Biblical and Theological Foundations for Christian Hedonism: Seven Theses

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

It’s good to be back with you all again this morning. Last night, if you were here, you will recall that I greeted my wife via the livestream. As I said, we found out about that feature just before we came on, so I was able to call her and tell her, and she was able to watch.

I don’t know about you, but my wife is undoubtedly my greatest advocate when it comes to my ministry, but she’s also my most constructive critic. So I got back last night, and I called her. I said, “Well, were you able to get on the internet and watch?” And she said, “Oh yeah, yeah, it was great. It was wonderful.” After 38 years and her having heard about 2,000 of my sermons, you can tell if there’s kind of a little tag on the end of a comment that something else is coming. And I said, “Okay, what was it?” She said, “Well, it was really good, but for heaven’s sake, honey, you’re talking about joy. Smile on occasion.” So she’s watching right now.

I want to get one real good smile out of the way so she hopefully won’t say anything more about that then. God bless her. It’s really frightening to think that there’s a person who’s actually heard 1,500 to 2,000 of your sermons over 36 years of ministry. And she’s still alive. She’s making it.

Focusing on Joy

As I began to reflect a little bit about the relationship of these three messages that John has asked me to bring, it dawned on me that perhaps I should have addressed this theme last night as a foundation and a framework for the second message, which in fact now has been the first. But I thought it might have been a little bit too heavy. The comment I got from some of my interns who came with me was that, when I asked for a response, they said, “That was thick.” I said, “Okay, I understand.” They didn’t say it was deep, it was just thick.

But really the theologically thick part of our task this week is before us this morning because as I mentioned last night, I was taking a great deal for granted in simply diving into Paul’s statement about his motivation for ministry in 2 Corinthians 1:24. Why focus on joy? Why highlight that particular motivation above all others? And I believe, as I said last night, that there is a very rich theological foundation and framework in the Scriptures that justifies what Paul is saying. And it is that framework and that theological justification that I want to address this morning.

I want to talk about the nature of Christian Hedonism. Again, I realize that perhaps most of you here have become somewhat familiar with that language and the concept behind it. You’ve read books, you’ve studied the texts. Others of you are new to this, and it still sounds somewhat strange in your hearing.

So what I want to do this morning is to try to present to you the fundamentals, theologically and biblically speaking, of what it means. And then tonight, we’ll turn to the more practical, hortatory aspects of it. How does Christian Hedonism actually function to empower us in our battle with the world, the flesh, and the devil? And we’ll ask, what is it that you can take home with you in terms of how it will affect, I hope and pray, your approach to life and ministry in your local churches? So that having been said, let’s turn our attention now to the Lord and ask for his blessing in prayer.

Awakened to Joy

Like most of you, I have never struggled, during the course of my Christian life, with the idea of loving God. I have known what it means. There never seemed to be any conflict in the concept of serving God, fearing God, honoring God, or obeying God. These things have always made perfectly good sense to me. But I will never forget, in the mid 1980s, when a good friend of mine in the course of conversation, and I think for the very first time in my hearing, actually used the verb enjoy with the noun God. And I was startled. I was embarrassed that I had been a Christian for so many years and had been in ministry as well at that time for well over a decade, and I had never grappled with the concept of enjoying God.

It seemed to me to be somewhat inconsistent with what I read in Scripture, somewhat out of sync with the repeated call that I glorify God and that I deny myself. So I thought, how can I possibly wed what appears to be two mutually exclusive ideas? How can I be committed, above all else in life, whether I’m eating or drinking or speaking or sleeping, to glorifying the Lord at the same time that I am conscious of my own desire for gladness? It just didn’t seem to work. And then I began to reflect more on the passage of Scripture that has been the most dominant influence in my life as a Christian, which is Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life;
     in your presence there is fullness of joy;
   ​​  at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

As I began to unpack that passage and I began to reflect on it, I realized that it was far more than simply a declaration of truth. It reads that way in the text itself, and of course, it is a declaration of truth. But it’s far more. It’s actually an incentive to pursue God. It’s a reason for seeking the Lord’s presence. It’s a warrant. It’s justification for resisting sin because it is at his right hand that these pleasures that never end are found. It is only in his presence that my desire for fullness of joy can ultimately be satisfied. So it was an eye-opening, life-changing, world-shattering discovery when I realized that what I had thought was in contradiction, in fact was a marriage made in heaven.

