Why John Piper is a Christian Hedonist But I Love Mud
Before I move forward into Pastor John Piper’s Desiring God I want to make a clarification on style. My desire in these posts is to have a conversation WITH Pastor Piper on the grounds of his book rather than a conversation AT Pastor Piper. I find most reviews are monologues AT a book rather than dialogues WITH a book. While it is the nature of review to share what someone thinks of a book, at some point we came to believe that all we want is one side of a thought, and that we are not interested in what the author of the book in question thinks about anything he has written. Therefore, my style may not be accommodating to those who enjoy strict reviews, but after all, I write this for laymen, not scholars. Thus my style will not be as tight or concise as some may desire. It will be more free, introspective, much longer, and far less proofed as I normally like things to be. It will be what it will be. As Paul McCartney said, “Let it be.” I want to write as most of us read books, page by page, thought by thought.
“The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Is this a line from a movie, the conclusion of a poem by Robert Frost, or a quote from a preacher? It is none of the above. This line is the opening line to The Westminster Catechism (Shorter and Larger). Catechisms are learning tools for teaching theological truth. They are written in a concise question and answer format, thus making the exercise of systematic theology much like studying for a test. Question one of the catechism asks, “What is the chief end of man?” The concise response is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Later Piper will mention the Heidelberg Catechism (27). I am not sure if this question and response are found in the Heidelberg as well. I am not familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism. In scanning it I did not find the lines, but it really doesn’t matter if it is there or not. Piper’s point here is the primacy of the idea that the enjoyment of God is the purpose of man. Being the first thought, it becomes the theme of the Westminster and shapes every succeeding thought. Like the Westminster Catechism, it is the place where Piper has chosen to start his argument for Christian Hedonism. It is his theme as well.
So is the chief end of man to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever? I take the idea of “end” to mean the purpose of our life, the reason we were created. According to Piper and Westminster, this is our theme. I would say that the Bible supports this idea if for no other reason than it is after all our chronological end, our final state. After salvation, regeneration, and the recreation of “all things new,” man’s end is glorifying God. The tone Scripture that reveals this end is joy. The Bible sure makes it seem as if man will enjoy glorifying/praising/serving God forever.
Piper soon takes “and” out of the catechism and exchanges it for “by (18).” In my mind the exchange here radically changes the meaning. The word “and,” to me, means that the chief end of man is to glorify God “and equally” enjoy Him forever; as in the two are the same. In substituting the word “by” I take it now to mean that enjoying God is the “means” to glorifying God. To me this means that the only way to glorify God is to enjoy Him. Is that correct? If this is true, this means that I am not currently glorifying God if I am not currently enjoying Him. I must admit there have been times I have not enjoyed God. There was a massive amount of time in our church relocation that I did not enjoy God. There were times when my parents punished me that I did not enjoy them, but I loved them and I honored them as my parents. Is the criteria of human enjoyment far too subjective at this point? The writer of Hebrews agrees, there will be times in which someone can be truly experiencing God in chastisement, but it will not be enjoyable (Heb. 12:11). Someone could make the case that just because one is not enjoying chastisement does not necessarily mean that they are not enjoying God. Such an idea seems like splitting hairs. After all, the punisher and the punishment are intricately married. Punishment is an expression of the character of the one carrying out the punishment. Thus, while I am being punished I may not be enjoying the punishment nor the punisher. Perhaps that is because I am finite and I do not understand the punishment is meant for my good. At the moment I may feel only as a victim. While this may be the case, let us not leave the premise here. Is it true that I glorify God only “by” enjoying Him? Jesus made it sound like following Him could become excruciating (Matthew 16:24-28). Yet, in taking up one’s cross one is glorifying God not out of enjoyment, but out of obedience. I am not sure that obedience and enjoyment are always the same. Piper replaces the word “and” with “by” in the catechism. Could I replace the word “enjoy” with “obey” or “sacrifice” or “love” or “surrender” and the meaning of the catechism, and Piper’s premise of Christian Hedonism still remain in tact?
I have heard Piper talk about his troubles with reading, mainly that he is a slow reader. This being true I am amazed at how much he reads. His introduction effectively names his sources, the men who have shaped his ideas. Here we find two, Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis. Later he will name puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards. Blaise Pascal was a 17th century mathematician and philosopher. C.S. Lewis was 20th century atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity. He was one of Christianity’s greatest thinkers and writers. I wish I knew more about Pascal, but I fear math. Yet I don’t think we need a lesson in arithmetic to practice discernment on page 19. The idea here is that since man seeks pleasure, pleasure can’t be all bad. Perhaps the desire for pleasure is like gravity, a law of nature the reflects the handiwork of God. For me, this needs to be massively qualified. This makes God’s glory massively subjective and dependent on man’s pleasure. The danger is that sinful things please man. I need to hear more, so I will remain patient and curious.
Ah. Page 20, and a quote from C.S. Lewis,
“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.”
