I Was Far Too Easily Pleased
My Discovery Fifty Years Ago Today
Fifty years ago today was one of the most important days of my life.
Nothing is more important in all the universe than that God be glorified, and Christ be magnified, and the hearts of God’s people be satisfied in him. The implications of this biblical truth are all-encompassing. And a particular day and event began to bring it all together for me.
Since I was 22, Christian Hedonism has been my goal and guide and strength. Now at 72, it is my final preparation for meeting Jesus face to face. There is little reason you should care what I think. But you should care infinitely (I use the word carefully) whether God has revealed that Christian Hedonism is true. I would like to persuade you that he has.
To that end, I will tell you what happened to me fifty years ago today, on November 16, 1968, and why it has made all the difference. Experience is not authority. But it may be a helpful pointer.
An Unresolved Tension
During my four years at Wheaton College in Illinois, from 1964 to 1968, I became conscious of an unresolved tension in my Christian experience. On the one hand, I knew from my father’s instruction and from the New Testament that I should live for the glory of God. “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). On the other hand, I knew from experience that I was motivated continually by a desire for deep satisfaction.
“Since I was 22, Christian Hedonism has been my goal and guide and strength.”
These felt like competing motives. I could aim to make God look great, or I could aim at my own satisfaction. I did not have a framework of thought where these two motives fit together. They seemed like alternatives.
In fact, as a teenager, that’s how I often heard the call to Christian service. “Will you surrender to God’s will for your life, or will you keep pursuing your own will?” It was a mark of my own immaturity that this felt like a frustrating dilemma: “Either follow God’s will and live with the frustration that your own desires will be forever unsatisfied, or follow your own will and be forever out of step with God.”
The Air I Breathed
But it wasn’t just preachers who fed the fires of my frustration. Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). What could be clearer? Following the will of Jesus meant not following my own will, but denying it. Disobey and be ruined, or obey and be frustrated.
It was the air I breathed. Pursue God’s glory, or pursue my own satisfaction. Either-or. Seek God’s will and God’s glory, or seek my will and my happiness. And something seemed defective about pursuing my happiness. You cannot serve God’s glory and your gladness.
I wasn’t the only one who breathed this air. C.S. Lewis said,
If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics. (The Weight of Glory, 27)
“I had never heard that God lives for the glory of God.”
Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher whose views of Christian motivation, whether intended or not, had this kind of effect. Indeed, the atheist Ayn Rand rejected Christianity largely because she smelled this “Kantian” air, and thought it undercut true virtue. In a razor-sharp critique, she said,
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.) (For the New Intellectual, 32)
The air I breathed was exactly what Rand described: being motivated by a benefit to myself “destroys the moral value of an action.”
Blind to the Reward
Even prominent biblical scholars spread this air. I still remember a comment on Luke 14:13–14 from T.W. Manson’s book The Sayings of Jesus, which was prominent when I was a student. Jesus said, “When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
On the face of it, Jesus seems to be motivating us for risk-taking, openhanded hospitality by telling us we will be “repaid at the resurrection.” It sure sounds like we should prioritize our own long-term reward over short-term losses here. But Manson wrote, “The promise of reward for this kind of life is there as a fact. You do not live this way for the sake of reward. If you do you are not living in this way but in the old selfish way.”
In other words, Jesus promised us a reward, but he didn’t expect us to be motivated by it. This sounds off, doesn’t it? Ayn Rand smelled this kind of thinking in the wind and thought it represented true Christianity. So she rejected Christianity. Before she died, I wrote to her after my discovery of Christian Hedonism to try to persuade her otherwise. She never wrote back.
The Problem Gets Worse
When I graduated from college in 1968, I had not yet discovered Christian Hedonism. The air was still thick with the tension between the pursuit of God’s glory on the one side and the pursuit of my happiness on the other. That was soon to change.
“The glory of God is the great pole star in the heaven of my mind.”
I walked into my first class at Fuller Seminary with my professor Daniel Fuller (son of the founder) in the fall of 1968 and heard things I had never heard before about the relationship of divine glory and human happiness. Dr. Fuller pointed me to Jonathan Edwards, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis — and the Bible! Edwards and Pascal made the problem worse before it got better.
Edwards won my trust by exalting the centrality and ultimacy and supremacy and worth of the glory of God beyond all other reality. And he did so in such a thorough, passionate, and biblical way that there was no possibility he was about to smuggle in a man-centered theology.
His book The End for Which God Created the World is perhaps the most thorough and compelling demonstration that the glory of God is the ultimate goal of all things. What was so overpowering about this book was the avalanche of biblical passages used to show God’s passion for his glory.
This was new to me. I knew about my duty to live for the glory of God. But I had never heard that God lives for the glory of God. I had never heard that God’s command that I glorify him was an invitation to join him in his zeal for his own glory. But I was swept up in this avalanche of biblical truth — from eternity to eternity.
- God predestined his people “to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Ephesians 1:4–6).
- God created the world and us “for his glory” (Psalm 19:1; Isaiah 43:7).
- God sent his Son as the incarnation of God so that we say, “We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
- God appointed his Son to die as the propitiation for our sins to the glory of God: “For this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name” (John 12:27–28; Romans 3:25–26).
- God sanctifies us “through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11).
- God sends Christ back to earth a second time as the consummation of all things “to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at” (2 Thessalonians 1:9–10).
