Biblical and Theological Foundations for Christian Hedonism: Seven Theses

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

The following is notes from the session, not the manuscript.

Why focus on joy? Why highlight that motivation above all others in 2 Corinthians 1? I believe there is a strong biblical framework that justifies the focus on Paul's joy in Christ.

Today, I want to present the fundamentals, theologically and biblically, of Christian Hedonism. How does Christian Hedonism empower us to battle with sin, the world, and the devil?

Like most of you, I've never struggled with the idea of loving, serving, honoring God in my Christian life. These things have always made sense to me. But I remember talking to a friend in the 1980s who actually used the word 'enjoy' in relation to God. It startled me. It didn't seem to fit into the picture of me glorifying God by denying myself. How can I be committed to glorifying the Lord in my life by pursuing joy?

Then I recalled Psalm 16:11: "In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore." I realized it was far more than a declaration of truth. It's actually an incentive to pursue God. It's a reason to be in his presence. It's a justification to fight sin. It's only in his presence that my joy can be complete. And through these realizations, I learned that my joy can only be found in God himself.

"What is glorifying God," asked Edwards, "but rejoicing in God?" Merely understanding truths about him cannot be the goal for which God created the world. For you can not truly understand and then not be moved in awe by God's greatness. It doesn't do any good for you to know it and then to simply explain that knowledge to others. Rather, we should seek to share the joy of that knowledge of the glory of God. Jonathan Edwards: It's more glorifying to God to delight in his glory when one sees it, more than just only seeing it.

Seven Foundations for Christian Hedonism

1) In the heart of every human being there is a passion for pleasure, a hunger for happiness, an unyielding ache for joy.

And it's there by God's design. It's not Adam's blame nor Satan's doing. You wake up to find that your greatest enemy is boredom in life. God has indelibly printed it on the human soul. It's as much a law of reality as is physics.

I remember hearing Blaise Pascal's words about all men's pursuit of happiness. "All men desire happiness, even those who hang themselves." I thought this was crazy when I first read it, but then I realized that he was right. Another way to say it: they are convinced that death will deliver them from the miseries they can no longer endure.

Jonathan Edwards said that God created man for nothing else but happiness; he created him only that he might communicate happiness to him. This is a universal appetite of the human soul. It is not only natural to mankind, but also the angels...there is no rational being without the desire for happiness; young and old, wise and unwise, rich and poor, etc. Of course, they pursue it in many various ways. They certainly are the wisest men that do those things for their own happiness. They try all the false paths, spending and being spent, laboring their whole lives seeking for happiness among their vanities, and they never obtain them. But the righteous are not so. These only will find the right paths to happiness.

Many demonize their own desires for happiness because they see so many being ruined by their wrongful pursuits of happiness. But the problem isn't in the passion for happiness, but in the paths.

How is it that I constantly make poor decisions that bring pain and suffering? A: You will always choose what will ultimately give the most happiness in the long term. You will gladly forego a present pleasure if you believe the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term ones. This desire is God's doing.

2) There are no rules to govern our pursuit of happiness in God.

There are no rules, no constraints to the depths of delight in God. When it comes to satisfying our appetites for joy, there is no excess.
There is no speed limit in this pursuit, no signs that say "Stop" or "Caution" or "No Trespassing." No rules. No regulation. No requirements for moderation or balance.

When it comes to the pursuit of your joy in Jesus, you never see in scripture words like, "Warning. Be careful. Proceed at your own risk." No, the Bible says, "Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart," Psalm 37:4. God doesn't give us the choice to delight. It's a command. It's a duty. The dangerous duty of boundless, limitless, go-for-the-gold, grab-all-the-gusto-you-can-in-the-Lord delight.

Christianity forbids us no pleasures except those that give temporal misery or eternal woe.

An example: Many Americans struggle with obesity, gluttony. There are many methods to reduce appetite, to curb eating. But you won't find any spiritual principle in the Bible like that. God wants you be spiritually fat, biblically obese, religiously rotund. Satisfy your voracious appetite for God! (Psalm 36:8)

If Satan can't make you guilty for feasting on the joy of God, he will try to make you spiritually anorexic. Spiritual hunger is not sin. Sin is denying a fillet mignon so you can fill your bellies with rancid ground beef. Be clear: we are not pursuing pleasure without God, but in him.

3) Even self-denial is a hedonistic choice.

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34). That doesn't sound very hedonistic to me. But then it says, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it." OK, so it's alright for me to want to save my life? Yes. So it's OK to want profit and gain for my soul? Yes.

If you lack concern for your eternal welfare, you will lose all perspective on the pursuit of happiness. The passing pleasures of sinful indulgence will cost you your life. Deny these, do what is best for yourself ultimately, and follow Jesus.

Jesus was not a Buddhist. It's Buddhism, not Christianity, that demonizes the desires of your heart. Jesus said, "No, fulfill them in me."

4) God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.

Pleasure is the measure of our treasure. Our treasure is marked by the degree that it evokes zeal, deep pleasure, and joy.

