Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why I Am Not Pleased with Christian Hedonism

I've never liked John Piper's Christian Hedonism idea. It's clearly contradictory to me, even after he tries to explain it as really just God-centered. That's because it really isn't God-centered. It's centered around the pleasure of the individual using God. I had to read the book, Desiring God, for a SysTheo course at Trinity, and when I returned the book, the bookstore cashier was in awe that I would return such an innovative book. I said to him, "Really, I just thought it was more of the same old thing." Clearly, we had different takes on the book.

Bob Gonzales recently attempted to bolster Piper's claim by arguing that the catechism evidences a hendiadys, or at least something like a hendiadys, in the use of the two clauses "to glorify God and enjoy Him forever" (, and that other Puritans saw the idea of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever as one inseparable goal. I don't have a problem with seeing the catechism as one inseparable goal, but I do have a problem with both of these claims as they are presented by Gonzales.

Actually, the phrases are not a hendiadys, nor do they function as such. Hendiadys in the verbal sense exists when the actions describe one motion. You can have different words coupled together, precisely, because they refer to the same thing: e.g., "he arose and went" means "rising he went." In a nominal hendiadys you really need two words that have some sort of semantic overlap or have the second term modify the first. It seems that Gonzales is attempting to do the latter here, or at the very least, imply that it functions "like" a hendiadys. The problem is that it begs the question to say that it is. For one, cases of hendiadys are easier to find in Hebrew and Greek simply because the waw and kai don't strictly function in the same way as our English conjunction does. They simply point out that there is some relationship between two elements, but that relationship must be defined by the words within that context. In English, our conjunction "and" has a stricter meaning. When we are able to find hendiadys in English, it's often some archaic expression that took form either from another language or was a poetic invention. We have many verbal hendiadys in English, but nominal hendiadys are harder to come by. The question becomes as to whether an expression otherwise unknown to be a hendiadys actually functions as one here. I don't think it does. However, having said all that, it is possible that it functions like one (and Gonzales is really arguing that they function as one inseparable idea regardless of whether they are formally a hendiadys), so let's take a look at the theology of it if it does.

Gonzales quotes all of these Puritans in an effort to bolster Piper's claim that "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." In fact, Gonzales quotes Thomas Vincent as saying, "And when God shall be most fully enjoyed by the saints in heaven, he will be most highly glorified. ‘He shall come to be glorified in his saints.’" and says, "That sounds an awful lot like Piper’s Christian Hedonism." Actually, I reject Piper's Christian Hedonism and completely agree with Vincent, so what does that mean?

Let's first look at the claim that the two are inseparable. Now, the problem with quoting all of these Puritans to back up Piper's theology is that it's rather deceptive. The issue is not whether glorifying God and enjoying Him forever can be separated, one accomplished without accompanying the other. The issue is the nature of their accompaniment. In other words, do we glorify God and subsequently (logically, not chronologically subsequent) enjoy Him forever as a result of Him being glorified, or do we seek to glorify Him by enjoying Him? In other words, in the latter, the means to the ends of glorifying Him is through enjoying Him. If one does not enjoy Him, one cannot glorify Him either. In the former (the one that I hold) enjoying Him is a result of glorifying Him that then continues on to glorify Him further. It acts in reciprocation. In other words, what we are seeking is to glorify Him, but our motivation is not pleasure of the self, but love for God and our desire to see Him glorified, and from that pursuit, we gain pleasure in Him that glorifies Him even more. Our pleasure in it is just a byproduct of our seeking to glorify Him. Both are God's chief end/goal for humanity (as that is to what the catechism is referring, not Piper's intention to make the catechism refer to our motivations--i.e., the catechism is not telling us why we should pursue God or how He is glorified, but what God has purposed as the end goal for humanity. He wants to see us glorify Him and enjoy Him forever). Hence, I don't disagree with Piper that having pleasure in God shows forth His value to us and through us. My disagreement is of the nature of the pursuit (i.e., that it says it seeks one thing but really seeks its opposite).

