Christian Hedonism

Hedonism is the primary value system of western society. The pursuit of pleasure and personal happiness is paramount in the minds of most people in the society and indeed is even a constitutional right in the US. In fact freedom for many has come to be understood as meaning simply freedom to do whatever you want to do. Such a value system is reflected in the dominance of the drug culture, sexual promiscuity and marital unfaithfulness, and the general rebellious attitude both among the young and old. But as of late the leaven of hedonistic philosophy has also infiltrated Christian thinking.

In his popular book  "Desiring God" which first appeared in 1986 John Piper proposes that a hedonistic value system be the primary determining factor in living the Christian life. Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life.  It is the ethical theory that achieving one's own happiness is the proper goal of all conduct. Piper says that "The pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed." Piper tries to harness hedonism embracing it but directing it towards God. Piper's argument is basically that God made us to be hedonists and that God himself is a hedonist, but that for the Christian our chief source of pleasure or happiness is in God and therefore we should pursue God to achieve our happiness.

Piper seems to indicate that glorifying Himself to satisfy his own lust for pleasure is what God's purpose was for creating us, as God Himself is a hedonist. But that the way we glorify God is by seeking pleasure in Him. Thus it is not that glorifying God should be our chief purpose in life but that the pleasure that we get out of glorifying God be our objective; or in other words to essentially put the cart before the horse; to make the pursuit of pleasure to be the engine of the train rather than to view it as the caboose; to make it the cake rather than the icing on the cake; to make it the root rather than the fruit of our Christian life. It's essentially self-seeking. One could argue it's God-seeking, but only in a "what's in it for me?" sense. To the individual hedonist glorifying God of itself is irrelevant. The only relevant motivation in life would be the pursuit of the ultimate pleasure. But ambiguously Piper also writes that it is our "duty" to live for his glory. But then elsewhere he pokes fun at the idea of being motivated out of "duty" or obligation.

Piper uses the illustration of bringing flowers home to his wife in order to poke fun at the idea that doing so only out of a sense of obligation rather than pleasure would not be welcomed with appreciation. But consider the logical hedonistic application. You give flowers to your wife and say that "I'm giving flowers to you only because I'm pursuing my own pleasure. My love for you and even the act of giving these flowers to you is only because it makes me feel good. However when you stop from making me feel good or I find that someone else makes me feel better then you can go to hell for all I care." Of course the hedonist would not actually say that for it would interfere with his receiving pleasure. Instead he would try to deceive his wife keeping these hedonistic ideas to himself. But the point is made. He would say things like "I love you" hoping to receive some pleasure out of it while purposely miscommunicating what he meant. Is this the kind of value system advocated in the Bible?

The Bible seems to indicate that a Christian should not be a hedonist.

1 Timothy 5:6  "the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives."

2 Timothy 3:2-5 "People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them."

But Piper proposes that such as these are just referring to sinful pleasures. But I say that if pleasure is the end goal of hedonism then how can there be such a thing as a sinful pleasure. And Piper himself writes, "The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful. We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy as though it were a bad impulse." But pleasure is relative to the individual. If man's purpose is to pursue his greatest pleasure then what that particular pleasure happens to be is irrelevant to whether he's carrying out his purpose in life. Logically if hedonism is God's ordained plan for man, then it's those who don't make the pursuit of pleasure their chief purpose in life that are the ones who are sinning. And indeed Piper reckons such people with contempt. And that those who fulfill their lustful pleasures in life, regardless of what the Bible calls such behavior, are fulfilling God's purpose for creating them.

Piper proposes that man's greatest pleasure should be found in God. "The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Nor from God, but in God." and "The pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue." What that actually means is somewhat ambiguous. Verbally praising God seems to be what he means, but he's very unclear on that. He's coming from the stand point of an institutional church leader and thus his view of worship may be skewed towards ritual. And in his section on "the form of worship" he gives a bunch of hymns, so I think he has in mind the "worship service" idea.

