Did C.S. Lewis Warn Against Christian Hedonism?
God’s glory and our joy are interlinked. C.S. Lewis saw it. But he also seemed to say that the penny wouldn’t drop on this connection for most Christians until the other side of eternity. In other words, most Christians will not clearly comprehend Christian Hedonism in this life, even though it’s true. So would C.S. Lewis say that our work at DG is premature? It’s a question from Daniel.
“Dear Pastor John, thank you for your ministry. You’ve spoken in the past of the prosperity gospel as over-realized eschatology — promised physical blessings being part of our inheritance in Christ, but incorrectly assumed to be for today, not the future life. I’d like to raise the same objection about Christian Hedonism.
“Is it not the case that just as the prosperity gospel is over-realized physical/materialistic eschatology, this attempt to find full satisfaction in God in this life also demonstrates over-realized emotional/psychological eschatology?
“C.S. Lewis seems to make such a conclusion himself in his Reflections on the Psalms. In speaking of heaven he writes: ‘The Scottish catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” But we shall then know [in heaven] that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify.’ So what would you say to the criticisms that Christian Hedonism reaches prematurely for an over-realized emotional or psychological eschatology not intended for our common life until eternity?”
Wow! This is a tremendously insightful and important question. It gives me great encouragement because it means that there are people out there who are thinking seriously and practically and biblically about Christian Hedonism.
I have four responses to this concern — the concern that Christian Hedonism is calling for a full satisfaction in God and is thus guilty of an over-realized eschatology, which claims for the Christian life in this world what it can only have in the life to come. That’s the charge, and I’m going to argue Christian Hedonism is innocent.
1. Joy’s Battle
Some people may represent Christian Hedonism in an unrealistic way — a way that claims too much for this life. It may be in my preaching that I have overstated those experiences in a careless way sometimes. I don’t know. I don’t have a good memory like that.
“Never, never, never be indifferent to the stagnation of your heart toward Christ.”
I have spoken on this so often that I would not doubt that somewhere along the way I may have misspoken, even though I try very hard to choose my words carefully — both on APJ and in preaching and writing.
Yes, it is possible to demand more of a Christian in this world emotionally and psychologically and spiritually than God has ordained to give, and thus define what it means to be a Christian in a way that rules some people out who should be in. That’s certainly possible. Oh, do I want to avoid that.
The reason we should avoid it is because 1 John 3:1–2 says that we won’t be complete until we see Jesus face to face. Paul says in Romans 7 and in Galatians 5 that the flesh and the Spirit are at war with each other. The flesh is often frustrating our desire to love Christ supremely and act consistently with that love.
In Philippians 4:11–13, Paul says he has learned the secret of contentment, implying there’s been growth and a process of becoming more content along the way as he grows up into Christ. There wasn’t an instantaneous perfection of joy or pleasure or contentment at the front end of the Christian life.
Paul tells us in Romans 8:13 to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit. Those sinful deeds arise from somewhere. They come from sinful preferences in the heart where Christ does not have the place that he ought to have.
All of that is why I wrote a book entitled When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy. In that book, there’s a chapter called “When the Darkness Does Not Lift.” It’s about dealing with depression.
Whatever others may do with Christian Hedonism, I don’t know how anyone could read that book about all of the Christian life being a battle to get the joy we don’t have, but should have, and think it’s an over-realized eschatology.
2. Full Joy Is Coming
Response number two is to point to the central summary of Christian Hedonism. Here’s what it’s not (let me misquote myself): it is not “God is fully or God is perfectly glorified in us when we are fully and perfectly satisfied in him.” I never say that.
In a sense, it’s true, but it’s going to happen in heaven. I don’t talk about that because it’s not my point. Daniel points out that C.S. Lewis sees the same thing. I want to say that perhaps C.S. Lewis should have spoken with greater precision, at least the way Daniel quotes him.
What he says is “Fully to enjoy is to glorify.” He probably meant “Fully to enjoy is to glorify fully.” I doubt that C.S. Lewis meant — and I’m sure he didn’t, given other things he says — I doubt that he meant the only glory God gets from our enjoyment of God is the glory he gets when our joy is total, complete, full, or perfect. No, Lewis doesn’t think that. Now, whatever Lewis meant, that’s not what I mean in the summary of Christian Hedonism.
What I say is “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” I think that kind of wording pretty clearly implies that there is a gradation in levels of satisfaction and a gradation in levels of glorification.
“As your heart’s capacities to delight in God increase, the more you will glorify him in your heart.”
The more you are satisfied in God, the more he is glorified in you. If I say, for example, “This meal will be most enjoyed when you are most hungry.” What I mean is that the hungrier you are, the better it tastes. I don’t have some absolute ideal of hunger in mind that will make the meal perfectly enjoyable.
The point of summarizing Christian Hedonism by saying, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” is to communicate that pursuing satisfaction in God is absolutely essential to the Christian life that glorifies God.
It’s a way of communicating to never, never, never be indifferent to the stagnation of your heart toward Christ. As your satisfaction in him diminishes, your capacities to glorify him in your heart diminish. As your capacities to delight in him and be satisfied in him and rejoice in him and treasure him in your heart increase, the more you glorify him in your heart.
There is no unrealistic, absolute ideal of perfection or satisfaction expected in this life. That’s not what I’m about. That’s not what Christian Hedonism says. That comes — that perfection, that perfect satisfaction — when we see Christ face to face.
Right now, there is a radical, absolute, indispensable claim and call from God to us. Don’t be indifferent to your heart’s satisfaction in God. God gets glory from your heart’s joy in him. Seek its increase. Always seek its increase, because he is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.
3. Leave Your Family
Response number three shows that what Jesus himself said is what I try to say. Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). This is Jesus’s way of saying, “If you are not most satisfied in me compared to others — if your affections are not most attached to me over against your children and parents — you’re not mine.”
“Today, there is a gradation in levels of satisfaction and a gradation in levels of glorification.”
He said same thing with different words in Luke 14:33: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Now, we know that doesn’t mean you have to be poverty-stricken. It means your heart has to be on Christ more than on anything else.
He said other things like this — “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” (see Matthew 22:37–38), or “Value the treasure hidden in a field so much that you’re willing to sell everything you have with joy” (see Matthew 13:44).
Now, in view of all the other things that Jesus said, I would clarify those radical sayings — to protect ourselves against over-realized eschatology — by saying this: the heart of the Christian often slips from the position of superior delight in Jesus over family and things. It does. It slips.
Those slippings, which give rise to outward sins, are not necessarily evidences that we are not born again. Provision is made for repentance and forgiveness. But if our hearts settle into a position where Christ is highly esteemed and cherished and loved, but only in second place, or only in third place, that settling in will prove to be evidence we are not Christians.
4. Acorn to Oak
Here’s my fourth response. I believe there is in the newest, most immature, conflicted baby believer the seed of God’s supreme value above all things. He has tasted and enjoyed that, even if a new believer can’t put that into words.
And one mark of that new believer’s ongoing reality as a Christian is the indestructible, though variable — here I’m choosing my words as carefully as I know how — the indestructible, though variable, desire that this seed become a soul-encompassing tree.
For those four reasons, I find Christian Hedonism innocent of the charge of over-realized eschatology.