Let me first draw out how the phrase,"enjoy Him," is being interpreted in a hedonistic context. Hedonism is the seeking after the pleasure of the self. It is the supreme religion of fallen man. It seeks to fill the self with whatever it can to satisfy the self. Evangelicals have simply replaced all other things that the world uses to fulfill that self-seeking pleasure with God. Hence, to seek God is to seek myself through God. The means of gaining eternal pleasure is glorifying God. This is clearly the fallen religion of man dressed up in Christian clothing. Now, what Piper wants to say is that the means is not God to fulfill our pleasure, but fulfilling our pleasure to glorify God, but this is just semantics. The primary pursuit is the self. The subsequent result is the glory of God. Hence, I have sought the pleasure of the self first, as my chief goal in life (i.e., the chief end) in order to supposedly glorify God.

Now, here is the problem. This is all confused by the language that Piper et al. use that makes it seem that this is a noble pursuit. Of course, I don't disagree with any of the Puritans statements that the two are inseparable. He who seeks the glory of God will in fact also enjoy Him forever. There is joy and fulfillment in glorifying God, but that is a secondary result of the primary goal. The real issue is whether we love God, and love seems to be confused here with pleasure. I would wholeheartedly agree that to glorify God one must do so by means of loving Him, but that's a totally different animal than hedonism. Love sacrifices the self. It doesn't seek the self. But that's precisely what Piper wants to argue against. He doesn't like the dreary monks, hitting their heads with Bibles of Monty Python fame, and neither do I, but his answer to this is all wrong.

Sure, the enjoying God and glorifying Him go together, but how. Justification is inseparable from sanctification, but I wouldn't argue that sanctification, therefore, is the means to justification. One cannot have one without the other, but there is a logical order. One is primary and one is subsequent. The pursuit of one leads to the result of the other, but if we confuse them, we're in trouble. So let me just ask this question that I've asked before:

If God were a friend who invited you over to build a deck with Him, would you go because you thought you'd have a great time with Him, or would you go because you love Him, and you know that you will have a great time with Him because you love Him? In other words, although these two are similar, they are worlds apart. If one answers that his motivation for going is because he will have a good time, then that individual isn't going out of love for his friend, but only for the enjoyment that his friend brings to him (i.e., the self). The Self, then, not God, is the motivating love that moves the friend to go over and build the deck with Him. If the latter, however, we see that the motivation for going is love of the friend, not the enjoyment one would get from having a good time with that friend. It is the difference between seeking God and seeking the enjoyment God gives to me, seeking the Person or the benefit I receive from that person first. In Piper's scenario, the friend is somehow ultimately honored by the person using him for his own pleasure. But this is just silly. Is the friend dense and doesn't understand that he's a means to an end?

Imagine if you told your wife that you kept her around because you received pleasure from her. Is your wife most honored when you use her for your own pleasure, or when you love her, regardless of the benefit of pleasure you receive from having her around? I think the latter. Pleasure is not absent from the relationship, and it should be there, but that's not the reason your there.

It does no good to simply say that Piper is making our pleasure the means and the glory of God the ends, precisely, because we are still holding onto the religion of self worship in the process of supposedly glorifying God. But the motivation isn't love for God, but of self. I pursue God most when I have the most pleasure in Him is a different statement than I pursue God most when I love Him most. One loves the self most and one loves God most. Is this not obvious? Perhaps, I'm misunderstanding Piper, but I don't think I am. I think he's combined evangelical folk religion, which is really all about filling that supposed God-shaped hole in our lives (i.e., it's all about us filling us), with the Reformed tradition which highly honors and exalts God above the self through love. We enjoy God as a result of our love for Him, but it is our love for Him that motivates our exaltation of Him, not the love of self.

Hence, I think the Catechism is referring to two distinct (not separate in the way that Gonzales is using them) elements: "we glorify God and (subsequently) we enjoy Him forever," rather than saying "we glorify God by enjoying Him forever." So God is most glorified when we are most in love with Him, not when we are most satisfied in Him. Is Jesus most satisfied with the Father on the cross? Is He enjoying God there? He is certainly loving the Father, but enjoying Him then and there? We might be able to quibble over that, but my point is that even if Piper's intentions with what he says parallel what I am saying here, his language is just sloppy enough to comfort millions of evangelicals worldwide that their pursuit of loving the self by using God is justified. If hedonism is the seeking of pleasure of the self, because of the love of self, Christianity is the farthest thing from it. Hence, to call something "Christian hedonism" is either just a shock-jock way of selling books, or it's a misguided attempt to combine two religions that are diametrically opposed to one another. If anyone wishes to come after Christ, he must reject his Self, pick up his cross (doesn't sound too pleasurable) and follow Him. Do we have satisfaction as a result of this? Sure, but it is merely a result. Does the fact that we are satisfied in Him glorify Him as well? Sure. But my point is that this is not what we are seeking. We don't tell people to seek themselves. We tell them to seek God because they love Him. If we tell them to seek themselves by masking it as really a pursuit of God, we're just playing semantic games and deceiving them with another religion (and it's the only other religion the world has to offer).

