As a college student, this slightly hard-headed reviewer found what he took to be the ‘C.S. Lewis cult’ to be trendy and off-putting, an observation that—for whatever historical accuracy it might have achieved—delayed his introduction into one of the great masters by three years or so.
Recently I became aware that I was avoiding reading John Piper for a similarly faulty motive: the gleam in the eye of the so-called ‘Piper Cubs’—one that from time to time takes on a fanatic bearing—served as a too convenient pretext for sidestepping whatever value might lie in the ruminations of their master. And so, in a spasm of self-denial, I laid aside my shallow reluctance, found a recently re-minted copy of Piper’s first popular work Desiring God, Meditation of a Christian Hedonist, and undertook to ‘take up and read’.
Three things about John Piper come clear in the early innings. First, he loves the church. I do not mean chiefly that he’s enamored with the idea or the notion of the Church, but that he has a spiny conviction that God does his best work among the local gatherings of imperfect and occasionally awful human beings who claim to belong to him by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever Piper writes, it seems, is likely to have passed the test of survivability among knots of real people who burp, scratch themselves, and occasionally pay the mortgage late.
Second, Piper wants us to be happy. Really, truly happy. The label that he applies, recurrently and persistently, to that view of things which he unabashedly urges on the rest of us is ‘Christian hedonism’. Being a smart man, Piper has taken due stock of the liabilities that can be associated with this phrase, then hung on to it for the merits of its shock value or, at the least, its useful distinctiveness.
Third, Piper finds in the Puritan writers and in the manner of life and thought that flows out of John Calvin’s Geneva an exceedingly useful guide to life in our very different times and, it must be added, a rather straight-line trajectory from the biblical materials themselves, not least, from the Apostle Paul. Although the author or his editors have realized the downside of unselfconscious use of Calvinistic vocabulary, he and they are quite content to claim a rather precise theological identity and then allow the chips to fall—presumably because they have been foreordained to do so—where they will.
The author does not hesitate to go autobiographical in this passionate and deeply personal work. Although this integration of testimony and teaching flows throughout the book, the introductory ‘How I Became a Christian Hedonist’ serves warning of what is coming. Piper introduces us here to his rephrasing—he would see it as a faithful rendering—of the Westminster Catechism’s first declaration: ‘The chief end of man’, Reformed Christians are accustomed to reciting ‘is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever’. Piper does not see a dual teleology for human existence but rather a single one:
The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.
It is possible that Piper’s discernment is right here and that his rephrasing shocks contemporary piety precisely because we have forgotten just how central ‘the religious affections’ are to life lived out before our Creator.
The college-era experience of the author in discovering release from bare duty to joyful service—and then to find this articulated by the likes of Blaise Pascal and C.S. Lewis—marks the genesis of Piper’s life-long mission to convert us into happy people because we find our joy in God’s glory.
Along the autobiographical way, Piper pauses to provide a rather systematic definition of Christian Hedonism that maps out the path ahead when testimony has given way in considerable degree to didactic:
Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:
1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.
2. 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.
3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God. Not from God, but in God.
4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.
5. To the extent that 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.
There may not be enough dour-minded custodians of gravity about any more to justify the lampooning of them. But even if there are only one or two, one imagines their righteous knees trembling as Piper oils his musket.
Having done so, the author turns earnestly to the matter of happiness. God’s happiness, in fact (Chapter 1, ‘The Happiness of God. Foundation for Christian Hedonism’, pp. 30–50). This chapter establishes Piper’s method as he will sustain it throughout Desiring God in at least two ways.
First, the page before the beginning of each chapter proper is attractively set with a series of quotes. These give some indication of the reservoir from which Piper draws his concept and his prose. Characteristically, chapter one is introduced by quotations from the Bible and the American theologian Jonathan Edwards, two of the author’s mainstays.
Second, Piper begins his consideration of happiness by addressing the happiness of God. Although Christians outside of Piper’s Reformed tradition might object that the observation is hardly unique to that particular strain of faith and practice, it is probably fair to credit to Piper’s Calvinism the insistence upon beginning most conversation with God himself.
In this vein, Piper allows himself yet another relecture of the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first principle: The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever.
