Should We Seek Our Happiness? (with Portuguese Interpretation)

FIEL Conference for Pastors and Leaders | São Paulo, Brazil

The main point last night was that God does everything he does for his own glory. He seeks to maintain the honor of his name. He exalts himself in all that he does. The second point last night was that this self-exaltation is not unloving. The argument went like this: If God loves us, he will give us what is best for us. He will give us something glorious and beautiful, namely, he will give us himself. When he gives us himself, we delight in him.

But we saw that our joy is not full until we praise what we enjoy. You could not fully enjoy the triumph of the World Cup until you cheered, and we cannot fully enjoy the glory of God until we praise the glory of God. Just like you were doing as you sang. Therefore, if God wants to bring our joy to completion, he must seek our praise for himself. And so, what we see is that our joy comes to completion in praise, and God’s glory comes to completion through our praise.

And so, my quest or my search for joy and God’s zeal for his glory are not against each other. To me, that is right at the heart of the gospel: God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in him. That was last night’s message. At the end of the message, I said, “What this implies for our vocation, for our calling, is that we should devote ourselves to pursuing this satisfaction.”

The Weakness of the Church

The main point tonight, therefore, is that we as Christians should pursue our happiness in God. Sometimes this is surprising when we hear it because it sounds selfish. Let me say it another way. What I’m saying is that the weakness of Christianity is not caused by people pursuing their own happiness. Sometimes preachers will see that their people are pursuing their happiness in wrong things. They may find their happiness in the television or in games or in sex, and then they will begin to preach that the pursuit of happiness is wrong and Christianity is something different than the pursuit of happiness.

No, I think that’s a mistake. We must point out when people pursue their happiness in wrong things, but the weakness of the church is not caused by the pursuit of happiness. In fact, I would say that the weakness of the church is caused by the failure to pursue happiness with all of our might. We settle for pleasures that are too small. We settle for pleasures that are inadequate and short-lived, and our capacity for joy begins to shrink and shrivel, and when our hearts are not able to rejoice in God, we start to justify ourselves by defining joyless duty as the essence of virtue. So my point tonight is to persuade you that we need to pursue joy in God with all of our might.

Five Objections to Christian Hedonism

Now, I began to see these things about 1968, and over the years, many objections have risen. And so what I want to do tonight is give you five of those objections and then try to overcome them with Scripture. Let me name the five objections for you.

  1. Does the Bible really teach that I should pursue my joy, or is this just a theological conclusion I came to?
  2. What about self-denial? Didn’t Jesus say if we want to follow him, we must take up our cross and deny ourselves? How can the pursuit of my joy be self-denial?
  3. Doesn’t this focus on my happiness put too much weight on emotions? Won’t this lead to emotionalism?
  4. What becomes of the noble concept of serving God or duty? It doesn’t sound like we are working like servants when we’re pursuing our own pleasure.
  5. Don’t I become the center of the universe when I seek my own pleasure? Can God really be at the center of all of life if I’m seeking my pleasure?

Now, those are the five objections, and in the rest of our time together I want to take them one at a time and try to answer them.

Objection 1: Biblical Basis or Personal Inference?

Does the Bible really teach that we should pursue our own happiness? My answer is yes. And I wanted to show you that in four ways from Scripture.

Biblical Commands to Pursue Happiness

The Bible commands us to seek our happiness. Let me mention several passages of Scripture. For example, Psalm 37:4. God commands us: “Delight yourself in the Lord.” This is not a suggestion; it’s a command. Sometimes people will say to me, “Stress obedience, not the pursuit of pleasure.” And I say, “Wait a minute. Obedience means doing what God commands, and God commands that you pursue your happiness. Therefore, obedience is pursuing your happiness.”

How do you obey Psalm 37:4? By pursuing delight in the Lord. If you say, “My happiness in God does not matter.” You’re saying obedience doesn’t matter. So I reject the distinction between obedience and the pursuit of happiness. Or consider Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!” There it is again. It’s a command.

From the New Testament, Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” So these are just several. There are many more commands to be happy in God. So that’s my first answer to the objection. The Bible commands that we pursue our joy in God.