He presumes that conversion makes one into a Christian hedonist. Thus logically those who pursue to glorify God out of duty rather than pleasure are unsaved. And yet he himself contradicts this point as I've shown above in which he says that it is our duty to glorify God. Well, which is it? Is duty the motivating factor or is pleasure the motivating factor. He can't just say that duty is the motivating factor but also pleasure follows as an inevitable consequence or effect for those converted, because that would be contrary to hedonism. For the hedonists pleasure is not simply viewed as an effect, it is the motivating factor and end goal of the hedonist. Glorifying God then becomes an effect rather than a goal. I say that while a Christian will inevitably experience pleasure and happiness with God and that while the Bible uses such things at time to motivate people to pursue God, yet pursing God because one perceives it to be the right thing to do, or behaving as a child of God simply because that is what one is, or glorifying God not because of what we get out of it but because of what God gets out of it ,or loving others not for ourselves but for them, these are also legitimate (and I would argue even more mature) motivating factors.

Is glorifying God the pleasant thing to do because it is right? Or is it the right thing to do because it is pleasant? The second is Christian hedonism.

Piper's Contempt for Non-Hedonistic Christians

In is book "Meditations of a Christian Hedonist", Piper says, "It is unbibical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in him." So for example if one worships God because he feels it is the right thing to do, such a person Piper reckons to be arrogant and not legitimately worshipping God. And so also for those who do things not because of the pleasure they get out of it, but because of how others benefit from it, Piper seems to reckon such people likewise with contempt. This is the view he teaches. If Christians have any other motive other than the pursuit of one's own personal pleasure, (like love, or doing what is right because it is right), such people Piper reckons to be arrogant and not living Biblically. And indeed I have seen such an attitude within the Christian community - whether it be a product of Piper's influence or whether Piper's theology is simply a reflection of the hedonistic attitude predominant in the Christian community which influence him, leading him astray.

God as a Hedonist

Ezekiel 18:23  "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?"

Piper ends up having problems with verses like this because he argues from the perspective of the Calvinist puppet theology as advocate especially by Jonathan Edwards. If God's chief end is to make Himself happy, and since God controls everything therefore He's happy with everything that happens. What about the many verses that speak of God being grieved and others such as this where things happen that God says he takes no pleasure in? Piper brings in Edwards Calvinistic theology to say that we're viewing God through the wrong lense. Such verses are only presenting God through a narrow lense, but if we saw the big picture God is actually happy all the time. God is happy when the wicked die. He's happy when he sends people to hell. He's happy when people are led into sin. He's just a jolly old fellow in a red suit and a white beard saying "Ho Ho Ho" whose lap you can sit on to ask for presents. He's essentially Santa Claus. From my perspective, under Calvinism it's like God is playing with Barbi dolls. Sometimes he finds pleasure in arbitrarily throwing some into a fire. He's entertained by watching them melt down. No that's not it. He needs to give them feelings so that he can be amused at their cries as they're tormented in the fire. For others he dresses them up fancy and brings them into Barbi's dream house according to His own pleasure. These bizzare concepts are reflections of Calvinistic thinking and to no surprise in Piper's case and in the case of many Christians has led to a hedonistic attitude. For everyone naturally conforms to their own view of God. For even of the idolator the Psalmist writes, "Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them."Ps 115:8

But for me when God says that he takes no pleasure in something, I interpret that to mean that He takes no pleasure in that thing. Since I'm not a Calvinist I don't have to play such games with the scriptures. I can read out of it rather than trying to read something like hedonism into it. So for me God reluctantly sends people to hell to satisfy the demands of justice as that is a part of his character. For he has no pleasure in their eternal death. But to the Christian hedonist His primary motivation in sending people to hell is to satisfy His own lust for pleasure and happiness. Which God do you worship?

Here's a testimony from one who claims to be a Piper type of Christian hedonist, "My purpose in life is not to help other people or "save" them from hell, but so that God might enjoy me enjoying him. It just so happens that pleasure makes me hedonistically pursue helping the poor and lost, listening to Mozart and Nine Inch Nails, going camping, discussing politics, and making love to my wife. 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! " (http://web.archive.org/web/20021108080326/http://www.jesusfreak.com/vox/3/prose/hedonist.htm)

Was Jesus a Hedonist?