So inseparable? Yes. Are they both the one goal set by God for redeemed humanity? Yes. Can one still use the phrase, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him"? I suppose with a great amount of qualification. But my point is simply that our language should be more careful. They are not a hendiadys. They are not talking about the motivations of man to pursue God. And the Puritans quoted seem to be saying what I'm saying, not what Piper is saying.

We ought to pursue God to the destruction of the self, in pain and in pleasure, in chaos and in order, in peace and in unrest, etc. because we love Him, and have rejected the pursuit to please the self. As a result, only then, ironically, will we truly be pleased in, and enjoy, Him forever. So I'm not seeking to be satisfied in Him. I'm seeking Him. He just makes me satisfied in Him in the process. But love, not pleasure, is the means to the end. Otherwise, we have two contradictory religions trying to make peace with one another in Piper's statement, and that is just not satisfying at all (bad pun intended).

In the end, it seems clear to me that Piper is confusing love with the delight and pleasure that love produces when one sees a loved one get the rewards they deserve. He is also confusing love of self with the love of God, which I think is more dangerous. He says at one point that God’s competitors are idols not pleasure, but this is not the point. God’s primary competitor has always been our pursuit of self pleasure through idols. God just becomes one more idol to fulfill that goal. In fact, he even uses the friend scenario I used above, but concludes that the friend should be happy to have his friend enjoy him. I don’t disagree, but we’re talking about how and why we pursue the friendship, not what comes of the friendship. If the friend were to discover that you just receive a high by hanging out with him, and that’s your reason for doing so, would he come to the conclusion that you loved him, or that you were just using him to love yourself? So pursue God with love and enjoy Him forever, but don’t pursue Him just because you want to be happy (you won’t find Him that way), and rather you’ll find that you’ve never begun your pursuit of Him in the first place. 

So the pursuit of happiness in Him is not the pursuit of Him. It’s the pursuit of happiness. He’s just the means to our end. But the pursuit of Him is an ultimately happy pursuit. Can you see the difference, or have I misunderstood Piper? Either way, the language of hedonism is gimmicky, creates the possibility of steering people into the path of false religion, and has to die the death of a thousand qualifications if it is to be redeemed. So if I have to take it or leave it, I'll just leave it.


  1. Maybe instead of just dismissing his language as worldly (hedonism) and giving the book back to the bookstore, you should should purchase a new copy of it where he explains why he uses that language and defends it....

    Still the most impactful book I have read.

  2. I've heard him explain it quite a bit since then, and it only seems to get worse as he does. Why use language that will lead to confusion? Should I call myself a Christian Satanist, but then qualify that language to where it means something more biblical? I don't dismiss his language as worldly. I dismiss it as deceptive, whether intentional or well meant.

    And why don't you explain for me how this is not a pursuit of self in pursuing God rather than pursuing God at the sacrifice of self, i.e., out of love for God?

  3. Let me just reiterate what I'm saying above.

    Piper makes the statement that in pursuing the happiness of the other, we find our own happiness. I agree with this. The problem is that he also states "The term 'hedonism' means 'a living for pleasure'. If the chief end of man is to enjoy God forever, then we should live our lives for pleasure -- the pleasure of knowing God." The problem, as I see it, is Piper's attempt to try and marry two opposing ideas as congenial. He ends up being confused and sending a mixed message. So when he explains that this is really a pursuit of God on one page and that this is really a pursuit of pleasure in God on another, it evidences the incompatibility of the two philosophies. BTW, I think that Piper is a psychological hedonist, or at least a version of it, as that accords more closely to what he is saying.

  4. btw, if anyone views my take on Piper as unbalanced, which it may be, you can read this discussion (read the discussion in the comments as well) on Piper's idea.

  5. Whoops, here's the link: