The Pursuit of Joy in Life and Ministry
There are a few things I like talking about more than Christian Hedonism which is what this is about. It’s a liberating and devastating topic to be told that you not only may but should pursue your joy and everything lands on you with amazing liberation. Really, this is too good to be true. I thought I was supposed to deny that and you’re telling me that you don’t deny it. You glut it.
Then on the other hand, which we’ll see, to be told that you must delight in God above all things when you in fact don’t is devastating — scary. I’ve seen it for now thirty years. I’ve seen it do both. I’ve seen it absolutely decimate people, and I’ve seen it set so many free. Both probably are necessary somewhere along the way because we’re not wired to delight in God. We’re wired to delight in television, and food, and sex, and fame, and friends, and family, and then somebody comes along and says, “You not only may pursue your joy in God. You must and you must have more joy in him than you have in anything or you’re an idolater,” is devastating depending on where your heart is.
So, I love to talk about it, and I hope I can say it in a way that you don’t feel like burdens are added to your life but lifted from your life.
A Letter from a Devastated and Liberated Women
I got a letter last December and I brought it along because it so encouraged me that God is still using the truths of Desiring God in amazing ways in people’s lives. This woman who’s in her thirties wrote this three-page letter to me to thank me, and I’m only going to mention a paragraph or two. She lost her children because of her drunken condition. Her husband committed suicide. This is eight years ago. She was devastated at having lost him, having lost her children, being an alcoholic and a heroin addict and a sex addict, and — at one point — gained one hundred pounds. So, you catch the scenario of misery.
About a third of the way into the letter after describing one confrontation with death that she avoided, she says this: “I rolled over on my back in my cheap apartment choking and sobbing. There on my bookshelf was a book. I do not remember how it got there or why it seemed to be illuminated in the gloominess of that night. It was Desiring God. I took the book from the shelf and began reading when tears slowed enough to let me. By the fourth chapter, God changed my heart completely and forever. Grasping that book tightly in my hands, I reached the end of myself. My overwhelming desire from that night forward was for God to see his kingdom come into this world, and a passion to see others glorify him by enjoying him forever. The pursuit of God through his word became the joy of my life. I had no joy outside of him and knowledge of him. I did nothing from that time that I did not do in the shadow of the cross.” Then the rest tell some of the subsequent struggles.
But I am encouraged by that because it’s an old book. I wrote the sermons in 1983, and then the book was published first in 1986, and almost everything I have to say here is rooted in the book, Desiring God. So, for whatever reason, the book has a staying power. It’s still probably my long-term best-selling book just because I think it is so liberating and so devastating — and usually, the liberation follows the devastation. I am deeply, deeply thankful that it has worked out that way.
Aim of the Seminar
Let me read to you just a paragraph from the syllabus. I assume you all have this. But here’s the aim of the class: “This particular seminar is designed to summarize, reinforce and further explain the life and ministry implications of Christian Hedonism, and the underlying vision of God as put forth in Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. If God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, which would be the summary of the book, then how should we live and how should we minister? How should we motivate ourselves and others when it comes to prayer, love, marriage, money, missions, reading, Scripture, etc. The seminar will include lectures and time for questions and answers.”
I hope that proves to be the case. The outline of the class is on the back. I hope that we move through one through five relatively quickly and spend almost all of our time on six and seven in the outline here.
Mission Statement of Our Church, My Life, and This Course
Let me put on the overhead the mission statement of our church because I don’t do these seminars just willy-nilly. Anything I write, anything I preach, I see through and put through the lens — the grid — of this mission statement: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God and all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
Now that mission statement came into existence in 1995. Christian Hedonism came into existence way earlier. So, I didn’t choose to be a Christian hedonist because I live by this. I formulated this for myself and for the church with a lot of people tweaking it in a committee of 23 people that worked for a year and a half to decide who is Bethlehem — what are we about — and this grows out of the convictions of Christian Hedonism and aims at it, and you can see it:
We exist to spread a passion . . .