Divine Warnings

Here’s my second response to that objection. There was an old theologian named Jeremy Taylor. He said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” And I thought, “That’s a clever thing to say.” But is it biblical? And it was several years until I found the Bible foundation. It’s found in Deuteronomy 28:47. God says to his people,

Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, therefore you shall serve your enemies. (Deuteronomy 28:47–48)

So my second response is to say that God threatens us if we will not be happy. He commands that we be happy in him, and he threatens terrible things if we do not obey.

The Essence of Faith

Here’s my third response. The nature of faith includes the pursuit of happiness. Hebrews 11:6: “Without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

Now, think about that last phrase. If you want to please God, you must believe that he is a rewarder. Which means when you come to him in faith, you must be coming for reward. The reward of fellowship with God, and it’s called a reward because it satisfies. Therefore, the very essence of faith is the pursuit of satisfaction in God. If you say, “I don’t care about pursuing joy in God,” you are saying, “I do not care about faith.”

Sin as Forsaking God

Here’s my fourth response. The nature of sin is that it means forsaking God as our pleasure. The nature of sin is forsaking God as our pleasure. Jeremiah 2:12–13:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
     be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
     for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
     the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
     broken cisterns that can hold no water.

So what is evil in this passage? Evil is when you are offered a fountain of water and you turn your back on it, and then you go and you try to get water out of sand. The essence of evil is turning your back on the pleasures of God and trying to find them somewhere else.

So objection number one was, “The Bible doesn’t teach what you say, John Piper.” And my answer is it does teach that we should pursue our joy. In fact, it says if you don’t pursue your joy, you are disobedient to God, you are unbelieving, and you are sinning. And so, my conclusion is that the first objection is not valid. It is in the Bible.

Objection 2: Conflict with Self-Denial

What becomes of self-denial? “You’re teaching us to pursue our own satisfaction. It doesn’t sound like self-denial.” People stand up in groups like this and they quote to me Mark 8:35. They say, “Whoever would save his life will lose it.” My response is, “Read the rest of the verse.” Which goes like this. “But whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).

So how is Jesus reasoning here? He’s saying, “You don’t want to lose your life, do you?” And they say, “No, we don’t want to lose our life.” And he says, “If you don’t want to lose your life, then save it by losing it.” There’s a paradox here. The goal is to save your life. That’s my goal. I want to be saved. I want eternal joy, and Jesus is saying to me, “All right, if you want eternal joy, lose your life.” But what does he mean?

I think he means things like lose your possessions, lose your prestige, lose your worldly comforts. There is no such thing in Christianity as ultimate self-denial. We are called upon to deny ourselves lesser pleasures to have the greatest pleasure. Let me illustrate from a couple of passages of Scripture.

The Myth of Ultimate Self-Denial

Matthew 13:44 — it’s a little one-verse parable. It goes like this: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” He sells his wedding ring. He sells his house. He sells his car. He sells his television. He sells all the land that he owns. He buys that field.

Now, is there self-denial in that verse? There is. He denied himself the wedding ring. He denied himself the house and the lands and the television. But why? To have the treasure hidden in the field. That’s not ultimate self-denial. We would say he denies himself the worthlessness of sand in order to have silver. There is no ultimate self-denial.

Let me illustrate from Mark 10:28–31, the story of the rich young ruler. You know this story. The rich young ruler comes to Jesus. He says, “How can I inherit eternal life?” Jesus says, “Sell everything you’ve got, give it to the poor, follow me.” The man won’t do it. He loves his money more than he loves Jesus, and Jesus says, “It’s very hard for rich people to enter the kingdom.” “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

The disciples are very surprised. They say, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). God can change the heart and make people love Christ more than they love money. And then Peter says something very interesting. He says, “Jesus, we’ve left everything to follow you. What about us?” In other words, Peter is saying, “We have fulfilled the command to deny ourselves.”

Jesus didn’t like his attitude. Jesus said to him, “Everyone who has left mother, father, brother, sister, houses, and lands, for my sake, will receive back in this age a hundredfold and in the age to come eternal life.” So do you see what Jesus is saying to Peter? Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Becoming a Christian is coming to treasure and joy. You’re going to live forever with me in the kingdom. You really have made no great sacrifice. So, there is no ultimate self-denial.

