Christian Hedonism

Forgive the Label, But Don’t Miss the Truth

If you must, forgive me for the label. But don’t miss the truth because you don’t like my tag. My shortest summary of it is: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or: The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Does Christian Hedonism make a god out of pleasure? No. It says that we all make a god out of what we take most pleasure in. My life is devoted to helping people make God their God by wakening in them the greatest pleasures in him. [For the full story of what I call “Christian Hedonism,” see Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, or the small version, The Dangerous Duty of Delight: Daring to Make God Your Greatest Desire.]

  • When Jesus warned his disciples that they might get their heads chopped off (Luke 21:16), he comforted them with the promise that, nevertheless, not a hair on their heads would perish (Luke 21:18).
  • When he warned them that discipleship means self-denial and crucifixion (Mark 8:34), he consoled them with the promise that “whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
  • When he commanded them to leave all and follow him, he assured them that they would receive “a hundredfold now . . . with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:28–31).

If we must sell all, we should do it, Jesus said, with “joy” because the field we aim to buy contains a hidden treasure (Matthew 13:44).

What I Mean When I Use This Term

By Christian Hedonism, I do not mean that our happiness is the highest good. I mean that pursuing the highest good will always result in our greatest happiness in the end. But almost all Christians believe this. Christian Hedonism says more; namely, that we should pursue happiness, and pursue it with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of your own joy, you cannot love man or please God — that’s what makes Christian Hedonism controversial.

“If you abandon the pursuit of your joy, you cannot love man or please God.”

Christian Hedonism aims to replace a Kantian morality with a biblical one. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher who died in 1804, was the most powerful exponent of the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is “disinterested.” We should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act. Cynically, perhaps, but not without warrant, the novelist Ayn Rand captured the spirit of Kant’s ethic:

An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.)[Ayn Rand, For the New Intellectual, 32]

Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald unabashedly hedonistic biblical morality. Jonathan Edwards, who died when Kant was 34, expressed it like this in one of his early resolutions: “Resolved, To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of” [Resolution #22 in Edwards’s Memoirs in “The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1”, xxi].

How Others Have Said It

C.S. Lewis put it like this in a letter to Sheldon Vanauken: “It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can” [A Severe Mercy, 189].

And southern novelist Flannery O’Connor gives her view of self-denial like this: “Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is sin. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joyfully armed too, as it’s a highly dangerous quest” [The Habit of Being, 126].

The Kantian notion says that it’s okay to get joy as an unintended result of your action. But all these people (myself included) are aiming at joy. We repudiate both the possibility and desirability of disinterested moral behavior. It is impossible, because the will is not autonomous; it always inclines to what it perceives will bring the most happiness (John 8:34; Romans 6:16; 2 Peter 2:19).

Pascal was right when he said “All men seek happiness without exception. They all aim at this goal however different the means they use to attain it. . . . They will never make the smallest move but with this as its goal. This is the motive of all the actions of all men, even those who contemplate suicide” [Pascal’s Pensées, 113 (thought #425)].

Why Being Disinterested Is Unbiblical

But not only is disinterested morality (doing good “for its own sake”) impossible; it is undesirable. That is, it is unbiblical, because it would mean that the better a man became, the harder it would be for him to act morally. The closer he came to true goodness, the more naturally and happily he would do what is good. A good man in Scripture is not the man who dislikes doing good but toughs it out for the sake of duty. A good man loves kindness (Micah 6:8) and delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2) and the will of the Lord (Psalm 40:8). But how shall such a man do an act of kindness disinterestedly? The better the man, the more joy in obedience.

“Kant loves a disinterested giver. God loves a cheerful giver.”

Kant loves a disinterested giver. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7). Disinterested performance of duty displeases God. He wills that we delight in doing good and that we do it with the confidence that our obedience secures and increases our joy in God.

Oh, that I could drive the notion out of our churches that virtue requires a stoical performance of duty — the notion that good things are promised merely as the result of obedience but not as an incentive for it. The Bible is replete with promises which are not appended carefully as non-motivational results, but which clearly and boldly and hedonistically aim to motivate our behavior.

