Is Christian Hedonism Valid?

Passion | Austin, Texas

Yesterday, in an attempt to torch the glacier and to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples, I tried to make the point that God does everything he does for the glory of his name. God magnifies God. The most passionate heart in all the universe for God is God’s heart. That was the main point. Passion 1997, as I understand it, is about God’s passion for God. Everything he does, from creation to consummation, he does with a view to displaying and upholding the glory of his name.

The second point from yesterday was that this is not unloving. The reason it is not unloving for God to exalt himself in this way is because knowing God and being swept up into the praises of God is what satisfies the human soul. “Thou hast shown me the path of life. In thy presence is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). Therefore, if God’s exalting himself — to the degree that we can see him for who he is — satisfies our souls, then God is the one being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation is the highest virtue and the essence of love.

You may not copy him in this. To the degree that you exalt yourself for another person to enjoy you are hateful — not loving — because you distract them from the one being who can satisfy their souls. Therefore, we may not imitate God in his God-ness. God is the one and only absolutely unique being in all the universe for whom self-exaltation is the essence and the foundation of love. It has to be this way if he is God.

We might want him to love like humans love, by making others central; but he can’t do that and still be God. He is infinitely valuable in himself. There is none besides God. Therefore, he is — to put it bluntly — stuck with being magnificent and glorious and all-sufficient and self-sufficient, without any need of you whatsoever. This is the foundation of grace. If you try to make yourself the center of grace, it ceases to be grace. God-centered grace is biblical grace.

My delight is not in God making me the center of the universe. My delight is in God being the center of the universe, forever, and drawing me up into his fellowship, to see him, know him, enjoy him, treasure him, be satisfied in him, for all the days of eternity.

That was yesterday’s message.

The Implication of God’s God-Centeredness for Mankind

Now today, if what I have said so far is true, if it is biblical, then there is a stunning implication for your life. It is this: when you leave this place, and you go back to your churches or your campuses, what you should do is make it your vocation to be as happy as you possibly can be — in God. So my call to you now, in the name of God Almighty, is that you might make it your eternal vocation to pursue your pleasure with all the might that God mightily inspires within you.

My problem in life, and your problem in life, is not that you are pursuing your pleasure when you ought to be doing your duty. That is not my or God’s or the Bible’s assessment of your problem. C.S. Lewis had it exactly right in his life-changing sermon called “The Weight of Glory” when he says that our problem is that we are far too easily pleased, not that we are pursuing our pleasure too eagerly. He says that we are like children fooling around with mud pies on the slum because we cannot imagine what a holiday at the sea is like. Our problem is that we are clutching tin idols to ourselves when golden reality stands before us. We are far too easily pleased. The problem with the world is not hedonism; it’s the failure of hedonism to go for what is truly satisfying. That’s my point this morning.

“We are far too easily pleased.”

And the implication of that, if it’s true, is that you should get up in the morning and, like George Müller said before he went out and did anything, “I must have my heart happy in God or I will be of no use to anybody. I’ll use them and try to get them to satisfy my cravings and my vacancies.” If you want to be a person of love, if you want to be released to lay down your lives for other people, you must make it your aim to be happy in God. That’s today’s message: we are far too easily pleased.

We have settled for such small, short-lived, inadequate, non-satisfying pleasures that our capacities for joy have so shriveled up to the point that we have made joyless duty the essence of virtue so as to conceal our untransformed hearts that cannot be moved by God. You see how escapist that is? I am on a campaign this morning against the Stoics and Immanuel Kant, the philosopher of the Enlightenment who said that to the degree that you seek your benefit in any moral act, you diminish its virtue. This is not in the Bible, and it destroys worship, virtue, courage, and God-centeredness everywhere. It elevates man, the virtuous one who does his duty without any view to God to satisfy his soul. Fie on it! May it be gone from our hearts forever.

I’m on a campaign against what hangs in the evangelical air. I got on this campaign about twenty-five years ago, and I’ve been on it ever since, trying to raise my family in it, build a church on it, write books about it, trying to live it. Little by little the objections come. That’s the way you grow. Several of you have said to me that you feel like your world is being turned by this conference. Paradigms are being shaken. Copernican revolutions are in the offing, and that’s just the way you start changing.

It may take fifteen years, objection after objection. In 1968 I started seeing some of these things with the help of Dan Fuller, C.S. Lewis, Jonathan Edwards, King David, Saint Paul, and Jesus Christ. And the way that my mind works is that one objection after the other comes up and I cringe, and then I go to the Bible and I weep and cry and struggle and ask and pray and talk. Then little by little the objections refine the vision.


  1. Does the Bible really teach that you should pursue your joy with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Or is that just John Piper’s clever homiletical way of getting attention?