Trade the Unkeepable for the Unlosable

All of our self-denial is the denial of lesser pleasures to have the greatest pleasure. You know the people from whom I have learned this best? I have learned this best from the missionaries who have suffered most.

Many of you perhaps know the name of Jim Elliot who was killed in Ecuador. One of his most famous sayings goes like this: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Or consider what Hudson Taylor and David Livingstone said. Hudson Taylor was a missionary to China, and David Livingstone was a missionary to Africa — and both of them at the end of their lives, in a public setting, said, “I never made a sacrifice.”

Now, that’s an amazing thing for a person who has suffered much to say. So my response to objection number two is that I do believe in self-denial. I hate the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel. If you walk out of here saying, “I taught the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel,” you have totally misunderstood. My whole point is to give up all your health, wealth, and prosperity in order to have God, and that giving up is self-denial.

But it is not ultimate self-denial. Ultimate self-denial would mean you don’t have any goal for pleasure. But the reason we are giving up these things is to gain Christ. You remember what Paul says in Philippians 3: “I count everything as loss . . . in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8). That is not ultimate self-denial. That is ultimate self-fulfillment — satisfaction.

Objection 3: Risk of Emotionalism

Aren’t I making too much of emotions? Isn’t the heart of Christianity commitment and will? “You’re putting too much weight on emotion and feelings.” I remember when I was in the university, we read a book by Joseph Fletcher: Situation Ethics. It’s a bad book. He argued like this: “In the Bible, love is commanded. You cannot command the emotions. Therefore, love cannot be an emotion.” You agree with that? I saw some people nodding their heads. I don’t agree with that.

Commanding Emotions

What’s wrong with that argument? Premise number two is false. Here’s the false premise. The emotions cannot be commanded. That’s false. The reason we know it’s false is because the Bible commands the emotions everywhere. For example,

  • The Bible commands joy. Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord.”
  • The Bible commands hope. Psalm 42:5: “Hope in God.”
  • The Bible commands fear. Luke 12:5: “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.”
  • The Bible commands that we experience peace. Colossians 3:15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”
  • The Bible commands zeal. Romans 12:11: “Do not be slothful in zeal.”
  • The Bible commands grief. Romans 12:15: “Weep with those who weep.”
  • The Bible commands desire. First Peter 2:2: “Long for the pure spiritual milk [of the word].”
  • The Bible commands tenderheartedness. Ephesians 4:32: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted.”
  • The Bible commands brokenness and contrition. For example in James 4:9 where it says, “Be wretched and mourn and weep.”
  • The Bible finally commands gratitude. Ephesians 5:20: “Giving thanks always and for everything.”

Now, gratitude is a feeling of the heart. It’s not just an act of willpower. If I gave my son, a pair of black socks for Christmas, and he opened it and didn’t like it, his mother might say to him, “Say thank you to your father,” and he might say, “Thank you, Dad,” but he would not feel gratitude. Gratitude is not saying thank you. Gratitude is feeling excited and grateful for the gift. So, Joseph Fletcher is wrong. The Bible does command the emotions.

The Problem with Arminianism

You know the problem behind Joseph Fletcher? It’s Arminianism. Believe it or not. Arminians say, “You cannot demand that a man do something he is not able to do.” That’s the essence of Arminianism. Men must have resident within themselves the capacity to do what God commands them to do. But in fact, we do not have within ourselves the capacity to do what God commands.

Our only hope is that when God commands, he gives. So my response to objection number three is that feelings or emotions of the heart are at the essence of Christianity. We must be transformed so deeply that our feelings change about God. And if the Bible says to me, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And I say, “I can’t, I don’t enjoy the Lord.” I’m the one who desperately needs to cry out to God for a changed heart — and that’s what happens in the new birth.

Objection 4: Duty or Delight?

What has become of the noble ideal of serving God, and the noble ideal of duty? If I’m always pursuing my own pleasure, am I acting like a servant? Let me give three responses to this.

The Nature of Serving God

The first response is that we need to be very careful about what we mean by serving God. God is not a slaveholder who can’t accomplish his purposes without slave labor. There are many people who think of service as helping God out. Consider these two passages of Scripture.

Acts 17:25: “God is not served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” That verse says you can’t serve God in the sense of giving to him or helping him out. Everything you are and everything you have came from God. He owns you. He owns everything. We must not think of ourselves as servants in that sense.

