by Al Maxey

Issue #605 ------- January 24, 2014
Doing right for right's sake is atheistic.
Christians should do what God says is right
because in doing it we enjoy more of God.

John Stephen Piper (born: Jan. 11, 1946)

Christian Hedonism
Theology of Ultimate Pleasure

"Hedonism" is most often defined as "the belief that pleasure or happiness is the most important goal in life, thereby becoming one's primary motivation for living." It is derived from the Greek word for "pleasure" = "hedone," which was most often "used of the gratification of the natural or sinful desires" [Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words]. Such terms as "carnality," "sensuality" and "debauchery" are often listed as synonyms. Thus, by this definition, a hedonistic lifestyle is basically a self-indulgent lifestyle; a philosophy that measures success in terms of the degree of pleasure and happiness one is able to experience in life. Most regard hedonism as a negative, for the "pleasures" sought tend to be those of this world (the lust of the eyes, the desires of the flesh: material gain, fame, sexual gratification, and the like). "Eat, drink and be merry" is the mantra of self-centered hedonism. Whatever makes me personally happy, whatever brings me the greatest pleasure, is the "god" before which I will bow, and for which I will "sell my soul." Jesus declared, "For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matt. 16:26). Therefore, hedonism, when viewed in this light, is certainly far removed from the precepts and principles of Christian faith and practice. Very few people today, hearing the terms "hedonism" and "hedonist," tend to form a positive picture in their minds. Thus, the phrase "Christian Hedonism" seems to be, at first glance, a contradiction in terms (an oxymoron).

The expression itself ("Christian Hedonism") was coined by Dr. John S. Piper (b. 1946) in the year 1986 in his book titled "Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist." Dr. Piper, a Baptist pastor, has created quite a furor within Christendom over the views expressed in his book (and subsequent lectures and writings), and not a few have condemned him for promoting a "heresy of hedonism." His views are being well-received in many evangelical circles, however, and are serving to challenge the thinking and spiritual focus of a good many disciples of Christ today. A Reflections reader in Texas sent me the following email last week in which he expressed concern about this very matter: "Brother Al, have you written anything about Christian Hedonism? I am seeing more and more of the teachings of John Piper, and others of this leaning, coming into our Bible discussions, and, unfortunately, several of our church leaders, as well as our pulpit minister, are using his book and videos in their teachings here. There is a growing confusion within the membership as a result of these presentations. I greatly appreciate your honest and scholarly presentations, and your willingness to meet issues and questions head on, and would welcome your thoughts on this."

Undoubtedly, some of the criticism of Dr. Piper's work results from his decision to use the terms "hedonism" and "hedonist." Such terms, in our society (and especially in Christian circles), tend to carry a negative connotation. Thus, to characterize one's theological perspective as "hedonistic" is almost certainly guaranteed to generate a strong response ... and it did. Piper's use of this terminology, however, was intentional, and achieved the desired result: people began talking about the perspective he was espousing; it got their attention, and they took a closer look at what he was teaching. For many, the initial negative reaction soon turned to a positive reflection; they began to perceive what he was trying to say, and they began to see there was something worthwhile in his message. Dr. Piper was not advocating pleasure for pleasure's sake; he was not suggesting mankind's greatest goal was in achieving and experiencing the many pleasures of this earthly existence; that our motivating force should be the avoidance, at any cost, of pain and suffering. Rather, his point was that our God created us to enjoy the blessings He pours out upon us daily, and therefore we, His children, find our greatest joy and happiness and pleasure and delight in relationship with Him. Thus, a true oxymoron (contradiction in terms) would be an "unhappy Christian" (a Christian devoid of joy); a disciple of Christ who dragged himself through life in misery, rather than rejoicing in his relationship with the Lord. Dr. Piper sought to call Christians back to an enjoyment of the pleasures associated with our divine calling. Indeed, he declared that our God is most glorified by joyful disciples. One of his best known statements is: "God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in Him."

There is a significant portion of Christian history over the past two thousand years that is characterized by a "theology of suffering." Most students of church history are familiar with the scourge (pun intended) of "Flagellantism," a radical movement within the Catholic Church, most popular during the 13th-14th centuries (especially in certain ascetic monastic orders), in which the adherents whipped themselves mercilessly as an "act of piety." Any feeling of pleasure, or expression of pleasure, was considered a "surrender to the flesh," therefore the flesh had to be "mortified" in order to drive such emotions away. These people genuinely believed God was most pleased with His people, and most glorified by His people, in their suffering. Such theology carried over into some of the Protestant movements as well, and there are examples in Puritan congregations where members were punished severely for daring to "smile in church." It is against such a backdrop of history that Dr. John Piper's theology stands in marked contrast. Yes, there will be suffering in this life. Our Lord Jesus assured us of that. When we live as God's children in a godless world, affliction is sure to follow, and that is not pleasurable. On the other hand, we can still know and express a deep inner JOY that overflows into outward expression. It is for this reason that Paul and Silas could sing while chained to the wall of a dungeon. In relationship with Him there is great joy, and this evidences itself in visible rejoicing. Yes, we can know the "pleasures" of union with Him, even in the face of the inevitable afflictions of this world. Thus, it is in our rejoicing, rather than in our suffering, that our God is truly glorified, and it is in the former, rather than the latter, that we truly find our greatest personal satisfaction. Our faith may cause us to be persecuted by the world, yet "out of faith grows the flower of joy" [Dr. John Piper].

