Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism

My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat,
   and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,
when I think of thee upon my bed,
   and meditate on thee in the watches of the night.

The revolt against hedonism has killed the spirit of worship in many churches. When you have the notion that high moral acts must be free from self-interest, then worship, which is one of the highest moral acts a human can perform, has to be conceived simply as duty. And when worship is reduced to a duty, it ceases to exist.

One of the great enemies of worship in our church is our own misguided virtue. We have the vague notion that seeking our own pleasure is sin and therefore virtue itself imprisons the longings of our hearts and smothers the spirit of worship. For what is worship if it is not our joyful feasting upon the banquet of God’s glory? Worship is an inward feeling and outward action that reflects the worth of God. And the inward feeling is the essence, for Jesus said,

“This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” (Matthew 15:8)

Three Ways the Heart Responds in Worship

Worship is vain, empty, nothing, where the heart is unmoved. And I think it’s possible to describe in general the experience of the heart in worship. There are three general ways that the heart can respond in worship to God, and they usually overlap and coexist.

1. The heart can delight in the wealth of God’s glory.

My soul is feasted as with marrow and fat,
   and my mouth praises thee with joyful lips,
when I think of thee upon my bed,
   and meditate on thee in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6).

2. The heart can long for that delight to be deeper and more intense and more consistent.

As a hart longs
   for the flowing streams,
so longs my soul
   for thee, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
   for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
   the face of God? (Psalm 42:1–2)

3. The heart can repent in sorrow when it feels neither the delight in God nor a longing for delight in God.

When my soul was embittered,
   when I was pricked in heart,
I was stupid and ignorant,
   I was like a beast toward thee (Psalms 73:21–22).

Our Great Hindrance to Worship

Therefore, if you feel no delight in the wealth of God’s glory, nor feel any longing to see and know God better, nor feel any sorrow that your longing and delight are so meager, then you are not worshiping. Isn’t it clear, then, that the person who thinks of virtue as overcoming self-interest and who thinks of vice as seeking our own pleasure, will scarcely be able to worship. For worship is the most hedonistic affair of life and must not be ruined by the least thought of disinterestedness. The great hindrance to worship is not that we are pleasure-seeking people, but that we are willing to settle for such pitiful pleasures. Jeremiah put it like this:

My people have exchanged their glory
   for that which does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
   be shocked, be utterly desolate,
      says 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” (Jeremiah 2:11–13).

“Worship is vain, empty, nothing, where the heart is unmoved.”

The great barrier to worship among God’s people is not that we are always seeking our own satisfaction, but that our seeking is so weak and half-hearted that we settle for little sips at broken cisterns when the fountain of life is just over the next hill.

One of my most important mentors in Christian Hedonism has been C.S. Lewis. I remember what a great discovery it was in 1968 to read the first page of his sermon, The Weight of Glory. It’s nothing more than what Jeremiah said, but it’s more up to date:

If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

That’s it, isn’t it? Our desire for happiness is too weak. We have settled for a home, a family, a few friends, a job, a TV and microwave and Apple II, an occasional night out, a yearly vacation. We have accustomed ourselves to such small, unexciting, short-lived, inadequate pleasure that our capacity for joy has shriveled. And therefore our worship has shriveled.

The Worship of Christian Hedonists

But I have a dream for Bethlehem and what a worship service could be if everyone in it were a Christian Hedonist. I dream of an hour a week utterly unlike any other hour; a weekly corporate appointment with the living God. A room filled with people who from the bottom of their heart say,

O God, thou art my God, I seek thee,
   my soul thirsts for thee;
my flesh faints for thee,
   as in a dry and weary land where no water is. (Psalm 63:1)

I dream about a gathering of people who love the conversation of Christian friendship, but who, for the sake of the depth of that very conversation, give it up for one hour and during the organ prelude, and bow in unashamed earnestness of prayer that the Spirit of God might descend upon our worship and shake this place with his power. I dream of a gathered family of believers on Sunday morning who are as genuinely happy in God as families are on the first day of vacation, or around a big turkey at Thanksgiving, or beside the Christmas tree when the gifts are given out. Unfettered hearts of joy, free to say, “Amen!” when the choir has carried us to God, or when the organ praise has enthroned the King of kings, or when the preacher speaks some incomparable gospel truth.

“We are so accustomed to such small pleasures that our capacity for joy has shriveled.”

I dream of an hour together where grudges melt and old festering wounds are healed in the warmth of the joy of the Lord. An hour with God, where battered saints absorb the strength and power of the Lord to re-enter their work revived and strong on Monday. I dream of a people gathered, hungry to hear the word of God, and to make a joyful noise to the God of their salvation with song, and organ, and piano, and trumpets, and flutes, and strings, and cymbals, and shouts. I dream of one hour a week with you, where we encounter God together in such a real and unmistakable way that strangers will enter and say, “God is surely in this place!”

