Today we talk about the various stages of progress in John Piper becoming a Christian Hedonist. And the excellent question comes in to us in the form of an email. “Hello, Pastor John. My name is Alanna. Can you retell the story of your own journey into Christian Hedonism? I recall you mentioning C.S. Lewis being a major influence on you through one of his books. But what have been the defining moments for you in this pursuit of the all-satisfying joy in Christ?”
I’ve got ten steps in the story, and I’ll try to say them quickly.
1. Happy Father
My father was the happiest man I’ve ever known. I grew up in that home. That no doubt had an impact.
“God’s commanding that he be praised is for our good because it is the consummation of our joy in him.”
2. Whatever You Do
My father and my mother constantly cited 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” So I knew I had happy parents, and they’re telling me constantly to pursue the glory of God.
3. No Connection
No one made the connection for me between my joy and God’s glory in any biblical or theological way that I can remember. They just kind of dangled.
4. Unresolved Tension
I felt this unresolved tension all through college because I wanted to be happy. I could no more stop the desire to want to be happy than I could stop myself from getting hungry. I think God put the desire for happiness in the human soul as a good thing rooted in our very human nature: there it was; I couldn’t do anything about it.
But I had in the Bible, and in the memory of my parents, God’s demand that he be glorified. Those two things were in constant unresolved tension. Maybe I’m just weird, but they were. How do my passion to be happy and God’s passion to be glorified fit together?
5. Help at Last
In the fall of 1968 — during my first year in seminary, when I was 22 years old — a process of discovery began that lasted several years. During this time, C.S. Lewis, Daniel Fuller, and Jonathan Edwards conspired to make me a Christian Hedonist.
6. Far Too Easily Pleased
The first step was seeing the pointer to this in Daniel Fuller’s syllabus on hermeneutics, but here’s the actual encounter.
“We should pursue joy in God because it is the essence and heart of praise.”
I came across The Weight of Glory at Vroman’s bookstore off of Colorado Avenue in Pasadena. It was one afternoon in the fall of 1968.
I opened up, and here’s the page I read: “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire.”
I was starting to get pins and needles running up and down my spine when I read that. Here’s what’s next: “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing” — now that was me. That was me. I had this lurking sense that it was not a good thing. That’s why they didn’t fit together. He continues, “I submit this notion has crept in from Kant [Immanuel Kant, the philosopher] and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith.”
Whoa, you’re kidding me. “Indeed,” he goes on, “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
I had never heard anybody say that in my life: “Your problem, Piper, is you don’t have strong enough desires.” I had never heard anybody say that.
He goes on: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (25–26).
That was the title of an entire section in Daniel Fuller’s hermeneutics syllabus: “We are far too easily pleased.” And it was a diagnosis of my soul that I had never heard before.
7. Surrounded by Praise
Step number seven came from Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis. It helped me put the final touch on vertical Christian Hedonism. It goes like this.
The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or giving honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians and scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time the most balanced and capacious, minds praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise what they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?’ The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about. My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended upon my absurdly denying to us, as regards to the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what we indeed can’t help doing, about everything else we value. (109–10)
And then here comes the most important part:
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy, because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. (111)
I had never heard that before either. One thing was clear: God’s commanding praise that he be praised was for our good, because it was the consummation of our joy in him.
8. Joy and Glory
It took Jonathan Edwards to bring me to the even more important realization that we should pursue joy in God because it is the essence and heart of praise. In other words, not only is praise the consummation of joy — the completion of joy, joy in its fullness — but joy is the essence of praise.
“You’re not praising God if you’re not enjoying God, and that’s what so many people miss.”
You’re not praising God if you’re not enjoying God, and that’s what so many people miss. And I got it from Edwards. Here’s the way he said it.
Edwards says in Miscellanies, “God glorifies himself toward the creatures . . . [in] two ways: (1) by appearing to them, being manifested to their understandings; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts, and in their rejoicing and delighting in, and enjoying the manifestations which he makes of himself. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in” (The “Miscellanies,” a–500, 495).
This brought me to the clear statement “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him.”
9. Confirmed in Scripture
And all these discoveries from Lewis and Edwards were confirmed throughout the Bible. And if we had time, we could take text after text to show them, but let me just give the last step in my pilgrimage.
10. Horizontal Christian Hedonism
All this left me to work out especially how vertical Christian Hedonism — namely, God is most glorified in me when I’m most satisfied in him (which doesn’t take anybody else into account) — fits with horizontal Christian Hedonism — namely, you can’t love other people if you abandon your quest for joy in God.
Let me say how it comes together. It sounds really controversial when people hear it. If you abandon your quest for joy in God, you can’t love horizontally — you can’t love other people. Why not? Because love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others (2 Corinthians 8:2).
Here it is more precisely. You can see this if you just think about it. Joy in God has in it an expansive impulse to increase itself by drawing others into our experience of it, even if it costs us our lives. So the rest of my life has been spent working out all the relations and all the applications of those discoveries.