  2. What about self-denial? Didn’t Jesus say, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself?”

  3. Doesn’t this put too much emphasis on emotion? Isn’t Christianity essentially a matter of the will, whereby we make commitments and decisions?

  4. What becomes of the noble concept of serving God as a duty when it’s hard and you don’t feel like it?

  5. Doesn’t this just put me — and not God — at the center of things?

So let’s give some answers to these objections.

1. Does the Bible really teach that you should pursue your joy?

My answer is yes, and it does so in at least four ways.

First, it does so with commandments. Consider Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” This is not a suggestion, this is a commandment. If you believe, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is something you should obey, then you should also obey, “Delight yourself in the Lord.”

Or Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice O righteous ones and shout for joy all you upright in heart” or Psalm 100, “Serve the Lord with gladness.” That’s a commandment: “Serve the Lord with gladness!” To the degree that you are indifferent to whether you serve the Lord with gladness or not, you are indifferent to God. He told you, you must serve the Lord with gladness. Or Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord, and again I say, rejoice.”

They’re all over the Bible. We’re talking commandments. That’s the first way the Bible teaches this.

Second, it does so with threats. Jeremy Taylor once said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” I thought it was clever when I first heard it. It’s not clever. It’s a quotation from Deuteronomy 28:47, and it’s devastating. “Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you.” God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy in him. Is that a warrant for hedonism or what? Is that a warrant to making it your life vocation to pursue your joy in God with all your might?

Third, it does so by presenting saving faith as essentially being satisfied with all that God is for you in Jesus. For example, Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who would draw near to God must believe that he is and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” If you would please God, you must have faith. What is faith? Coming to the one who is precisely with the deep conviction that he is going to reward me for coming. If you don’t believe that, or if you go to God for any other reason, you do not please God.

Or, take John 6:35. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” Mark that: he who believes in me will never thirst. What does that mean about faith? What is faith? Faith, in John’s theology, is a coming to Jesus for the satisfaction of our souls such that nothing else can satisfy. That’s faith. Faith is not something else than what I’m talking about. I’m unpacking basic Christianity in language that you’re less familiar with.

Fourth, it does so by defining sin as the insanity of forsaking the pursuit of your pleasure in God. Sin is the insanity of forsaking the pursuit of your pleasure in God. Here’s the text: Jeremiah 2:12–13:

Be appalled O heavens, be shocked. Be utterly desolate, says the Lord. For my people have committed two great evils. They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters and have hewed out for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water.

Tell me, what is evil? The definition of evil, that which appalls the universe, that causes the angels of God to say, “No! It can’t be!” What is it? It is looking at God, the fountain of all-satisfying, living water, and saying “No thank you,” and turning to the television, sex, parties, booze, money, prestige, a house in the suburbs, a vacation, a new computer program, and saying “Yes!” That’s insane! And it causes all heaven to be appalled, according to Jeremiah 2:12.

In those four ways, at least, the Bible says that John Piper is teaching truth this morning when he says to devote your life to the pursuit of your satisfaction in God. So objection number one fell.

2. What about self-denial?

Didn’t Jesus say in Mark 8:34, “Whoever would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross.” The cross is a place where you die, a place of execution. It’s not a cranky mother-in-law, or a bad roommate, or a disease in your bones. It’s death of the self. So Piper, you are heretical in calling us to pursue the satisfaction of our souls as a life-vocation. I’ve felt that, and then I read the next verse (it just helps to read contexts sometimes): “for he who would save his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will save it.” What’s the logic here? What is Jesus’s logic in those verses?

The logic is this:

  • “Oh, my disciples, don’t lose your life. Don’t lose your life. Save your life! Save your life!”

  • “How? How Jesus?”

  • “Lose it.”

  • “I don’t get it. I don’t get it Jesus.”

  • “What I mean is this: My disciples, my loved ones — lose your life in the sense that you lose everything but me. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit (John 12:24). Die to the world. Die to prestige, die to wealth, die to sinful sex, die to cheating to get ahead, die to the need for people to approve you. Die, and have me.”

“Deny yourself tin to have gold. Deny yourself sand to stand on a rock.”

I believe in self-denial. Deny yourself tin to have gold. Deny yourself sand to stand on a rock. Deny yourself brackish water to have wine. There is no ultimate self-denial, nor did Jesus ever mean it that way. I believe in self-denial. I believe in this word about Jesus from Jesus — Matthew 13:44: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who found a treasure hidden in a field and, in his joy, he went and sold everything he had to buy that field.” You call that self-denial? Yes! He sold everything. He counted everything as refuse and rubbish that he might gain Christ.

