When I received word that Billy Graham died last week, I began to sing the two signature songs of virtually every one of his crusades, “Just as I Am” and “How Great Thou Art.” And as I did, I saw how the seeds of Christian Hedonism had been sown. I sang those songs hundreds of times growing up.
None of us knows all the roots of why we think what we think. I don’t mean to suggest we are mere victims of unknown forces. We are responsible to discern true and false, and to love what is true.
But I do mean to suggest that there are roots to what we think that we do not know. Their influence was too subtle to recognize at the time. Or we were not old enough, or thoughtful enough, to see what was shaping us. That is certainly true of how my view of the world was shaped — the view called Christian Hedonism.
Pursue Your Pleasure — in God
Before I put my finger on the very words of these two signature songs, let me define Christian Hedonism and then tell you how it had roots (unconscious to me) in Billy Graham’s Crusade singing. Christian Hedonism has a vertical expression and a horizontal one. Vertically it relates to glorifying God; horizontally it relates to loving people.
The essence of vertical Christian Hedonism is that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, to paraphrase the Westminster Catechism, the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. Or, to express it in the way that captured me when I was 22 years old, God’s supreme passion to be glorified, and my unrelenting desire to be happy, are not at odds, but come to pass in the single act of worship. Therefore, since glorifying God is the purpose of the universe, pursuing joy in God is a divine command: “Delight yourself in the Lord!” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).
The essence of horizontal Christian Hedonism is that satisfaction in God not only glorifies God; it overflows to meet the needs of others. This overflow is called love (in 2 Corinthians 8:2, 8). To be more precise, the essence of vertical Christian Hedonism is that joy in the God who sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for sinners has in its very nature an impulse to increase by drawing others in to share it. Therefore, since loving our neighbor is the second great commandment (Matthew 22:39), pursuing joy in God is a divine command.
The simplest, and most common, dictionary definition for “hedonism” is “the pursuit of pleasure,” or “a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.” That’s the way I am using the word. And by putting the word “Christian” in front of it, I mean that the largest and longest “pleasure” is found only in God through Jesus Christ. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:11).
If you ask, “Why is the world designed this way?” one answer is that God is this way. From eternity, God has been supremely happy in the fellowship of the Trinity. God could have said at any time (if there had been time), “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). God has always had supreme pleasure in his Son. And the Son has had pleasure in the Father (John 14:31). Therefore, when salvation was designed by God, the aim of it was to bring redeemed human beings into that very pleasure. “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
All I Need in Thee I Find
Now to the signature songs and lyrics. Billy ended every service with “Just as I Am.” Millions of people could sing the first verse by heart:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bid’st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!
In other words, there is no basis, no foundation for me to stand on in God’s presence except that Jesus died in my place. I come to him on that basis alone, not on the basis of my worth or merit or good deeds or heritage or church affiliation or baptism. Christ alone is the ground of my acceptance with God.
But there was another verse that goes right to the heart of Christian Hedonism.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
I don’t just come to Jesus because I find forgiveness in him but because I find all in him. “Yes, all I need, in Thee to find, I come.” I was poor. I was wretched. I was blind. Then, by God’s grace, my wretchedness was replaced by healing of the mind. My blindness was replaced by sight. My poverty was replaced by riches. What riches? Christ! “All in Thee I find.” Therefore, I come! I come for the healing that you are. I come for the glorious sight that you are. I come for the riches that you are.
Therefore, God was pushing deep into my soul — many souls — the truth that Jesus is not a ticket to heaven. He is heaven. That is, he is what makes heaven to be heaven. We did not sing: “All in heaven I find.” But: “All in Thee I find.” Jesus, you do not give all-satisfying riches. You are all-satisfying riches. And this is why I come. I come! You don’t tell me to suppress my newborn craving to find all my satisfaction in you. No! You say, “Come! Find your all in me. I will be glorified as you are satisfied in me!”
My Burden Gladly Bearing
And in almost every crusade thousands sang, under the vast arm-reach of Cliff Barrows, “How Great Thou Art!” To be sure, it soars in celebration of “the worlds thy hands have made” and the “lofty mountain grandeur.” But the last two verses are the heart and climax. And they show that gladness is both the ground and the goal of our salvation.
And when I think, that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.
Bearing our sin was not a begrudging obedience to his Father. “For the joy that was set before him [Christ] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). And “How Great Thou Art” is right to infer that this joyful hope surged back into the present horrors to sustain Jesus on the cross. Do not dream that it was impossible for the Lord of all to feel agony and gladness in the same act. This obedience-sustaining, agonized gladness was the ground of our salvation.
What Joy Shall Fill My Heart
Then in the last verse of the song we reach the climax of salvation and history.
When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart,
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration
And then proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”
Heart-satisfying joy expressed in humble adoration. Because joy in God is the essence of adoration of God. All of history and all of salvation comes to climax in the God-centered happiness of God’s people overflowing in adoration. Because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Thank you, Billy Graham. Thank you, Cliff Barrows. Thank you, George Beverly Shea. You taught us to sing the greatest truths in the world. And little did I know you were teaching me the precious truth of Christian Hedonism. Thank you.