In doing so, Piper is explicit about his intention: to shift the conversation from duty to design. Since God is the first Designer and—in Piper’s pastoral survey of the landscape—Christians urgently need to be freed to desire both God and happiness, it makes sense to begin by contemplating the scene of a God who is immensely happy with himself.
I have deliberately chosen language that conjures a rather icky picture of the deity. How can a God who is ‘happy with himself’ be worthy of our worship and service? Even in a review I find it fair to do so precisely because the work under inspection is eager to deconstruct the off-putting nature of popular response to such a God.
Piper’s first chapter is at pains to present a sovereign, majestic, joyful and joy-giving God who is worthy of us finding our happiness in him precisely because he is so utterly happy in himself. Piper asks—appropriately in this reviewer’s estimation—whether a sour-minded deity who faced frustration on every side would be the kind of God whom we would want—whom we would be happy?—to worship.
Obviously, such a God would not inspire, at the least, our confidence. So Piper plants as a first principle of Christian Hedonism a God who is supremely happy because his purposes are in fact not subject to frustration, abortion, or—to allude to a biblical author’s turn of phrase—shadow of turning.
God delights, Piper tells us, in the assured results of ‘redemption history’. He is not bashful about the heavy sledding required in order to arrive at a destination where God’s absolute sovereignty is freely confessed, for his macro-argument fairly requires this kind of confidence in the inevitability of God’s final victory as in his control of the details of his war.
His first chapter draws this conclusion:
All the works of God culminate in the praises of his Redeemed people. The climax of His happiness is the delight He takes in the echoes of His excellence in the praises of the saints. This praise is the consummation of our own joy in God. Therefore, God’s pursuit of praise from us and our pursuit of pleasure in Him are the same pursuit. This is the great gospel! This is the foundation of Christian Hedonism.
The exclamation point after the penultimate sentence and the bare full stop after the final one suggest that Piper aims at something short of a full identification of ‘great gospel’ with ‘Christian Hedonism’. But only just.
Piper next turns to the matter of conversion (chapter two, ‘Conversion’, pp. 52–74), turning to time-honored Christian vocabulary commonly employed to describe this existential change of direction and finding it wanting. Because conversion talk has become conventional it has become powerless. It allows people to believe they are Christians when in fact they are not.
The lexicon of Christian hedonism supplies language that meets the resulting need:
Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion is not, ‘Believe in the Lord,’ but, ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’? And might not many slumbering hearts be stabbed broad awake by the words ‘Unless a man be born again into a Christian hedonist he cannot see the kingdom of God’?
The author then proceeds to restate classic Christian doctrine regarding sin and salvation in the ‘new’ terms of Christian hedonism. Matters of joy, desire, passion, and longing are now seen as indicators of the deepest value of the human heart. Conversion becomes less a description of changed states in the abstract than of the dynamic movements of the human heart. Jonathan Edwards’ religious affections lurk at every turn.
Working his way down the list of central Christian attitudes and activities, Piper asserts that worship has to do with real life (Chapter 3, ‘Worship’, pp. 76–109). The importance of it, he derives from Jesus’ unconventional chat with a Samaritan prostitute, resides not in the where, but rather in the how and the whom. Piper is working his way towards a systematization of the—pardon the redundancy—systemic nature of engagement with God. By this I mean—because I believe that Piper intends—the reconquest of the totalist nature of Christian worship and service with regard to the human person. Speaking from a tradition that not infrequently pursues logic into the ditch of scholastic rationality, Piper wants to make sure that the human experience we abbreviate with words like ‘passion’ and ‘emotion’ are not inadvertently left out of the mix. Worship ‘in spirit and truth’ doubtless means subtly distinct things at once, some of them signaled in English by whether or not one capitalizes the ‘S-word’. But for the author it must include the summons to worship God with, as they say, passion:
The fuel of worship is a true vision of the greatness of God; the fire that makes the fuel burn white hot is the quickening of the Holy Spirit; the furnace made alive and warm by the flame of truth is our renewed spirit; and the resulting heat of our affections is powerful worship, pushing its way out in confessions, longings, acclamations, tears, songs, shouts, bowed heads, lifted hands, and obedient lives.
In a paragraph like the one just cited, Piper brushes up against one of his principal contributions to modern piety: a dynamic, thrusting, engaged view of worship and service by Christians whose understanding of the God whom they worship is shaped at the outside by—perilously abstract—notions like majesty and sovereignty.
If American evangelicals over thirty possess an unwritten but almost Talmudic-ally authoritative oral law, it is the one that decrees that emotion follows fact. One acts upon the facts, not expecting emotion to show itself as a constituent element of obedient experience. ‘Rubbish!’, Piper seems to want to say to such well-intentioned parceling out of human nature. The frequency with which words like ‘affections’ and ‘passion’ punctuate his dismantling of this time-honored bit of pastoral counsel is indicative of how unfortunately misleading he considers it to be.
One can almost hear the little pamphlets burning …
In his fourth chapter, Piper develops his reputation as a master of the productively jarring phrase (‘Love. The labor of Christian Hedonism’, pp. 110–141). He makes the claim that disinterested benevolence—service to God motivated by duty rather than a beggar’s desperate hunger for God’s company—is evil. Not ‘inappropriate’, ‘unhelpful’, or even ‘misguided’, mind you. Evil.
To be precise, he has already floated this notion in his chapter on worship. But as he returns from the Christian’s vertical relationship with God to the horizontal matter of loving interaction with his human peers, the logic of virtuous questing for the reward of fellowship becomes the more clear.
Piper realizes he has his work cut out for him at this point, finding it necessary to urge his readers not to fixate on the isolated biblical passage that may appear to run contrary to the argument of Christian hedonism but rather to search for what linguists and philosophers call the ‘deep structure’.
That fundamental moral architecture, Piper believes, insists upon the goodness of delighting in what is good, of loving it, of seeking the reward that comes to those who pursue it. It is not difficult for him to heap passage upon passage that employs this language and logic, for the biblical anthology is thick with such expressions. Piper’s contribution is momentarily to pry us out from under a half-century or more of dutiful exhortation to an open space where we can hear the sound of a melody whose dominant chords are not the deep thud of responsibility but rather the brassy summons of joyful reward.
I suppose on no particular scientific basis that this chapter is where Piper loses the lion’s share of his would-be fellow hedonists. The language is so severely unconventional that it takes an almost heroic commitment to hearing the man out to continue pressing through it.
Yet I make this observation with sadness rather than endorsement, for Piper is clearly mining the biblical materials with a manner of expertise. Given enough of a reader’s time and sufficient explanatory paragraphs, he makes a respectable case for that pursuit of pleasureful reward that is capable of embracing suffering, that knows the salt of tears, and that rejoices—indeed finds itself doubled—in the joy of others.
Piper views the Bible as the principal means God has provided to keep the Christian walking in paths that bring the desired joy and the joy of desiring Him (Chapter five, ‘Scripture. Kindling for Christian hedonism’, pp. 142–157). As it is put in one of Scripture’s more memorable turns of phrase, Scripture ‘restores the soul.’
In saying so, Piper wants to be clear about the reality that the Christian’s lived experience is not best described as uninterrupted happiness. He is in a war, a context in which Piper appears to sense the deep appropriateness of the biblical claim that God’s written truth is a ‘sword’.
Pace that street-level prejudice the supposes that Calvinists do not pray because they believe everything is predestined to happen just as it will sans messy consultation with human beings, Piper is all for prayer. He does not mean the pious, public enunciation of pedantries but the knee-born cry like that of an adultress who possesses nothing and knows it (chapter six, ‘Prayer’, pp. 158–183). Such kneeling pursuit of both glory and happiness look to the Christian Hedonist to be entirely like what God invites sinners—redeemed and wanting to be so—to engage. For Piper, it is only bad theology that has forced God’s glory and our happiness apart. In his view, they are joined at the hip and so the noisy, kneeling pray-er finds himself in his Maker’s presence. Piper concludes this chapter with a summons to plan for prayer the way we plan for all other things that matter to us.
With regard to the this-worldly—or so it might appear—matter of money, Piper’s approach has some down-home counsel: ‘(Biblical passages) teach us to use our money in a way that will being us the greatest and longest gain. That is, they advocate Christian Hedonism’ (chapter seven, ‘Money’, pp. 184–203).
This is something other than crass consumerism precisely because that kind of artless binging settles for too little, too soon. Christian hedonism seeks to maximize its utilities, so to speak, by setting its sights on an eternal horizon. With too short a view, ‘(t)he great danger of riches is that our affections will be carried away from God to His gifts.’
Piper speaks vigorously about the need for simplicity, not least in sections entitled ‘What should the rich do?’ and ‘What about the lake home?’
Turning to another crucible in which happiness and distress are often mingled, Piper describes marriage as the place where misery too often reigns because the married do not seek their own pleasure in the happiness of their spouse (Chapter 8, ‘Marriage. A matrix for Christian Hedonism’, pp. 204–221). Marriage is a mystery precisely because it conceals a secret that is grander than those on the outside can glimpse.
Even as he dismantles the egalitarian argument that Paul employs the Greek word κεφαλή to mean ‘source’ rather than the more pedestrian ‘head’, Piper urges wives to ‘take their cue’ from the Church where men are to take their own clues from Christ’s self-sacrificing headship over it. His use of the ambiguous and nuanced term ‘take their cue’ allows him to argue for a hierarchy of sorts but without sounding rigid or ill-tempered. It seems to this reviewer that he succeeds. A similar willingness to ‘take one’s clues’—so to speak—from context and circumstance produces the chapter’s penultimate section, entitled ‘Forms of Submission’. One size most emphatically does not fit all.
Piper’s pulse clearly quickens as he arrives at his ninth chapter (Chapter 9, ‘Missions. The battle cry of Christian Hedonism’, pp. 222–251. The piece requires a considerable effort at sympathetic reading these two decades hence, for our language has left behind a view of Christian mission that has been abbreviated as ‘from the West to the rest’ in favor of an alternative that takes into account a global church and resonates with the vocabulary of ‘mission from everywhere to every one’. Still, the author’s passion for a kind of happiness that takes into account the determination of the biblical God to harvest every nation for his worship is a welcome antidote to shelves of self-help literature that rarely lifts one’s gaze beyond the next suburb. This reviewer, having spent the largest chunk of his life under ‘missionary’ status, heartily endorses Piper’s exploration of the oft-heard testimony that ‘I never made a sacrifice’.
In the final chapter of the book’s body, Piper turns to a matter that might seem the most incongruous entry in a book on hedonism of any kind: suffering (chapter 10, ‘Suffering: The sacrifice of Christian Hedonism’, pp. 252-288). He argues that suffering subsumes human experience on both sides of the somewhat arbitrary distinction Christians make between persecution and sickness or accident. These gradations of human pain ‘have this in common: They all threaten our faith in the goodness of God and tempt us to leave the path of obedience. Therefore, every triumph of faith and all perseverance in obedience are testimonies to the goodness of God and the preciousness of Christ—whether the enemy is sickness, Satan, sin, or sabotage.’
That is not all that such a fate holds in common. The suffering that results from sickness and that which is brought upon the believer by persecution ‘are both intended by Satan for the destruction of our faith and governed by God for the purifying of our faith’.
Suffering emerges, in Piper’s treatment, as a particularly intense arena in which joy is to be pursued most hotly.
An epilogue (‘Why I Have Written this Book: seven reasons’, pp. 289-307) is pleasingly autobiographical and makes one want to know the man with the exuberant soul and the majestic God who needed to say all that he has said here.
A handy appendix entitled ‘The Goal of God in Redemptive History’ (pp. 308-321) reminds the reader that redemption is for us but not in the first instance about us. The piece concludes with another twist on the now famous first article of the Westminster Shorter Catechism:
What may we conclude from this survey of redemption history? We may conclude that the chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy Himself forever. He stands supreme at the center of His own affections. For that very reason, He is a self-sufficient and inexhaustible fountain of Grace.
A second appendix manages to articulate an apology for Christian faith that is both disarming and acute (‘Is the Bible a Reliable Guide to Lasting Joy?’, pp. 322–334). For some readers these thirteen pages, rather inorganically connected to the book’s main argument but a preamble for its coherence, may be worth the volume’s price.