I was obsessed with Mickey Mantle when I was growing up. I tried to get as many of his baseball cards as I could. There was a shine and glow in my smile when I'd open up a pack and find another one. I prized them and treasured them and protected them.

Think of the intrinsic value of God! The measure of that value is in the pleasure that he elicits in the human heart.

5) Christian Hedonism says there is something truly unique about joy.

Why devote a conference, or a life, to this pursuit? Why not other biblical truths? Why joy?

  1. Joy requires the engagement of the whole soul, unlike any other expression of the human heart. There are things I understand with my mind that I don't enjoy. There are decisions I make with my will that I don't enjoy. When I genuinely enjoy something my mind is engaged and my will is active, requiring the conscious engagement of my whole being.
  2. There's no such thing as hypocritical or insincere joy. You can pretend to have joy but you can't have fake joy. There's something pure and serene about joy that you can't have about any other affection.
  3. There's a power in joy that isn't true in other affections. Consider the many occasions that the Bible combines a description of suffering with joy. We know those circumstances refine us, but joy in God also empowers us to persevere amidst pain. That's why Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are you when you are persecuted for my sake. Rejoice and leap for joy because your reward in heaven is great."
  4. Joy most clearly reveals what the human heart values. There's something about joy that magnifies God (not inflates or enlarges him) more than anything else.

6) The foundation of our delight in God is God's delight in himself.

The only being in this universe more committed to enjoying God than you is God. He desires nothing more than the fame of his own name. I encourage you sometime to sit down and read through the book of Ezekiel. I think there's 65 times that God proclaims that what he is doing is for his own glory.

7) God's passion for his glory is the consummate expression of love for you.

Considerate these words from C .S. Lewis in his essay, “The Problem of Praise in the Psalms” (found in Reflections on the Psalms):

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand. Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and His worshippers, threatened to appear in my mind. The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way – ‘Praise the Lord,' 'O praise the Lord with me,' 'Praise Him.' ... Worse still was the statement put into God's own mouth, 'whoso offereth me thanks and praise, he honoureth me' (50:23). It was hideously like saying, 'What I most want is to be told that I am good and great.' . . . It was extremely distressing. It made one think what one least wanted to think. Gratitude to God, reverence to Him, obedience to Him, I thought I could understand; not this perpetual eulogy...

We don't like the athletes who always show off or the cosmetically enhanced actress posture and pose on the red carpet, because we know they care nothing for anyone but themselves. Again, Lewis says, is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to men. It is not of course the only way. But for many people at many times the 'fair beauty of the Lord' is revealed chiefly or only while they worship Him together. Even in Judaism the essence of the sacrifice was not really that men gave bulls and goats to God, but that by their so doing God gave Himself to men; in the central act of our own worship of course this is far clearer – there it is manifestly, even physically, God who gives and we who receive. The miserable idea that God should in any sense need, or crave for, our worship like a vain woman wanting compliments, or a vain author presenting his new books to people who never met or heard him, is implicitly answered by the words, 'If I be hungry I will not tell thee' (50:12). Even if such an absurd Deity could be conceived, He would hardly come to us, the lowest of rational creatures, to gratify His appetite. I don't want my dog to bark approval of my books.”

Lewis is answering the question, "Why do we worship a God who has no needs?" Here's how he answers it:

But the most obvious fact about praise – whether of God or anything – strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise – lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game – praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever 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 on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can't help doing, about everything else we value.

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. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with ...

If it were possible for a created soul fully . . . to 'appreciate', that is to love and delight in, the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously at every moment to give this delight perfect expression, then that soul would be in supreme beatitude. . . . To see what the doctrine really means, we must suppose ourselves to be in perfect love with God – drunk with, drowned in, dissolved by, that delight which, far from remaining pent up within ourselves as incommunicable, hence hardly tolerable, bliss, flows out from us incessantly again in effortless and perfect expression, our joy is no more separable from the praise in which it liberates and utters itself than the brightness a mirror receives is separable from the brightness it sheds. The Scotch catechism says that man's chief end is 'to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.' But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.

If God is to love you optimally, maximally, for your highest good, then he has to impart the highest gift he can to you, which is himself. If God really loves you, he has to give himself to you. And then he has to work by his Spirit and grace to awaken you to him. He must work by all means to enlarge your joy and satisfaction in him. So he comes to you and says, "Here I am. Look at me! Look at me ... in Jesus! See me! Savor me! Enjoy me! Celebrate who I am ... the eternal God!"

Does that sound like God glorifying himself? Yes, you bet it does. But it's also the best way for you be enthralled and captivated and fascinated in pure joy. That's why our greatest joy is found in the enjoyment of God.

For God to work for his glory in you (which is his love for you) and for him to work for his glory in himself (which is his love for his own glory) is the same thing. If we don't capture this, we'll drive people into fear, depression, legalism, etc. The only way for God to consummate your joy is by making his glory great to you.

That is why Psalm 16 says that at his right hand are pleasures that never ever end. There are pleasures that satisfy the human heart forevermore.