Love: The Labor of Christian Hedonism
Disinterested benevolence toward God is blasphemy. If you come to God dutifully, offering him the reward of your fellowship instead of thirsting after the reward of his fellowship, then you exalt yourself above God as benefactor, and belittle him as the needy beneficiary — and that is blasphemy. The only way to honor and glorify the all-sufficiency of God is to come to him for the pleasure of knowing and being loved by him. That was last week’s main point, and we could have called it vertical Christian Hedonism. Between man and God, on the vertical axis of life, the pursuit of pleasure is not just tolerable; it is mandatory: “Delight yourself in the Lord!” The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever.
But what about horizontal Christian Hedonism? What about our relationships with other people? Is disinterested benevolence the ideal among men? Or is the pursuit of pleasure mandatory on the horizontal level as well? The answer of Christian Hedonism is that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. Or to put it another way, if you abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God. So I would like to try to show you from Scripture why I believe this, then deal with some problem passages, and then close with a challenge to join a long history of Christian Hedonists in the labor of love in the church and in the world.
The Love of the Macedonians
Let’s look first at 2 Corinthians 8. What kind of inner and outer action did Paul call love?
We want you to know brethren about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of liberality on their part. . . . I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine (2 Corinthians 8:1–2, 8).
Paul gives the Macedonians as an example of earnest love to see if the Corinthians will imitate them. Now what is love according to verses 1 and 2? First, it results from God’s work of grace: “We want you to know about the grace of God which has been shown in the churches of Macedonia.” Second, this experience of God filled the Macedonians with an “abundance of joy.” Note that the joy was not because God had made them materially rich. In fact, they were in “extreme poverty” according to verse 2. So, their joy was not in things, but in God. Third, their abundant joy overflowed in liberality when Paul took up a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. What, then, is the love which Paul saw here? Love is the overflow of joy in God which meets the needs of others. Notice verse 4: “They begged [Paul] earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints.” We mustn’t think that when they gave liberally their relation to God was compelling them to act against their main desires.
When your children beg for one more ride on the roller coaster (“Oh can we, Daddy? Can we?”), it’s not because they are driven by some moral ideal contrary to their wishes. When Macedonians — poverty-stricken Macedonians — beg Paul for the privilege of giving money to a benevolence fund, we may assume that’s what they want to do. To be sure, they are denying themselves whatever food and clothing that money might have bought them, but their self-denial is not for the sake of some sterile, joyless act of duty. They are giving up the pleasure of extra food for the joy of sharing God’s grace with others. These people are so full of joy in God that giving — even out of poverty — is not a burden, but a blessing. They have discovered the labor of Christian Hedonism: love! Love is the overflow of joy in God which meets the needs of others.
Love Is More than Action
I have heard so often (from Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics to chapel speakers at Bethel College) that love is not how you feel; it’s how you act. That is a drastic oversimplification! (And has its roots in a theology that believes in the possibility of ethics without spiritual new birth.) Why did Paul say in 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned but have not love, I gain nothing”? Because genuine love is always more than action.
“Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.”
Paul didn’t hold the Macedonians up as examples of love just because they gave generously. He held them up because their giving was the overflow of abundant joy in the grace of God. Benevolent action that does not flow from our joy in God’s grace is not love. The only thing that the apostle Paul will call love is the labor of Christian Hedonism — namely, the benevolent action of people who have found their satisfaction in God, and now seek to expand it by sharing it with others.
So you can see, I hope, why I said that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed, and if you abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God.
God Loves Cheerful Givers
Let’s see if this is confirmed in other passages. Paul continues his plea for funds on into 2 Corinthians 9. He gives the overarching principle in verse 7:
Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
I take that to mean that God is not pleased when people act benevolently, but don’t do it gladly. When people don’t find pleasure in their acts of service, God doesn’t find pleasure in them. He delights in cheerful givers, cheerful servants. That’s why I said, if we abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, we can’t please God. God is pleased by cheerful givers. If we are indifferent to whether we do a good deed cheerfully, we are indifferent to what pleases God. And what pleases God is when we delight to give. Therefore, it is very essential that we be Christian Hedonists on the horizontal level, in our relationships with each other, and always pursue the joy of giving.