So, yes, it’s self-denial; and no, it isn’t self-denial. There is a self that should be crucified: the self that loves the world. But the new self — the self that loves Christ above all things and finds its satisfaction in him — don’t kill that self. That’s the new creation. Glut that self on God.

Oh, I believe in self-denial. I believe in the self-denial that the rich young ruler couldn’t understand but that Jesus taught in that moment: “Go sell everything you’ve got young man and come follow me, and you’ll have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). And he wouldn’t do it. And Jesus said to his disciples, “It is really hard for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven. It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for rich people to get into the kingdom of heaven.” Then the disciples were absolutely stunned, and they said, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus said, “With men it is impossible. Nobody can have the heart I’m calling for on their own. But with God,” he says, “all things are possible.”

And then Peter pipes up, “We left everything to follow you. What about us? We really sacrificed.” And Jesus responds — I wish I knew the tone of his voice — and said, “Peter, no one has left houses or mother or father or brothers or sisters or lands or children for my sake who will not receive back one-hundred fold of mothers, sisters, brothers, lands, and children, in this life — along with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life. You cannot sacrifice anything that will not be repaid to you a thousand-fold. Don’t pity yourself when your head gets chopped off for me” (see Mark 10:17–31).

Yes, I believe in self-denial. I believe in denying myself everything that would stand in the way of me being satisfied fully in God, and that’s how I understand what the Bible means by self-denial. I believe that David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor — these great missionaries — were absolutely right, having come to the end of their lives and having lost wives and health and everything else except one thing, to say to Cambridge University students and people elsewhere, “I never made a sacrifice.” That’s right! I know what they mean and you know what they mean. And I believe that Jim Elliot who laid down his life as a young man was absolutely right to say, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” That’s what I believe about self-denial. So objection number two fell.

3. Aren’t you making too much out of emotions?

Isn’t Christianity essentially decision or a commitment of the will? Aren’t emotions just tag-along, optional, icing on the cake? Your way of talking about Christianity, Piper, I think, elevates emotions to an unbiblical place of prominence.

But then I read the Bible — it helps to read the Bible when you’re in an argument — I saw that:

  • We are commanded to feel joy: “Rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4).

  • We are commanded to feel hope: “Hope in God” (Psalm 42:5).

  • We are commanded to feel fear: “Fear him who can cast both soul and body into hell” (Luke 12:5).

  • We are commanded to feel peace: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Colossians 3:15).

  • We are commanded to feel zeal: “Be aglow [literally ‘boil’] in the Spirit, never flag in zeal” (Romans 12:11). This is not optional, this is not icing. It’s a commandment! “Never flag in zeal.”

  • We are commanded to feel grief: “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). You don’t have an option. You’ve got to weep; you’ve got to feel weeping with those who weep.

  • We are commanded to feel desire: “Earnestly desire the sincere spiritual milk of the word” (1 Peter 2:2). It’s not an option. You can’t say, “Well I can’t turn desire on or off, so how can I obey this? It can’t really be a command.” Wrong!

Yes, you cannot turn these feelings on and off at will. No, they are still obligations. Therein lies our desperate condition that we heard about last night.

Everything I’m telling you that you’re commanded to do right now, you cannot do in this moment, by willpower or decision or commitment. You can only do it by miracle. Aren’t you desperate? Isn’t it a desperate thing to be told by Almighty God that you must do what you cannot do? If your heart were right you would do them.

  • We are depraved and we are commanded to feel tender-heartedness: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted.” You can’t just say that forgiveness means saying, “I’m sorry.” You’ve got to feel it.

  • We’re commanded to feel gratitude. Take a child on Christmas morning who gets a present from grandma, and it’s black socks! Yuck! No kid ever wants to get socks, let alone black socks, for Christmas. And then you say, “Say thank you to your grandmother.” And then the kid says, “Thank you for the socks.” That’s not what the Bible is talking about. The kid can do that by willpower. But he cannot feel gratitude for those socks by willpower. Neither can you feel gratitude to God by your willpower in accordance with the command in Ephesians 5:20 to “be thankful for everything.” Well then, we’re done for, unless Almighty God works.

Objection number three? I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that I’m elevating affections and feelings and emotions higher than the Bible does. I think I’m reinstating them from where a decisionistic, commitment-laden, willpower American we-can-do-it religion dropped them because they’re out of our control.

4. What about the noble vision of serving God?

Isn’t it a duty to serve God? It doesn’t sound like service in your way of talking about Christianity, Piper. It just doesn’t sound the same as service — dutiful, rising to the challenge of performing the will of God when it’s hard.

