Brothers, Consider Christian Hedonism

Article by

Founder & Teacher,

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 (v. 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" (v. 35).

When He commanded them to leave all and follow Him, He assured them that they would receive "a hundred-fold now. . . with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life" (Mark 10:28-31).

If we must sell all, we do it with joy because the field we aim to buy contains the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44).

What I Mean By Using 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 happiness. But all Christians believe this. Christian hedonism says more, namely, that we should pursue happiness with all our might. The desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed, and if you abandon pursuit of your own joy you cannot 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.

Against this Kantian morality (which has passed as Christian for too long!), we must herald the 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."

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."

And 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 joy - fully armed too, as it's a highly dangerous quest."

We Always Pursue Our Happiness

The Kantian notion says that it's O.K. to get joy as an unintended result of your action. But all these people (and 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; Rom. 6:16; 2 Peter 2:19).

Pascal was right when he said (Pensee 250): "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."

But not only is disinterested morality (doing good for its own sake) impossible; it is undesirable. That is, it is unbiblical; because it would meant that the better a man became the harder it would be for him to act morally. 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 (Ps. 1:2). 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 (2 Cor. 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 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.

Examples of Biblical 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: 1) we should never be motivated by worldly aggrandizement ("expect nothing in return"); but 2) we are given strength to suffer loss in 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 kinsmen 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. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just." Note: 1) don't do good deeds for worldly advantage; but 2) do them for spiritual, heavenly benefits.

But the Kantian 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."

Responding to Kant

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 alms; provide yourselves with purses 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: "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so [in order that] when it fails they may receive you into eternal habitations." Luke does not says 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."

Corporate Christian Hedonism

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 duty. There are two possible attitudes in genuine worship: delight in God or repentance for the lack of it.

Sunday at 11 a.m., Hebrew 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 for evermore (Ps.16:11).

And in the pulpit, brothers, what a difference it will make if we are Christian hedonists and not Kantian commanders of duty!

John Broadus was on the money when he said, "The minister may lawfully appeal to the desire for happiness and its negative counterpart, the dread of unhappiness. Those philosophers who insist that we ought always to do right simply and only because it is right are not philosophers at all, for they are either grossly ignorant of human nature or else indulging in mere fanciful speculations" (On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons, p. 117).

Give Your People Joy

As Christian hedonists we know that every listener longs for happiness. And we will never tell them to deny or repress that desire. 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 bend all our effort in the Holy Spirit to persuade our people that "abuse suffered for the Christ [is] greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt" (Heb. 11:26); that they can be happier in giving than receiving (Acts 20:35); they should count everything as loss for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus their Lord (Phil. 3:8); that the aim of all of Jesus' commandments is that their joy might be full (John 15:11); that if they delight themselves in the Lord He will give them the desire of their heart (Ps. 37:4); that there is great gain in godliness with contentment (1 Tim. 6:6); and that the joy of the Lord is their strength (Neh. 8:11).

We will not try to motivate their ministry by Kantian appeals to duty. But we will remind them that Jesus endured the cross for the joy that was set before Him (Heb. 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, p. 30).