What is the ultimate purpose of our lives? Unto what has our God called us? Has the Father called us to a life of misery and suffering? Or, has He called us to a life of joy and celebration in relationship with Him? I believe Dr. Piper is correct in suggesting the latter. Our God desires us to be happy; to enjoy the blessings and pleasures He has created for us. In our abuse and misuse of these blessings and pleasures we often invite suffering, but the original intent of our Creator was for His creation to delight in His presence and experience unending joy. One reviewer of his book wrote, "Piper beckons us to approach God with the hedonist's abandon. Finally, we are freed to enjoy Jesus -- not only as our Lord and Savior, but also as our all-surpassing, soul-satisfying Treasure." Dr. John Frame, in his study titled "Machen's Warrior Children," observed, "Building on some ideas of Jonathan Edwards, Piper argues that the Christian life is essentially an enjoyment of God, for God is glorified when His people enjoy Him. The Christian life gets out of kilter when we find ourselves enjoying other things in the place of God." In other words, our greatest pleasure ought to be found in relationship with Him; our lives ought to be characterized by a visible JOY at being "in Him." People around us ought to be able to SEE this happiness in our attitudes and actions, and be drawn to it. Men and women who drag through life with pained expressions on their faces, as though life itself is just one miserable moment after another until we finally find relief in death, are a poor witness to the wondrous joys and pleasures of being a child of the King! Dr. Piper is calling us to rethink our purpose for being.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), in his oft-quoted short work titled "The Weight of Glory," stated, "If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest 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 around 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." In other words, Christians tend to settle for too little! God calls us to the joys and pleasures associated with an intimate relationship with Him, and we settle for misery and wretchedness, thinking somehow that He is more glorified therein. We have been sold a false theology!

One of the chief criticisms of Dr. Piper's teaching is: he is suggesting that personal pleasure should be the ultimate goal of a disciple of Christ; that our true satisfaction in life is to be found in personal happiness. This is a criticism to which Piper gave the following response in his book: "By Christian Hedonism we do not mean that our happiness is the highest good." Pleasure for pleasure's sake is not what the philosophy/theology of Christian Hedonism is about. Rather, it is the view that only when we are truly immersed in a covenant relationship with the Lord are we truly at our happiest and most fulfilled, and it is in this state that our God is most glorified by our lives. Although this may fly in the face of those who believe we are called to lives of suffering and affliction (and that happiness, for the Christian, is only to be found "in the sky by-and-by"), I am convinced, nevertheless, that the view that the Father is best represented by happy children is sound theology. Joy, after all, is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). How can the Spirit-filled son or daughter of God not live joyously every day?! We ought to be the happiest people on earth. Yet, too often we act like the most miserable. Solomon, in his quest for meaning in life, talks about how meaningless earthly pursuits can be, yet also points out that in the midst of such meaninglessness we are favored by God with His daily and abundant blessings. Thus, he advises, "eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart. ... Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love" (Eccl. 9:7-9). People of God, you are blessed; you are favored; you are chosen to be recipients of the abundant life. You are called to enjoy these pleasures bestowed by your loving, gracious Father. Dr. John Piper is not suggesting we seek pleasure solely for pleasure's sake. What he suggests is: one of the great benefits of being a child of God is that, regardless of outward circumstances, we can be filled with joy, and find happiness and pleasure (the kind that truly matter) in union with Him. With this perspective of this philosophy I find no fault.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Georgia:

It is interesting to note, as you did, that God installed laws to protect the "extra wife," but never forbade multiple wives. Back then, a child that was disrespectful might be stoned to death, but multiple wives was apparently not on God's radar for reprisal. Odd. It appears to me that as long as a man honored and took care of his wives, God allowed it. But, as soon as a man dishonored them, or failed to provide for them, God stepped in. The verses in the NT that speak to having one wife seem to be limited to those in leadership. This surely speaks to a higher level of conduct (as in "not given to much wine"), but it doesn't outright condemn the practice of multiple wives. Even the passage in Genesis quoted by Jesus doesn't say that a man can't cleave to and become one flesh with more than one wife; it just indicates that when he chooses and takes a wife, they do indeed become "one flesh." All in all, I can't see where there is any prohibition from God regarding multiple wives per se. I think God gives monogamy a "thumbs up" as a higher level of conduct when He limits church leaders to one wife, but He gives NO command to avoid multiple wives altogether. Thus, it would be very difficult for me to condemn the practice from the Scriptures, although it would be easy for me to suggest that one wife is what God prefers. On the other hand, multiple wives does seem imprudent given the required storage space for women's shoes and the time allotted for each in the bathroom!!

