Ch.1 WHY I WROTE THIS BOOK

– Sustaining the Sacrifice of Love –

When I Don’t Desire God by John Piper

Christian Hedonism is a liberating and devastating doctrine. It
teaches that the value of God shines more brightly in the soul that
finds deepest satisfaction in him. Therefore it is liberating because it
endorses our inborn desire for joy. And it is devastating because it reveals
that no one desires God with the passion he demands. Paradoxically,
many people experience both of these truths. That certainly is my own
experience.

THE LIBERATING AND DEVASTATING DISCOVERY

When I saw the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most
satisfied in him, I was freed from the unbiblical bondage of fear that it
was wrong to pursue joy. What once had seemed like an inevitable but
defective quest for the satisfaction of my soul now became not just permitted
but required. The glory of God was at stake. This was almost too
good to be true—that my quest for joy and my duty to glorify God were
not in conflict. Indeed they were one. Pursuing joy in God was a nonnegotiable
way of honoring God. It was essential. This was a liberating
discovery. It released the energies of my mind and heart to go hard after
all the soul-happiness that God is for me in Jesus.

But simultaneous with the liberation came the devastation. I was
freed to pursue my fullest joy in God without guilt. Indeed, I was commanded
to pursue it. Indifference to the pursuit of joy in God would be
indifference to the glory of God, and that is sin. Therefore, my quest took
on a seriousness, an earnestness, a gravity that I never dreamed would be
part of pursuing joy. And then, almost immediately, came the realization
that my indwelling sin stands in the way of my full satisfaction in God.
It opposes and perverts my pursuit of God. It opposes by making other
things look more desirable than God. And it perverts by making me think
I am pursuing joy in God when, in fact, I am in love with his gifts.

I discovered what better saints than I have found before me: The full
enjoyment of God is my ultimate home, but I am still far off and only
on the way. Augustine put it like this in one of his prayers:

I was astonished that although I now loved you . . . I did not persist
in enjoyment of my God. Your beauty drew me to you, but soon I
was dragged away from you by my own weight and in dismay I
plunged again into the things of this world . . . as though I had sensed
the fragrance of the fare but was not yet able to eat it.2

HOW CHRISTIAN LIVING BECAME IMPOSSIBLE

This discovery was devastating to me. It still is. I was made to know and
enjoy God. I was freed by the doctrine of Christian Hedonism to pursue
that knowledge and that joy with all my heart. And then, to my dismay,
I discovered that it is not an easy doctrine. Christian Hedonism is not a
lowering of the bar. Out of the blue, as it were, I realized that the bar had
been raised. Manageable, duty-defined, decision-oriented, willpower
Christianity now seemed easy, and real Christianity had become impossible.
The emotions—or affections, as former generations called them—
which I was now free to enjoy, proved to be beyond my reach. The
Christian life became impossible. That is, it became supernatural.

Now there was only one hope, the sovereign grace of God. God
would have to transform my heart to do what a heart cannot make itself
do, namely, want what it ought to want. Only God can make the
depraved heart desire God. Once when Jesus’ disciples wondered about
the salvation of a man who desired money more than God, he said to
them, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are
possible with God” (Mark 10:27). Pursuing what we want is possible.
It is easy. It is a pleasant kind of freedom. But the only freedom that lasts
is pursuing what we want when we want what we ought. And it is devastating
to discover we don’t, and we can’t.
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THE MOST COMMON QUESTION I HAVE RECEIVED

This is why the most common and desperate question I have received
over the last three decades is: What can I do? How can I become the kind
of person the Bible is calling me to be? The question comes from an
aching in the heart that rises from the hope of great joy. People listen to
the biblical arguments for Christian Hedonism, or they read Desiring
God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist.3 Many are persuaded. They
see that the truth and beauty and worth of God shine best from the lives
of saints who are so satisfied in God they can suffer in the cause of love
without murmuring. But then they say, “That’s not who I am. I don’t
have that kind of liberating, love-producing, risk-taking satisfaction in
God. I desire comfort and security more than God.” Many say it with
tears and trembling.

