On Monday we talked about the relationship between Christian Hedonism and historic Reformed theology. Today we look at your fears and hopes for this movement, Pastor John, when you’re gone. The question comes from a friend of the ministry.
“Pastor John, it seems to me that after someone comes along with a paradigm-shifting theology or philosophy, like you have with Christian Hedonism, one of two things can happen with the next generation that takes up the cause. One, they can lose some of the balance of the original, provocatively overemphasizing certain aspects, minimizing certain qualifications or nuances, and thereby distorting it. Or, two, they can go deeper with the theology or philosophy, applying it to areas the original champion could not or did not. As you think about the future of Christian Hedonism, when you are off the scene someday, are there (a) some dangers that you would call the next generation to avoid and (b) some areas you hope they explore in greater depth or application?”
Let’s do dangers first because instead you could say that what needs to be done positively is avoid the dangers. Dangers are everywhere. That’s true with every single doctrine in the Bible. There are no truth claims that are not surrounded by potential distortions of that very truth.
There is nothing unique about Christian Hedonism here. Every single truth in the Bible is beset with imminent distortion by the deceptions of the human heart. Let me just name eight dangers.
1. Pleasure over Scripture
There is the danger that people will begin to treat pleasure as the criterion of what is good.
“Every single truth in the Bible is beset with imminent distortion by the deceptions of the human heart.”
“If it brings pleasure, it is good,” they will say. That’s wrong — wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Instead, we ought to say that the Bible defines what is good objectively. The path of that good ought to give us pleasure and lead to pleasure.
The great quest of sanctification is to experience that pleasure in the doing of good.
2. Changing Scripture
A related danger is that we would cease to pursue pleasure by seeking the transformation of our sinful preferences. Instead, we would pursue pleasure by changing the Bible to fit our preferences.
3. Refusing to Think
There is the danger of losing the proper role of reason in shaping and governing the affections by comprehending the true meaning of Scripture and applying it in a transforming way to our hearts.
It’s no accident that even though my writings are shot through with an emphasis on the place of the affections in giving glory to God, I wrote a whole book called Think.
Yes, we must think. It is a great danger, and a frightening world, when people with strong emotions cannot be reasoned with according to a rationally comprehended, authoritative text.
I’m reading right now a biography of General Grant — Ulysses S. Grant. The season of slaughter from the Ku Klux Klan in the decade after the Civil War was horrific. There was no recourse. They were irrational, like animals. Oh, the horrible, dangerous, terrifying thing it is to be faced by a mob of unreasoning people, who will not draw any just conclusions from proper premises. So think, think, think.
4. Seeking Spontaneity
There is the danger of minimizing the role of discipline and willpower in the pursuit of spontaneous joy — and treating spontaneity as the very definition of authenticity.
It isn’t. A great deal of life is lived by the fruit of the Spirit called self-control. If we put such a premium on spontaneous emotion as the only proper strategy for doing good, we will certainly go astray.
5. Taming the Supernatural
There is the danger of confusing natural emotions with supernatural affections. They overlap, and they penetrate into each other, but they’re not the same. If we don’t make the distinction properly between supernatural affections and natural emotions, we will soon reduce supernatural Christianity to naturalistic psychology.
6. Simplistic Conclusions
There is the danger of oversimplifying the complexities of the human soul, the complexities of the process of sanctification, and the complexities of human relationships in acts of love.
“It is a great danger, and a frightening world, when people with strong emotions cannot be reasoned with.”
Real life is not simple. Emotional life is anything but simple. A great danger exists when simplistic people have no experience with complexity, no sense of nuance whatsoever. They don’t even know what I’m talking about right now.
When simplistic people, with little insight into the complex nature of the human being and relationships, start making pronouncements about complex things, that is dangerous.
7. Tunnel Vision
There’s the danger of becoming a one-trick pony, where we emphasize Christian Hedonism proper to the neglect of the whole counsel of God in Scripture, or we wear such Christian Hedonism–colored glasses, that when we see texts, all we see is Christian Hedonism when it’s not even there in those texts.
8. Neglecting the Bible
Finally, you can see really that behind all these dangers is the failure to preserve a proper grasp of, and esteem for, the authority and objectivity of the Scriptures. It is a failure to preserve the way they exert their authority both through a rational comprehension of them and a spiritual transformation by them.
The Scriptures themselves will always be the watershed issue until Jesus comes — whether any particular theological viewpoint is sound or not sound, balanced or imbalanced. That will be decided on this watershed issue of the truth and understandableness of the Scriptures.
What Is Love?
With regard to areas I hope people would explore in greater depth or application, one answer would be to give a good deal of energy to those eight pitfalls. Go deep with your analysis of Scripture in the human soul so that you give expression to Christian Hedonism in ways that would minimize those dangers and maximize fruitfulness.
I think one way to describe what needs to be done is to bring Christian Hedonism into direct exegetical and theological contact with certain significant themes and realities in Scripture, and to probe those interrelationships.
I have in mind, for example, saving faith. I’d love to do that myself, if the Lord gives me more time. How is saving faith related to God-glorifying joy in Christ?
I think a good deal more needs to be done on the nature of love — namely, love towards people. Paul says, “Love seeks not its own” (see 1 Corinthians 13:5). Really? But he also says it is more satisfying to give than to receive. So should you seek that?
He says, “Love rejoices in the truth” (see 1 Corinthians 13:6). So if you’re not rejoicing in the truth, are you loving? So joy is essential to love? Or is it?
He says, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3). So seeking profit is okay — because he just argued that you don’t get any if you don’t love?
There’s just so much to be done here with texts on the nature of love and how it works with the pursuit of Christ-exalting joy.
What Is Self-Denial?
I think there needs to be very serious consideration about the relationship between joy and self-denial in Christian Hedonism. Jesus clearly says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross if we’re going to be his disciples (Matthew 16:24).
Paul certainly embraced a life of suffering, more than any of us has. He embraced, even pursued, a life of suffering. Yet he said that he rejoiced in his sufferings (2 Corinthians 6:10). So were his sufferings self-denial? How were they self-denial if they were the place where he found joy?
What Is Corporate Worship?
I think the state of corporate worship in America on Sunday morning cries out for a great deal of theological and biblical reflection about the relationship between joy and reverence.
“Behind all these dangers is the failure to preserve a proper grasp of, and esteem for, the authority and objectivity of the Scriptures.”
The kinds of liturgical activity, or shall we say the structure of the service, will build a kind of mindset in the people over the decades. It will fit them to relate to God as he really is and also be humble and courageous, standing for truth.
In other words, I sense that there are ways of doing corporate worship that Christian Hedonism speaks into that, over the decades, without that speaking of Christian Hedonism, will produce a kind of saint that isn’t ready for what we’re going to face.
I think the need is great for there to be people with profound insight into the human psyche and profound insight into biblical truth — people who can probe the relationship between Christian Hedonism and various forms of mental illness, from the least serious to the most serious.
That’s probably enough for now. Let me just reiterate that both with regard to dangers and potentials to be explored that I think the heart of the matter is always going to be biblical authority and biblical meaning rightly apprehended and rightly applied. The Bible will be the watershed for preventing dangers, and for wonderful floods of new insight.