If most Christians could agree to the argument of Piper’s second appendix and many sincere onlookers recognize its plausibility, matters are quite different in the author’s third appendix (‘Is God Less Glorious Because He Ordained That Evil Be? Jonathan Edwards on the divine decrees’, pp. 335-351). Here Piper bores down into the philosophical (I use the term advisedly, for a Calvinist/Edwardsian system inevitably requires employment of at least a dialect that moves categorically beyond the biblical vocabulary.) plumbing that supplies his pastoral work and writing. He asks two questions that animated as well the uncommon mind of his intellectual mentor, Jonathan Edwards:
• Is God the author of sin?
• Why does God ordain that there be evil?
Piper supplies something other than a bald ‘no’ to the first question by endorsing Edwards’ distinction of the ‘will of decree’ from the ‘will of command’. God may hate sin but see in its possibility a more universal good which he pursues and achieves for this world.
The answer to the second is more easily abbreviated: ‘… so that good may come of it.’
The section’s final paragraphs are worth quoting for the way they detect a failure of nerve in most evangelical theodicy and then push Calvinist/Edwardsian thought toward pastoral ends:
So the answer to the question in the title of this appendix, ‘Is God less glorious because He ordained that evil be?’ is no, just the opposite. God is more glorious for having conceived and created and governed a world like this with all its evil. The effort to absolve Him by denying His foreknowledge of sin or by denying His control of sin is a fatal error and a great dishonor to His Word and His wisdom. Evangelicals who are seeking the glory of God, look well to the teaching of your churches and your schools. But most of all, look well to your souls.
If you would see God’s glory and savor His glory and magnify His glory in this world, do not remain wavering before the sovereignty of God in the face of great evil. Take His Book in your hand, please for His Spirit of illumination and humility and trust, and settle this matter so that you might be unshakable in the day of your own great calamity. My prayer is that what I have written will sharpen and deepen your God-entranced worldview and that in the day of your loss you will be like Job, who, when he lost all his children, fell down and worshiped and said ‘The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.’
Two final appendices treat how to fight for joy—since developed by the author in book-length form and the reasons Piper continues to use the provocative term ‘Hedonism’.
What are we to make of John Piper’s Christian Hedonism and its programmatic role within a resurgent North American Calvinism? A handful of observations is the most, at first reading, that I feel capable of offering.
First, there is enough coherence in this business that I am sure I will find myself reading through Piper’s works, seeking in particular that gift for nuance that comes with having been critiqued, beaten up, and endorsed (with qualifications and without) in the public sphere.
Second, Piper’s efforts at recovering a place for the religious affections that nourishes and is nourished by a life of the mind strikes me as particularly timely. The Christian capacity to swing like a badly balanced pendulum from the extreme of doctrinal scholasticism to vacuous ‘praise and worship’ whose principal conviction seems to be that reality outside the emotional experience of corporate worship is the thing we no longer do scarcely requires development here. Out of careful doctrinal conviction rather than infatuation with the middle ground, Piper articulates a compelling both/and position.
Third, I am not sure that the phrase ‘Christian Hedonism’ has worn well. Perhaps, like a worn-out pair of running shoes that carried one many miles while accruing all manner of associations and affections, it should be retired.
Fourth, Piper’s pastorally-directed biblical theology bears both the virtues and the liabilities of any attempt to identify a ‘core’ around which the diverse biblical materials find their proper orbit. All competent efforts, it seems to me, serve their time as needed correctives to badly focused or incoherent alternative biblical theologies. Yet all, in time, are seen to practice the sin of reductionism even in as they exercise their saintly pilgrimage. Piper’s new core corrects, to be sure. As a doctor of the ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda, the author is no doubt the first to recognize the historically conditioned nature of his work and to wish for worthy successors.
Whoever they be, they will need grace and courage if they are to do justice to an essentially daring body of work. I am not as happy as I wish nor as content to seek my happiness in the glory of God and the joy of my compeers as I could desire.
Yet I am a bit happier and a little more purposeful about my happiness and God’s for having turned these pages. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to read (John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God: how to fight for joy).