Dissatisfied Contentment

Toward an Ethic of Christian Hedonism

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

The basic tenet of Christian hedonism is that the desire to be happy is a proper motive for every good deed. Or conversely, if you abandon the pursuit of your own pleasure, you cannot please God or perform good deeds. I will try to show that this is true vertically for our relationship to God and horizontally for our relationship to men. Since this is my own emerging philosophy of life, what follows is largely a record of my own pilgrimage.

Vertical Hedonism

I have come to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure there is in it. Or to put it another way, the only right motive for seeking God is the desire to be happy. "O taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8). "How sweet are thy words to my taste! Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Psalm 119:103). "In thy presence is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures forever" (Psalm 16:11). "I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy" (Psalm 43:4). The only proper allurement to the Almighty is the confidence that in his right hand are pleasures forever. Or as Hebrews puts it: "He who would come to God must believe … that he is the rewarder of those who seek him" (11:6).

The reason that one must approach God and worship him hedonistically is that this is the only way which befits the lowly, dependent status of man and the exalted bounty of God. This is the only humble way to worship and the only way that honors God. To go to God for happiness is to confess that without him we are frustrated, depressed, joyless creatures. What could honor God more than to acknowledge that in him alone can enduring joy be found? My wife does not accuse me of selfishness or greed when I tell her that I am drawn to her because in her presence I feel such happiness and contentment. This is a way of extolling her power or beauty or virtue or all three. Do we not sing the praises of Christ in precisely this hedonistic way? Think only of Johann Frank's "Jesus Priceless Treasure, Source of Purest Pleasure." The third verse begins, "Wealth I will not heed thee, wherefore should I need thee? Jesus is my joy!"

Christian hedonism is not arrogant presumption toward God. On the contrary, the height of arrogance is to presume to come to God to give rather than to get. The person who comes to God in order to do him a favor rather than receive favor is setting himself up as the benefactor of God—as if the whole world were not already God's, as if a mere man could add anything to God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. This is the height of presumption. No one can bribe his way into God's presence with pretence of ultimate self-denial. The only password into the presence of God is, “He makes me happy.”

One of the implications of this vertical hedonism is the tremendous obligation of every Christian to be happy in God. Whereas I once saw joy as a kind of icing on the cake of my relationship to God, now I could see that without it there was no relationship at all. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart – and that can mean nothing less than a deep affection for him. To love God means at least delighting in his ways and finding pleasure in his fellowship. Thus the greatest commandment implies, "Thou shalt be happy in God." As Jeremy Taylor said, "God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy."

Therefore, one barometer of spiritual maturity is joy. I saw this in the New Testament when I noticed how inextricably faith and joy are united. Paul says to the Philippians, "I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith" (1:25). The "joy of faith" is the joy that thrives when we trust the promises of God. It is so central that Paul can say in II Corinthians 1:24 that the joy of believers is the goal of his ministry: "Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy." Notice how faith and joy are almost interchangeable in that sentence. How inseparable they are appears in Paul's benediction in Romans 15:13: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” In other words, joy always and inevitably accompanies genuine belief in the "God of hope." Similarly, Peter writes in his first letter about Christ, "Without having seen him, you love him; and though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and glorified joy" (1:8).

From texts like these I came to see how essential joy is to an authentic Christian life. This meant that for me the battle for faith became the battle for joy. I felt as strong an obligation to be happy in God as I did to trust his promises, because I saw them as almost identical, or at least inseparable. My prayer, "I believe; help my unbelief!" now was followed by, "Cause my heart to be delighted in your presence, kindle in me an enjoyment of your word, forgive me for the coolness of my affections towards you."

As my longing to know the contentment of faith grew, one text became very important: Philippians 4:11-13. After thanking the Philippians for their gift, Paul says,

Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.

This text has been a challenge and a comfort to me. A challenge because I have not yet arrived at the place where I experience contentment by the strength of Christ in all circumstances, but also a comfort because Paul said he had to learn this secret, as if it were a difficult process, a mark of great maturity.