So, in the tension I felt between pursuing God’s glory and pursuing my happiness, no solution could be found in weakening my pursuit of God’s glory. The stakes on that side of the dilemma were raised to the highest possible level. No compromise. No diminishing. I say this with great joy, because I was not, and am not, looking for a way to wiggle out of the absolute, undiminished supremacy of the glory of God in all things. This is the great pole star in the heaven of my mind.
But what about the other half of the dilemma — the pursuit of happiness? The stakes were raised on this side as well. Blaise Pascal said it more powerfully than I would have dared, though this is what I suspected was true:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensées, 45)
If you don’t agree with Pascal here, don’t stop reading, because Christian Hedonism does not hang on his being right. Christian Hedonism is not about the joy-seeking that is (all people pursue happiness), but the joy-seeking that ought to be (all people ought to pursue happiness).
My point here is simply that Edwards and Pascal made my problem worse before things got better. Now the dilemma was not just a private struggle inside John Piper. It was a titanic tension between God’s highest allegiance (his glory) and man’s inexorable passion (our happiness). At my personal level, the tension was all the more real: God could not cease valuing his glory above all things. And John Piper could not cease pursuing happiness any more than he could cease getting hungry.
Then came the discovery of what I have called Christian Hedonism. It happened in two stages.
Far Too Easily Pleased
“I opened ‘The Weight of Glory’ and read the first page. Nothing has been the same ever since.”
In his class syllabus, Dr. Fuller quoted from C.S. Lewis under the heading “We are far too easily pleased.” Really? I thought the problem was that we wanted to be pleased. Now Fuller was saying, No, our problem is not that we want to be pleased, but that our desire to be pleased is too weak. He cited Lewis. I needed to see the quote in context.
On November 16, 1968, I was standing in Vroman’s Bookstore on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. (The store is still there!) Lewis’s little blue paperback The Weight of Glory lay before me, faceup on a table of specials. I opened it and read the first page. Nothing has been the same ever since.
The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. . . .
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (25–26)
This was a wind from another land. It was the exact opposite of the counsel from T.W. Manson. Manson told me not to live for the sake of Christ’s promised reward. Lewis told me that I wasn’t living for the reward enough! Christ has given us “unblushing promises of reward . . . and finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” The problem is not the desire for happiness, but that we settle for mud pies when we are promised paradise. The great problem with mankind is that we don’t desire happiness with nearly enough knowledge and passion.
All the biblical instincts in me knew this was right. How many times could I read Jesus’s words “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35) and try to persuade myself, “Yes, but don’t let the promised blessedness influence your giving”? That battle was over. Jesus made the promise, and he meant it to move us. Thank you, C.S. Lewis, for setting me free from the denial of the obvious.
Of course, what was not yet obvious was how Jesus’s demand to pursue the reward connected with God’s passion for his glory. That was the next stage of the discovery.
Praise: Joy’s Fulfillment
“The problem is not our desire for happiness, but that we settle for mud pies when we are promised paradise.”
Ironically, Lewis provided the key by making the enigma darker. He pointed out that God’s passion for the praise of his glory had been a huge stumbling block for him in coming to faith. When he read the Psalms, he said, they seemed to picture God craving “for our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments” (Reflections on the Psalms, 109).
Since those days in 1968, I have learned that many others have stumbled over God’s passion for his glory. This passion seems to many like an ego trip — like megalomania. How did Lewis get over this stumbling block? In his book Reflections on the Psalms, he explained how:
The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. . . .
I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (109–11, emphases added)
This was the key. Enjoyment overflows into praise. More precisely, praise does not just express enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. Praise is enjoyment — the expressed enjoyment of what we value.
If praise is the overflow of joy in what we value, and if that joy is not complete until it overflows in praise, then God is aiming at our fullest satisfaction when he demands our praise. He knows that he is the all-satisfying Treasure of the universe. This is a fact, and no false humility can make it untrue. He also knows that we will find fullness of happiness nowhere but in this Treasure — himself. Finally, he knows that praise is the consummation of that happiness.
Therefore, he commands us to enjoy him fully, and calls for that enjoyment to reach its consummation — namely, in the overflow of praise. In other words, God’s passion for his glory and our passion to be happy climax in the same experience of worship. This is not megalomania. This is love.
And it is also the happy marriage of God’s passion to be glorified and my passion to be satisfied. Praise is obedience to God’s command to be glorified. And praise is the consummation of my desire to be satisfied. These two massive realities in the universe — divine glorification and human longing — are not ultimately at odds. The old conflict — that should have never been — was over. It was a watershed year: 1968. Christian Hedonism was discovered. It has been the goal and guide and strength of my life and ministry for fifty years.
It has borne the test of time — five decades of marriage, four decades of parenting, and three decades of pastoral ministry, all of it woven with threads of sorrow and joy. At every point, Christian Hedonism has been my Bible-saturated goal and guide and strength. It has touched every area of life. And I grieve that it has not penetrated more deeply.
“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
I make no claim to be the best example of Christian Hedonism. I know many others who embody this reality better than I. But I am a witness. And I pray that my witness will not be in vain. In all my life and ministry, I (still) say as a Christian Hedonist, I am not writing to “lord it over your faith, but [I] work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). And if God gives me more years, I pray that, to the end, my aim will be the same as the apostle Paul’s: “that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy of faith” (Philippians 1:25, my translation).
In this way, we do not make a god out of joy. We show, rather, that whatever we find greatest joy in is our God. And the greater the joy in him, the greater the glory we give. Where our greatest Treasure is, there is our heart’s greatest pleasure. This was the great discovery of 1968: No conflict! God’s glory and our joy rise together. For God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.