To which I have learned now to respond, “Let’s look at a few texts that shape the metaphor of servanthood.” All metaphors about your relationship to God, whether it’s as a servant, or son or daughter, or friend, have elements in them which, if you stressed them, would be false. They also have elements in them, which, if you stressed them, would be true. Now what is false and what is true in the analogy of servanthood?

“God is not served as though he needed you or your service.”

The texts that help you separate the two so that you don’t blaspheme when you serve are texts like Acts 17:25: “God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything. But he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything.” God is not served, folks. Be careful. He is not served as though he needed you or your service. He doesn’t.

Or take a text like Mark 10:45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to give his life as a ransom for many.” He came not to be served. Watch out! Watch out! If you undertake to serve him then you cross his purpose! Perplexing though, isn’t it. Paul called himself the servant of the Lord in every letter almost. And here in Acts 17:25 and Mark 10:45 it says that God is not served and that the Son of Man came not to be served. There must be a kind of service that is evil and a kind of service that is good. What is the good service?

The good service is 1 Peter 4:11: “Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies, that in everything God may get the glory.” God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything. You’ve got to find a way to worship, type papers, listen to lectures, drive a car, change a diaper, preach a sermon in such a way that you are always the receiver. Because the giver gets the glory, and the receiver gets the joy. Anytime we cross Acts 17:25 — “God is not served by humans hands [as though he were a receiver,] as though he needed anything” — we blaspheme.

I gave the illustration yesterday, to the leadership crew of this conference, from Matthew 6:24 about service where it says, “You cannot serve two masters. Either you’ll hate the one and love the other. Or either you’ll be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” So here we’re talking service. How do you serve money? You do not serve money by meeting money’s needs. You serve money by posturing your life relentlessly, with all of your energy and time and effort, to benefit from money. Your mind spins with how to make the shrewd investment, how to find the best deal, how to invest where it’s low so that it’ll go high, and you’re consumed with how to benefit from money, because money is your source.

If that’s true about the way you serve money, how then do you serve God? It’s exactly the same: you posture yourself, and you maneuver your life, and you devote energy and effort and time and creativity to positioning yourself under the waterfall of God’s continual blessing, so that he remains the source and you remain the empty receiver. You remain the beneficiary, he remains the benefactor; you remain hungry, he remains the bread; you remain thirsty, he remains the water. You don’t ever do the blasphemous role-reversal on God. We’ve got to find a way to serve in a way that is in the strength that God supplies. I am on the receiving end when I am serving. Otherwise I put God in the position of a beneficiary; I become his benefactor, and now I am God. And there are many such religions in the world. So objection four fell.

5. Aren’t you just making yourself central?

“You talk about pursuing your joy and your pleasure. You talk about duty as something else than what we’ve always known, and you say that we must be careful about service. It sounds to me like you’re maneuvering and manipulating biblical language just to make yourself central.” That would be the most devastating criticism of all, wouldn’t it?

Here’s my answer: I’ve been married for 28 years, as of the 21st of December. I love Noël a lot. We’ve been through a lot together — really hard times and really good times. We’ve seen our teenage kids through some incredibly difficult teenage years. I cry most easily when I think about my sons and my little girl. Suppose on December 21st that I came home with 28 long-stem red roses behind my back and rang the doorbell. Noël comes to the door, looks sort of puzzled about why I would be ringing my own doorbell, and I pull the roses out and say, “Happy Anniversary Noël.” And she says, “Johnny, they’re beautiful! Why did you?” And I say, “It’s my duty.” Wrong answer. Let’s back it up.


  • “Happy anniversary Noël!”

  • “Johnny, They’re beautiful! Why did you?”

  • “Nothing makes me happier than to buy you roses. In fact, why don’t you go change clothes, because I’ve arranged for a babysitter and we’ll go do something special tonight, because there is nothing I would rather do tonight than spend the evening with you.”

Right answer.

Why? Why wouldn’t she say, “You’re the most selfish Christian Hedonist I’ve ever met! All you ever think about is what makes you happy!” What’s going on here? Why is duty the wrong answer and delight the right answer? Do you understand?

If you get this then you got it, and I can go back to Minneapolis and praise God. My wife is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in her. If I try to change our relationship into a service relationship, into a duty relationship where I do not pursue my pleasure in her, she will be belittled, and so will God. When you get to heaven and the Father looks at you and says, “Why are you here? Why did you lay down your life for me?” you better not say, “It was my duty to come, because I’m a Christian.” You better say, “Where else would I want to go? To whom else could I turn? You are my soul’s desire!”

And that is what this conference is about. This conference is about two great things coming together in the 268 generation from Isaiah 26:8: it is the passion of God for his name and renown and the passion of my heart to be satisfied in all of my desires. Those are two unshakable things in the universe. And what I hope you have seen is that they are one, because God and his name and his renown are most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him.