Through this sequence of thought I came to view the ideal Christian life as a life of unshakable contentment in all circumstances. Peace, serenity and freedom from anxiety were the hallmarks of a mature faith.

Horizontal Hedonism

The implications of this view for the horizontal dimension of relations among men emerged as I reflected on the nature of love, which is the central ethical concept in the New Testament. Paul said in I Corinthians 13:5, "Love seeks not its own." In retrospect, I can see that I treated this text a bit superficially, but I think it will promote the greatest understanding if I let you follow me through my perplexity to my final resolution. The question I am trying to answer is whether on the horizontal plain the desire for happiness is a proper motive for every good deed.

According to I Corinthians 13, love does not use other people for its own ends; instead, it makes itself the means to the welfare of others. I reasoned that in view of our tremendous longing to be happy, the only way we could treat other persons as ends and not as means to our end is to have our longings satisfied in God first; that out of the fullness of contentment we would be free to overflow in kindness to others. Apparently love springs from a heart fully content in the promises of God; therefore, I concluded – and this is one of the most central ethical implications of Christian hedonism – that the battle for joy in God is imperative not only because joy in God is what honors him most, but also because it is essential to a life of love among men.

But at this point a problem emerged. The memory of a novel I had read years ago came to my mind. It was Siddartha, by Hermann Hesse. Siddartha's quest for "salvation" reached its goal in the contemplative experience of an Eastern religion and he described his salvation in terms of joy and peace and contentment. What troubled me is that this contentment provided no motivation for Siddartha to do anything. For him, to be content in every circumstance meant to feel no struggle with evil and to do nothing to change the world. If you are content, why act?

Then I turned back to Paul who said, "I have learned in whatever state I am to be content," and my question became, if Paul is truly content in every situation, what keeps him from being a serene Buddha who sits crossed-legged, oblivious to all the problems of others? Or, to put it more generally, my main ethical question became, what should motivate – what can motivate – a Christian to do good deeds if he is content in every situation? Do we not usually act when we feel some lack or need or when we are dissatisfied with some situation? But would not the closer we get to the spiritual ideal of contentment the harder it will be to do good for others? Or might there be some strange experience like "dissatisfied contentment?"

I had apparently overlooked something in my thinking. The place where I found the flaw was in my superficial handling of I Corinthians 13:5, "Love seeks not its own." I had not really posed the hard question as to what could prompt me to seek the happiness of another person. I had only assumed that if I were fully content in God, I would seek the happiness of others. It didn't occur to me that perfect contentment might put an end to all seeking. It seems to me now that I must qualify my initial idea that loving behavior always stems from perfect contentment, for perfect contentment seems to imply that one has no unfulfilled desires; but if one has no desires, then he has no motives to do anything, and that would be the end of love.

At this point I decided to ponder an analogy, namely, the analogy between God's motives and our motives. What motivates the Christian to perform loving deeds may be similar to what motivates God to act. Why did God create the world? Surely not, as some popular theology has it, because he was lonely and frustrated and needed man to make him happy. Before creation, God was, in a profound sense, content in the fellowship of the Trinity. What moved him, then, to create the world? The closest I can come to an answer is this: God was profoundly happy and joyful. But there is in joy an inevitable compulsion or pressure to expand, to extend itself by involving others in it. And this is no deficiency in God, for, as Jonathan Edwards says, "It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain that is inclined to overflow."1 This tendency of joy to expand itself moved God to create beings to share in his joy. Thus creation was a supreme act of love because it aimed at the joy of the creature.

But God was not indifferent to his act of creation as if it meant nothing to him. It was his joy in his own perfections that overflowed in the creation of beings to share that joy. And if it was his joy to create, then it was his desire; therefore, when we say, "Love seeks not its own," we must not imply that when God loves he is not seeking his own happiness. He is, for his happiness consists partly in the expansion of his happiness to others. That is, his happiness consists in love. In a sense, love does seek its own. This is what I had missed. It seeks its own happiness in the joy of the beloved.