God Loves Cheerful Pastors
Consider 1 Peter 5, when Peter tells the elders how to go about their ministry of shepherding the flock of God. Peter applies the same principle to the pastoral ministry that Paul applied to financial stewardship in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.
Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under constraint but willingly, not for shameful gain but eagerly. (1 Peter 5:2)
Which may be summed up: God loves a cheerful pastor. God’s command is not just that we do our work, but that we find joy in it. If you don’t pursue your ministry because you expect to find great joy in it, then you don’t pursue the command of God. Phillip Brooks, an Episcopalian pastor in Boston one hundred years ago, and author of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” wrote about the pastorate:
I think, again, that it is essential to the preacher’s success that he should thoroughly enjoy his work. I mean in the actual doing of it, and not only in its idea. No man to whom the details of his task are repulsive can do his task well constantly, however full he may be of its spirit. He may make one bold dash at it and carry it over all his disgusts, but he cannot work on at it year after year, day after day. Therefore, count it not merely a perfectly legitimate pleasure, count it an essential element of your power, if you can feel a simple delight in what you have to do as a minister, in the fervor of writing, in the glow of speaking, in standing before men and moving them, in contact with the young. The more thoroughly you enjoy it, the better you will do it all.
In order to minister in the church, or in the world, in a way that pleases God, we must believe and pursue the word of Jesus that Paul uses in Acts 20:35 to inspire another group of elders: “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” When Paul says, “Remember this promise!” he must mean that it has great value as a conscious incentive for our ministry. He must mean that the moral value of our generosity is not ruined when we pursue it hedonistically. It is not wrong to desire and pursue the blessedness Jesus promised when he said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Don’t Settle for Lesser Pleasures
The hindrance to loving other people is the same as the hindrance to worshiping God. The obstacle that keeps us from obeying the first (vertical) commandment, is the same obstacle that keeps us from obeying the second (horizontal) commandment. The obstacle is not that we are all trying to please ourselves, but that we are all far too easily pleased. We do not believe Jesus when he says there is more blessedness, more joy, more full and lasting pleasure in a life devoted to helping others, than there is in a life devoted to our material comfort.
And therefore, the very longing for contentment, which, according to Jesus, ought to drive us to simplicity of life and labors of love, contents itself instead with the broken cisterns of American prosperity and comfort. The message that needs to be shouted from the top of the IDS tower and the City Center to American pleasure-seekers is this: “Americans, you are not nearly hedonistic enough!”
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth or rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19–20)
“Benevolent action that does not flow from our joy in God’s grace is not love.”
Quit being satisfied with little 5.25% yields of pleasure that get eaten up by the moths of inflation and the rust of death. Invest in the blue-chip, high-yield, divinely-insured securities of heaven. A life devoted to material comforts and thrills is like throwing money down a rat hole. But a life simplified for the sake of love, yields dividends of joy unsurpassed and unending. Hear the word of the Lord,
“Sell your possessions, give alms; [and thus] provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.” (Luke 12:33)
Brothers and sisters, the message we have for the world is gospel! It is good news! “Leave the broken cisterns of temporary, unsatisfying pleasures. Come to Christ in whose presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Join us in the labor of Christian Hedonism. For the Lord has spoken: it is more blessed to love than to live in luxury.
The Hedonistic Message of Hebrews
Turn with me to Hebrews 10:32–34. I want you to see how the overflow of joy in the treasures of heaven produced love in the early Christians in the midst of severe persecution.
Recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. (Hebrews 10:32–34)
These Christians were motivated for prison ministry the same way the Macedonians (of 2 Corinthians 8:1–8) were motivated to relieve the poor. Their joy in God overflowed in love for others. They looked at their own lives and said, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). They looked at all their possessions and said, “We have a possession in heaven that’s better, and that lasts longer, than any of this.” Then they looked at each other and said,
Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also;
The body they may kill,
God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.
And with joy, they renounced all they had and followed Christ into that prison to visit their brothers and sisters (Luke 14:33). Love is the overflow of joy in God which meets the needs of others.
Then to drive the point home, the author of Hebrews gives Moses as an example of Christian Hedonism in 11:24–26. Notice how similar the motivation is to the early Christians of chapter 10 and the Macedonians of 2 Corinthians 8.
By faith Moses, when he was a grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he looked to the reward. (Hebrews 11:24–26)
The author of Hebrews is remarkably consistent in his Christian Hedonism. In 10:34, he says that the desire of the Christians for a better and lasting possession overflowed in joyful love, which cost them their property. In 11:6, he says that you can’t please God unless you come to him for the reward of his fellowship. In 11:16, he praises the patriarchs because they “desire a better country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” And in 11:24–26, Moses is a hero because his love for the heavenly reward overflowed in such joy that he counted the pleasures of Egypt rubbish, and was bound forever to God’s people in love. And then in 12:2, the writer gives the highest example of all:
Look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.
The greatest labor of love that ever happened was possible, because Jesus pursued the greatest imaginable joy: namely, the joy of being exalted to God’s right hand in the assembly of a redeemed people.
Does Self-Denial Contradict Hedonism?
Now this example of Jesus gives a good opportunity to deal with some apparently contradictory texts that are often brought up in response to Christian Hedonism. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:5 says, “Love seeks not its own.” And, 1 Corinthians 10:24 says, “Let no one seek his own but that of the other.” And Romans 15:1–3 says,
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.”
Do these passages contradict Christian Hedonism? I don’t think they do. When Paul says, “Love seeks not its own,” surely, he doesn’t mean that love takes no delight in acts of service. (Romans 12:8.) Surely, he doesn’t mean that if I am drawn to preach by the thrill of sharing the good news of God, it can’t be an act of love. He goes on to say, “Love hopes all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). But what is hope but the expectation that something joyful is going to happen?
“We must deny ourselves the praise of men so we can enjoy the approval of God.”
If we give Paul the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming that he contradicts himself, the simple meaning of all these “problem” texts is that Christians ought not to seek their own private, limited pleasures. That we ought not to please ourselves with material comforts at the expense of love. We ought to join Jesus on the Calvary road of suffering, and shame, and simplicity. But not begrudgingly, not with grumbling. No, we ought to join the Lord on the road of love because of the joy that is set before us; because God loves cheerful givers; because God loves eager pastors; because it is more blessed to give than to receive; because suffering with Christ is greater wealth than the fleeting pleasures of Egypt; because if we lose our lives for his sake, we gain them forever.
Yes, there is a doctrine of self-denial in the Bible. We must deny ourselves sand so we can build on rock; we must deny ourselves the praise of men so we can enjoy the approval of God; we must deny ourselves moth-eaten treasures so we can have eternal wealth; we must deny ourselves safety among men so we can enjoy security in God; we must deny ourselves drunkenness and gluttony so we can be guests at the biggest, longest banquet of the universe; we must deny self-reliance so that we can say, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have no wants.”
Never, never does God ask you to deny yourself a greater value for a lesser value. That’s what sin is. On the contrary, always, always God calls us to surrender second-rate, fleeting, unsatisfying pleasures in order to obtain first-rate, eternal, satisfying pleasures. After his vertical summons to the feast of Christian Hedonism in worship comes his horizontal summons to the labor of Christian Hedonism in love. And the order is crucial, for love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.
Labor for Your Joy
Many saints through the centuries have discovered that the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed, and that if you abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you can’t love people or please God. George Müller of Bristol wrote, “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord.” And his joy in God overflowed in a life of love to the orphans of England.
Hudson Taylor’s son records him as saying in later years, “I never made a sacrifice.” And his son goes on to comment, “What he said was true, for the compensations were so real and lasting that he came to see that giving up is inevitably receiving when one is dealing heart to heart with God.” And out of that heart of joy in God raised up a church of millions in China today.
Jonathan Edwards, whose preaching sparked the first Great Awakening in America in the 1740s, resolved in his college years, “To endeavor to obtain for myself as much happiness in the other world as I possibly can, with all the power, might, vigor, and vehemence, yea violence, I am capable of, or can bring myself to exert, in any way that can be thought of.”
And in 1980, I heard a young associate pastor of Zion Baptist Church give a talk at Hospitality House where he had come to know the Lord as an inner-city kid. Now, after graduating from seminary in California, he had come back to work in Minneapolis. And the one sentence I remember was this: “If I can just love somebody, I’ll be happy.” That’s a good concluding commentary on the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Let’s pursue it at Bethlehem with all our heart.