Appendix 5: Why Call It Christian Hedonism?

Desiring God by John Piper

Iam aware that calling this philosophy of life “Christian Hedonism” runs the
risk of ignoring Bishop Ryle’s counsel against “the use of uncouth and newfangled terms and phrases in teaching sanctification.”1 Nevertheless, I stand by the term for at least six reasons.

1. My old Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of 1961, which has been within
arm’s reach since I was in the tenth grade, defines hedonism as “a living for pleasure.” Forty years later, the authoritative American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition has as its first definition: “pursuit of or devotion to pleasure.” That is precisely what I mean by it. If the chief end of man is to enjoy God forever, human life should be a “living for pleasure.”

2. The article on hedonism in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy shows that the term does not refer to a single precise philosophy. It is a general term to cover a wide variety of teachings that have elevated pleasure very high. My use of the term falls inside the tolerance of this general usage.

I would be happy with the following definition as a starting point for my
own usage of the word: Hedonism is “a theory according to which a person is motivated to produce one state of affairs in preference to another if, and only if,
8. Quoted in C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1946), 19.

he thinks it will be more pleasant, or less unpleasant for himself.”2 I would only want to add “forever.” For there are deeds God calls us to do that in the short run are painful.

3. 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.

For example, C. S. Lewis counsels his friend “Malcolm” to be aware of
committing idolatry in his enjoyment of nature. To be sure, he must enjoy the “sunlight in a wood.” But these spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” and one must let one’s mind “run back up the sunbeam to the sun.” Then Lewis comments:

You notice that I am drawing no distinction between the 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 also a somewhat arduous discipline.3

We will find that it is indeed an arduous discipline!

In The Simple Life, Vernard Eller delights himself in some of the great
parables of Søren Kierkegaard. One of his favorites is the parable of the lighted carriage and starlit night. We could also call it the crisis of Christian Hedonism. It goes like this:

When the prosperous man on a dark but starlit night drives comfortably
in his carriage and has the lanterns lighted, aye, then he is safe, he
fears no difficulty, he carries his light with him, and it is not dark close
around him. But precisely because he has the lanterns lighted, and has
a strong light close to him, precisely for this reason, he cannot see the
stars. For his lights obscure the stars, which the poor peasant, driving
without lights, can see gloriously in the dark but starry night. So those
deceived ones live in the temporal existence: either, occupied with the
necessities of life, they are too busy to avail themselves of the view, or in
their prosperity and good days they have, as it were, lanterns lighted,
and close about them everything is so satisfactory, so pleasant, so comfortable — but the view is lacking, the prospect, the view of the stars.4

Eller comments, “Clearly, ‘the view of the stars’ here intends one’s awareness and enjoyment of God.”5 The rich and busy who surround themselves with the carriage lights of temporal comfort, or the busy who cover themselves with troublesome care, cut themselves off from what Kierkegaard calls “the absolute joy”:

What indescribable joy!—joy over God the Almighty.… For this is the absolute joy, to adore the almighty power with which God the Almighty bears all thy care and sorrow as easily as nothing.6

Eller applies all this to the so called “simple life” and says, The motive of Christian simplicity is not the enjoyment of simplicity itself; that and any other earthly benefit that comes along are part of ‘all the rest’ [Matthew 6:33]. But the sole motive of Christian simplicity is the enjoyment of God himself (and if that be hedonism, let’s make the most of it!)—it is “the view of the stars.”7

This is indeed hedonism! And I have done my best to make the most of it in this book. Precisely! Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of pleasure. It says you have already made a god out of whatever you take most pleasure in.

4. The fourth reason I use the term Christian Hedonism is that it has an arresting and jolting effect. My heart has been arrested and my life has been deeply jolted by the teaching of Christian Hedonism. It is not an easy or comfortable philosophy. It is extremely threatening to nominal Christians. That is why when I wrote a condensed version of this book, I gave it the title The Dangerous Duty of Delight (Multnomah, 2001).

It is based on the devastating truth of Christ when He said, “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:16). This is utterly shocking. Should we not then find words to shock ourselves into realizing that eternity is at stake when we disobey the commandment, “Delight yourself in the LORD” (Psalm 37:4)?

Most of us are virtually impervious to the radical implications of familiar language. What language shall we borrow to awaken joyless believers to the words of Deuteronomy 28:47–48?

Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart…therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the LORD will send against you.… And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you.

How shall we open their ears to the shout of Jeremy Taylor: “God threatens terrible things, if we will not be happy!”?8

I have found over the years that there is a correlation between people’s willingness to get over the offensiveness of the term Christian Hedonism and their willingness to yield to the offensive biblical truth behind it. The chief effect of the term is not that it creates a stumbling block to the truth, but that it wakens people to the fact that the truth itself is a stumbling block—and often a very different one than they expected.

5. To the objection that the term hedonism carries connotations too worldly to be redeemed, I answer with the precedent of Scripture. If Jesus can describe His coming as the coming of a “thief” (Matthew 24:43–44), if He can extol a “dishonest manager” as a model of shrewdness (Luke 16:8), and if the inspired psalmist can say that the Lord awoke from sleep “like a strong man shouting because of wine” (Psalm 78:65), then it is a small thing for me to say the passion to glorify God by enjoying Him forever is indeed Christian Hedonism.

6. Remarkably, the apostle Paul describes his own experience of weakness and suffering with a Greek word that is at the root of the English word hedonism. He quotes Christ as saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Then he responds, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly (hedista) of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). And a few verses later he says, “I will most gladly (hedista) spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). This word hedista has no special spiritual connotations that would make it fitting for Paul’s use here. He simply chooses an ordinary pleasure word from this culture and shocks us with his use of it in relation to weakness and love.

7. Finally, by attaching the adjective Christian to the word hedonism, I signal loud and clear that this is no ordinary hedonism. For me, the word Christian carries this implication: Every claim to truth that flies under the banner of Christian Hedonism must be solidly rooted in the in the Christian
Scriptures, the Bible. And the Bible teaches that man’s chief end is to glorify
God BY enjoying Him forever.