Good Monday morning, everyone. Well, we are Christian Hedonists, and that’s something we have dedicated several episodes to explaining on the podcast. You could look at, for example, APJs 958, 1201, and 1281.
For those of you who want to teach this glorious truth, how do we take Christian Hedonism and make it our own? Or even more broadly asked, how do any of us take the key teachings of others and incorporate them into our ministry so that we’re not simply mimicking our teachers? That’s an important question faced by any budding Christian communicator, writer, teacher, or preacher. And it’s the question today in the inbox.
“Dear Tony and Pastor John, hello to you both! My name is Gabriel, an international student studying in Australia. I praise God for your ministry and for the realities you have pointed to in the Bible, especially in opening my eyes to the connection between our joy and God’s sovereign glory. My question is this: How do I make Christian Hedonism my own, especially when it comes to teaching? I’m young, but I hope to teach one day, maybe even preach the word. But often I find that I’m checking myself to see if I’m simply copying what you said. I see that the realities are there in the text and the Bible, but your ministry is so thorough and wholesome I almost feel I can’t say anything without echoing you. Perhaps I think incorrectly. How can we carry on encouraging, teaching, preaching this reality in our own voice? I would be honored to hear your thoughts.”
Gabriel’s question touches on a tension that every teacher feels when he has found something true and precious in God’s word, and desires that it be seen and loved by others, and that those others, generation after generation, preserve and pass on the truth and the preciousness of the reality that he has seen.
Tension of Treasured Truth
And the tension is this: On the one hand, we want the very thing we have seen in Scripture to be preserved and not distorted or corrupted or lost. And on the other hand, we know that if it is to be preserved for generations, the people that preserve it must have a grasp of it that is deeper than simply imitating the words of those who taught them the reality, showed them the reality. So, there’s a tension between holding fast to what is fixed and having freedom to give fresh and vital expression and application to that fixed reality.
So Gabriel has discovered the truth and the beauty of what we call Christian Hedonism — namely, the thought and the life that flow from the truth that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. And as he grows in his understanding and seeks to share with others what he’s seen, he finds himself sounding like his teacher, like me in particular. And he wonders if there are steps he can take so that he isn’t what I would call — he didn’t use this language, this is my language — a secondhander, a mimic. We don’t want him to be that; he doesn’t want to be that.
Moving from Imitation to Maturity
Now, what would I point out to Gabriel first if he’s going to be helped beyond being a secondhander? What I would point out to Gabriel first is that he’s probably at a particular point in an inevitable process that moves from discovery, through imitation, through the maturity of creative expression, and onto more and more discovery, and so on.
So his question is really, I think, “How can I move along in a natural process that I’m in?” Let me use an analogy. Compare the mystery and the wonder of how little tiny children learn language. The first thing they do is listen, look, and feel; listen, look, and feel. So you’ve got this two-week-old baby — listen, look, feel, with some very uncreative crying to express inarticulate desires.
And then one day they echo back, “Mama.” “Dada.” You just burst with the thrill that they made the connection between the reality of a person and a word coming out of their mouth: “Mama.” “Dada.” And all of it right now is simply imitation, echoing, copying — but oh, how real it is, right? It’s real. You don’t say, “Oh, he’s just copying me.” This is an awesome point in his development.
And then, within a year or so, an absolutely astonishing thing happens. All of the reality that this baby has been processing quietly (eyes, ears, touch) suddenly comes together, miraculously it seems, in his mind and out comes a sentence — two words, three words — that the baby put together out of his own little head, imitating nobody. Nobody had just spoken that sentence to him. It emerged out of his own mind. Absolutely amazing. And the rest of their lives, they’ll be turning observed and desired reality into sentences, some of which have never been spoken in the history of the world. Amazing.
1. Imitate for a season.
Now that pattern of listening, then echoing, and then creating and ongoing discovery is the way we learn for the rest of our lives. So, my first piece of advice for Gabriel is this: don’t begrudge a season of discovery and imitation. When someone helps you see a reality that you hadn’t seen before, it is inevitable that you will describe the reality in the words of the one who helped you see it. That’s normal; it’s good. But you are right to be concerned that you should not remain in this early phase of understanding and expression. So how do you move on to find your own voice and not lose the reality?
2. Press through words to experience.
So my second piece of advice is that you practice pressing through language to reality, that you never settle for mere words — not my words, not even Bible words. When the Bible speaks, uses words, you press into those words, and through those words, to the reality — the reality of love, the reality of joy, the reality of faith, the reality of Christ, the reality of God. These are not mere words. This is the rock-bottom necessity of not remaining a child or a secondhander.
“Before you can find your authentic voice, you must have an authentic experience.”
Have you tasted the reality expressed in the words of your teacher or the Scriptures? That’s what everyone should ask. Have I tasted the reality, or is it just words? Before you can find your authentic voice, you must have an authentic experience of what you are trying to give voice to. This is a matter of earnest prayer, earnest study. O Lord, “open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).
3. Observe the truth from different angles.
The third piece of advice I would give is that you not only press through your teacher’s words to that reality, but that you be constantly on the lookout in Scripture for more reality — realities that when they are brought together with the reality of Christian Hedonism will cause you to see it in fresh light, and the diamond will reveal more of its facets than you knew existed, perhaps even more than your teacher has ever seen.
4. Find fresh language for old reality.
The fourth piece of advice I would give is that you make a studied effort to find fresh, faithful, compelling, culturally appropriate language to describe the reality that you have come to love. This studied effort at creative expression will almost certainly go off the rails if the biblical reality is not clearly seen and firmly rooted in Scripture, and gladly embraced with your heart and your mind. Without this, the effort at creativity will almost certainly degenerate into creating new reality, rather than new expressions of old, unchanging reality.
5. Don’t despise tried-and-true expressions.
The fifth piece of advice I would give is that none of us be put off by old, tried-and-true expressions of reality. That is, we shouldn’t feel the need to always be saying things in new ways, as if old ways are inevitably inadequate. Some of the language describing a wonderful reality is so rooted in Scripture, and so well-suited to the reality, and so compelling in its application that it shouldn’t be left behind just because it’s been around for a long time.
“God gave us the language of Christian Hedonism, and we don’t need to be ashamed of repeating his old, happy language.”
“Delight yourself in the Lord” has been around for three thousand years (Psalm 37:4). “Satisfy me in the morning with your steadfast love” has been around for three thousand years (Psalm 90:14). “We have this treasure,” treasure in earthen vessels, has been around for two thousand years (2 Corinthians 4:7). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” has been around two thousand years (Philippians 4:4). “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” — that’s been around for three thousand years (Psalm 16:11). These aren’t John Piper’s words. God gave us the language of Christian Hedonism, and we don’t need to be ashamed of repeating his old, happy language.
6. Read widely.
And the last thing I would say is that you read widely concerning the things you care about. It is good to find a teacher who shows you things you’ve never seen. It is also good to listen to a half a dozen other teachers who can help you see the same thing from different angles, or other things that put the thing you love in an even brighter perspective.
No Longer a Secondhander
And I’ll just end by saying that in the mid-to-late ’70s, anybody who listened to or looked at the twentysomething John Piper, and also knew his teacher, Dan Fuller — they laughed. They laughed because my mannerisms, my tones of voice, my peculiar expressions, they all echoed my most influential teacher. I didn’t begrudge that. Frankly, I considered it a badge. I liked it. I was very happy to be the inadvertent imitator of the man who showed me so much glory. But I grew out of that, and there came a day when nobody saw me as an imitator anymore.