Affections Essential in Glorifying God

I was then delighted to find, on a number of occasions, in the writings of my favorite dead person, Jonathan Edwards, statements that reinforce this truth in the Scriptures. You may be familiar with these. If you’re not, I hope you will soon become quite familiar with them. Edwards asked:

What is glorifying God but rejoicing in the glory that he has displayed? Merely understanding the perfections of God cannot be the end of creation.

Now, Edwards by that is not suggesting that understanding isn’t important — far from it. It is absolutely crucial, indispensable. But Edwards said, “Merely understanding truths about God cannot be the end, the goal for which God created the world. For he had as good not understand it as see it and not be moved at all with joy at the sight.”

In other words, Edwards is saying, “You’re better off not understanding anything about God at all than understanding it and not being moved in your affections at what you see and grasp.” He also says, “Neither can the highest end of creation be declaring God’s glory to others.” It doesn’t do any good for you to know it, and then for you to go to somebody else and say, “Would you look at this? Let me explain this to you.” It has to be more than that. Edwards continues:

For the declaring of God’s glory is good for nothing other than to raise joy in ourselves and in others at what is declared.

In another place, he says much the same thing:

God is glorified not only by his glory being seen but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.

Now, stop right there and ask the question, why. It must be because there’s something unique about joy, something special about this particular affection of the human soul, maybe far above any other, that accounts for this truth. And in fact, in about 15 minutes, I’m going to try and explain what that is. He continues:

God made the world that he might communicate and the creature receive his glory, both with the mind and the heart. Whoever testifies that he has an idea of God’s glory doesn’t glorify God nearly so much as he that testifies also his approbation of it and his delight in it.

It was because of texts such as Psalm 16:11 and countless others, and the help of Augustine, Edwards, CS Lewis, John Piper, J.I. Packer, and even John Wesley, that Christian Hedonism was birthed in my heart in a way that I never anticipated, the results of which are still ongoing in the transformation that has occurred in my life.

Seven Theses About Christian Hedonism

What I want to do now is that I want to try to present to you this concept of Christian Hedonism in seven basic theses, or propositions, most of which you have probably heard before. But allow me, if I may, to articulate them again for you today.

1. Everyone Wants to Be Happy

Number one: at the heart of Christian Hedonism is the belief that in the heart of every human being, there is a passion for pleasure, a hunger for happiness, a chronic unyielding, irresistible ache in the human soul for joy and fascination. And it is there by God’s design, contrary to what many Christians believe. It’s not the result of our fall. It’s not Adam’s blame. Satan didn’t do it. This yearning for satisfaction, this thing you wake up with every morning in which you find that your greatest enemy in life is really boredom, is because of something that God did. It is what it means to be created in his image, among other things. He has indelibly imprinted this on the human soul. All human beings desire happiness. It’s as much a law of human nature as gravity is a law of physics.

Like you, I still recall the first time I read Desiring God, and I came across that very famous quotation from Blaise Pascal that John cites repeatedly. I remember the first time I read it, I said, “That is the dumbest thing I think I’ve ever heard.” He wrote:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, others of avoiding it. It is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will in a human heart never takes the least step but to this object, namely, the pursuit of happiness.

And then he said this:

This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

I remember underlining that and I said, “Are you kidding me? Are you saying that people kill themselves because they’re happy?” And then I reread it and I said, “No, that’s not what he’s saying. He’s saying that people kill themselves because they want to be happy.” Or maybe the better way of saying it is they take their lives because they are convinced that the happiness that they so desperately want will never be achieved, or they are taking their lives because they mistakenly believe that death will deliver them from the miseries that they simply can no longer endure. But Pascal was right.

Searching Over Land and Sea

This concept of Christian Hedonism, as I’ve already mentioned, has a very rich heritage in the church. Don’t ever think that it’s something that Edwards and Lewis created. It’s all through the writings of Augustine. Many places have been found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. Calvin speaks of it often and Wesley also, and certainly a great many in our own day. Edwards, I think perhaps more than any other, articulated this truth. I mentioned yesterday the sermon he preached called Nothing Upon Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heaven, where Edwards makes this breathtaking assertion that God created man for nothing else but happiness. He created him only that he might communicate happiness to him. Edwards said:

The soul of every man necessarily craves happiness. This is a universal appetite of the human soul that is present in both the good and the bad.