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I have been married to my bride for 56 years, and a better woman can't be found! However, the thought of having more than one of this species gives me the shivers. And I'm sure she feels the same about me!

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Aside from the obvious sexual experiences, why on earth would a man want more than one wife?!! Trust me, one is enough!

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Another interesting and informative article ("Pondering Polygamy"). Personally, after serving as a missionary in France, and also being engaged in multiple trips to Russia, Ukraine and the Far East, it seems we go into these fields intending to convert the people to our USA culture, and our "three songs and a prayer" view of the church. Although God did not command a man to have more than one wife at the same time, He did not condemn it either. He allowed it. When we go into countries where a man has two or more wives, we usually demand that he keep the first, usually the oldest, and give up the rest before we will baptize him. However, it seems to me that God takes a man where he is. I realize that the homosexual might argue that if the polygamist may remain in that relationship, then he may remain in his. The difference would be that God never condemned polygamy (He allowed it), but He condemned homosexuality. It is interesting that on the day of Pentecost, Peter never said a word about MDR or polygamy. I believe God's ideal should be ours, but in some nations it isn't, just as it wasn't with Abraham and others. If we were living in Abraham's day, would we demand he get rid of his extra wife (wives) and concubines ... or else?! If God didn't, neither should we. And, that's my story and I'm stickin' to it!!

From a Reader in Alabama:

That was a good study on polygamy! A key point to make here is: these unions were, in fact, recognized in the Bible as marriages. Marriage is a contract to live together and to be loyal to that relationship. Thus, polygamy is quite different than a man in a monogamous marriage sleeping around. While serving in Ghana, I had some interaction with those trained by the Bear Valley School of Preaching in Denver, CO. They would refuse to baptize a believer who was a polygamist unless he put away all his wives except his first one. My understanding, however, is that we baptize a believer who is a polygamist, and then encourage him to be faithful to his legal commitments. At the same time, we would teach the people that God's will for marriage is that one man be married to one woman for life, and that the church should be promoting this view. Blessings, Al, for the good work you do.

From a Reader in Nevada:

Your article on polygamy is an excellent treatment of a difficult biblical subject, as usual. Polygamy would not be sinful today; nor is it immoral, in my view (for God Himself never once declares it to be such). Practically speaking, what should we advise an African chieftain with three wives who wishes to come to Christ and be baptized? Though he could not ultimately become an elder in his situation (Titus 1:6; 1 Tim. 3:2), or a deacon (1 Tim. 3:12), I would welcome him into the water with the proviso that as any of his wives should die off, he should not replace them. In other words, he should strive toward God's ideal: one man and one woman for life.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

My experience in Saudi Arabia confirms your teaching in your article. I have wondered what we should do if we converted a Muslim with more than one wife (I believe they are allowed a maximum of four under the laws of Islam). Based on your thinking, with which I agree, I think that we should leave them alone. While it is not God's ideal, it is better than tearing apart a functioning family.

From a Minister in Mississippi:

Once, on a foreign mission field, a man, convinced that Jesus had indeed died for him and had been raised from the dead, asked about his polygamous state: could he be baptized into Christ? I showed him the passage in Matthew 19 where Jesus said "from the beginning it has not been so," and also the passages concerning church leaders ("a one woman man"). The man concluded that it would: (1) be wrong for him to divorce any of his wives, (2) wrong to add any more wives, and (3) wrong for him to become a church leader. I could not fault his exegesis. I did point out to him that he should take it upon himself to teach his sons that they should only marry one woman.

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Good article, as always, Al. From a practical standpoint, how do you think Western missionaries should handle converts to Christianity in cultures where polygamy has always been the standard, accepted, legal practice? If a man who has three wives is converted to Christ, must he abandon two of them? Does he get to select the prettiest one to keep? What happens to the children of the abandoned wives? As you know, this is a very real and frequent situation.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Interesting article. What do you think missionaries should tell converts in Africa about their multiple marriages? After they become Christians, should they stay married to them all, or should they divorce all the wives except the first one? As you know, this is a real-world question.

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