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Isn’t ‘Hedonism’ a Bad Word?

Letter to a Teen About Pleasure in God

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Dear Thomas,

I received your letter about the word hedonism and the way I use it in the phrase “Christian Hedonism.” I really don’t want you to be confused. But I’m glad you were surprised — surprised enough to remember what you heard, and puzzled enough to actually write your letter.

That’s part of why I use the word hedonism. It makes folks scratch their heads, and think, and write letters. I’ll try to explain why I use the word hedonism — which basically means “a life devoted to the pursuit of pleasure.” But first, let’s start with a story.

Suppose you have a 10-year-old brother named Joe, who thinks you are the greatest thing in the world. He admires you. He thinks you’re cool. He loves spending time with you. And he loves to go fishing. His birthday is coming, and you really want to make him happy with a special gift.

So you take a few odd jobs around the neighborhood helping people with yard work to earn extra money so you can buy him a really nice fishing rod and his own tackle box. But to make it special you put a note in the tackle box that says, “This is a certificate of promise to take you fishing all day on the Saturday after your birthday. Just you and me.”

You earn the money, buy the gifts, wrap them up, and put the note inside the box. On his birthday, Joe opens the packages and loves the rod and the tackle box. Then he opens the box and finds your note. He unfolds it and reads it. “Wow,” he says, “this is the greatest! I love the rod, Tom, and the tackle box. But all day with just you and me — fishing! Wow!”

And suppose you smiled and said, “My pleasure, Joe. In fact, I can’t think of anything that would make me happier this Saturday than to spend the day with you.”

Joe’s face darkens. The joy goes out of his heart. And he snorts, “It’s your pleasure! Nothing would make you happier! So it’s all about you! It’s all about what makes you happy! You are so selfish!”

You are stunned at this reaction. Speechless.

The reason you are stunned and speechless is that this would never happen. Joe would never respond this way. Why not? You did, in fact, say, “My pleasure.” You did say, “I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.” But you and I both know that Joe would never get upset like this. He would never treat you as if you were being selfish.

Why? Because when you find your pleasure in spending time with Joe, you honor him. And he feels it. You treat him as special. You say, “There is something about you that makes me want to be with you.”

Honor God by Enjoying Him

Here’s the key thing I’m getting at: Your pursuit of your happiness in hanging out with Joe draws attention to Joe’s worth, not your ego. It makes much of Joe — not you. Your happiness in spending time with Joe is Joe-centered, not me-centered. Joe feels this. He receives it as a gift. He does not feel used. He feels loved.

Thomas, here’s the point: That story is a parable of how you should relate to God. Christian Hedonism teaches that you should seek your fullest and longest happiness in knowing God and being with God. When you do that, God is honored. You will be saying to God, “I can’t think of anything that would make me happier this Saturday (or for eternity) than to spend the day (or forever) with you.” God will not call you selfish if you feel that way! He will feel honored. He will call it worship.

In fact, the way I sum up Christian Hedonism is, God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

Do you see where this leads? It leads to the demand that you and I not only may, but should aim to be as happy as we can be in God. Because that’s what honors him. Yes, it’s a biblical demand! “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord” (Psalm 32:11). “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).

Rejoice in the Giver, Not Just His Gifts

But notice carefully, our aim is to be glad “in the Lord,” not primarily in his gifts. In him as a person, not in him as a dispenser of gifts that we enjoy more than we enjoy him. That’s called idolatry. Christian Hedonism does not aim to have God as a butler — the kind you just ring for when you want him to bring you something.

That would be like saying to Joe, “What I really want next Saturday is for you to make the lunch, row the boat, bait my hooks, string the fish, and clean up when we’re done.” In other words, “I don’t really want to spend time with you as a person. I just want your services.” Lots of people treat God that way. But that is not Christianity. It is not Christian Hedonism.

Christian Hedonism says this: Pursue your enjoyment with all your might, namely, the enjoyment of God as a person. Become the kind of teenager who finds God more desirable than anything else. And when you do enjoy anything else — like pizza, or football, or music, or friends — let all that trigger greater gladness in God himself. Then those things don’t become idols. They become tastes of God’s goodness and mercy and excellence — tastes that God himself is most satisfying.

Fullness Forever

Okay, now we can tackle the word hedonism. When I was in the tenth grade, I had a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It defined hedonism as “a living for pleasure.” Today a Google search takes me to this definition: “the relentless pursuit of pleasure.” Both of those are what I mean by hedonism: living for — relentlessly pursuing — pleasure.

Of course, the word is often used to describe a life devoted to sinful pleasure. Or sometimes it’s used to describe a way of thinking about life that decides what’s right only by whether it gives pleasure. I don’t mean either of those things.

When I put the word Christian on the front of it, and call it Christian Hedonism, I mean to say that the strongest and longest pleasures can be found only in God through all that Jesus has done for us in dying for us, and rising again, and ruling over the world. The Bible says that this is, in fact, what we find when we find God: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Better Than Life

In using the word hedonism, I want the world to sit up and say, “Really?” Thomas, your non-Christian friends probably think they know the path to the best pleasures. They don’t. The path of sinful pleasure leads only to destruction. God loves us too much to let us go down that path without warning, “I urge you to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The Bible calls them “fleeting pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25). They are not the best. And they do not last.

The pleasures that we have in God, now and forever, really are better than what the world has to offer, even in their best and most innocent moments. “You [O Lord] have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Psalm 4:7).

No More Games

Thomas, there came a time in my life when I was clobbered by the truth that God commands me to be happier in him than in anything else. I mean clobbered, walloped, blown up. It was wonderful and scary. Wonderful, because I knew I wanted to pursue my happiness. And scary because I knew I would need a miracle in my life if I were to enjoy God more than food and television and sports and friends.

Ever since then, I have wanted to find words to show how jolting and shocking and radical the Christian life is. It is not an easy or comfortable way of life. It is extremely threatening to those who just want to play church, while they keep on loving God’s gifts more than God. The word hedonism is my way of getting in the face of those kinds of fake Christians. If they stumble over my words, they might stumble out of illusion into truth.

I hope this helps, Thomas. I admire you for writing. When I was your age, I did not like to read, and so I might be mistaken in thinking you would want to go deeper into Christian Hedonism. But just in case, I wrote a condensed version of my big book. It’s only 90 small pages. It’s called The Dangerous Duty of Delight. I believe it is faithful to what the Bible teaches. And, of course, the Bible is your final authority. I’m not.

If you read it, I pray that it will set you on a lifelong pilgrimage of discovering that “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart. . . . More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:8, 10).