Edwards, in using these words — necessarily and universal and only — drives this truth home in a way that nobody else has that I have read. He said:

It is not only natural to all mankind, but to the angels. It is universal among all reasonable, intelligent beings, in heaven, earth, and in hell because it flows necessarily from an intelligent nature. There is no rational being without a love and desire for happiness. It is insuperable. It never can be changed, never can be overcome; young and old love happiness alike, as well as the good and bad, the wise and the unwise.

Now, of course, they have different ideas about what constitutes happiness and joy, as we all know. They’ll pursue it according to their particular appetites. But his point is that once you come to grips with this impulse in your heart, don’t go to therapy. You don’t go to an exorcist. Don’t demonize your desires. God has indelibly imprinted this in your soul.

I mentioned yesterday the first public sermon that Edwards preached, entitled Christian Happiness. In that message, he said, and I quote:

They certainly are the wisest men that do those things that make the most for their happiness. And this, in effect, is acknowledged by all men in the world, for there is no man up upon the earth who isn’t earnestly seeking after happiness, and it appears abundantly by the variety of ways they so vigorously seek it. They will twist and turn every way and ply all instruments to make themselves happy men. Some will wander over all the face of the earth to find it. They will seek it in dry land and upon the waters, under the waters, in the bowels of the earth.

And although the true way to happiness lies right before them, and they might easily step into it and walk in it and be brought into as great a happiness as they desire and greater than they can conceive of, yet they will not enter into it. They try all the false paths. They will spend and be spent, labor all their lives, endanger their lives, pass over mountains and valleys, and go through fire and water seeking happiness amongst vanities and are always disappointed, never finding what they seek for. And yet like fools and mad men, they violently rush forward still in the same waves. But the righteous are not so. These only have the wisdom to find the right paths to happiness.

I think sometimes that it’s this truth that Edwards just articulated that causes so many Christians to be reluctant and to hesitate when it comes to embracing this impulse they feel in their hearts, because they don’t want to be classed among the unrighteous who waste and squander their lives in the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures that never ultimately satisfy. So they somehow demonize their own desires and conclude that this must be the result of the fall. They suppress and stifle the expression of this yearning for fascination and excitement, and this hatred of boredom.

Choosing the Right Paths for Passion

But as Edward said, “The righteous ought to differ from the lost in choosing the right paths to happiness.” In other words, the problem isn’t in the passion; it’s in the paths through which we seek to satisfy it.

Now, others still struggle with this first concept, because for them, it seems so experientially misguided. They say, “You tell me that I have this hunger, this yearning for joy and I’ll always make decisions based on what I believe will maximize it in my life, but how is it then that I am constantly making hard decisions? I make choices every day that bring immediate pain and displeasure and discomfort. So how can you possibly affirm that in every act of will we are pursuing happiness?” Well, the reason is because you will always choose what you think will ultimately maximize personal happiness and minimize personal misery.

If you make a decision that is immediately unsettling and calls for great sacrifice, I assure you it is because you believe that such a choice, in the long term, will generate more pleasure than not. In other words, you will gladly forego a present pleasure if you believe the long-term benefits outweigh whatever short-term discomforts you might have to experience. Satan isn’t responsible for this; God is. That’s why the alternative to resisting the passing pleasures of sin isn’t religious misery. It’s seeking the fulfillment of those passions in the pleasures at God’s right hand and in the fullness of joy that he provides.

2. There Are No Laws Against Pursuing Happiness in God

The second thesis comes in answer to a question: what are the rules that govern our pursuit of happiness in God? None. There are none. There are no rules that govern your pursuit of pleasure in God. God places no restraints on that impulse in your heart or its expression, and no restraints on the depths of delight in himself that he commands us to pursue.

There is a sermon by Jonathan Edwards from Song of Solomon that had not been published up until only recently. I got a copy of it a number of years ago from my friend Don Westblade, and I love it. It’s just very unique. And in this sermon, Edward says, in the way that only he can, “When it comes to satisfying our spiritual appetites, there is no such thing as excess.”

There are no speed limits in the Scriptures about how fast you can go in your pursuit of joy in God. There is not a single stop sign. There is not a single warning that says, “Proceed with caution” — none. There are no trespassing signs in Scripture when it comes to the territory open for your exploration in coming to enjoy God as much as is possible. There are no rules, no regulations, and no requirements for moderation or balance, none. There are no fences, no walls, no barriers, no boundaries that you need to fear crossing. When it comes to the pursuit of your joy in Jesus, you will never read in Scripture words like, “Beware, trespassers will be shot,” or, “Stop, authorized personnel only,” or, “Warning: proceed at your own risk,” or, “Do not enter.” Nowhere, there is nothing of the sort in the word of God. Dou know what the Bible does? It says:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
     and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).

