Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Why i am a Christian hedonist

'God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him'

'the end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever'

Such have been the cry of those who have agreed with John Piper's Christian hedonism theology (i say Piper's not because he 'came up with it', because i don't think he did, but because he is the best known proponent of it at the moment). The view that God is primary in God's affections, and that we are to persue joy in Him. That God is a happy God, and that he wants us to be happy, he wants us to be happy in Him, and that is the best way to bring Him the glory that He deserves. It sounds good, God gets the glory, we get the joy, everyone is happy.

Recently in the blogosphere people have been questioning Christian hedonism (here and here for example), and i think this is a good thing. iMonk, for example asks why no one has taken Piper's theology on in the same 'verse by verse' manner that people have written books about the New Perspective on Paul for example, or the emergent church. And thats a good question. Why hasn't anyone? Where are the weighty anti Christian hedonism authors and theologians? It could be that Christian hedonism is the great blindspot of my generation, and if so, i'd like someone to show me with careful exegesis and cutting application. It is interesting that no one seems to have done that yet.

So what is hedonism itself? This admittedly controversial term that so many of us have nailed to our masts? The dictionary defines hedonism as 'the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest good'. So there we see an objection right away. Pleasure or happiness as the highest good? No no no, God is highest good, following His will for our lives is what we should be doing, not pursuing our own selfish means. We live in a community, a body, not in a bubble where we can do whatever we want. I think there are two, linked, responses that answer those problems.

First of all, surely some sort of a category error has occurred when we consider pleasure or happiness bad. The problem is not those emotions themselves, but what we do to gain those pleasures. Sexual promiscuity, drug and alcohol abuse, egocentredness, selfishness...those things are bad, and so often they are means for the end of pleasure. Yes, in that sense the pursuit of pleasure as the highest good is bad and ultimately suicidal. But thats not what Christian hedonists believe. God is the highest good, and communion with God, ultimately found and enjoyed in Heaven is the greatest pleasure there is. And so thats what is to be pursued as the ultimate good...God Himself in Jesus Christ, God as revealed perfectly in His Son. Edwards exhorts us to love Jesus apart from any interest we might have in Him...God is the Gospel, He Himself is the good news, so when we pursue pleasure we pursue a closer relationship with Jesus, in whom is all the Father's delight. And what is the end result for God in our pleasure driven pursuit of Him? Glory!

What gives us pleasure we treasure, what we treasure we give glory to. So when we know and discover that our deepest most satisfying pleasure comes from knowing God, and from deeper communion with Him through Christ, then He gets the glory from our joy. God is not glorified by us treating Him like a trough that needs to be filled by acts of service, but by coming to Him with our empty buckets and being filled with those pure living waters that will quench every thirst.

In his post 'Christian Hedonism-not quite there' Mo raised three objections that i'm going to try and deal with now. Now, before i start i'm going to tell you that i love Mo. It was a pleasure to sit under his teaching at Relay Conferences last year, and i hope i'm half the man he is when i'm his age. Now, Mo already knows that, but i'm just telling you in case you think i'm getting personal. I'm clearly not.

1) 'is God not more honoured when we don't want to obey Him but we do, than when we do so joyfully?'

God is of course honoured by any sort of obedience thats not hypocritical. I need to do lots more work than i've done to unpack that statement, and the next one, but here goes anyway! Is God glorified by Christians who always moan about their calling, who don't seem to find any enjoyment or any pleasure in being with Him? When we can't wait to put the Bible down to watch TV, what are we honouring more or giving glory to? The Word or the TV. To use the husband/wife example, how will Rachel feel the next time i see her and bring her flowers if my reason for it is 'you are my girlfriend, it is my duty to buy you flowers'? Not great. But if i said something like 'Rachel, i love you, i've been literally counting the days since i last saw you, i can't wait to spend this week with you and these flowers are just a token of those feelings' hopefully she'd be happier! But our love for the Lord is tested in the hard times of obedience, not the

2) 'What about when there is no joy in obeying God? What about self denial?'

Jesus expressed loud groans to God when facing death in Gethsemane? But why did He go to Calvary? For the joy set before Him. Jesus was not enjoying Himself in the Garden, but He knew what was to come from this obedience. Joy. Now, it is pushing the point to say that Christ had joy when he was walking to Calvary, but he did it for the joy that was to come. But what about suffering? Well to choose one example, 1 Thessalonians 1:6 doesn't mention joy and suffering as mutually exclusive. Despite the suffering the Thessalonians were suffering, they received Paul's message with great joy. In Colossians 1:24 Paul rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus, and Paul can experience suffering in their obedience to God, and yet still find joy in it. Self denial could be an issue though. If Christians are called to self denial how can they also be called to joy? I think i'd want to say because what we're called to deny ultimately won't lead to joy. What the secular hedonist pursues for the sake of joy and the Christian hedonist pursues for the sake of joy are (hopefully) very different things. So while giving up some things may look like self denial, surely it actually helps us to see more of the glory of God which leads to our joy.

3) How do we 'do' Christian Hedonism evangelistically without it seeming like the a therapy Gospel?
That is a huge and important question. I think the first distinction i'd want to draw between therapy Gospels and Christian hedonism is that therapy Gospels, or health and wealth Gospels promise us happiness and wealth we can see now. BMWs, big houses and never being ill. Christian hedonism calls us to take up our cross and bear it, to deny ourselves, to rejoice with the Hebrews at the plundering of our possessions, to go outside the camp and suffer with Jesus, to lose everything and even be killed for His sake if necessary. So i guess in evangelism we explain not that 'sin is nice but Jesus is nicer' but that knowing Jesus is worth more than all the temporal joy we can squeeze into our lives. And not only that, but also this isn't an option between joy now and nothing later and no joy now but joy later, it's joy now and eternal torment later, or delayed joy now, and overwhelming joy later. How repentance and joy are linked definitely needs more thinking about, and just to say 'be a Christian, you'll be happier' while sometimes exponentially true, and Biblical, doesn't seem to sit quite right. But the definition of what we mean when we talk about joy and happiness is an important one.

So there's is my imperfect effort of defending Christian hedonism. It would seem appropriate to finish with a quote from Piper's great hero, Jonathan Edwards, so that's what i'll do:

If some elder minister had undertaken this, i should have no doubt they'd have done it more proper...if others would hold forth further light in any of these particulars, i hope i should thankfully receive it...

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