Review of Desiring God

Desiring God – Meditations of a Christian Hedonist

By John Piper

John Piper’s famous book, Desiring God, was first published in 1986. It was a best seller when released, has been updated repeatedly and remains popular to this day. It has spawned ministries, other books with the same message, web pages, and blogs while continuing to have wide influence in the evangelical church today.

Piper’s Purpose

Piper states that he wrote the book to persuade the reader Desiring Godthat ‘the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever’ ( p18).  As such he advocates a philosophy of Christian living that he calls Christian Hedonism (p28). He lists five convictions upon which this philosophy is built.

  1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good not sinful.
  2. We should never try to 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. (p28)

Piper’s Method

Piper quotes Pascal to explain the motivation of all human behavior: ‘The will never takes the least step but to this object [happiness]’ (p19). Piper accepts this as ‘a simple given in human nature’ (p19).  ‘All men seek happiness. Piper6This is without exception. Whatever means they employ, they all tend to this end’ (p208) He tries to use C.S. Lewis to conclude: ‘It is not a bad thing to desire our own good’ (p20). From a sermon of Jonathan Edwards, he quotes: ‘Jesus knew that all mankind were in the pursuit of happiness. He has directed them in the true way to it, and He tells them what they must become in order to be blessed and happy’ (p208). He even moves to Karl Barth: ‘The will for life is the will for joy, delight, happiness… a person who tries to debar himself from this joy is certainly not an obedient person’ (p209). In Scripture, he claims to have ‘found the language of Hedonism everywhere’ saying that ‘the quest for pleasure was not even optional, but commanded: Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desire of your heart’ (Psalm 37:4) (p23).

Lest anyone question this focus on self, Piper attempts to show that ‘Christian Hedonism is not a distortion of historic Reformed catechisms of faith’ (p26). Toward this end, he changes the statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the chief end of man as being ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever’ to ‘glorify God by enjoying Him forever’.  Via this seemingly minor linguistic twist, he turns biblical truth into a self-centered excuse for the flesh in its continual search for pleasure.

Even more outlandish is his hedonistic interpretation of the first and second questions of the Heidelberg Catechism:

First Question: ‘What is your only comfort in life and death?’                                             Second Question: ‘How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily?’

He claims that the use of the words comfort and happily ‘places the entire catechism under the human longing for comfort… an answer to the concern for how to live and die happily’ (p26). It should be noted that ‘troste’ in German can be translated as comfort or consolation.  Given its use in the Catechism, consolation is clearly the appropriate understanding. Piper ignores the answer to the first question: ‘That I with body and soul, both in life and death, (a) am not my own, (b) but belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ…’. In spite of the answer’s clear emphasis on submission, Piper concludes that ‘The entire Heidelberg Catechism is written to answer the question “What must  I know to live happily?”.’  (p27)

Piper is trying to convince the reader that the ‘attainment of happiness is the most important motivating and sustaining impulse in the Christian life’. (Mouw p37)  Having concluded that the pursuit of pleasure is good, extolled by heroes of the faith, commended by the Reformers and even commanded by God, Piper sets out to ‘commend these things to all who will listen’ (p24) by showing that ‘Christian Hedonism comes from the Bible’ (p28)

First, he attempts to convince his readers that above all else, God seeks His own happiness. He states that, ‘God is uppermost in His own affections… Redemption, salvation, and restoration are not God’s ultimate goal. These He performs for the sake of something greater: namely, the enjoyment He has in glorifying Himself’ (p31) Elsewhere he states, ‘God is… a deeply happy God’ (p41); ‘an unshakably happy God’ (p50); ‘His happiness is the delight He has in Himself. Before creation’ and ‘The delight He takes in the echoes of His excellence in the praises of His saints’ (p50)  Piper interprets God’s demand to be glorified in exclusively hedonistic terms. This understanding of God for Piper ‘is the foundation of Christian Hedonism’ (p50) According to Piper, God is a hedonist.