Some are honest enough to say, “I don’t know if I have ever tasted
this kind of desire. Christianity was never presented to me like this. I
never knew that the desire for God and delight in God were crucial. I
was always told that feelings didn’t matter. Now I am finding evidence
all over the Bible that that the pursuit of joy in God, and the awakening
of all kinds of spiritual affections, are part of the essence of the newborn
Christian heart. This discovery excites me and frightens me. I want this.
But I fear I don’t have it. In fact, as far as I can see, it is outside my power
to obtain. How do you get a desire that you don’t have and you can’t
create? Or how do you turn the spark into a flame so that you can be
sure it is pure fire?”

CONVERSION IS THE CREATION OF NEW DESIRES

To answer that question, I have written this book. I long to be of help
to believers and unbelievers who are seeing some of the radical heartchanges
demanded by the Bible in the Christian life—especially that we
must desire God more than anything. I am not interested in superficial,
external behavior changes, which the Pharisees were so good at. “You
Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you
are full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). These external changes
are doable without divine grace.

I would like to help those who are beginning to see that salvation is
the awakening of a new taste for God, or it is nothing. “Oh, taste and see
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that the LORD is good!” (Ps. 34:8). I want to help those who are starting
to see that conversion is the creation of new desires, not just new duties;
new delights, not just new deeds; new treasures, not just new tasks.

Far and wide people are seeing these truths in the Bible. They are
discovering that there is nothing new about Christian Hedonism at all,
but that it is simple, old-fashioned, historic, biblical, radical Christian
living. It is as old as the psalmists who said to God, “Restore to me the
joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12) and “Satisfy us in the morning with
your steadfast love” (Ps. 90:14).

It’s as old as Jesus, who gave to his people this virtually impossible
command for the day of their persecution: “Rejoice in that day, and leap
for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23).

It’s as old as the early church who “joyfully accepted the plundering
of [their] property,” because they “had a better possession and an
abiding one” (Heb. 10:34).

It’s as old as Augustine who described conversion as the triumph of
sovereign joy:

How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys
which I had once feared to lose . . . ! You drove them from me, you
who are the true, the sovereign joy. You drove them from me and
took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not
to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper
than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honor, though not
in the eyes of men who see all honor in themselves. . . . O Lord my
God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation.4

It’s as old as John Calvin, the great Reformer of Geneva, who said
in his 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion that aspiring after happiness
in union with God is “the chief activity of the soul.”

If human happiness, whose perfection it is to be united with God,
were hidden from man, he would in fact be bereft of the principal use
of his understanding. Thus, also the chief activity of the soul is to
aspire thither. Hence the more anyone endeavors to approach to God,
the more he proves himself endowed with reason.5

It’s as old as the Puritans, like Thomas Watson, who wrote in 1692
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that God counts himself more glorified when we find more happiness in
his salvation:

Would it not be an encouragement to a subject, to hear his prince say
to him, You will honor and please me very much, if you will go to
yonder mine of gold, and dig as much gold for yourself as you can
carry away? So, for God to say, Go to the ordinances, get as much
grace as you can, dig out as much salvation as you can; and the more
happiness you have, the more I shall count myself glorified.6

It’s as old as Jonathan Edwards, who argued with all his intellectual
might in 1729 that “Persons need not and ought not to set any bounds
to their spiritual and gracious appetites.” Rather, they ought

to be endeavoring by all possible ways to inflame their desires and to
obtain more spiritual pleasures. . . . Our hungerings and thirstings
after God and Jesus Christ and after holiness can’t be too great for
the value of these things, for they are things of infinite value. . . .
[Therefore] endeavor to promote spiritual appetites by laying yourself
in the way of allurement. . . .7 There is no such thing as excess in
our taking of this spiritual food. There is no such virtue as temperance
in spiritual feasting.8

It’s as old as Princeton theologian Charles Hodge who argued in the
nineteenth century that the true knowledge of Christ includes (and does
not just lead to) delight in Christ. This knowledge “is not the apprehension
of what he is, simply by the intellect, but also . . . involves not
as its consequence merely, but as one of its elements, the corresponding
feeling of adoration, delight, desire and complacency [= contentment].”9

It is as old as the Reformed New Testament scholar Geerhardus Vos,
who in the early twentieth century conceded that there is in the writings
of the apostle Paul “a spiritualized type of hedonism.”