It is not merely a dream. It is God’s will for us, and it is happening. A man came to see me last week who had visited our morning worship a couple times. He said he just wanted to encourage me to keep on, and then tears welled up in his eyes and he said, “I went home and cried because we don’t worship at my church like you do at yours.” I was surprised because I know how far we have to go. He had been nurtured as a new believer in a very informal house church. So I said, “Then our service must seem really stiff to you, since everything is pretty much planned out.” But he said, “No, no. It’s not the form or structure. It’s whether there’s life. Whether the leadership and people are really meeting God.” And he’s right. There are dead charismatic churches and there are living liturgical churches. The form is just a track to keep us all going in the same direction; whether the engine of worship bullets along this track or sits cold in the station depends on whether we are Christian Hedonists or not.

Four Objections to Christian Hedonism

So what can we do to make this dream come true at Bethlehem? Two things: one intellectual, the other emotional. We will have to be convinced intellectually that the objections to Christian Hedonism are not valid, and we will have to awaken new and powerful emotions in our hearts for God. Let me address four objections to Christian Hedonism as it relates to worship.

1. Christian Hedonism does not mean that God becomes a means to help us get worldly pleasures.

The pleasure a Christian Hedonist seeks is the pleasure which is in God himself. He is the end of our search for joy, not the means to some further end. “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). He is our exceeding joy, not the streets of gold, or reunion with relatives, or any other blessing of earth or heaven. Last week, I argued from Hebrews 11:6, that you cannot please God unless you come to him for reward, and today I stress again, the reward is fellowship with God himself.

2. Christian Hedonism is aware that self-consciousness kills joy, and therefore kills worship.

As soon as you turn your eyes in on yourself and become conscious of experiencing joy, it’s gone. The Christian Hedonist knows that the secret of joy is self-forgetfulness. Yes, we go to the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the joy of seeing the paintings. But the counsel of Christian Hedonism is: set your whole attention on the paintings, and not on your emotions, or you will ruin the whole experience. Therefore, in worship there must be a radical orientation on God, not ourselves.

3. Christian Hedonism does not make a god out of pleasure. It says that you have already made a god out of whatever you find most pleasure in.

4. Christian Hedonism does not put us above God when we seek him out of self-interest.

A patient is not greater than his doctor because he comes to him to be made well. A child is not greater than his father when he wants the fun of playing together. Suppose on December 21, I bring home to Noël fifteen long-stemmed red roses to celebrate our anniversary. And when she says, “They’re beautiful, Johnny, thank you,” I respond, “Don’t mention it. It’s my duty.” With that word, all moral value vanishes. Yes, it is my duty, but unless I am moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the very exercise of my duty belittles her.

“Worship involves a radical orientation on God, not ourselves.”

That is what has to be changed in our worship. We belittle God when we go through the outward motions of worship and take no pleasure in his person. My wife is exalted, and not belittled, when I say to her, “The reason I would like to take you out alone tonight is because I get so much pleasure out of being with you.” The chief end of man is not just to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. And if we don’t enjoy him, we don’t glorify him. Therefore, I say again that my dream for Bethlehem to become a worshiping people will only come true if we become Christian Hedonists who are not satisfied with mud pies in the slums.

Open Your Eyes to the Glory of God

I hope that before we are done with this series, you will be convinced of that in your mind. But that would not be enough. To become a worshipping people, new and powerful emotions for God have to be awakened in our hearts. Unless we cultivate our God-given powers of emotion and imagination, they will shrivel up and die, and so will our worship. Let’s not let happen to us what happened to Charles Darwin. Near the end of his life he wrote an autobiography for his children and expressed one regret. He wrote,

Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds . . . gave me great pleasure . . . Formerly pictures gave me considerable (pleasure) and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry . . . I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music . . . I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight it formerly did . . . My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts.

Brothers and sisters, please don’t let that happen to you! Don’t let your Christianity be the grinding out of general doctrinal laws from collections of biblical facts. Don’t let your first love grow cold. Don’t let the childlike awe and wonder die. Don’t let the scenery and poetry and music of your relationship with God shrivel up and mean nothing to you anymore. You have capacities for joy of which you scarcely know. God will call them forth. Open your eyes to his glory. It is all around you. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1). God will awaken your heart if you ask him and seek for him as for hidden treasure.

Awaken Your Heart to Worship

Last Monday night, I was in a jet flying back from Chicago. I was almost alone in the plane, so I sat beside an eastern window. The pilot said there was a thunderstorm over Lake Michigan and into Wisconsin, and so he would skirt it to the west. I sat there staring out into total blackness when all of a sudden the whole sky was brilliant with light and a cavern of white clouds fell away — two, three, four miles beneath the plane — and then vanished. A second later a mammoth white tunnel of light exploded from north to south across the horizon, and again vanished into blackness. And pretty soon the lightning was almost constant and volcanoes of light burst up out of cloud-shaped ravines and from behind distant, white mountains. I sat there shaking my head almost in unbelief. “Christ, if these are but the sparks from the sharpening of your sword, what will be the day of your appearing!” And I remembered the word of our Lord:

“As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matthew 24:27).

And even now as I recollect that sight, the word glory is full of feeling for me and I thank God that again and again he has awakened my heart to desire him, to worship him. And he will do it for you, if you really want him to.