What the Bible Says About Morality

What sets off biblical morality from worldly hedonism is not that biblical morality is disinterested, but that it is interested in vastly greater and purer things. Some examples:

Luke 6:35 says, “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great.” Note: we should never be motivated by worldly aggrandizement (“expect nothing in return”); but we are given strength to suffer loss in service of love by the promise of a future reward.

Again, in Luke 14:12–14: “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor . . . and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” Note: don’t do good deeds for worldly advantage; but do them for spiritual, heavenly benefits.

But the Kantian philosopher will say, “No, no. These texts only describe what reward will result if you act disinterestedly. They do not teach us to seek the reward.”

My Response to These Assertions

Two answers: 1) It is very bad pedagogy to say, “Take this pill and I will give you a nickel,” if you think the desire for the nickel will ruin the taking of the pill. But Jesus was a wise teacher, not a foolish one. 2) Even more importantly, there are texts which not only commend but command that we do good in the hope of future blessing.

Luke 12:33 says, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” The connection here between alms and having eternal treasure in heaven is not mere result but aim: “Make it your aim to have treasure in heaven, and the way to do this is to sell your possessions and give alms.”

And again, Luke 16:9 says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.” Luke does not say that the result of a proper use of possessions is to receive eternal habitations. He says, “Make it your aim to secure an eternal habitation by the way you use your possessions.”

Therefore, a resounding NO to Kantian morality. No in the pew and no in the pulpit. In the pew the very heart is ripped out of worship by the notion that it can be performed as a mere duty. There are two possible attitudes in genuine worship: delight in God or repentance for the lack of it.

Corporate Christian Hedonism

Sunday at 11:00 a.m., Hebrews 11:6 enters combat with Immanuel Kant. “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” You cannot please God if you do not come to him as rewarder. Therefore, worship which pleases God is the hedonistic pursuit of God in whose presence is fullness of joy and in whose hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).

“You cannot please God if you do not come to him as rewarder.”

What a difference it will make if we are Christian Hedonists and not Kantian commanders of duty! Jonathan Edwards, the greatest preacher-theologian that America has ever produced, daringly said, “I should think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as possibly I can, provided that they are affected with nothing but truth, and with affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with” [Some Thoughts Concerning the Revival in “The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4”, 387]. The ultimate reason Edwards believed this was his duty is his profound and biblical conviction that

God glorifies himself towards the creatures also [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understanding; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. . . . [W]hen those that see it delight in it: God is more glorified than if they only see it. . . . He that testifies his idea of God’s glory [doesn’t] glorify God so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it. [The “Miscellanies,” a–500, ed. by Thomas Schafer, “The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13”, 495, Miscellany #448. See also #87, pages 251–252; #332, page 410; #679 (not in the New Haven volume). These Miscellanies were the private notebooks of Edwards from which he built his books, like The End for Which God Created the World.]

The Ultimate Foundation of Christian Hedonism

This is the ultimate foundation for Christian Hedonism.

As Christian Hedonists we know that everyone longs for happiness. And we will never tell them to deny or repress that desire. Their problem is not that they want to be satisfied, but that they are far too easily satisfied. We will instruct them how to glut their soul-hunger on the grace of God. We will paint God’s glory in lavish reds and yellows and blues; and hell we will paint with smoky shadows of gray and charcoal. We will labor to wean them off the milk of the world onto the rich fare of God’s grace and glory.

We will bend all our effort, by the Holy Spirit, to persuade people

  • that reproach suffered for Christ [is] “greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt” (Hebrews 11:26);
  • that they can be happier in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35);
  • that they should “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus [their] Lord” (Philippians 3:8);
  • that the aim of all of Jesus’s commandments is that their “joy may be full” (John 15:11);
  • that if they delight themselves in the Lord, he will give them the desire of their heart (Psalm 37:4);
  • that there is “great gain” in “godliness with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6);
  • and that “the joy of the Lord is [their] strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

We will not try to motivate their ministry by Kantian appeals to mere duty. We will tell them that delight in God is their highest duty. But we will remind them that Jesus endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2), and that Hudson Taylor, at the end of a life full of suffering and trial, said, “I never made a sacrifice” [Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, 30].

Read a condensed version of this article titled We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist.