been applied to a wide variety of philosophies that elevate the pursuit of pleasure. For the Christian hedonist, it includes the idea of pursuing the greatest pleasure, not in the short term, but maximized over eternity.

Again, Piper has built his case on a false foundation. First, the term "hedonism", though admitedly used to mean the general pursuit of pleasure in the popular idiom, is still a term that is as intensely self oriented as any term in existence. The pursuit of pleasure is a pursuit that is, at its most basic, a pursuit of fleshly gratification for the benefit of self. There is nothing more self-serving than hedonism. Second, for a Christian to pursue the idea of an eternity of self gratification is unthinkable by very definition. The reason is that the two ideas, by definition, cancel each other out. If a Christian is pursuing hedonism for the greatest pleasure maximized for eternity, then that Christian will never spend eternity in a place where he can gain such pleasure. This is because: Ro 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Sin is death. Self gratification, no matter in what form, is still sin because its aim is not the love of God but the love of self. There are many today who, in God's name, act as though they are worshiping God. But their worship is, in the end, self-indulgent hedonism. 2Ti 3:4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God 2Pe 2:13 ... Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you.
 
 

You make some interesting statements here. Firstly, that the pursuit of pleasure is "the pursuit of fleshly gratification for the benefit of self." This once again begs the question. It also reveals that you may not have fully grasped the meaning of "Christian Hedonism." In his Five Points at the beginning of Desiring God, Piper attempts to summarize the main elements of what he later goes on to call "Christian Hedonism." Points 2 & 3 state :

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.

We simply cannot see why you would equate the pursuit of pleasure with the pursuit of "fleshly gratification.". What Dr. Piper is saying - fairly clearly in our opinion - is that Hedonism for the Christian is not merely about enjoying ourselves but going after the greatest pleasure imaginable - God himself.

To demonstrate that some people seek their pleasure in ungodly places is to do nothing more than show that not all people are consistent Hedonists. To be sure, they are seeking pleasure - theyíre just not seeking enough pleasure!
 
 

(3) Many wise, old Christians have chosen to describe the Christian life in these terms. C. S. Lewis and Soren Kierkegaard are among them.

John Piper now uses Kierkegaard descriptions as a model for what a Christian life should be. Kierkegaard though a Christian, lest some forget, was also the father of modern existentialism. He emphasized the "subjective nature of existence over objective nature." Rightly, then, he is the father of the new post-modern thought of today that is so pervasive in every aspect of life. "Luke, trust your feelings". "Your truth may be different from my truth." Existentialism has also crept into the church by way of the subjective experience gnostic revival movements out of RHEMA, Toronto and Brownsville. If Kierkegaard is a "wise old Christian" then his wisdom will be the ultimate downfall of the church. True Christians serve an objective God and His infallible objective Word. C.S. Lewis wrote on many subjects but certainly would never have used a term like "Christian hedonism" in sermons such as "The Weight Of Glory".
 
 

Your comment against the "subjectivism" of Kierkegaard is slightly confusing. Piper is not saying that Kierkegaard was accurate in all that he said or infallible in his opinions. Nor is he saying that the wisdom of Kierkegaard is best expressed though his existentialism. In fact, the only statement that Piper says relating to the wisdom of Soren Kierkegaard is :

"Other people smarter and older than I am, have felt themselves similarly driven to use the term "hedonism" in reference to the Christian way of life." (He also later calls the parables of Kierkegaard "great").

I would have to echo Dr. Piperís conviction that Kierkegaard is smarter than I am. Of course, in one sense - he is not. The Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom and if you are suggesting that Kierkegaard did not fear God (which for the sake of argument, I am willing to accept) then I guess he is not Wise. However, I donít think that this is how Piper is talking about wisdom. The only point that Dr. Piper is making - in relation to Kierkegaard - is that he described the Christian life in Hedonistic terms before John Piper. Piper openly admits that he is only repeating the thoughts of those who have gone before him (like Soren Kierkegaard and C.S. Lewis); those he describes as "smarterÖthan I am". We suspect that at this point you are playing "guilt by association". Much of what Kierkegaard wrote was unhelpful and existentialist, but this not make Piper or Christian Hedonists subjective or existentialist.

We fail to see the reason for your confidence that Lewis "certainly would never have used a term like "Christian Hedonism". It is unclear if this is because you feel that he would not have believed in such a thing, or if he would - but would choose to express it in a different manner. In case it is the former, we have provided the following quotes from Lewis :

"We are told to deny ourselves and 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."

"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 too easily pleased."

All of the above quotations were taken from "The Weight of Glory." The following is from "Letters to Malcolm."

"You notice that I am drawing no distinction between sensuous and aesthetic pleasures. But why should I? The line is almost impossible to draw and what use would it be if one succeeded in drawing it? If this is Hedonism it is a somewhat arduous discipline."
 