Do I have to remind us this morning that’s a command? It says, “Delight yourselves in the Lord . . .” It’s not an option. If you do not obey that command, you are in sin. So don’t go to counseling and say, “I’ve really got a hard issue in front of me. I have to decide whether I want to delight myself in the Lord.” Save your money. We’re not going to break down into small groups at this conference so you can pray for one another about whether or not you should delight yourself and the Lord. God doesn’t give us the choice. It’s a command. It’s a duty. It’s a moral obligation binding on all. You can’t say, “Lord, I really appreciate the offer, but that’s just not where I am right now. It’s just not my personality. I took the Myers Brigg, and I’m just not quite on the same page with that approach to life.”

The Duty of Delight

John wrote a great little book called The Dangerous Duty of Delight. I would love to expand the title to The Dangerous Duty of Limitless, Boundless, Endless, No-Holds-Barred, Grab-For-All-the-Gusto-in-God-You-Can Delight.

Now, that’s not to say that the Bible doesn’t speak with prohibitions and commandments and regulations when it comes to the satisfaction of carnal, fleshly, sensual appetites. Of course, the Bible has many words to us, sometimes very harsh and painful, about how we are to curb the satisfaction and the indulgence of our fleshly natures, but not our spiritual appetites. I love the way Edwards said it:

Christianity forbids us no pleasures, except those that lead to our temporal misery or eternal woe.

You can desire the wrong kind of pleasure, but the intensity, the sharpness, the gravity, the power of your soul’s search for joy in God cannot be too great, cannot be too deep or too intense.

Let me try to make the point another way. Many people today struggle with gluttony and obesity. It’s a massive national problem. I have friends and I’ve known people who have undergone gastric bypass surgery, or what’s called LAP-Band surgery. Others take diet pills or certain kinds of medication that are designed to somehow trick the brain into thinking that you’re really full when in fact you’re hungry. All are designed to reduce the appetite, to curb eating, but you won’t find any spiritual or biblical principle that is analogous to that in the physical world. God wants you to be gorged with the beauty of his Son. God wants you to be theologically fat, spiritually obese, religiously rotund. When it comes to the spiritual delicacies and the multiple entrees that he presents in this feast, eat endlessly, shamelessly, and unapologetically. Satisfy your voracious appetite for God. Psalm 36:8 says:

They feast on the abundance of your house,
     and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

If Satan can’t make you feel guilty for overeating on God, then he will do everything he can to turn you into a spiritual anorexic. And if that doesn’t work, he will deaden and anesthetize your soul and your senses with endless trivialities and try to convince you that they are treasures.

Contrary to popular opinion, this isn’t sin. I remember when I first encountered this, I thought it sounded like sin, at least that’s what I had been taught in church for so many years. Spiritual hunger is not sin. Sin is declining God’s offer of a filet mignon so you can fill your bellies with rancid ground beef. That’s sin. I had a gentleman come up to me one time and he said, “Sam, it sounds like you are falling into the trap that Paul warned about in 2 Timothy 3:1–5, when he was describing what’s going to happen in the end times, where he said that people will become ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’.” I said, “Well, no, I’m not pursuing pleasure instead of God, I’m pursuing pleasure in God.” Paul rightly denounces lovers of pleasure without God, but he commends us to be lovers of pleasure in God.

3. Self-Denial Is a Hedonistic Choice

The third thesis is that even self denial is a hedonistic choice. Another one of the passages that I struggled with when I first encountered this idea in the word of God, as I’m sure many of you have, is Mark 8:34–37. It says:

And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

I remember stopping there when I reflected and I said, “That doesn’t sound very hedonistic to me, denying myself and taking up my cross to follow Jesus.” But then Jesus said:

For whoever would save his life will lose it . . . (Mark 8:35).

Then I thought, “Oh, so you’re appealing to my desire to save my life. You’re saying that self-interest is all right, not selfishness, but concern with the welfare of my soul in my life is all right.” Evidently so. He continues:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).

And I said, so, it’s okay, Jesus, for me to want to save my soul, my life? He says, “Well, yes, because what is it profit a man . . .” (Mark 8:36). Oh, okay. So it’s all right for me to think about profit and gain? And he says, “Yes, for what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:37).

Appealing to Desire

CS Lewis has a very famous statement about this. He says:

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 to 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.