Second, Piper attempts to establish a direct connection between his conception of God and how he thinks Christians should live. If God is a happiness seeker, then so should man be. This is the central argument of his book. Accordingly, he asks, ‘Could it be that today the most straightforward biblical command for conversion is not “Believe in the Lord” but “Delight in the Lord?” (p55). To this he adds, ‘Unless a man be born again into a Christian Hedonist, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (p55) (italics his).  He states, ‘We are converted when Christ becomes for us a Treasure Chest of holy joy…our greatest pleasure’ (p70) He concludes, ‘Behind the repentance that turns away from sin, and behind the faith that embraces Christ, is the birth of a new taste, a new longing, a new passion for the pleasure of God’s presence. This is the root of conversion. This is the creation of a Christian Hedonist’ (p74).

Piper’s Hedonistic Christianity

Having made these assertions, Piper then instructs his readers how they should approach worship, love, prayer, marriage, missions, and suffering. It is in these chapters that he advocates the eager embracing of all Christian life experiences as the search for happiness.

Concerning worship, Piper states, ‘We must seek Him hedonistically… precisely for the joy of seeing and knowing Him! Worship is nothing less than obedience to the command of God: Delight yourself in the Lord’ (p98).

Concerning love, he says, ‘Love is… the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another… the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed. And if you abandon the pursuit of full and lasting pleasure, you cannot love people or please God’ (p141).

Concerning prayer, Piper says, ‘The Bible plainly teaches… that in all we do we should pursue the fullness of our joy.’ It forbids us to ‘choose between God’s glory and our joy’. He concludes: ‘prayer, perhaps more clearly than anything else, preserves the unity of these two pursuits’ (p182). He closes his chapter on prayer exhorting his readers to prayer ‘for the glory of God and for the fullness of your joy’ (p183)

Concerning marriage, Piper states, ‘The reason there is so much misery in marriages is not that husbands and wives seek their own pleasure, but that they do not seek it in the pleasure of their spouses’ (p205) From Ephesians 5, he states that ‘He who loves his wife loves himself’ and so concludes that ‘For a husband to be an obedient person… he must pursue his own joy in the holy joy of his wife’ (p209)

Concerning missions, Piper discusses ‘two great incentives for being totally dedicated to the cause of [missions]’ (p234).  The first is from Mark 10:27, ‘For all things are possible with God’, and the second is from Mark 10:28-30, ‘There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, house and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands with persecutions and in the age to come eternal life’ (p239). He uses these verses to conclude that, ‘It is simply amazing how consistent are the testimonies of missionaries who have suffered for the gospel. Virtually all of them bear witness to the abundant joy and overriding compensations (a hundredfold!)’ (p245) Piper claims that David Brainerd ‘knew in his soul that in seeking to live for the glory of God, he was loving himself!’ (p242). Piper quotes from an appeal to Cambridge University students made by David Livingstone in 1857 in which he said, ‘Can that be called a sacrifice which is simply paid back as a small part of a great debt owing to our God, which we can never repay?’ (p243). Piper calls Livingstone’s notion ‘unhelpful’ and insists that what Livingstone really meant was that his ‘obedience was in fact more receiving’ than payback, concluding that Christians should drop ‘the notion of paying Him back at all’ (p244). In similar fashion, Piper finds a hedonistic motivation in the missionary ministries of Moravian Brethren, William Carey, John Hyde, Hudson Taylor and even Jim Elliot, finding hedonism in his credo: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose’ (p251).

Concerning suffering, Piper says that ‘The entire New Testament treats suffering in a Christian Hedonist context’ (p280). ‘We do not choose suffering because we are told to, but because the One who tells us to [suffer] describes it as the path to everlasting joy’ (p287). He uses the fact that Moses chose ‘rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin… for he was looking to the reward’ (p288). Therefore,  ‘It is truer in suffering than anywhere else that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him’ (p288). Piper’s claim that Christianity asks believers to choose suffering as the path to everlasting joy links him with Mother Theresa who was faithful to her Roman Catholic theology in saying:

‘There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.’