Now spread means we’re not into this for ourselves alone because we’ve learned that people who live for themselves alone aren’t happy people. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). If you want to be blessed, you better be a spreader. You have to live for others. You got to be outside of yourself. The people who stand in front of the mirror all day long trying to like what they see are going to be sad people. But if you give your life away, forget self-consciousness, pour yourself out for others, your heart will expand with capacities of joy you never dreamed. So, spreading is Christian hedonist-plus. What we aim to spread is a passion, not just knowledge. We want people to feel something about Jesus, be convinced about something, and to be joyful about him.
. . . for the supremacy of God . . .
This is really, really big because God is really big and we’ll see why that’s so crucial that the supremacy of God puts him at the center and our passions in him and for him are what make Christian Hedonism what it is.
. . . in all things . . .
I hope Bethlehem doesn’t limit our understanding of God supremacy to just churchy stuff. It has to do with politics, as you’ll hear this weekend with regard to pro-life stuff. It has to do with family, it has to do with work, it has to do with science, it has to do with everything. God is supreme everywhere completely.
. . . for the joy of all peoples . . .
So, we’re pursuing the joy of all peoples because that’s what the Bible says we’re supposed to do. “Let the nations be glad” (Psalm 67:4). That’s a command that designates what missionaries are for in the Psalms, and it’s all:
. . . through Jesus Christ.
So, just to let you know that the mission statement of our church, I pray — even though I know a lot of you are not from Bethlehem — will be advanced through seminars like this.
The Struggle with Motivation
So I’m going to give you a little autobiography here. The roots that I can remember — I’m sure there are other roots way back in my childhood — but the roots that I can remember about the emergence of what I’m calling Christian Hedonism were in college in the struggle of this soul to figure out how to be motivated for good things, like going to Chicago. I went to Wheaton College, small-tritiated suburb, twenty-five miles west of Chicago, and we would do ministry by going into Chicago and doing street work or other kinds of evangelistic efforts.
Why should you do that? What kinds of things should be going on in your heart when you do that? Should it be guilt? Should it be duty? Should it be love? What is love? Is it okay to be happy about it? If you come home happier when you win are you selfish? That’s the way my mind was. What about the glory of God? Is that supposed to be the goal? What drives you when you’re twenty years old and you’re trying to figure out what makes your heart tick, and what’s appropriate, what’s right and wise?
So, I was struggling with those things and reading, and that happened right on through seminary and into graduate school, and here’s the sort of thing that I had to deal with. Luke 14:13–14 goes like this: “When you give a feast,” Jesus says, “invite the poor,” like Thanksgiving dinner, “the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Now, what makes motivation work according to that? How does motivation work? If you’re supposed to have the poor over for Thanksgiving, and of course, if you go out and find people that are not your friends, and you hardly know them, and you bring them in, maybe they don’t speak your language, it just makes the afternoon awkward. I just want to relax and watch a football game with my buddies and my family, and it’s just a little bit awkward to have new people, especially if they’re different. And so, you don’t do it.
And Jesus knew that. What did he do here? He said, “Do it and do it especially for those who can’t give you any kickback.” Therefore, he’s shooting down carnal, selfish, worldly motivation, and then he adds this: “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Manson’s Blindness to the Reward
Now, I would read these things. I read them all through college. I read them all through seminary. I would read these things, and I would be torn up inside because of scholars who talk like this. There’s T.W. Manson: “The promise of reward for this kind of life,” and he’s commenting on Luke 14:14, “is there as a fact. You do not live this way for the sake of reward. If you do you are not living this way but in the old selfish way.”
I just threw up my hand. I read stuff like that and said, “Why did he say it? What’s Jesus doing toying with us with this for? If that’s true, if what Manson just said is true, why did Jesus say that?” Jesus said, “Have the poor and the crippled and the lame and the blind come over for dinner for you will be repaid at the resurrection.” Then Manson comes along and says, “Forget Jesus said that. Don’t let that have any motivational power in your life.” No! Jesus is not a bad teacher. He’s a good teacher. He says things for reasons, and he said this one to get us to do that.
So, when you’re thinking about having somebody over for dinner and they’re going to make the afternoon difficult, think: “I’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Glorious repayment!” It doesn’t say what it is. I’m sure it’s not golf. I’m sure it’s not a Cadillac. I’m sure it’s Christ, more of Christ, more joy in Christ, more capacities to enjoy God, more holiness, more purity. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). I want to see more of God. I want to enjoy more of God. This will be my reward. This is not a bad motive. So, those are the struggles.