You see, Jesus is actually grounding his statement on the inescapable concern you have for the welfare of your own soul. The only way you can respond appropriately to his call for self-denial is if you are wholeheartedly committed to the happiness and eternal welfare of yourself. If you lack concern for the eternal welfare of yourself, you would lose all incentive to obey his command. Jesus says, “Come and deny yourselves. Take up your cross. Because if you don’t, you’re going to die, not just physically but eternally.” So he’s aware that we desire what is best for ourselves. He understands the first principle of Christian Hedonism. Obviously, he did.

So he tells us, in fact he intentionally targets in his language, the universal desire he gave us based upon its undeniable presence in our souls. It sounds paradoxical. “The best thing you can do for yourself is to deny yourself.” I don’t get it. Well, eternal life is the best, the most advantageous thing you can obtain for yourself, but it may cost you your temporal life and the passing pleasures of sinful self-indulgence.

So I saw in this that Jesus is really just asking us to sacrifice the lesser blessings of temporal and earthly comfort in order to gain the eternal and greater blessings of unending pleasure with God. “Do what is best for yourself,” said Jesus, “and deny yourself.” To refuse to follow Jesus is to deny yourself the greatest imaginable joy. If I can say this reverently, Jesus was not a Buddhist. It’s Buddhism, not Christianity, that demonizes desires, that tries to rid them from the human heart, that tells us to ignore our needs, to repress our longings. Jesus says, “No, fulfill them in me, by following me.”

4. Pleasure Is the Measure of Our Treasure

That brings me to the fourth of our seven theses. These three lead up to what you already know. You don’t even have to write this down. I’m plagiarizing unashamedly, unapologetically, that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. That’s the fourth thesis. Or as it has also been said, pleasure is the measure of our treasure. The best gauge, the best standard by which you ascertain the value of something in your life, is the degree to which it evokes deep delight, zeal, yearning, and joy.

I was born a baseball fanatic. Well, not really, but it wasn’t long in my life before I became captivated by the game, and I still am. And from my earliest days as a little boy I collected baseball cards. Thank you, mom, that you didn’t throw them out or sell them in the garage sale. I still have most of them. It’s kind of silly I suppose, but there are actually people out there willing to pay me a pretty good price for a few of them.

But growing up, I was obsessed with my childhood hero, Mickey Mantle. Being from Oklahoma, you would expect that. I traded, I bartered, I dickered, I finagled, I spent every dime I had to get as many Mickey Mantle baseball cards as I could. If you could have seen me in possession of those little pieces of cardboard, you would’ve known instantly how valuable they were to me because of the incredible childish delight that I had in them. Now, granted, they shouldn’t have. It’s just a little piece of cardboard. Intrinsically, it’s not worth squat. But I was a kid, and this is just an illustration, so give me a break. There was a shine and a glow in my smile when I’d open up a pack of cards, throw away the gum and all the other stuff, and lay hold of another Mickey Mantle. I was proud of my collection.

I bragged to the other kids about how many of those cards I had. I prized them, I treasured them, I protected them. They lacked all intrinsic value, nevertheless the joy they brought to me was immeasurable as a young boy. Think of the intrinsic, eternal value of God. The measure of the treasure that is God is in the pleasure that elicits within the human heart. That is why it is so rightly said and repeated that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied and delighted in him, and when you relish and rejoice in him above all else.

5. Joy Is Unlike Any Other Human Affection

Here’s the fifth thesis of Christian Hedonism. I’ve come to the point I mentioned earlier about joy. Christian Hedonism says that there is something truly unique about joy, and that our commitment to the pursuit of it should be undertaken with earnest, heartfelt, relentless, unyielding intensity. Now, let’s just stop for a moment and ask the question, why? What is it about joy? Why devote a conference like this to it? Why devote a life to the pursuit of joy in God? Why not just talk about obedience, or fear, or service, or honoring, or all the many other responses, all of which are biblical? Why joy? I’ve thought a lot about joy lately in response to this question. Let me just share a couple of reasons why I think it’s so unique.

Joy Requires the Engagement of the Whole Soul

Number one: unlike any other experience or expression of the human heart, joy requires the engagement of the whole soul. There are things that I understand with my mind that I do not enjoy. There are decisions I make with my will that I don’t find any immediate delight in. For example, if you were to invite me to your house for dinner and you unknowingly and unwittingly served squash, I would make a choice to eat it as a good guest, and I would despise every bite. And no, ladies present, you can’t cook it in a way that I would find appealing. Trust me, many have tried, and they have failed repeatedly.

But when I genuinely enjoy something, my mind is engaged. I understand it. Without understanding it’s not true, biblical joy. My will is energized in the pursuit of it. In other words, joy is more holistic than any other human experience. It requires the conscious engagement of my whole being.

Joy Cannot Be Hypocritical

Here’s a second thing about joy. As far as I can tell, there’s no such thing as hypocritical or insincere joy. I don’t think it’s possible. You can pretend to have joy when you really don’t, as I will pretend to have joy when I eat the squash that you serve. You can fake having joy, but you can’t have fake joy. In other words, there’s something pure and pristine and sincere and authentic and genuine about joy that isn’t the case with any other human affection.

Joy Has Power

A third thing about joy — and I’ve only been thinking about this recently, and hearing Eric this morning just reinforced it in my mind all the more — is that there’s something unique about joy because it contains a power that isn’t true of the other affections of the human heart.

In other words, there is, I think, in the experience of joy, a strength, an energy that you don’t find elsewhere. Just consider, for example, the multitude of occasions in which the New Testament and the Old Testament combine a description of suffering or persecution and joy. You know of them. They’re everywhere. And I’m sure there are numerous reasons why we are exhorted to rejoice in the midst of tribulation. Certainly one is because we know that that tribulation is refining us and purifying our faith. I’ll have more to say about that tonight. But I think it’s also because joy in God empowers the human heart to persevere and endure when suffering comes. Joy is the sustaining strength to see us through.

That’s why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said, “Blessed are you when you are reviled and slandered and persecuted” (Matthew 5:11–12). In fact, in Luke’s Gospel he says, “Rejoice and leap for joy” (Luke 6:23). Why? Because your reward in heaven is great. It’s a great reason for being joyful. But is it not also possible that he encourages joy because he knows that that’s the only thing that will ultimately sustain us through the fires of persecution? James 1:2 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” Why? Because joy is going to preserve you in the midst of it and guard your heart from bitterness. In Romans 5:3, we rejoice in suffering. Or in 1 Peter 1:6–8, we rejoice in this although for now, for a little while, we endure various trials. Or in Acts 5:41, they went out from the Jewish leaders, “rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer for the name of Christ.”

Paul, in 2 Corinthians 6, says that he is “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Hebrews 10:34 says, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property.” And Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross.” Maybe the most explicit of all is Habakkuk 3:17–18, which says:

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
     nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
     and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
     and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
     I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
God, the Lord, is my strength;
     he makes my feet like the deer’s;
     he makes me tread on my high places.

Why rejoice when all of this physical prosperity disintegrates and the crops don’t come in? Yes, it’s because God is better and more beautiful than the fig tree and flocks and herds, but also because it is joy in God that empowers you to endure the loss of those things. Isn’t this what Paul is saying in Philippians 3:8, when he says, “I consider all of the suffering, all of the loss, as dung compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ.” It’s the overwhelming gain, the unparalleled worth, the supreme advantage, the ultimate value, the superior greatness, the incomparable excellence of Christ. Do you hear joy in that language of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord? There is a unique power in joy.

Joy Reveals What We Treasure

And then fourthly, joy, more clearly and thoroughly than any other human response, reveals the worth and the value of whatever has captivated your heart. That’s what Edwards was saying in those quotes. John said it in one of his books that joy is the deepest reverberation in the heart of man of the value of God’s glory. Of course, God is honored when you obey. Of course, he is proclaimed as glorious when you fear him, but there’s something about joy that magnifies who God really is, though it doesn’t make him greater than he is.

Don’t ever think that any human expression, any words, any worship, inflates God as if he were this kind of empty balloon and by our breath of praise, we expand him, enlarge him, and make him more glorious than he really is. No, we simply draw attention to and point in the direction of what he really is in himself. And joy does that more than any other human affection.

6. Our Delight in God is Rooted in God’s Delight in Himself

The sixth thesis is that the foundation of our delight in God is God’s delight in himself. Now, I don’t need to spend much time on this. I think you’ve probably read about it and heard about it, but it is important to remember that the foundation of your delight in God, as you’ll see in just a moment, is God’s delight in himself. The only being in this universe more committed to enjoying God than you is God. God is more committed to enjoying himself than you and I ever will be, but he’s invited us to participate in that.

He loves many things, but nothing more than praising and glorifying his own name. He desires many things, but nothing more than the fame of his own name. There are, I don’t know, hundreds of texts in which this is affirmed. I encourage you sometime, sit down and read through the book of Ezekiel, just in one sitting. I know it’s long. When I read it, I think I counted 65 instances, just in the book of Ezekiel, where God says that what he’s doing is “so that you will know that I am God,” or, “so you’ll know that I am he,” or, “so that you will glorify me.” Everything he does, he does to draw attention to the fame of his name.

7. God’s Passion for His Glory Is His Greatest Expression of Love

But that leads to the seventh and final of our propositions, our theses, because it raises a question that eats away at many individuals — namely, if God is so completely in love with himself and so resolutely determined to pursue the fame of his name, how can he care about me at all? That leads to the seventh thesis, and it is this: God’s passion for his glory is the consummate expression of love for you.

I still remember, it was in the mid 1990s, and I was teaching a class in Kansas City. I was articulating this truth, and this precious young lady — who by the way has now turned completely in her perspective and we have a great relationship today and communicate by email regularly — became enraged. I don’t mean that she was irritated. I mean that she was enraged at me because it sounded to her as if I had just stolen from her the most important thing in her life, that God was utterly and absolutely consumed with her above all else. And when I said that God is utterly and absolutely consumed with himself, if it had been even remotely permissible, she would’ve thrown everything she had in her hand at me.

She got up and stormed out of the class. It took a long time for me to bring her back, because it sounded as if I had just undermined the very essence of her Christian life when I said that God was relentlessly, and above all else, the center of his own affections. And she said, “Well, I thought I was the center of his affections. I thought I was the apple of his eye.” And she wouldn’t listen to any explanation, but here it is.

I remember what I eventually put in her hands that turned the corner. I hope it will for you as well. I want to close with this in our session this morning, and I’ve asked those handling the projection to put these quotations on the screen for you, simply because I want you to walk through them with me line up online as we bring this session to an end. I can still remember when I read this remarkable chapter in CS Lewis’s “The Problem of Praise in the Psalms”.

In fact, I wrote to John several weeks ago, and I said, “John, I really want to use this in this message, but I suspect that you’re probably going to.” And he said, “First come, first serve.” So I looked on the schedule and I saw that this message was before his, so I get it and he doesn’t. If you have never read Lewis’s article, “The Problem of Praise in the Psalms”, it’s found in this little book, Reflections on the Psalms. Please buy it, read it, copy it, and distribute it as much as you can. Lewis, when he was first converted, really struggled with the sixth thesis, this idea about God’s relentless passion for his own glory, and especially when he read the Psalms. He said it really got under his skin. He was agitated, puzzled by this recurring demand that we praise God.

And he said what made it even worse is that God was demanding that we praise God. It was almost more than he could stomach. Here’s what he said;

We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness. We despise still more the crowd of people around every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity who gratifies that demand. And thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and his worshipers, threatened to appear in my mind.

The Psalms were especially troublesome in this way. “Praise the Lord.” “Oh, praise the Lord with me.” “Praise him.” Worse still was the statement put into God’s own mouth: “Whosoever offereth me thanks and praise, he honoreth me.” It was hideously like saying, “What I most want is to be told that I’m 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 can understand that, but not this perpetual eulogy.

God’s Preeminent Concern with Himself

Now, I suspect that when that first strikes you, it seems problematic as well. And the reason is that we don’t want to think that God is preeminently concerned with himself. We want to think he’s preeminently concerned with us. No one wants to think of God the way we do of that self-absorbed, overpaid, excessively-hyped, emotionally-stunted athlete who’s always posturing for the camera after every touchdown or every goal. We don’t like to think of God the way we do that self-inflating, surgically-enhanced actress on the red carpet at the Academy Awards who just comes out to posture and to pose so that the attention will focus on her. Because we know that that athlete couldn’t care less for anybody other than himself, and neither could the actress. And we don’t like to think that maybe it’s that way with God, because it sounds like it when we put forth this sixth thesis, that God is committed above all else to the fame of his own name.

So if God is even more self-absorbed than that athlete or that actress, where does that leave us? Lewis continued. Here’s the second quote:

The problem was that I did not see that it is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates his presence to men. It’s 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 had never met or heard him is implicitly answered by the words: “If I be hungry, I will not tell thee” (Psalm 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. The Lord has sanctified sarcasm. He comes to us in Psalm 50 and says, “If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you. I’d pluck a cow off of many thousands of hills and cook up a big steak.” He’s not hungry, but his point is this: “You think I’m dependent on you to satisfy my needs?” In other words, Lewis here is basically addressing the question, why do we worship a God who has no needs?

Praising What We Enjoy

Why does he command our worship and praise of him? Lewis continues. Here’s why. He said:

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 honor. I had never noticed (memorize this statement) 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 (like Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa), readers, their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game, praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical percentages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars (even sometimes baseball cards). 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 that glorious?” “Don’t you think that’s 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 to the supremely valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing about everything else that we value.

So again, if God really loves us, what Lewis is saying is that he must work to elicit from our heart rapturous praise and superlative delight, because as Lewis said, all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. If you are enjoying something, if you’re deeply satisfied and enriched by it, not to express it is painful. It hurts. It’s frustrating. In fact, the enjoyment is stunted. It’s hindered if it’s never expressed in joyful celebration. Here’s how Lewis explained it:

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’s not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are. The delight is incomplete until it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author, not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; or to come suddenly at the turn of the road upon some mountain valley of unexpected grander, 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; or to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. If it were possible for a created soul to fully appreciate — that is, to love and delight in the worthiest object of all, and simultaneously, at every moment, to give this delight perfect expression — 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, and 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.

A Match Made in Heaven

It’s a marriage made in heaven. Lewis continues:

Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify him, God is inviting us to enjoy him.

That’s why God’s pursuit of your praise of him is not weak and self-seeking, as it is with that athlete or that actress or any other average individual. It’s the epitome of self-giving love. If my satisfaction in God is incomplete until expressed in praise of him for satisfying me with himself, then God’s effort to elicit my worship — what Lewis before thought was so hideous — is both the most loving thing he can do for me and the most glorifying thing he could possibly do for himself.

You see, if God is to love you optimally maximally, to the highest expression possible, he has to impart the very best gift he can. And of course, that gift is not Mickey Mantle baseball cards. It’s not even a loving spouse. It’s not even salvation. It’s himself. Nothing in the universe is as beautiful and captivating and satisfying as God. So if God really loves you, as I told this young lady, the way you believe that he does and that you want him to, he has to give himself to you. And then he has to work by his Spirit and his grace to awaken you to his beauty, to his all sufficiency.

In other words, he’s going to strive, by all manner and means, to intensify your joy and expand your delight and enlarge your satisfaction in him. So I told her, as I tell you today, God comes to you and he says, “Here I am. Here I am in all my glory and all my majesty and all my splendor and beauty. Look at me in my Son, for whoever has seen the Son has seen the Father. Look at me in Jesus. Look at me in the Scriptures. Look at me in creation. Behold the stars above. See me, savor me, enjoy me, celebrate who I am, experience the height and depth and the width and the breadth of all that I am as eternal glory and beauty.” Does that sound like God pursuing his own glory? Yeah, it really does. You bet it does, but it also sounds like God loving you infinitely, passionately, sincerely, and eternally.

The only way that is not real love is if there is something better than God that he can offer you. The only way that’s not real love is if there’s something more beautiful than God with which he can captivate your heart. The only way that’s not real love is that there’s something more pleasing and satisfying with which you can feel your soul forever. The only way it’s not real love is if there’s something more glorious and majestic than God with which he can captivate and fascinate and enthrall you forever. But there’s no such thing anywhere, ever. That’s why our greatest good is in the enjoyment of God’s greatest glory being enjoyed.

For God to seek his glory in your worship of him is the most loving thing that he could possibly do for you. Only by seeking his glory preeminently can God seek your good passionately. For God to work for your enjoyment of him (that’s his love for you) and for his glory in being enjoyed (that’s his love for himself) are not two distinct things. It’s a marriage made in heaven.

And it’s why I believe that this perspective on existence, on Christianity, and on who we are as individuals, pastors, and leaders, is so essential, without which we’re just going to spin our wheels. We’re just going to get a rut, drive people into despair, legalism, fear, intimidation, or oppression. The only thing that will liberate the heart to do what God has called us to do is the awareness that his love for us is consummated in the love that he has for himself. In seeking his glory in your enjoyment of him, he is loving you consummately, perfectly, incomparably.

I commend to you Christian Hedonism. Whatever else you may want to call it, however you want to label it, I commend to you the fact that God has made known the pathway of life, and in his presence is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11). And it’s okay that you want that — not just okay, it’s inescapable. At his right hand are the pleasures that never, ever end or lose their capacity to enthrall and satisfy the human heart.