Interim Conclusion

In the Preface to the book Piper says, ‘This is a serious book about being happy in God… because… God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy’ (p9). In the Introduction he outlines his thirty-five year progress from a hedonistic immature Christian college student who felt guilty about his hedonism to a hedonistic Christian pastor-evangelist-writer who insists that ‘the quest for pleasure was not even optional but commanded’ (p23). His attempt to justify this quest is hardly new but dates back to the earliest extant writings of ancient Greek philosophers. Richard Mouw terms Piper as unusual in his ‘attempts to link Christian ethics with a philosophical theme that is usually thought of as exclusively secular’ (Mouw p10) and in his view of life seen as fundamentally selfish even by pagans.

Piper was rightly criticized for positing his Christian Hedonism as ‘a general theory of moral justification’ (Mouw p33). He responded to what he calls ‘this extended and most serious critique’ by saying, ‘My aim is not to decide what is right by using joy as a moral criterion’ but then concludes, ‘My aim is to own up to the amazing, and largely neglected fact that some dimension of joy is a moral duty in all true worship and virtuous acts’ (p24) He attempts to establish a difference between moral criterion and moral duty but completely fails to do so.

One of Piper’s tactics in espousing Christian Hedonism is his treatment of pleasure, happiness, joy, delight, and glory as synonymous terms and concepts (Mouw p18). He regularly uses such terms outside of their Scriptural context further diminishing definitional and exegetical precision. This allows him to quote from Scripture in an apparently convincing manner while ignoring the subtle differences between his use of the terms and how they are used in Scripture. How could one equate mere happiness with the richness of joy as it is used in Scripture? And what could be less susceptible to a hedonistic analysis than God’s glory! The use of such tactics should be sufficient to convince the discerning Christian to question Piper’s best-selling book. However, Desiring God has an even more significant problem, that of eudemonism.

Piper’s Eudemonism

Quoting Pascal, Piper says, ‘the infinite abyss [lack of true happiness] can only be filled… by God Himself’ (p21) From C.S. Lewis he quotes: ‘God… is the all-satisfying object’ (p23). Concerning worship Piper claims, ‘Happiness in God is the end of all our seeking’ (p90) Additionally, he claims, ‘You cannot please God if you do not come to Him for reward… worship that pleases God is the hedonistic pursuit of God’ (p162)  He even invokes Calvin: ‘If God contains the fullness of all good things in himself like an inexhaustible fountain; nothing beyond him is to be sought by those who strike after the highest good and all the elements of happiness’ (p90) From all these sources Piper concludes: ‘Christian Hedonism pays God the respect of acknowledging (and really feeling) that He alone can satisfy the heart’s longing to be happy.’

To illustrate Piper’s misuse of other believers’ statements in support of his thesis, consider the phrase Piper found in Calvin. ‘If God contains the fullness of all good things in himself… nothing beyond him is to be sought by those who strike after the highest good and all the elements of happiness’ (p90). It should be understood that Calvin is here (Institutes 3; 25; 10) referring to Man’s life in the hereafter, eternal enjoyment of God’s presence’. (Italics mine) Piper’s use of the quotation to imply Calvin advocates Christian Hedonism is utterly disingenuous.

Piper reveals his own notion of the kind of love that man should have for God, and of the love God supposedly has for Himself and for man. He unashamedly defines all that love as hedonistic. Desiring God is written to ‘commend these things to all who will listen’ (p24). He is advocating Eudemonism which is defined as the ethical doctrine holding that the value of moral action lies in its capacity to produce happiness. This doctrine applies to objects (persons, places or things) seen by man as valuable only if they are potential sources of happiness. Piper clearly presents all love as acquisitive love; Christians should love God and one another because it can provide happiness.

Remember the first of Piper’s Five Convictions: ‘The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful’ (p28).

The Roman world at the time of Christ was under the influence of Greek philosophy. Into that world, Christ brought radical opposing ideas with none more important than His teaching on man’s relationship with God. For most Jews, the ‘fellowship between God and man was based on justice and regulated by the Law’ (Nygren p250).

