Do Christian Hedonists Idolize Joy?
Daniel writes to ask, “How does Christian Hedonism avoid making joy into an idol?”
Well, the short answer is, Christian hedonism doesn’t make a god or an idol out of joy, because Christian hedonism says we make a god out of whatever we find most joy in. That is the short answer. So, find your greatest joy in God and, thus, be done with all idolatry.
Safeguards Against Idolizing Joy
But his question is, “How do you avoid making that mistake?” It is not as though the mistake can’t be made. In fact, that would be my first statement about how to avoid it is to say, “Admit it can happen.” And I admit it can happen, not just because Daniel has asked me how not to let it happen, but because the Bible says it actually does happen in 2 Timothy 3:4 where Paul says in the last days people will be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”
1. Don’t delight in delight.
Now when I read that I say, “Really? That is amazing.” The fallen human heart is capable of suicidal illusions. I call it an illusion because if you make pleasure the object of your love, it is like making love the object of your love. It is like making being pleased the object of being pleased. It is self-contradictory. It is self-defeating.
My capacity, my faculty of delighting, was made to delight in something. Delighting wasn’t made to delight in delighting. Delighting was made to delight in something. If you delight in the delighting, you are like a hunter who aims to shoot his bullet. He is not going to get any deer that way. He is going to go hungry, which is why I said it is suicidal. It is an illusion. And yet it is true — I mean, it is a good question. It is not a stupid question, because Paul says men will be lovers of pleasure. Men will be so stupid and so insane and so drawn in on themselves, they will commit this suicidal hunting of trying to shoot the bullet in their gun.
2. Pursue joy in God.
But here is another safeguard. Christian hedonism says, “Never merely pursue your joy.” That is hedonism. That is not Christian hedonism — that is just hedonism. Christian hedonism says, “Pursue your joy in God.” Or, more precisely, “Pursue your joy in all that God is for you in Christ.” And I say, “Is for you,” not, “Does for you” — in God, not through God. God is the end of our quest. He is not a means. There is nothing more ultimate than God.
When we rejoice in his works, which the Bible says we should do, we are rejoicing in the God we see in his works and know through his works. We are receiving his works, not as our substitute for God, but as a pointer to God. So the second caution or safeguard against turning pleasure or joy into an idol is to say that we always rejoice in God.
3. Glorify God by rejoicing in him.
Christian hedonists explain that joy is a way of glorifying God. I mean this is the most fundamental thing, right? We say at Desiring God, “We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples” by highlighting the truth that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”
Everybody knows that you don’t glorify yourself and you don’t glorify pleasure when you take supreme pleasure in somebody. And I have told my rose story one hundred times, but I will give the conclusion of it here: If I say to my wife, “There is nothing that would give me more satisfaction than to spend the evening with you tonight,” she would never say to me, “You are so selfish. All you ever think about is what will bring you satisfaction. That is why you want to take me out tonight, because I make you satisfied.” She would never say that, because I am glorifying her satisfying qualities by telling her she makes me happy.
And so when you come to worship on Sunday, and you are driven by the sense of, God, I am here to spend time with you because there is nobody in all the world who can make me more happy, he is not going to say to you, “You are so selfish coming to me.” No! Because we glorify him when he satisfies us.
4. Don’t navel-gaze.
Christian hedonists insist on the truth that navel-gazing is bad hedonism. In other words, if you go to an art gallery, and you want to enjoy the beauty of these masterpieces, and you stand in front of a say, a Rembrandt, and you are constantly saying, “Okay stomach, are you being turned? Okay palms, are you beginning to sweat? Eyes, are you beginning to flutter? Pulse, are you starting?” you are not going to see anything. You have got to forget your pulse, forget your stomach, forget your heart, and look at the painting.
Now some people have said, “Therefore, stop talking about pursuing joy, and just talk about pursuing God.” Well, it is not that simple, because there are ways to pursue God that don’t honor him, and there are ways to pursue righteousness that don’t honor righteousness. If you pursue God out of a mere sense of ought — like, “Okay, I ought to read my Bible, and I ought to go to church, and I ought to do this or that” — God is not as honored as if you come to him as the object of your desire.
So I want to preserve both. Navel-gazing is bad hedonism, and we ought to pursue joy in the painting. We ought to want to be delighted by the painting.
5. Develop a robust doctrine of self-denial and suffering.
Let me give you one more. This is short. I didn’t see this early, Tony, let’s say, forty years ago when I was first trying to formulate these things. We Christian hedonists need to have a robust doctrine of self-denial and suffering. And so, if you look at my writings after the first edition of Desiring God which came along, I have got a chapter on suffering in almost everything. And when people ask me, “How does this fit with self-denial?” I say, “Look. I totally believe in self-denial, because in Mark 8:35, Jesus said, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it.’”
“Deny yourself tin, so you can have gold. Deny yourself brackish gutter water, so you can have a mountain spring.”
But, C.S. Lewis taught me this in that same sermon where I saw almost everything else at the beginning. He said, “Whenever you hear a promise or a command in the Bible it always comes with a reward, and God doesn’t treat us because we are seeking our satisfaction, but because we are too easily satisfied,” because the rest of the verse says, “Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”
So clearly Jesus is arguing,
“You want to save your life, don’t you?” “Yes, I do. I am a hedonist.” “Well, good. I want you to be. Now lose it.”
In other words, here is the way I would put it: Deny yourself tin, so you can have gold. Deny yourself brackish gutter water, so you can have a mountain spring. Deny yourself hog gristle, so you can have the finest steak. That is the point of a doctrine of self-denial. We must be willing to die — I mean really die — because the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life (Psalm 63:3).
So maybe the sum of the matter for Daniel is this: How does Christian hedonism keep joy from being an idol? Simply believe in the Bible, and let the whole counsel of God inform your system. So I don’t want to be more Christian hedonist than I am biblical. Any time somebody asks me a question where they see a part of the Bible that doesn’t seem to fit with Christian hedonism, well, I am on that. I am on that, because I want to be biblical more than I want to be faithful to any system.