I have been asked to bring us toward the close of our time together with a personal testimony of how God has worked in my life to cause me to put such a high emphasis on pursuing full and lasting joy in God. I call my theology Christian Hedonism, even though I know that the word “hedonism” usually carries connotations of worldliness, sensuality, selfishness, egotism. I know that. And yet, the basic meaning of the term “hedonism” is “a life devoted to pleasure.”
“We drive out worldly, sensual, loveless, egotistical pleasures by experiencing God in Jesus Christ as our supreme pleasure.”
And what I mean by Christian Hedonism is that we should devote ourselves with all our might to finding God as our supreme pleasure. I believe this is the most effective way to defeat the power of sinful pleasures. We drive out worldly, sensual, loveless, egotistical pleasures by experiencing God in Jesus Christ as our supreme pleasure.
I gave you seven reasons this morning why I believe this is biblical. Now I just want to tell you how God worked to bring me to these convictions. This is not authoritative, biblical exposition — this is personal testimony that I hope God might use to make Scripture more alive for you.
Hungry for Happiness
Let’s go back 73 years. I was born into a warm, gospel-loving family. When I was six years old, God made me alive in Christ, gave me the gift of faith, and saved me.
My father was an evangelist, who traveled all over the United States preaching the gospel, leading people out of darkness and destruction into light and life. He was away from home probably two-thirds of my growing up years. I never resented this. I still don’t. I loved my father. I admired him. He was, I believe, the happiest man I have ever known. This God-centered joy that overflowed in our home had a huge impact on me.
But there was another emphasis. While I was growing up, and then in letters to me in college and in seminary and in graduate school, my father and my mother constantly cited 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” So, I had the happiest parents I could hope for, and they were constantly telling me to live for the glory of God.
But, according to my memory, no one in those days taught me how my joy and God’s glory related to each other. And when I left home and went to college at 18, I felt an unresolved tension. On the one hand, 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 wasn’t sure at the time, but today I would say God put the desire for happiness in the human soul as a good thing rooted in our very human nature. So, there it was. A very powerful force in my life. The longing to be happy.
And yet there was this other force. I believed the Bible. And I believed that the Bible commanded that I live for the glory of God. And those two forces — the desire to be happy and the desire to live for the glory of God — remained in tension during my college years. How do they fit together?
Pathway to Pleasure in God
When I was 22, in the fall of 1968, during my first year in seminary, a process of discovery began that lasted for about three years. In those years, everything changed. It was like a second conversion. And all the pieces began to fall into place. And the last fifty years have been an effort to understand these things more deeply, and teach them more clearly, and live them more faithfully.
The key human influences outside the Bible, in God’s providence, were a professor named Daniel Fuller, a British Christian writer named C.S. Lewis, and an eighteenth century preacher named Jonathan Edwards. Together they opened the Scriptures and made me into a Christian Hedonist.
For example, one afternoon in the fall of 1968 in a bookstore in Pasadena, California, I picked up a copy of C.S. Lewis’s little book, The Weight of Glory. On the very first page, I read one of the most important paragraphs of my life.
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. (25)
Now, this next paragraph describes me. I had this lurking sense that it was not a good thing to have such a strong desire to be happy. That’s why things didn’t fit together. Lewis goes on,
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, I submit this notion has crept in from Kant [Immanuel Kant, the philosopher] and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. (27)
Was I hearing him correctly? Thinking of the desire to be happy as a bad thing is not part of the Christian faith! Really? He continued,
Indeed, 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. (25)
I had never heard anybody say that in my life: “Your problem, Piper, is not that your desires for happiness are too strong. Your problem is that they are too weak.” Then he puts it in a picture:
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)
My professor built an entire section of his course that semester around the sentence, “We are far too easily pleased.” And it was a diagnosis of my soul that I had never heard before.
Fusion of Glory and Joy
But what about the glory of God? What about the fact that, according to Ephesians 1:6, God created us and saved us “for the praise of his glory”? How does that fit with our longing for joy?
Again C.S. Lewis opened up a new world for me. It really bothered Lewis before he was a Christian that, in the Psalms, God himself commanded us to praise him. God sounded, he thought, like an egomaniac. Then in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, he put God’s glory (God’s praise) and my joy together in a way that solved that problem and opened up a new world to me.
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 honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. . . . 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. . . . I had not noticed 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. . . . I think we delight to praise what we enjoy, because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. (109–11, emphases added)
In other words, when God commands you to praise him, he is not an egomaniac. He is love. Because he is calling you to bring your joy to completion — to consummation. God is infinitely enjoyable. Praise is the consummation of that joy. Therefore, God’s command to praise him is a summons to our full and everlasting happiness.
I had never heard that.
Treasure on Display
But the pilgrimage to Christian Hedonism was not yet done. There were two more steps.
It’s not enough to say that praising God is the completion or consummation of enjoying God. In fact, that doesn’t go to the heart of the relationship between God’s glory and our joy. The heart of the matter is this: Enjoying God is the essence of praising God. Enjoying God from the heart is essential to glorifying God from the heart. Where God is not enjoyed as he ought to be, he is not glorified as he ought to be. That’s the essence of the relationship. And the person who showed it to me most powerfully and biblically was Jonathan Edwards, that eighteenth century preacher:
God glorifies himself toward the creatures . . . [in] two ways: (1) by being manifested to their understandings; (2) in communicating himself to their hearts. . . . God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. (The “Miscellanies”)
I had never heard that before: God is glorified by being enjoyed. God is shown to be a great Treasure, because he is our supreme pleasure. And what I’ve been doing for the last fifty years is working out the implications of this sentence: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
Five Decades of Desiring God
One of those implications was the final crucial piece of the puzzle: How does this vertical, God-glorifying enjoyment of God relate to horizontal love for people?
I pointed this morning to the key in 2 Corinthians 8:2 where joy in God overflowed in love to meet the needs of others. But let me point you now to Acts 20:35, where Paul says to the elders of Ephesus, “Remember, it is more blessed to give than to receive.” More blessed. More joyful. More satisfying. To give than to receive.
“Enjoying God from the heart is essential to glorifying God from the heart.”
Why? Because blessedness in God, joy in God, satisfaction in God has in it, by its very nature, an impulse, a pressure, to expand (even if we must suffer and die in the process) — an impulse to expand by drawing others into our joy in God. It is more blessed — more joyful — to give because, when we give, our joy (like a high-pressure weather system) gets bigger as it spreads into the lives of others. And even bigger when their joy in God becomes part of our joy in God.
I have spent the last fifty years of my life thinking, praying, preaching, and trying to live this glorious reality — that God is most glorified (and people are most loved) when we are most satisfied in God. I invite you into this reality.
You can’t earn this. It’s a gift. When Christ died, he bought this for everyone who will have it. Listen to 1 Peter 3:18: “Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” — in whose presence is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
We may never see each other again on this earth. But if in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, you find God to be your supreme Treasure, we will see each other again!