Of course, it is not intended to deny to Paul that transfigured spiritualized
type of “hedonism” if one prefers so to call it, as distinct from
the specific attitude towards life that went in the later Greek philosophy
by that technical name. Nothing, not even a most refined
Christian experience and cultivation of religion are possible without
that. . . . Augustine speaks of this in his Confessions in these words:
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“For there exists a delight that is not given to the wicked, but to those
honoring Thee, O God, without desiring recompense, the joy of
whom Thou art Thyself! And this is the blessed life, to rejoice towards
Thee, about Thee, for Thy sake.” Conf. X, 32.10

It’s as old as the great C. S. Lewis, who died the same day as John
F. Kennedy and had a huge influence on the way I experience nature
worshipfully.11

Pleasures are shafts of glory as it strikes our sensibility. . . . But aren’t
there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them
“bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean
“pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.” It is the stealing of the apples
that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the
glory. . . . I have tried since . . . to make every pleasure into a channel
of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One
must of course give thanks, but I meant something different . . .
Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me
this.” Adoration says, “What must be the quality of that Being whose
far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs
back up the sunbeam to the sun. . . . If this is Hedonism, it is also a
somewhat arduous discipline. But it is worth some labour.12

Lewis was so influential in my understanding of joy and desire and
duty and worship that I will add another quotation from him as a tribute
to the greatness of his wisdom. I hope my enthusiasm for Lewis will
set you to reading him, if you haven’t. He, of course, had his flaws, but
few people in the twentieth century had eyes to see what he saw. For
example, few saw, as he did, the proper place of duty and delight:

Provided the thing is in itself right, the more one likes it and the less one
has to “try to be good,” the better. A perfect man would never act from
sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong
one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people), like
a crutch, which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at
times; but of course it’s idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our
own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own!13

The point of citing all these witnesses is that lots of people, with
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good reason, are being persuaded that Christian Hedonism is simple,
old-fashioned, historic, biblical, radical Christian living, not some new
spiritual technique. They are discovering that God is most glorified in
us when we are most satisfied in him. Which means they are finding that
their desires, not just their decisions, really matter. The glory of God is
at stake. And many, with tears, want to know: What do I do when I
don’t desire God? God willing, I would like to help.

IT WILL NOT BE AN EASY JOURNEY TOWARD JOY

I take this task seriously. Our journey in this book is not across easy
territory. There are dangers on all sides. Spiritual desires and delights
are not commodities to be bought and sold. They are not objects to be
handled. They are events in the soul. They are experiences of the heart.
They have connections and causes in a hundred directions. They are
interwoven with the body and the brain, but are not limited to the physical
or mental. God himself, without body or brain, experiences a full
array of spiritual affections—love, hate, joy, anger, zeal, etc. Yet our
affections are influenced by our bodies and brains. No one but God can
get to the bottom of these things. “For the inward mind and heart of a
man are deep!” (Ps. 64:6); and not just deep, but depraved: “The heart
is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand
it?” (Jer. 17:9).

So the answer to the question, “What should I do when I don’t
desire God?” is not simple. But it is crucial. The apostle Paul said, “If
anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed” (1 Cor. 16:22).
Love is not a mere choice to move the body or the brain. Love is also an
experience of the heart. So the stakes are very high. Christ is to be cherished,
not just chosen. The alternative is to be cursed. Therefore life is
serious. And so is this book.