What was Jesus' primary motivating factor in obeying his Father? Interesting to note that Jesus seldom speaks of his motivation. He speaks of the fact the he obeys the Father, but not the reason. What is implied is that it is simply inherent in his nature to obey.
John 5:19  Jesus gave them this answer: "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does."
If anything he alludes to his love for the Father.
John 14:31  but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.
But he neither speaks of what motivates his love nor even whether his love for the Father is the basis of his submission. And he speaks of his mission to glorify the Father, but not his motivation in doing so. It's not that he doesn't have desires, but that his desires are secondary to his mission.
Luke 22:42  "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done."
And much of his mission incorporated meeting other people's desires, while mentioning little of his own. So should a Christian be obsessed about his own wants and desires and pleasures and happiness? Should he greet every command of God with a "what do I get out of it" attitude? Isn't it sufficient that God told him to do something that he should just go and do it without having to introspectively analyze whether his motivation conforms to hedonistic philosophy? Shouldn't children do what their father says simply because they are his children? Notice in the parable of the two sons that the father did not obsess over motivation. It was the son who reluctantly obeyed who was presented as the pattern to follow. Yes, willingly obeying is better, but reluctantly obeying is also legitimate Christian behavior as Jesus advocates. And there are times as we see above where Jesus himself reluctantly obeyed. Jesus did not have a pleasant stay on earth. And I'm not just talking about his physical level of comfort. He was grieved and irritated by all the sin around him, so that he says, "O unbelieving generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?"Mark 9:19 He wanted to go home. During his whole ministry he had to fight off his feelings of displeasure and put God's will, God's mission for him, above his feelings. Feelings should be secondary and not primary in the Christian life. If you felt the way Jesus did and lived as he did you might very well be classified as "unsaved" by Christian hedonists like Piper or by other more typical funloving pleasure-seeking hedonistic Christians just because of their perception that you're not a hedonist.

Hedonistic Love

So also Piper has to play some hermeneutical gymnastics to get around what the Bible says about love. He'll take a verse like 1Cor 13:5 "Love does not seek its own" and other such verses and says, "isolated and unreflective focus on texts like these gives the impression that the essense of Christian morality is to free ourselves from all self-interest when it comes to good deeds for other people." Then he tries to read hedonism into the Bible rather than reading out of it what is actually written. Concerning those sections which speak of benefits he himself remains rather unreflective as to whether the texts are trying to exalt such benefits as the primary pursuit in the Christian life. Of 1Cor 13:5 he says, "Is this meant so absolutely that it would be wrong to enjoy being loving?" No, but it doesn't have to be meant so absolutely to nullify the idea that hedonism is inconsistent with agape love. Hedonism is not simply the experience of pleasure. It is making the pursuit pleasure the primary goal in life. I would question whether a hedonist was even capable of practicing agape love. Hedonists love because it makes them feel good. They may experience "phileo" love, but agape love is another matter.

Hedonism is for the Immature

Just as infants are inherently self-centered so also Christians in spiritual infancy tend to be hedonistic. Such a characteristic is quite common in the Christian community, but that fact should not lead us to conclude that it is necessary to be a hedonist to be a Christian, but rather that we should work to help Christians to mature out of that phase. Paul writes of the rarity of such an attitude which he commends in Timothy saying, "I have no one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare. For everyone looks out for his own interests, not those of Jesus Christ." Php 2:20,21

This self-interest is generally characteristic of the society as it is among immature Christians. For such people Jesus draws them through promises, not denying their desires, but directing their desires to greater things. Piper interprets such promises as justifying and indeed promoting a hedonistic philosophy and even going beyond that by making a hedonistic attitude essential for salvation. But to me I read these more in the sense of "if this is what you're looking for; if this is what you have set your heart on, then there's even a greater version of that available for you if you follow me".

Love that children may demonstrate tends to be either phileo or purposely manipulative. As they mature they may love as a form of appreciation - loving those who love them. Mature parental love however does not seek its own but is capable of loving without it being fueled by a positive response from the subject. Even nature teaches us this. The young lion will fight over a piece of meat with its siblings and yet it is the mother who brought it to them at risk to her own life. Thus as one matures ones focus becomes more others centered. Less and less personal incentives are needed to motivate the mature to right behavior. The immature do things because of what they get out of it. The mature do things because things need doing. It takes maturity to develop in a young person a sense of duty and obligation.