Here’s a similar passage from the book of Psalms. Psalm 50:12–15 — God is speaking to his people: “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine.” Skipping down a little. “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” So that’s what you can give to God: thanksgiving. “And perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

The way to serve God is to call on God for help. Not to offer him your help. And he says, “When you call upon me for help, I’ll help you and I’ll rescue you, and then you will give glory to me.” So, God gets the glory and we get the help. That’s the way we serve the Lord.

Serve God by Receiving from God

Here’s my second response to this objection. Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.”

Now, I ask you, how do you serve money? Do you help money out? Do you improve upon money? How do you serve money? Here’s my answer: You serve money when you guide your whole life so that you are always trying to be in a position to benefit from money. If the benefits of money are over here, you run over there. And if the benefits of money are over here, you go over here. Your life is being guided by the love of money.

Now, how do you serve God? In the same way. You always guide your life so as to be in the place to benefit from God. I picture life like a stage with a spotlight on it and God’s blessing and God’s love and God’s power are this light. And this beam of light is moving. Serving God means staying in that light. I mentioned last night. First Peter 4:11 — it says the same thing. It says, “Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies that in everything God may get the glory.”

So, the way we serve the Lord is by receiving from the Lord. If you turn it around and start making service into giving to the Lord, you will dishonor him. God always intends to be the benefactor, and he means for us to be the beneficiary. So my response to what becomes of the noble vision of service is that we do serve God but not like slaves. We serve in freedom by receiving what we need from him. Which means we should always be pursuing our satisfaction in God even when we serve.

Rethinking Duty

One more response to the question, “What becomes of duty?” Sometimes people say duty is the essence of Christianity. Do what you’re supposed to do whether you feel like it or not. Let me answer that with an illustration. I read this in a book by Edward John Carnell. He said, “Suppose a husband asks his wife, ‘Must I kiss you goodnight?’ And the wife says, ‘You must, but not that kind of must.’”

In other words, “If there’s not a spontaneous affection for me, your kisses don’t mean anything.” Obligatory kisses are not significant. So the answer is duty, if it means doing what you’re supposed to do without a love and a delight in the will of God is not an ideal. Or the simplest way to answer the question would be, it is your duty to be happy in God. Duty and the pursuit of pleasure in God are not at odds, they’re not against each other.

Objection 5: God at the Center or Selfish Pursuit?

Is God at the center of life if you are always pursuing your pleasure? And I’m going to give you one closing illustration to answer this.

I’ve been married for almost 26 years. Our wedding anniversary is December 21. Suppose on December 21, I go home with 26 red roses behind my back, and I knock on the door and my wife opens the door and I show her the roses and say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” And she says, “Oh, they’re beautiful. Why did you, Johnny?” And I say, “It’s my duty.” They always laugh. I told that story a hundred times and people always laugh. And I always ask, “Why are you laughing?” What’s wrong with duty? Obligation is a good thing.

So why are you laughing? I’ll tell you why you’re laughing. My wife is not honored by that expression. Let’s tell the story another way. I knock on the door. She opens the door and I say, “Happy anniversary, Noël.” And she says, “Oh, they’re beautiful.” “Why did you, Johnny?” And I say, “I couldn’t help myself. I wanted to buy these roses for you so badly. In fact, go change clothes because we’re going out tonight because I can’t think of anything I would rather do than spend the evening with you.”

If I said that. She would not say. “All you ever think about is what makes you happy.” And yet I was thinking about what would make me happy. I was pursuing my pleasure. I told her that this is what would make me happy. Why didn’t she get mad at me? Why didn’t she call me selfish? Why didn’t she say that I’m the center of the universe? Here’s why. When you enjoy someone, they are glorified. They are the center of that moment. My wife would feel that — and God feels it in worship.

My answer to this fifth objection is this: If all of you in this room spent the rest of your life pursuing your joy in God, God would be the center of your life — not you. And if you pastors would teach your people to come on Sunday morning not out of duty, but out of the pursuit of joy, it would revolutionize your worship service.

Tomorrow night I want to ask the question. “If I spend my life pursuing my pleasure in God, will I be a loving person toward other people?” We have seen that God gets glory this way. But are people loved this way? Do I love people this way?