Now let us turn back to the human side of the analogy. There are at least two texts of Scripture which show that the motive for the believer's acts of love is not basically different from God's motive. The first is II Corinthians 9:7, "The Lord loves a cheerful giver." The second is Acts 20:34, the words of Jesus: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." The implications of these two texts for ethics are tremendous. Their relevance extends far beyond the giving of money. By implication, every sort of giving is embraced, which means every loving act included. And what the Scripture is saying is that we should take pleasure in giving; we should find acts of love to be blessed and do them with cheer. Once I thought worship was a mere duty, and then I learned that you should only do it for pleasure. Once I thought that giving was a mere duty; now I discovered that you must do it for the cheer and blessedness of it or God is not pleased.

Now let's ask our earlier question in a concrete form: What should motivate a contented, joyful Christian to cross the street and help a man who has been beat up by robbers? The answer, I think, is something like this: When I see an injured man across the street, his hurt is like a magnet to my God-given joy, which has in it the compulsion to expand itself. My joy desires to increase by rejoicing in his restored joy. This prospect of greater joy in his joy is my motive for crossing the street and helping him. I feel drawn to go because when he enters my awareness, his injury and grief are like a low-pressure zone that my high-pressure zone of joy is approaching. There is an immediate draft of air created toward the low-pressure zone as my joy tends to expand to fill it. This draft of joy is called "love." As Paul says in II Corinthians 1:23-24, to love is to find our joy in the purest joy of another.

Does this, then, imply that a Christian will never weep or be grieved? No. When Paul says in Romans 12:15, "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep," he shows that the contentment of the believer is not a static, Buddha-like serenity unmovable by the hurts of others. When Christian joy perceives grief, it becomes "dissatisfied contentment." It senses a lack and a need – the lack of sharing itself with the grieving, and the need to delight in the other person's happiness, which isn't there. Thus, Christian joy starts to expand in love to fill that lack by bringing about the holy joy of another person. The manifold process by which this is done embraces all forms of Christian ministry. But since there is usually a lapse of time between our perception of our neighbor's grief and our eventual rejoicing in his restored joy, there is a place for weeping in that interval. The weeping of compassion is the weeping of joy impeded in the extension of itself to another.

Summing Up

Let's stand back now and see where we have come. I began by showing that the only proper motive for seeking God or worshiping him is the pleasure to be had in him. This is the only proper motive because it is the only one which befits the lowly, dependent status of man and the exalted bounty and beauty of God.

Then I shifted the focus from worship to ethics and raised the question whether pleasure is the proper goal of moral actions among men as it is between man and God. On our way to answering this question we saw how essential joy is to the authentic Christian life and how Paul stressed the importance of contentment in all circumstances. The ethical significance of contentment emerged as we observed the nature of love which seeks not its own. Only the person whose needs have been met and who is content can love others by becoming a means to their ends. But here we had to solve the problem of what moves a joyful, contented person to love. Looking at God's motive in creation we saw that joy has within it a compulsion to expand itself. Thus, God's motive in the loving act of creation was the delight he had in filling other beings with the joy of his own perfections. He created because he found it more blessed to give than to receive. He was the perfectly cheerful giver.

So we saw that in one sense love does seek its own – love seeks joy, namely, the joy of giving. It seeks its own happiness in the joy of the beloved. With this, the question why a joyful Christian helps an injured man was already answered. His joy naturally tends to expand itself. It desires to increase by rejoicing in the restored joy of the injured man. Thus the desire for happiness is the proper motive for this good deed and, I think, for every good deed.

The loving person is the person who gives cheerfully, that is, who finds pleasure in giving. Precisely this pleasure pleases God; therefore, the person who abandons the pursuit of his own pleasure abandons the possibility of loving man and pleasing God.

  1. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 102.