We are far too easily pleased. That’s the problem in America. We are not too hedonistic, too pleasure-centered. No. We are not pleasure-centered enough. We settle for the world’s paltry joy at the expense of giving our lives to pursue our deepest and most lasting joy. And in settling for the trivial pleasures of the world, we undermine both of our chief callings in life, the two great love commandments that we have: to love God with everything we have, and to love others as ourselves. In fact, it is only as we pursue our highest joy that we are driven to enact these loves — an essential but counterintuitive point we make in Christian Hedonism.
And it was a point Pastor John was making back in 1983, as he was first putting that Christian Hedonism into a sermon series for his church. From that essential series would come the book Desiring God, and this entire ministry. Today, I want to share a clip from his sermon “The Labor of Christian Hedonism,” preached on October 2, 1983. Have a listen.
If you and I don’t pursue our ministry because we expect to find great joy in it, then we don’t pursue the command of God.
There’s another verse. This one is so familiar you don’t need to look it up. It’s Acts 20:35. And strikingly, it’s Paul’s address to another group of elders. Listen to how he motivates those elders to care for the weak: “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
“If you don’t pursue ministry because you expect great joy in it, then you don’t pursue the command of God.”
Now, when Paul says, “remember this; keep it in your mind,” he must mean that when it’s in your mind, it functions rightly as a conscious motive for ministry. He must mean that the moral value of our generosity in ministry isn’t ruined when we pursue it hedonistically, like so many people think it is. It is not wrong to desire and to pursue the blessedness that Jesus promised when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” He didn’t say, “Now this is the truth, and get it out of your head as soon as you can, lest you do it.” Pursue the blessedness that comes from giving.
Content with Broken Cisterns
Which brings us back to where we were last week — what’s the hindrance to love in the church? It’s the same hindrance to worship. The thing that keeps us from obeying the first vertical commandment is the same thing that keeps us from obeying the second horizontal commandment. And it is not that we are all trying to please ourselves, but that we are far too easily pleased.
We don’t really believe Jesus when he says, “There’s more joy, more blessedness, more full and lasting pleasure, in giving, in a life devoted to helping others, than there is in a life devoted to our material comfort.” We don’t believe it. And therefore, the very longing for contentment that, according to Jesus, ought to drive us to simplicity of life and labors of love, contents itself instead with the broken cisterns of American prosperity and comfort.
The message that needs to be shouted from the top of the IDS Tower and the city center to pleasure-seeking Americans is this: “Hey, Americans! You’re not nearly hedonistic enough. Don’t lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust corrupt, and where thieves break in and steal. Go for broke. Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where no moth and rust corrupt, where no thieves can break in and steal. Quit being satisfied with little 5.25 percent yields of pleasure that get eaten up with the moths of inflation and the rust of death (Matthew 6:19–21). Invest in the blue-chip, high-yield, divinely insured securities of heaven.”
A life devoted to material comforts and thrills is like throwing money down a rat hole. But a life simplified for the sake of love yields dividends unsurpassed and unending. Hear the word of the Lord, O Americans: Sell your possessions. Give alms. Provide for yourselves purses that do not grow old, and treasures in the heavens that do not fail. Come on. Become real hedonists. Wake up.
“It is more blessed to love than to live in luxury.”
That’s the message. We’ve got gospel. We’ve got good news to share with the world. Leave the broken cisterns of temporary, unsatisfying pleasures. Come to Christ, in whose presence there is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). Join us in the labor of Christian hedonism. For the Lord has spoken, “It is more blessed to love than to live in luxury.” Oh, that we believed it — that the Lord’s word were believable to us.
Love Better Than Life
Turn to Hebrews 10. I am just amazed at what I’ve seen in Hebrews 10, 11, and 12. He is so amazingly consistent in his Christian Hedonism — it’s phenomenal. Hebrews 10:32–34:
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.
You see the situation? Some Christians had been arrested and put in jail. The other believers were facing a moral dilemma: “Do we go underground and pray for them, or do we express our solidarity with them and risk losing our homes?” And the text says that their joy in God’s reward overflowed in love.
Here’s what they did, if I can reconstruct the situation. They looked at their own lives and quoted to themselves Psalm 63:3: “Your steadfast love is better than life.” Then they looked at their houses with all of their furniture passed down from their grandmother — precious vases. And they said to themselves, “We have a possession in heaven that is better and longer lasting than any of this. ‘Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; the body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still; his kingdom is forever.’” And they went with Jesus to the jail, and they lost their possessions.
And what does it say they felt as they went? Joy! Christian Hedonists, through and through. They knew where their treasure was, and they didn’t have to act according to any sterile sense of duty. They just glutted themselves on the joy of love.