Two kinds of love – Eros and Agape

The love of man for the gods in Greek philosophy was called Eros. Plato developed this concept when he said, ‘It is by the acquisition of good things that the happy are made happy’ (Symposia p205).  ‘Eros is an appetite, a yearning desire, which is aroused by the attractive qualities of its object; and in Eros, man seeks God in order to satisfy his spiritual hunger by the possession and enjoyment of the Divine perfections’  (Nygren pxvi). Man’s relationship with God in Christ was based on love,Eros agape but was termed Agape rather than Eros for good reason. This was a radically transformative concept far different from Eros. ‘It means a whole-hearted surrender to God whereby man becomes God’s willing slave, content to be at His disposal, having entire trust and confidence in Him, and desiring only that His will should be done. This love is not, like Eros, a longing and striving for something man lacks and needs, but a response of gratitude for something freely and bountifully given, namely, God’s own Agape’ (Nygren pxvii). It is a love based not ‘on the ground of merit and the works of the Law, but of free Grace, groundless and unmotivated’ (Nygren p251).

Agape is  ‘indifferent to [the] value of its object – its worthiness or unworthiness; [it is] a love displayed in the redemption of lost and sinful men rather than man seeking God as a means to an end for the satisfaction of self,  as man’s summum bonum (highest good) which happens to identify with God’ (Nygren pxx). In contrast to Agape, Eros is a willful love directed by desire, acquisitive, a striving upward to God as it seeks a life divine. Eros is the love promoted by Piper in Desiring God.

Eros has self-centered motives and strategies. Agape is sacrificial, coming down from God to man as a free unmerited gift; it is submissive, spontaneous, grateful, and without selfish motive. ‘Eros recognizes value in its object and loves it. Agape loves – and creates value in its object’ (Nygren p210). ‘Eros is man’s way to God, Agape is God’s way to man’ (Nygren p708)

Eros and Agape obviously ‘belong to two entirely separate spiritual worlds, between which no direct communication is possible’ (Nygren p31).  Throughout the history of Christianity the Eros concept, so attractive to natural man, has at times almost completely supplanted Agape. This occurred when St. Augustine failed to separate Eros from Agape.  In his world permeated with Greek philosophy, he accepted that ‘all love is acquisitive love’, and wove the rival concepts of Eros and Agape together into a synthesis he called Caritas (Nygren p476). Seeing God as the highest good does not alter the fact that ‘He is degraded to the level of a means for the satisfaction of human desire’ (Nygren p500).

Because he saw mankind as always seeking after his own happiness, Augustine, steeped in Greek philosophy, concluded that the search must be ‘right’ when it is directed outside of self and ‘upward’ towards God the Creator. Using Plato’s teaching, he saw God as man’s summum bonum, the ultimate satisfaction of all his longings (Nygren p479-487).  This blend of Greek philosophy and Christianity is the source of his famous quote: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’ (Confessions, Book 1, Chapter1). The Christian life was then to be a laborious ascent to the divine.

Augustine’s understanding of Christian love as acquisitive was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church and serves to this day as the foundation for its doctrine of grace as ‘infused love which makes our ascent to God possible’ (Nygren p531). For the Roman Catholic Church, ‘it is not by faith, but by love that man is justified and comes into fellowship with God’ (Nygren p656) It is only by this infusion that man is able to ascend the three-fold ladder of virtue, speculation, and mysticism to acquire the holiness necessary for fellowship with God (Nygren p513). If man’s love for God is acquisitive, then methods of that acquisition become vitally important. Accordingly the Roman church elaborated a host of methods by which its followers could supposedly ascend to the beatific vision and achieve divine happiness. The official separation of Agape from Eros in the church waited a thousand years until Martin Luther.

As a devoted Augustinian monk Martin Luther labored long and hard to acquire holiness. His ‘decisive struggle in the monastery, which eventually led to a complete break with the Catholic Way of salvation, was centered upon the question of Caritas and the possibility of perfect penitence based upon it’ (Nygren p694). Luther realized from Scripture that Man is justified not by ascending to God in Caritas, but solely by receiving in faith God’s love which has descended to us in Christ. Thus Luther rejected the Roman Catholic view that man is justified by faith and love and restored the biblical understanding that justification takes place ‘sola fide’, through faith alone, outside of us and coming down to us as a gift of God. Accordingly, the false promise that man can ascend a ladder of virtues to God’s level was exposed as a fallacy.  No works of merit, reason, or mystical experiences of purification, illumination and union with God could accomplish the feat.