I must love mud. Here C.S. Lewis provides the balance and I find that I am a mud lover. I am too easily pleased. My desires are weak. They are not what I could ultimately enjoy. At this point the book calls for serious introspection. Have I been missing the point of my salvation? Have I exchanged the glory of God for mud?
We praise what we enjoy. I agree with Piper on this (22). My mom and dad ate dinner at a strange looking diner in a hotel. All I heard about was the dessert. It was a huge piece of cake they shared for three days. They praised the diner for cake. As a pastor and participant in many church worship services, I have often taken a look around and wondered, “Does anyone actually like this?” Perhaps a few who are more expressive do, but as a whole, do most people enjoy what we claim to be the worship of the one true God? Most people don’t look or act like it. When people like cake they are far more passionate than I see people in church worship gatherings. If I am understanding Piper so far, what he is getting at is that if we truly worship God, we will really like Him. Worship doesn’t work any other way.
“God is not worshipped where He is not treasured and enjoyed. Praise is not an alternative to joy, but the expression of joy. Not to enjoy God is to dishonor Him. To say to Him that something else satisfies you more is the opposite of worship. It is sacrilege (22).”
He goes on to say,
“We have a name for those who try to praise when they have no pleasure in the object. We call them hypocrites. This fact - that praise means consummate pleasure and that the highest end of man is to drink deeply of this pleasure - was perhaps the most liberating discovery I ever made (23).”
In his introduction Piper is sharing with us the reasons he converted to Christian Hedonism. In citing his fifth reason he says, “Then I turned to the Psalms for myself and found the language of Hedonism everywhere (23).” This addresses a couple of concerns I had in my previous post. 1) Does Piper have Biblical support for Christian Hedonism, and 2) what has been his own experience with the idea? Piper will use the Psalms quite a bit in support of Christian Hedonism. I know this sounds strange, but I need more than just Psalms to deem something Biblical. Piper says that God commands “that we find joy in loving God (25).” He then quotes a Psalm to support his statement. If something is so important we should find it to be a constant theme in Scripture. Christian Hedonism should be something found in God’s dealings with Adam, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John. If it is so vital for us, we should find evidence that God pressed all of these men toward this chief end of finding pleasure in Him. As far as Christian Hedonism being tested in Piper’s own life and experience,
“I have now been brooding over these things for some thirty-five years, and there has emerged a philosophy that touches virtually every area of my life. I believe that it is biblical, that it fulfills the deepest longings of my heart, and that it honors the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have written this book to commend these things to all who will listen (23, 24).”
I take this to mean that Piper has thought long and hard about these things. He is living the idea. It is working in His life to Biblical ends and he is going to expose his journey to us in his book. Desiring God then should be not only an idea supported in Scripture, but also a testimony born in Piper’s life.
Before leaving the introduction Piper gives us two lists to hold in one hand while we hold Desiring God in the other. The first is a list of qualifiers. It is found on pages 24 - 27. For me, the first two are of utter importance simply because I have been asking the question, “Is pleasure a good place to start?” I don’t trust my pleasure because I am sinful. In this introduction I have already been found to be a mud lover. Therefore I think it is important for Piper to qualify that the only pleasure that is valid in Christian Hedonism is pleasure found in God Himself and that Christian Hedonism does not “make a god out of pleasure.” This should keep us from making more mud pies as we read.
The second list is equally important. It is Piper’s argument. He notes that he would rather not define Christian Hedonism until, “The end of the book, when misunderstanding would have been swept away (27).” I will concede that I am carrying a few misunderstandings in my backpack already. I don’t want to misunderstand, but it is inevitable for all of us. Therefore I think it is important for all of us to trudge on with the desire to understand. In my dialogue with the preface I called for definition, so I am thankful that Piper, although hesitant as it may be, has laid out his argument, and in so doing provides us a skeleton definition. He does so on page 28 in something of a philosophical argument. In reading this, I am again confronted with my concern. Is pleasure a good place to start? I understand that this list is laid out in this manner for the sake of logic. It makes for a good argument, but does it make for good theology? For me, I would think a better place to begin the argument would be at #3, “The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God (28).” What if Christian Hedonism began there instead of with man’s desire for pleasure? Think of our line of discerning questions. Our utmost question would then be something like, “Is it true that the deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God?” I would think that question could be answered much more soundly from Scripture and personal experience. Yet with Christian Hedonism beginning with sort of a C.S. Lewis natural theology argument, “The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful (28),” we are forced to ask something like, “Is it true that the longing to be happy is good, and not sinful?” Happy in what? Is my version of happy truly shared universally? Can it be proven Biblically and in praxis that it is not wrong for me to desire to be happy in a certain sense, as I understand it? Here, “happy” must be carefully qualified and defined. At least I would think so. Moving number 3 to number 1, in my opinion helps with definition and qualification of “happy.” Piper is wise. He knew folks like me may have this sort of trouble, so he says, “For many (Brian Branam), the term Christian Hedonism will be new. Therefore, I have included appendix 5: ‘Why Call it Christian Hedonism?‘ If this is a strange or troubling term, you may want to read those pages before plunging into the main chapters.” Thank you Pastor Piper. I will indulge.