 

(4) The term has a jolting effect. This is appropriate for a philosophy that has a life changing effect on its adherents. Furthermore, this philosophy can be extremely threatening to nominal adherents of Christianity, since it focuses on the motives of the heart rather than superficial actions.

The term certainly jolted me. The question that immediately came tumbling our of my mind was this: "Why do Christian authors feel the need to jolt people all the time?" The answer is: it sells more books! Sometimes a jolt can be good, as in giving a kick to a football. Sometimes a jolt can be bad, such as accidentally touching live 220 volt wires. Attempting to coin a term that is an oxymoron does more harm than good. The term "Christian hedonism" can be misunderstood in so many ways, even after reading John Piper's books. A good example is a quote from a misguided individual on the Internet who read "Desiring God".

"As I live this hedonistic lifestyle, myself a little Christ, I become more aware of the Ultimate Hedonist, and his full nature. And I dig it, man! My wish is for every Christian to realize his/her hedonistic nature, and for every hedonist to find Christ." (http://www.jesusfreak.com/vox/3/prose/hedonist.htm)

Not only can the term be threatening to nominal Christians, it can and is threatening to ALL Christians and non-believers. Hedonism is never something that should be the pursuit of Christians. Perhaps Christians should ask themselves this question: "Do I want my pleasure now or later?" The reason is that our worship of God is not worship at all unless it is, to the best of our ability and for the right motives guided by the Holy Spirit, a selfless act. Why is this? Because our real reason to worship God is for HIS PLEASURE. For our part, we worship God for the following reasons:

Isa 46:4 Even to your old age and grey hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you. " Isaiah hits a home run again! God deserves our worship because He made us, He sustains us, and He rescued us. What other reason do we need to worship God than the fact that HE DID IT ALL? Want a New Testament reference? Col. 1:15-20 "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. "

 Isn't the cross enough to bring us into unselfish worship of God? Why do we need gimmicks and jolting catch phrases? Why do we need the promise of some kind of cosmic bargain made by a god who says: "You give me worship and, in return, I guarantee pleasure for you right now!"
 
 

Christian authors feel the need to jolt people some of the time, because people sometimes need jolting. Your answer that it sells more books, is slightly unfair. It appears that you are questioning the motives of Dr. Piper in his writings when there is no valid reason to do this. Perhaps he feels that he is serving the Lord and the Church in this way (and just happens to see things differently to you)? The irony in this charge is that DGM have a "Whatever you can afford" policy on all of their products and "Desiring GOD" itself is available on-line. This does not seem a very good idea if someone is trying to make money. Of course, you have not claimed that Piper is trying to make money, only that he is trying to sell books. Why is this a problem though? If you wrote a book with (what you believed was) a valuable message for the church, would you not want to "sell" as many books as possible?

You assume that oxymoronís are unhelpful which strikes us as a strange assumption. Your quote from the "misguided individual" does not seem to be completely fair as you are well aware that all of our teachings can be abused and adapted to fit with heresies. Who would like to reject Calvinism simply because it has been used by some as an excuse to avoid Evangelism? Or who would reject the Ministry of Jonathan Edwards because it attracted a few crack-pots?!

I suspect that God is not after our self-less worship one little bit. To be sure, the verses you quote are more than enough to drive us to our knees in awe-struck wonder, but is such an act more desirable if it stems from self-less motives? I cannot see why. In fact, when teaching the Samaritan woman about Worship, Jesus appeals to her desire for satisfaction in order to motivate her to worship in Spirit and Truth (Jn. 4:10-14). It would have been possible for her to worship God in Truth with her lips, whilst her heart was far from him (cf. Is. 29:13), but this was not what the Father was seeking.

"Which glorifies God moreÖ1) a worship experience that comes to climax in the wonder of God, or 2) an experience that comes to climax in a noble attempt to free itself from rapture in order to make a contribution to the goal of God?" (Piper, DG, P.74). In the former, I appear as a helpless fool, crawling around in the desert in search of a pool of fresh water (which, when I find I simply fall into, lapping up the water in delight). However, in the second, I am pictured as a competent suitor more than able to provide God with what he needs. Which glorifies God more? Which brings him most pleasure?
 
 

(5) Although the word definitely has a pagan connotation in most circumstances, Scripture itself uses words with normally negative connotations to teach positive truth. For instance, Jesus compared himself to a thief in the night. He also commended the shrewdness of an unrighteous steward. Surely, a word that is in essence quite neutral can be used to express the truth that we should find our highest delight in God!

The first mistake in the above paragraph is to say that the word "hedonism" is a neutral word. A neutral word would be a word devoid of any definable meaning. The second mistake is to compare Jesus' use of the phrases "thief in the night" and "unrighteous steward" to the new term Piper is trying to coin "Christian hedonism". Jesus was not trying to coin a new word or add a new phrase to the language of His day. He was using common terms to teach concepts via parables. Jesus may have used shocking phrases and words, but they were always used with their definitions still intact.
 