Remember the third of Piper’s Five Convictions: The deepest and most enduring             happiness is found only in God. Not from God but in God. (28) Note the ‘in’ as             opposed to the ‘from’.

Piper’s Prescription

In an appendix toward the end of Desiring God Piper answers what he hopes will be the question of every reader, ‘How can I become this kind of person?’ (p352). What follows are what he calls ‘pointers, not full explanations’ as he hopes ‘someday to turn this appendix into a small book that gives more help than merely pointing’ (ibid). The book, a ministry, a web site and more created what today is a veritable mega-industry of self-help methods. One of the fifteen ‘pointers’ is: Realize That Joy Must Be Fought For Relentlessly (p353). That pointer describes ‘the “good fight of faith” as a fight for joy’ (p353). He follows that with five Bible verses used to emphasize the necessity of work in the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, in the other fourteen ‘pointers’ Piper teaches that happiness is something that Christians can attain by realizing, resolving, learning, meditating, praying earnestly and continually, learning, spending time, being patient, resting, exercising, dieting, making, reading, witnessing, and getting a global vision (p352-364). Like so many other self-help authors, Piper prescribes a host of methods by which Christians can ‘fight for joy’ and acquire for themselves a happy life. In so doing, he turns God-given blessings into ‘basic goods’ and treats them as instruments for the attainment of happiness. Piper seems unwilling to accept the truth of Scripture that joy in Scripture is a gift rather than a prize to be attained.

‘For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and      peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 14:17).

Final Conclusion

Five hundred years after the Reformation, Piper attempts to undo Luther’s scriptural understanding as he embraces the Augustinian and Roman Catholic concept of Christian love.  In Desiring God, he presents God as man’s summum bonum, and the love that Christians should have for God and each other as acquisitive. Like Augustine before him, Piper weaves together God-centered and man-centered motives in an attempt to make Christian love a process of seeking self-satisfaction. In spite of using some basic biblical truth, Piper’s fundamental error lies in presenting God as self-centered and as commanding man to take pleasure in seeing that same trait in himself.

Desiring God was a best seller likely due to its basic appeal to the fallen flesh. This pastor-theologian is capable of orthodox preaching and teaching but is dangerously off the mark in this subject area of vital importance. Is the God who has revealed Himself in creation, in Scripture, in history and in the incarnation as a man of sorrows really out for Himself in the way Piper describes? Are believers really called to the same selfishness?

‘For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn  away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths’ (2 Timothy 4:3, 4).

Ten years after Desiring God was first released, The Sensate Culture by theologian Harold O. J. Brown was published. Brown asks why so many have lost confidence and hope in spite of the material progress of modern times and why so many race toward the pursuit of sensual pleasures as if to depose all unhappiness from their minds.  Brown argues that we have cut ourselves off from our Christian roots producing what the late Russian scholar Pitirim Sorokin called a late, degenerate, sensate culture.

He refrains from calling Christians to naïve activism and frenetic attempts to bring in the kingdom of God by their own efforts but calls for believers to confess sin and admit to the need for grace and wisdom from God.

Rather than call his readers to this, Piper becomes part of the problem as he directs Christians to climb on the bandwagon of hedonism and find their best life now.

 

References:

Piper, John, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Multnomah Publishers, Sisters, Oregon, 1986, 1996, 2003

Mouw, Richard, The God Who Commands, Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1990

Nygren, Anders, Agape and Eros, trans. P. S. Watson, Harper & Row, New York, 1969

Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T.McNeill, trans. F.L.Battles, Westminster, Philadelphia, 1960

Brown, H.O.J., The Sensate Culture: Western Civilization Between Chaos and Transformation, Word Publishing, Dallas, 1996

Augustine, Confessions Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, Ed. P. Schaff, Hendrickson, Peabody, Mass., 1995

Brainyquotes.com/Mother Theresa quotes