The Ethos of Christian Hedonism: Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing

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Defending Christian Hedonism exegetically is one thing; helping people feel the ethos of it is something else. The latter is harder. That’s what I want to try to do here.

But first, what is it?

Christian Hedonism is a way of life rooted in the conviction that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. The branches and fruits of this root are all-encompassing and thrilling. They include the stunning implication that all true virtue, and all true worship, necessarily includes the pursuit of happiness in God.

The reason for this is that all true virtue and all true worship must involve the intention to glorify God. This is because we were created to glorify God (Isaiah 43:7), and because Paul said, “Whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). So it is sin to pursue any good deed, or any act of worship, without the intent to glorify God.

But God is not glorified where we find him less pleasing than other things. He is belittled. Knowing this, we cannot be indifferent to whether we find God pleasing in the actions we pursue. In all those actions, if we would glorify God, we must aim to find him more pleasing than anything else.

When Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), he did not mean we should ignore this fact when we give. In fact, Paul said, in that same text, we should “remember” it as we give. The desire for blessedness in giving to others is only selfish and mercenary, if the blessedness we desire is not God himself, and does not aim to take others with us into this joy by means of our giving.

Understanding a Beloved Phrase

But all that does not quite get at the ethos — the feel, the spirit, the mood, the tone — of Christian Hedonism. The biblical phrase we have used more than another to capture this tone is taken from 2 Corinthians 6:10: “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

But seldom do I comment on it exegetically or give illustrations. I want to do both briefly.

In 2 Corinthians 6:3–10, Paul is illustrating how he puts no stumbling block in anyone’s way by his lifestyle (verse 3), but rather commends himself as authentic in every way he can — with thirty kinds of experience!

Among these thirty is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” It occurs among several similar pairs: “as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as disciplined, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:8–10).

What Is True of Paul

I was once asked why I treat “sorrowful” as something true of Paul, when others in this list contain something false which is then corrected. Like: “. . . as deceivers, and yet true”? Maybe Paul means he is viewed as “sorrowful” but really is not, but rather always rejoicing.

The reason I don’t think that’s what Paul means is that Paul shifts from pairs that contrast false and true (like “as deceivers, yet true”), to pairs that are both true (like “as poor, yet making many rich”).

In Paul’s way of thinking, “unknown,” “dying,” “disciplined,” “sorrowful,” “poor,” and “having nothing,” are all true of him. So at the beginning of verse 9, he shifted from false claims corrected by true ones, and began to list pairs that are both true, but paradoxical: unknown/known, dying/alive, disciplined/not killed, sorrowful/joyful, poor/enriching.

So yes, Paul thinks of himself truly as “sorrowful.” Which is no surprise in view of Romans 9:2: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart . . . for my kinsmen according to the flesh.” “Unceasing” sorrow and anguish. Amazing!

If this was true of the great apostle of joy, how much more for us. Surely our lives will be marked by continual sorrows (and joy) as well. If they are not, it may be that we don’t love the lost the way Paul did.

The Serious Kind of Joy

So the ethos of Christian Hedonism is not a joy or a happiness that is breezy, glib, jokey, trifling, petty, silly, or comic. Which means there is a good bit of the way some people do church that is alien to Christian Hedonism. The joy of Christian Hedonism is not comedic. Christian Hedonism can be utterly overcome with laughter, but this has little to do with a pervasive levity that has almost no room for serious joy.

C.S. Lewis said, “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm, 1964, 299). Amen. And he said, “We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption” (Christian Reflections, 1967, 10).

There is a tender heart that rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep — simultaneously. Sometimes one is showing. Sometimes the other. But each flavors the other. You can taste the peculiar flavor of this joy and this sorrow.

Here is one closing illustration of what it looks like — feels like. This comes from Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections. This is the Christian Hedonist, at his best.

As he has more holy boldness, so he has less of self-confidence . . . and more modesty. As he is more sure than others of deliverance from hell, so he has more of a sense of the desert of it. He is less apt than others to be shaken in faith, but more apt than others to be moved with solemn warnings, and with God’s frowns, and with the calamities of others. He has the firmest comfort, but the softest heart: richer than others, but poorest of all in spirit; the tallest and strongest saint, but the least and tenderest child among them. (Works, Vol. 2, Yale, 364)