 

According to your definition of a neutral word, we can not think of any. If Jesus was "not trying to coin a new word or add a new phrase to the language of his day", are we to understand that when he returns he will steal all our valuables and escape in silence, leaving us to carry on with our (now slightly deprived) lives? If he always used words "with their definitions still intact," then he has no right to invade our homes and take what he wants - he is a Theif. Was Jesus not in fact using common word-pictures to paint a completely new portrait? Is the LORD like a man awaking from the stupor of wine (cf. Psalm 78:65)? In one sense, yes. In another sense, no - he is quite the opposite. So, if such a word-picture is acceptable, can it not be valid to refer to the Christianís pursuit of God as "hedonistic"? Well, in one sense - the sense in which you appear to be using the term "hedonism" - no. Yet, in another, I can hardly think of a more appropriatae term. Is Piper not merely "using common terms to teach concepts"?
 
 

(6) Finally, the word "Christian" as a modifier of the term "hedonism" signals loud and clear that this is no ordinary hedonism. It is controlled and defined by the Christian revelation, the Bible. Only by submitting ourselves to the authority of Scripture can we know what is everlastingly most pleasing.

How can a "Christian hedonist" say he is "controlled" by the Bible when the act of hedonism is damned by it?
 
 

Once again, you appear to be begging the very question you are attempting to provide an answer for. If we accept your claim that the act of hedonism is "damned" by the Bible, then we still wonder why you fail to accept the modifier "Christian." This is clearly referring to a different type of hedonism than that condemned in Scripture.

Finally, the reason why a true Christian (not "hedonist" this time) submits themselves "to the authority of Scripture" is not so they can know what is everlastingly pleasing, unless they are talking about pleasing God. One wise man when asked the question "What is the meaning of life?" said: "To please God." This is our aim. We do not aim to please ourselves but to please God. Our reward is coming someday and then we can share the glory with Christ. But only if we have been faithful and obedient now. That obedience does involve a joy and "peace that passes all understanding" in serving others before ourselves, loving others as we love ourselves. This is a lifelong work that the Holy Spirit works in us. True Christians don't have time to waste on hedonism of any kind.
 
 

We would share your conviction that the meaning of life is to glorify God, but feel compelled to ask how God is most glorified. If I have a reward coming someday, am I not permitted to look forward to that? Is not the possession of that joy a Scriptural motivation for the Christian life (cf. Heb. 11:24-6; 12:2)? Does the prospect of joy to come not fill us with joy unspeakable in the here and now (cf. Psalm 16:9-11; 1 Peter 1:3-9)? Must I choose between joy now and joy then? Do I dare to make such a choice (Deut 28:47-8; Psalm 37:4; Php. 4:4)?

Conclusion:

We have not sought to provide a complete defence of the concept of Christian Hedonsim, but merely to respond to your point-by-point refutation. For a more thorough presentation of the teaching, you might care to visit our essays page.

Though you claim to merely be refuting Piperís defence of the term "Christian Hedonism," we feel that you have gone further than this and thus felt compelled to write this letter. In a number of places you have questioned the motivation behind Piperís teachings - and have provided your own (unfavourable) explanation. You also take the opportunity to question the doctrine of Christian Hedonism, but do not appear to really give it a fair hearing. In fact, I have to confess that I wonder if you have taken the trouble to actually read either Desiring God or Future Grace. To refute an Appendix to a book, seems rather unusual if you have not sufficiently digested the book beforehand. Piperís defence is explicitly offered as an Appendix and must only be read in that light.

The term "Christian Hedonism" does not down-play the tougher aspects of Christian living (Desiring God contains chapters on both Missions and Suffering), neither does the concept fail to do justice to the full body of Scriptural teaching. What it does is present the Biblical teaching on Christian motivation, the Lordship of Christ and Religious Affections in an exciting, fresh, Scripturally-sound and God-centred way. In this, Piper is simply mimicking those who have gone before who are "smarter and older than I am" :

"God loves a cheeful giver." (Apostle Paul)

"God is glorified not only by his glory's being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart. God made the world that he might communicate, and the creature receive, His glory; and that it might [be] received both by the mind and the heart. He that testifies his idea of God's glory [doesn't] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it." (Jonathan Edwards)

"If joy were more general among the Lord's people God would be more glorified among men. The happiness of the subjects is the honour of the Sovereign." (Charles Spurgeon)

"I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord." (George Mueller)

"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."

"It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can." (C. S. Lewis)

"But the sole motive of Christian simplicity is the enjoyment of God himself (and if that be Hedonism, letís make the most of it!)Ö" (Vernard Eller)

"God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy." (Jeremy Taylor)


Anyone interested in a fuller defence of Christian Hedonism would profit from a visit to the Desiring God Ministries Web-site. There you will find Piper's response to Richard Mouw, as well as the original defence of the term which appears as an appendix to Desiring God. We would invite you to read the entire book - available on-line - as well as the appendices.


Now go to Sandy Simpson's second rebuttal.