Ayn Rand and “Kantian” Air
Now, alongside with my struggling with the Bible and those who were interpreting it wrongly with their big PhDs behind their name, scaring little twenty-five-year-olds like me like I can’t think because smart, big, strong, powerful people say dumb things about the Bible like this. Ayn Rand is an atheist, and I was into a big Ayn Rand kick for about three years. From the late 1970s, I read everything she wrote. I read Atlas Shrugged, and The Fountainhead, and For the New Intellectual, and a whole bunch of books. I was blown away by her power to write. She’s dead wrong and got some things so close to right.
In fact, here’s a little autobiographical tidbit. I was so moved by Ayn Rand’s atheism and her hedonism of a different kind that I wrote her a long letter. She died in the 80s. I wrote her a long letter. I wrote a paper of appreciation and critique. I’m sure she never got any letter from an evangelical fundamentalist like me who wrote her appreciation. But she’s an atheist. Why would you write a letter of appreciation to an atheist who’s writing books in order to get people to stop believing in God, which is such an awful thing to do?
I don’t know if she ever got it. However, one day — vain that I am — I was at Luther Seminary Bookstore. I was thinking: “How would I know if she ever got this? I wonder if there’s a big fat detailed biography somewhere of her.” And I found one — a big, fat biography by her sidekick. Guess what I looked up in the index? Piper. It was there in a footnote! I got a footnote, and the footnote said her influence was so extensive that she even influenced fundamentalists. They had my name. I thought the only way they could have known that is that letter. I didn’t publish anything about her, and I just hope she got it because I wanted her to be saved. That’s why I wrote it. I wanted to lure her in that I don’t think she got Christianity right.
Now, here’s what she wrote. I’m going to read it to you. This is her conception of Christianity:
An action is moral, said Kant, only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action. (Thus if one has no desire to be evil, one cannot be good; if one has, one can.) (For the New Intellectual, 32)
That’s very sharp. That is devastating to this. She’s right. If that’s the Christian view of duty — if that’s the Christian view of motivation — I’m out of here! That’s why she gripped me. She was providing a secular, atheistic critique of what was troubling me about so many Christian ethicists who were arguing that you can’t be motivated by any benefits that come to you at all! Not heaven. Not knowledge of God. Not increased enjoyment of the Divine. Not anything. Just raw will power.
Well, that’s stupid. That is not what Christianity is. But I had no clear alternative. I couldn’t articulate in a way that sounded acceptable to me an alternative to what she was criticizing here that if you really want to do something, clearly, you’re getting kicks from it. Therefore, the moral value is “zero.” If you don’t want to do something and you do it anyway because you don’t want to then that’s “real virtue.”
I thought heaven has suddenly become hell because in heaven, what will we love? Doing good! What will be our joy in heaven? Everything that’s right! Otherwise, we’re all frustrated in heaven forever, and that’s the peak of “virtue.” Let’s all go to hell and call it “heaven.”
You can see just what incredible effect this was having as I was pulling out my hair in my twenties and thirties trying to figure out, “Okay, if Ayn Rand is right and Kant is wrong, then Jesus must be right. How can I articulate this? How can I say this?” I got to reread my whole Bible because I breathe in the air of Immanuel Kant. Frankly, I think the air of Immanuel Kant still is destroying thousands of worship services for a lot of people because they have the notion that the higher the act in terms of significance, the less of self-gratification there should be in. Therefore, the way to worship is stoically and dutifully, and that takes the heart out of worship and ruins it.
Pascal came into play. A lot of others did too. C.S. Lewis did. Jonathan Edwards did. You’ll see those as we go along. But at this point, here’s the alternative to what T.W. Manson said:
All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves. (Pensées, 45)
I think that’s true. Therefore, sanctification — becoming holy, becoming Christ-like, being born again — does not consist in stop wanting to be happy. It consists in a whole new set of what makes you happy. That’s what it means to be born again. All these things were making you happy, driving you, and making your will go this way. You’re born again and new worlds open up to you. Christ in the cross is at the center of that new treasure, and all your affections begin to change. I said begin. This doesn’t happen overnight. Some people it does. Others, long, painful process.
But being born again doesn’t mean stop your quest for happiness. It means pursue it in a whole new way because now there’s a new you in there that’s got different taste buds — different spiritual taste buds. The day before you’re born again, you put your tongue on the cross: “Boring. Foolish,” as Paul said (1 Corinthians 1:18). Day after you’re born again, you put your tongue across: “Honey! Gold! I can’t get enough of Jesus!” What’s happened? Not the quest for happiness. Just a whole new world of what makes you glad.
A Summary of Christian Hedonism
So that’s the struggle that I was in, and Christian Hedonism is the outcome of all these struggles. And here’s the summary of it. If you want a five statements summary of what do I mean by Christian Hedonism, these would be some of the pieces — the main ones:
The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
I think your desire to be happy is equivalent to your getting hungry for food. It’s a given with your humanity. If you don’t have it, you’re dead. Literally, you will die. You curl up in a bed. This is one of the worst forms of depression. You just disappear in bed because your soul is dying. It’s a horrible thing. I don’t think it’s sinful to want to be happy.
We should never try to deny or resist our longing to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
Those two words — deepest and most enduring — change everything. Get them. I'm getting them from the Bible. I'll tell you the verse in a minute.
So, here’s what I’m saying there. The solution to your sin problem. Everybody in this room’s got a sin problem. Even if you’re born again, you still like to sin in certain ways. That’s what sin is. It’s appealing. Nobody sends out of duty. Raise your hand if you sin out of duty. Get up in the morning and think, “I don’t want to sin today, but out of duty, I’ll sin.” Nobody does that. We only sin because it pleases — it feels good — or it promises some money if we lie on our tax forms or whatever. We sin because we want to sin. The solution to that problem is not the killing of want in your life: “I will now cease to be a wanter. I will now cease to be a desirer.” That’s not the solution. That’s what I felt growing up.
I mean, how many times did a missionary speaker come through our church and said, “Look at us, young people. You need to stop doing your own will and do God’s will.” I’m sitting there saying, “Is there a third alternative? Like my will becoming God’s will so that I might in fact find deep satisfaction in laying my life down for Jesus like most of the missionaries who’ve been written about talk?” I’ll give you some quotes later from David Livingstone and others who said amazing things about being satisfied in God in the midst of the most terrible kinds of circumstances. So, I don’t think the solution to our sin problem is in getting rid of our want to. It’s in glutting our want to on what gives the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.
The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.
The verse where I get those two words — deepest and most enduring — is Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” So, we got fullness and we got forever. That’s all I mean by deepest and most enduring. “In your presence there is fullness of joy.” Not ninety-nine percent. No thank you. Somebody comes along and says, “I can give you for 88 years, eighty percent proof happiness in this world,” whisper, “followed by eternal suffering.” Or somebody comes along and says, “I can give you a life of tremendous struggle, tremendous pain, much suffering, with deep joy that is growing, followed by an eternal, complete, full joy.”
So, I’m not accepting my most insane moments enticed by the lies of the devil about where his joy is to be found anymore. Somebody comes to me and says, “Come on, I can give you so much joy you can’t even imagine.” “You can’t even come close to Psalm 16:11! Full! You give me full. Come on, give me full! Where are you going to give me full except in Psalm 16:11? Money? Ha! More people jump off the car and out of a bridge in San Diego than off the Brooklyn Bridge in New York.” You’re probably wondering, what does that got to do with anything? The car not a bridge is ritzy. People only go over there to get homes that cost three million dollars. In Brooklyn, poor people cross that bridge. It’s ordinary people. Poor people don’t kill themselves; rich people kill themselves. So, you’re telling me money is going to do this? Statistically, you don’t have a leg to stand on.
Sex? How many diseases shall I get? And on and on. The lies that are given to us, I say, “No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.” To be born again is to discover Christ as an all satisfying treasure and never to be able to leave him again. You may battle at any given point. You may battle with a particular thing you shouldn’t do. But the big picture is I’m not leaving him. If I stumble and fall on this thing, I’m kicking it in the teeth that night, repenting, getting right with Jesus, and fighting this fight again because I have discovered where the treasure is.
The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it expands to meet the needs of others in the manifold ways of love.
