The Practical Sin-Killing Power of Christian Hedonism

Desiring God 2010 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the People, and the Pursuit of Joy

The following is notes taken during the session, not the manuscript.

A question I am asked many times is, "How does Christian Hedonism work? What does it do in the trenches of Christian living?" I think Christians have typically employed three tactics in their efforts to help others fight sin:

  1. Labor to portray sin in the ugliest possible terms, hoping and praying to frighten people into righteous living.
  2. Revert to legalism by producing long lists to corral our impulses.
  3. Argue that the problem is the presence of desire for pleasure in the human soul.

Several years ago a lady called me and described how her pastor had gone to his 20-year high school reunion, reconnected with his high school sweetheart, and subsequently decided to leave his wife. This lady explained that the church staged an intervention meeting with the pastor and spent three hours explaining in graphic detail what would be the consequences of his sin. Rather than repent, this pastor continued his relationship with his high school sweetheart. The warnings he heard in this meeting, though true, were not powerful enough to curb his desire for sin. There must be some other way to fight.

How Edwards Encouraged Purity

Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon titled, "Youth and the Pleasures of Piety," pleaded with the youth in his congregation to forsake sin by pursuing superior satisfaction in God. He didn't tell them, "Instead of pleasure, seek God," but "Seek your pleasure in God." He points out that religion doesn't prohibit the enjoyment of external pleasures, but rather the abuse of them.

Before you quickly dismiss Edwards as advocating some outdated Puritanical strategy, ask yourself, "If my people were asked today, 'What are the pleasures that never end that are found in Christ?', how would they respond to that?" Do you exhort people to consider the superior beauty of God? When was the last time you spoke on God's attributes? The only way you can conquer one pleasure is with another greater and more pleasing pleasure. The only way to break the bondages in which our people find themselves is by cultivating a passion for joy and delight in beholding the beauty of Jesus.

In his book When I Don't Desire God, John Piper tells us to put ourselves in the way of God's allurements by meditating on the Bible, memorizing it, partaking of the Lord's Supper, praying, worshiping, reading books on God, experiencing community with others who have a life passion, eliminating distractions in our life, etc.

Five Ways to Pursue Your Joy and the Joy of Your Flock

Here are five ways to work for your own joy and the joy of your people:

  1. Weave into the spiritual and intellectual fabric of your people the awareness that God's designs in the moral commandments of Scripture are to expand their capacity to enjoy him and not to inhibit it. (See Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Christian Happiness.")
  2. Preach often on the bigness and the beauty of God.
  3. Labor to turn their eyes from the pathetic, little, transient pleasures of what can be seen and felt and tasted to the grand and eternal pleasures of the glory that is to come.
  4. Build into the mental, emotional, and theological framework of your people an understanding of how suffering serves joy. (For a good resource, direct your people to Matt Chandler's videos about the brain cancer he is facing.)
  5. Be an example to them of joy in your own life and relationship with God.

No Greater Passion

My greatest desire for you is that you and I would be utterly captivated and consumed by the same spiritual energy that led the apostle Paul to cry out, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 'For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?' 'Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?' For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:33–36).

What your people need most is for you to immerse yourself in the fountainn of this joy-generating revelation of God and to be saturated to the bone with what caused Paul to explode with this declaration. People are in bondage to sin today because they are bored stiff with God, and that's our fault. If your people don't hear you speak the same truths that Paul did and if they don't sense the enthusiasm in you that was in him, they will just go home and turn on whatever anesthetizes their pain.

May God help us to serve and to love and to teach and to pray and to shepherd and to lead, by the grace of God, all the people of God into the enjoyment of God for the glory of God.