Christian Hedonism

Mark Barry | Oct 6th, 2008

As we saw over the last two weeks, loving pleasure in place of God (hedonism) and rejecting pleasure in order to please God (asceticism) both fail, because both fail to set the desires of our hearts on God.

So let’s turn to option number 3, the biblical approach: being a ‘lover of God, rather than a lover of pleasure’ from 2 Timothy 3:4.

Defining Christian Hedonism (God-centred joy)

John Piper, who wrote the helpful book Desiring God, [1] calls this approach Christian Hedonism, which can be a little confusing to Christians who so closely associate hedonism with godless pleasure. What Piper means is God-centred joy. He gives this summary: ‘God is most glorified in us, when we are most satisfied in him.’ In other words, our goal in life is to glorify God and we do that by enjoying him.

So rather than loving pleasure in place of God, or rejecting pleasure in order to try please God, the Bible calls us to love the God who made us, and enjoy him with our lives.

So for example Psalm 16:11 says of God: ‘You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.’ Psalm 37:4 says: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ Psalm 42:1-2 says ‘As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.’

That our hearts desire pleasure, satisfaction and fulfilment is good. God has made us that way. He has made us to enjoy him; you are to love him with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deuteronomy 6:5). God has set eternity in our hearts and only he, the eternal God, can give us true satisfaction.

Understanding Christian Hedonism (God-centred joy)

We see this as we work through the big story of the Bible. Let’s very quickly race through it now.

Divine pleasure

The Bible begins with God in Genesis 1 and from the rest of the Bible we see that God – Father, Son and Spirit – takes delight in God. God is a perfect community of love and joy. So Jesus speaks of the glory he shared with God the Father before the world existed in John 17:5, and the Father speaks of Jesus as his ‘beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ in Matthew 3:17. God is self-fulfilled, he does what pleases him. As C.S. Lewis put it, he’s the ‘happy God’. He doesn’t need the world, or us. Yet he creates us to share in his own joy, as we just read from the Psalms, to delight ourselves in the Lord.

Corrupt pleasure

Yet humanity, seduced by Satan, rejects the infinite pleasure of being in relationship with the Creator. Adam and Eve seek pleasure from the one part of creation God forbids:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

So humanity, in judgement, is sent out of the garden into a world of pain and broken relationships. And we are destined to repeat the same idolatrous mistake of finding more pleasure from God’s gifts than from the Giver himself and worshipping the created thing (pleasure), rather than the creator (who designed it). As Titus chapter 3 says, our natural state is to be slaves to our passions and pleasures.

Redeemed pleasure

Yet God didn’t give up on us. He came as Jesus to save us. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to, according to the pleasure of his will. As Titus chapter 3, continues, God saved from this slavery ‘not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy’ (3:5).

Jesus graciously came into our world as one of us to set us free from our slavery, so we can worship God rather than pleasure and worship God with our hearts rather than rules. He did this by giving us eternal peace with God and joy in God our creator (Romans 5:11).

And Jesus ultimately achieves this for us through joyful suffering, as Hebrews 12:1-2 says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus suffered on the cross in our place for the joy of glorifying his father and for the joy of being with him in heaven. And he suffered so we too can share in this joy.

Here’s the greatest example of joy ever. Do you see this? Joy in God is bigger than crucifixion, it’s bigger than pain, it’s bigger than sacrifice, it’s bigger than suffering. When we trust in Jesus we can rejoice always, because in Jesus we always have God. God’s love for us is secure in Jesus.

And this joy is greater than our sin. We can jettison our spiritual baggage and the sin that sticks to us like glue. Not by following stupid rules, but by following Jesus, looking to his example, finding our joy in God.

When we taste and see that the Lord is good, and we’re satisfied by his infinite goodness, then snacking on sinful pleasure starts to lose its flavour. In fact the more we’re satisfied in Jesus, the more we want to obey him and glorify him with our lives.

The goal of the Christian life isn’t just to run from sin, but to run to Jesus, and enjoy God.

Perfect pleasure

Lastly, the Bible closes with the promise of a new creation of eternal satisfaction; drinking up, feasting on the goodness of God; experiencing maximum pleasure and no pain. Revelation chapter 7:16-17 says:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb [Jesus] in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God [the Father] will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

And more famously in Revelation 21:3-4:

Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

This is the great hope of Christians, to live with the eternal God as his people, fulfilling their created purpose to: ‘glorify God and enjoy him forever’.

Too easily pleased?

So my simple question to you is: why wouldn’t you want this? Why would you be satisfied with trivial pleasures, when you can enjoy the eternal joy that comes from relationship with the awesome creator who made you?

You see, pagan hedonism gets it wrong because it looks for joy in all the wrong places, worshipping pleasure rather than God. Religious asceticism gets it wrong because it denies our God-given desire for joy, worshipping God with rules not with the heart. But Christian hedonism - God-centred joy - gets it right because it embraces our created desire for joy, and looks for it in the only right place, God.

You see our problem is NOT that we are pleasure-seekers. Our problem is that we aim too low. As C. S. Lewis wrote:

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.[2]

Are you too easily pleased with the tiny pleasures of this world? Or do you want to be completely satisfied in the infinite, eternal God of the universe, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross for you?

[1] John Piper, Desiring God : meditations of a Christian hedonist (IVP, 2002)
[2] The Weight of Glory (1949), cited by