Holy Hedonism: Feeling Good About Doing Good

His Magazine 42, No. 2 (November 1981): 29–31

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 relation to other people.

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 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!” (Ps. 34:8). “How sweet are thy words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). “In thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Ps. 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: “Whoever would draw near to God must believe . . . that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6).

We must approach God and worship him hedonistically because this is the only way which befits our lowly, dependent status and God’s exalted bounty. 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 we find enduring joy?

My wife does not accuse me of selflishness 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, beauty, or virtue. Do we not sing the praises of Christ in precisely this hedonistic way? Think only of Johann Franck’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 to do him a favor rather than receive favor sets himself up as the benefactor of God—as if the whole world were not already God’s, as if a mere human could add anything to God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. No one can bribe his way into God’s presence with a pretense of ultimate self-denial. The only password into the presence of God is: he makes me happy.

Being Content

An implication of vertical hedonism is the tremendous obligation of every Christian to be happy in God. Whereas I once saw joy as the icing on the cake of my relation to God, now I see that without it there is no relation at all.

The first and great commandment—to love God with all your heart—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 abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith” (1:25, KJV). 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 2 Corinthians 1:24 that he strives for the joy of believers as his ministry’s goal: “Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy.” Faith and joy are almost interchangeable in that sentence.

They are also linked 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 about Christ in his first letter: “Without having seen him you love him; though you do not see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (1:8).

From texts like these I came to see the necessity of joy for an authentic Christian life. 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 inseparable. My prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief!” now is 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 toward 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 both challenged and comforted me: I know I have not yet arrived at the place where I experience contentment by the strength of Christ in all circumstances. But I find 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 have come to view the ideal life as a life of unshakable contentment in all circumstances. Peace, serenity, and freedom from anxiety are the hallmarks of a mature faith.

Horizontal Hedonism

So far we have discussed the working of Christian hedonism in our vertical relationship to God.

The implications of this view for the horizontal dimension of relations among people emerged as I reflected on the nature of love—the central ethical concept in the New Testament.

Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:5, “Love does not seek its own” (NASB). After reflecting on this verse, I asked myself: Is the desire for happiness a proper motive for every good deed?”

According to 1 Corinthians 13, love does not use other people for its own ends. Instead love 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 can treat other persons not merely as means to our end is to have our longings satisfied in God first. Then, out of the fullness of that contentment, we will be free to overflow in kindness to others.

Apparently love springs from a heart fully content in the promises of God. 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 honors him most, but also because it is essential to a life of love.

Buddah’s Bane

But at this point a problem emerged. I remembered a novel I had read years ago—Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Siddharth’s quest for “salvation” reached its goal in the contemplative experience of an Eastern religion and he described his salvation in terms of joy, peace, and contentment. But this contentment provided not motivation for Siddhartha 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.” My question then became: If Paul is truly content in every situation, what keeps him from being a serene Buddha who sits cross-legged, oblivious to all the problems of others? Or more generally, what could 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? If that were the case, would it mean that the closer we get to the spiritual idea of contentment, the harder it is to do good for others? Or might there be some strange experience like “dissatisfied contentment”?

I had assumed, after a superficial look at the verse, “Love does not seek its own,” that if I were fully content in God, I would seek the happiness of others. I failed to ask what could prompt me to seek the happiness of another. It didn’t occur to me then that perfect contentment might put an end to all seeking. Now I have qualified my initial idea that loving behavior always stems from perfect contentment. For perfect contentment seems to imply that one has no unfulfilled desires. Without desires, one has no motives to do anything—and that would be the end of love.

Overflowing Joy

At this point I pondered 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, and he wanted to share that joy with others. Joy’s very nature causes it to expand and extend itself by involving others in it. God’s joy acts in the same way. As Jonathan Edwards says in Works I, “It is no argument of the emptiness or deficiency of a fountain, that it is inclined to overflow.” This tendency of joy to expand 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. It was his joy in his own perfection that overflowed in creating beings to share that joy. His joy to create was also his desire. Therefore when we say “love does not seek 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 that happiness to others. That is, his happiness consists in love. In a sense love does seek its own. It seeks its own happiness by bringing joy to others.

Two texts of Scripture show that the motive for a believer’s acts of love does not basically differ from God’s motive. The first is 2 Corinthians 9:7, “God loves a cheerful giver.” The second are the words of Jesus in Acts 20:35, “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, including every loving act and unseen kindness. Scripture says that we should take pleasure in giving, we should do deeds of love cheerfully, in order to be blessed.

Once I thought worship was a mere duty and then I learned that I should only do it for pleasure. Once I thought giving was a mere duty, now I discover that I must do it for the cheer and blessedness of it, or God is not pleased.

For Example

I live about twelve blocks from the heart of downtown Minneapolis in a low-income neighborhood. During my eight-minute walk to work I see drunks in the park or on the street almost daily. With the onset of winter, when I see one of these shabbily dressed men trembling under a bench, what should motivate me—a contented, joyful Christian—to cross over and help this man?

The answer I think is something like this: When I see the 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 motivated me to cross the street and help him.

I feel drawn to go because when he enters my awareness, his hurt and grief are like a low-pressure zone that my high-pressure zone of joy is approaching. An immediate draft of air flows toward the low-pressure zone as my joy expands to fill it. This draft of joy is called love. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:23–2:4, 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, 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 restored happiness. Thus Christian joy expands in love to fill that lack by bringing about the holy joy of other people.

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 motive 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, raising the question of whether pleasure is also the proper goal of moral actions among men. We saw how essential joy is to the authentic Christian life and how Paul stressed the importance of contentment in all circumstances.

The ethical meaning of contentment emerged as we saw the nature of love which seeks not its own. Only the person whose needs have been met and who is content can love others unselfishly.

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 compulsively expands itself. Thus God’s motive in the loving act of creation was the delight he had in filling others with the joy of his 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. This idea helped answer the question: Why does a joyful Christian help others? His or her joy naturally tends to expand itself. It desires to increase by rejoicing in the restored joy of the hurting person. 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 and finds pleasure in giving. This pleasure pleases God. The person who abandons the pursuit of his own pleasure abandons the possibility of loving man and pleasing God.