Walking as Jesus did takes maturity as he says, "Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Mark 10:45 And so we are also called "As I have loved you, so you must love one another." John 13:34 We are called to a similar mission as Jesus also acknowledges in a prayer to his Father, "As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world." John 17:18 This is not optional. "Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did." 1 John 2:6  But contrary to this Piper writes, "Any servant who tries to get off the divine dole (charitable dispensation) and strike up a manly partnership with his Heavenly Master is in revolt against the Creator." In other words he's saying that if you walk as Jesus did in a mature relationship with God instead of being a baby then you are in rebellion against God. This suppression of spiritual maturity I note to be characteristic of the modern evangelical community and a hinderance to Christian unity.


Ordinary Christian Hedonism

A friend of mine is an Army recruiter. Long ago when he enlisted he noted that it was common to do so out of a sense of duty for God and country. But today things are different. He notes that mostly young people are not driven out of a sense of duty, but rather out of a sense of personal interest. They want to know what they can get out of it. I remember JFK once said, "Ask not what your country can do for your, but for what you can do for your country." Such an attitude was lost in the 80's and hopefully someday the country will recover from its hedonistic obsession. Such an attitude has infiltrated the Christian community, which always seems inevitable. If you want to know what the Christian community is like just look at the society around it. And it doesn't help when you have Christian leadership actively trying to mix the world's leaven into the Christian loafers to fill them up to become bloated with the hot air of worldly philosophies. Christian hedonism, which I call "Feel-good" Christianity is perhaps one of the most predominant and intrinsic attitudes in the Evangelical community today. but Piper's version of Christian hedonism I reckon to be rare. How many Christians honestly take pleasure in worshipping God - and by that I mean singing songs during a worship service and verbally giving praise to God as the Psalmist - more so than any other thing? For your average Christian praise and worship is either a chore in which one must often overcome feelings of displeasure to accomplish it or else its not his primary pleasure in life else he would spend all his free time doing it.

In contrast to Piper's version, the more common version of Christian hedonism is the idea of glorifying God by seeking to fulfill whatever one's greatest pleasures are in the name of God, essentially being a hedonist who calls himself a Christian and practices hedonism in the name of God. Their priority in life is to have fun and seek to fulfill their pleasures and seek happiness "in the name of God". Their attitude is that what God wants them to do is exactly what they wanted to do anyhow. They seek to "feel good" in themselves and anything that hinders that goal is of the devil. If someone else makes them "feel bad", then that person is sinning against them. As the old song goes "it can't be wrong if it feels so right", they both ignore scripture and corrupt their own conscience if sinning makes them feel good. In fact for many it's very hard to distinguish between Christian hedonists and non-Christian hedonists. So no surprise when you hear of the amazing high percentage of people in this country who call themselves born-again Christians and yet you see very little corresponding statistic when it comes to the behavior of society. Jesus said of his disciples "They are not of the world, even as I am not of it." John 17:16  But such is not the case in modern Christendom whose goal it seems is to become just like the world.

See also
Rebuttal to John Piper's defense of the term "Christian hedonism"
The Theological Foundation of “Christian Hedonism”
Christian Hedonism--A Wake-up Call to the Church

To end things consider this quote taken from A. W. Tozer's Of God And Men, "Holiness Before Happiness", Christian Publications, 1960, pp 43-46

"That we are born to be happy is scarcely questioned by anyone.  The lovelorn columns of the newspaper are wet with the tears of persons who write to inquire how they can "preserve their happiness."  The psychiatrists of the land are getting fat off the increasing numbers who seek professional aid in their all-absorbing search for happiness. Almost all popular books and plays assume that personal happiness is the legitimate end of the human struggle. The only question before the house is how to get the most happiness out of life."

"Now I submit that the whole hectic scramble after happiness is an evil as certainly as is the scramble after money or fame or success. How far wrong all this is will be discovered easily by the simple act of reading the New Testament through once with meditation. There the emphasis is not upon happiness - but upon holiness.   God is more concerned with the state of people's hearts than with the state of their feelings.  Undoubtedly the will of God brings final happiness to those who obey, but the most important matter is not how happy we are - but how holy."

"For those who take this whole thing seriously I have a suggestion:  Go to God and have an understanding.  Tell Him that it is your desire to be holy at any cost and then ask Him never to give you more happiness than holiness.  When your holiness becomes tarnished, let your joy become dim.  And ask Him to make you holy whether you are happy or not.  Be assured that in the end you will be as happy as you are holy."



The Berean Christian Bible Study Resources Jul 29,2015