THE AIM IS NOT TO SOFTEN CUSHIONS,
BUT SUSTAIN SACRIFICE

The misunderstanding of this book that I want most to avoid is that I
am writing to make well-to-do Western Christians comfortable, as if the
joy I have in mind is psychological icing on the cake of already superficial
Christianity. Therefore let me say clearly here at the beginning that
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the joy I write to awaken is the sustaining strength of mercy, missions,
and martyrdom.

Even as I write this sentence Christians are being hacked to death
outside Kano, Nigeria. Yesterday a twenty-six-year-old American businessman
was beheaded in Iraq by terrorists. Why him? He just happened
to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This kind of death will
increase especially for Christians. In Sudan water is systematically withheld
from Christians as they die of thirst and malnutrition, while desperate
attempts to visit wells are met with murder, rape, or kidnapping.
Fresh reports come every month concerning the destruction of Christian
churches and the arrest of pastors in China. In the last decade over five
hundred Christian churches have been destroyed in Indonesia.
Missionaries are at risk all over the world.

When I address the question, “What should I do if I don’t desire
God?” I am addressing the question: “How can I obtain or recover a joy
in Christ that is so deep and so strong that it will free me from bondage
to Western comforts and security, and will impel me into sacrifices of
mercy and missions, and will sustain me in the face of martyrdom?”
Persecution is normal for Christians. “All who desire to live a godly life
in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). “Beloved, do not be
surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though
something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12). “Through
many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

In the New Testament this sobering truth does not diminish the
focus on joy—it increases it. “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that
suffering produces endurance” (Rom. 5:3). “Blessed are you when others
. . . persecute you. . . . Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great
in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12). “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you
meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith
produces steadfastness” (Jas. 1:2-3). “They left the presence of the council,
rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the
name” (Acts 5:41).

The fight for joy in Christ is not a fight to soften the cushion of
Western comforts. It is a fight for strength to live a life of self-sacrificing
love. It is a fight to join Jesus on the Calvary road and stay there with
him, no matter what. How was he sustained on that road? Hebrews
12:2 answers, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the
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cross.” The key to endurance in the cause of self-sacrificing love is not
heroic willpower, but deep, unshakable confidence that the joy we have
tasted in fellowship with Christ will not disappoint us in death. Sacrifices
in the path of love were sustained in the New Testament not by
willpower, but by joyful hope. “You had compassion on those in prison,
and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you
knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one”
(Heb. 10:34).

The aim of this book is not to salve the conscience of well-to-do
Western acquisition. The aim is to sustain love’s ability to endure sacrificial
losses of property and security and life, by the power of joy in the
path of love. The aim is that Jesus Christ be made known in all the world
as the all-powerful, all-wise, all-righteous, all-merciful, all-satisfying
Treasure of the universe.

This will happen when Christians don’t just say that Christ is valuable,
or sing that Christ is valuable, but truly experience in their hearts
the unsurpassed worth of Jesus with so much joy that they can say, “I
count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). Christ will be glorified in the world
when Christians are so satisfied in him that they let goods and kindred
go and lay down their lives for others in mercy, missions, and, if necessary,
martyrdom. He will be magnified most among the nations when,
at the moment Christians lose everything on earth, they say, “To live is
Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21).

“Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach
he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is
to come” (Heb. 13:13-14). This we will do for the joy that is set before
us. And this joy will hold us and keep us, if we have tasted it and fought
to make it the supreme experience of our lives. Christ is supremely glorious
and supremely valuable. Therefore he is worth the fight.
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It was when I was happiest that I longed most. . . . The sweetest
thing in all my life has been the longing . . . to find the place
where all the beauty came from.

C . S . L E W I S
Till We Have Faces1

The very nature of Joy makes nonsense of our common distinction
between having and wanting. There, to have is to want and
to want is to have. Thus, the very moment when I longed to be
so stabbed again [with Joy], was itself again such a stabbing.

C . S . L E W I S
Surprised by Joy2

O God, you are my God;
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land
where there is no water.

P S A L M 6 3 : 1

Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy.

P S A L M 4 3 : 4