Treating Delight As Duty Is Controversial

Article by

Founder & Teacher,

Christian Hedonism is not new.

So if Christian Hedonism is old-fashioned, why is it so controversial? One reason is that it insists joy is not just the spin-off of obedience to God, but part of obedience. It seems as though people are willing to let joy be a byproduct of our relationship to God, but not an essential part of it. People are uncomfortable saying that we are duty-bound to pursue joy.

They say things like, "Don't pursue joy, pursue obedience." But Christian Hedonism responds, "That's like saying, 'Don't eat apples; eat fruit.'" Because joy is an act of obedience. We are commanded to rejoice in God. If obedience is doing what God commands, then joy is not merely the spin-off of obedience, it is obedience. The Bible tells us over and over to pursue our joy: "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; and shout for joy, all you who are upright in heart" (Psalm 32:11). "Let the nations be glad and sing for joy" (Psalm 67:4). "Delight yourself in the Lord" (Psalm 37:4). "Rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven" (Luke 10:20). "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4).

The Bible does not teach that we should treat delight as a mere byproduct of duty. C. S. Lewis got it right when he wrote to a friend, "It is a Christian duty, as you know, for everyone to be as happy as he can." Yes, that is risky and controversial. But it is strictly true. Maximum happiness, both qualitatively and quantitatively, is precisely what we are duty-bound to pursue.

One wise Christian described the relation between duty and delight this way:

Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, "You must, but not that kind of a must." What she means is this: "Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value."

In other words, if there is no pleasure in the kiss, the duty of kissing has not been done. Delight in her person, expressed in the kiss, is part of the duty, not a mere byproduct of it.

But if that is true – if delight in doing good is part of what doing good is – then the pursuit of pleasure is part of the pursuit of virtue. You can see why this starts to get controversial. It's the seriousness of it all. "You really mean this," someone says. "You really mean that hedonism is not just a trick word to get our attention. It actually says something utterly, devastatingly true about the way we should live. The pursuit of pleasure really is a necessary part of being a good person." That's right. I mean it. The Bible means it. God means it. It is very serious. We are not playing word games.

Let it be crystal clear: we are always talking about joy in God. Even joy in doing good is finally joy in God, because the ultimate good that we always aim at is displaying the glory of God and expanding our own joy in God to others. Any other joy would be qualitatively insufficient for the longing of our souls, and quantitatively too short for our eternal need. In God alone is "fullness" of joy and joy "forever."

"In Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever" (Psalm 16:11).

Excerpted from The Dangerous Duty of Delight © 2001 by Desiring God Foundation. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers, Inc. Excerpt may not be reproduced without the prior written consent of Multnomah Publishers, Inc.