Now, we’re going to spend a good bit of time on this tomorrow. But here just a little snapshot of what I’m saying. In 1977, I published an article in His Magazine. I gave it the title “Holy Hedonism,” and to my utter dismay, they put a big Marilyn Monroe set of lips on the page. I looked at the artwork and I said they just totally missed it. That was not the point. Not helpful.
The article represented my effort to ask: “Okay, you’ve just spent several years of your life in college and seminary and now in my early graduate school and Bethel teaching days nailing down the biblical foundations of vertical hedonism, namely, Psalm 16:11: ‘In your presence is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ Now the question becomes, what now? Am I cross-legged Buddhist sitting under a tree enjoying God and let the world go to hell? What good is that in a world like this?” That was my next struggles. What is this deep, sweet, powerful enjoyment doing here like this? If it doesn’t do anything here, clearly, it’s got to be unbiblical because the Bible is all about love. Love fulfills the whole law. If you’re not a loving person, you’re breaking every rule in the book.
So my next challenge was the challenge stated here. That’s the result of many years. Can you believe that something so simple is the result of many hardheaded years? What I’m saying there is when God comes to you and shows you himself and changes your heart so he in his word and his glory are your delight, you become like a high-pressure zone walking through the world. This is a weather analogy. I’m not a weatherman but I think this works. You become like a high-pressure zone. You move through the world. Other people without God are low pressure zones. There’s emptiness out there. And you’ve got this high-pressure zone because God is deeply satisfying you. When a high-pressure zone bumps up against a no pressure zone, what’s created? Wind. It moves from high to low. It fills the void and in doing it gets bigger.
If this doesn’t work meteorologically, it does spiritually. So, forget the analogy. I’m a high-pressure zone, I’m bursting with what God is showing me about himself, and I’m loving him and I’m enjoying him. I’m bumping into people around my family and around the neighborhood and around church and in the world, and they don’t know him. They don’t love him. They’re trying to be satisfied with low crummy stuff. They’re low pressure zone. It’s not working in their lives, and a wind is created that goes out into them, and what’s that wind called biblically? It’s called love. I’m sure it’s got other names. You’re probably right. But it’s called love.
Here’s the deal: love is not just the effect of my joy. I’m going to argue big time it is because the Bible does in lots of places that love is the overflow of joy in God. But I’m arguing here that it’s the expansion and consummation of joy in God. Therefore, this love is moving out questing for being bigger, which means I’m still a hedonist.
If I come to visit you in the hospital or wherever you might have a need, and you say, “Why did you come?” A bad answer is: “I didn’t want to come but I have a duty to.” That’s a bad answer. What effect does that have on you? You don’t feel more loved by that than my saying, “I find that when I am pouring my enjoyment of God into you at this moment of your need, my joy in God gets bigger, and therefore, I’m here to maximize my joy in your joy.”
Do you think at that moment that person would say, “You are so selfish? I can’t believe how selfish you are pastor because you just are seeking your joy.” It doesn’t compute that way because when you are seeking your joy in the joy of another as yours is expanding to go into them and make yours bigger, they feel loved. They don’t feel like your wanting to be there makes you less loving. It doesn’t work like that. We got lots of work to do on that. This is just a summary.
To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue.
Those are controversial statements. This word necessary is really controversial. Don’t try to abandon the pursuit of your joy is really controversial. It raises all kinds of questions, like self-denial. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Mark 8:34). Here, you are telling us never deny your pursuit of pleasure? Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I know that’s in the Bible and we’ll come back to it, because I don’t think it’s a contradiction.
The Flavors of This Church
That’s the summary of Christian Hedonism. It’s what has flavored this church for 28 years of my presence and probably before that without being called that. If you like being around here and you can point to certain things, it just may be that this is part of the reason you might be enjoying certain flavors of Bethlehem. We’re not a perfect church. That is for sure. It’s a sweet place to be — for me anyway. I love being here because we have 25 pastors who are on this page together. There are thousands of pastors who die and go to heaven to have that much unity as we have here. Unity around such profound things is amazing. We could talk some time about how we got there, but God’s been really good, really kind to us. Nothing I’m saying tonight that I know of would be disagreed with by any of our pastoral staff or elders, which in a church this size is simply amazing. It’s what keeps us moving because we’re not fighting each other about these profoundly important motivational and theological things.