November 26, 2013
Happiness through God
Many people have pondered and written books on the essential purpose and meaning of human life. Some say there is no deeper meaning; that humans exist because of scientific evolution while other desire to ascribe a more divine purpose behind life. Within the traditional Christian circles, theologians have debated whether humans were created to appease God or to live for their own happiness. Recently, theologian John Piper has written a book entitled, Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist in which he attempts to explain that the purpose of man is to find ultimate happiness through God and ought to live life searching for and pursuing happiness. The foundational argument that Piper uses for his methodology is based off of Jonathan Edward’s sermon, Reasons for Which God Created the Universe in which Edwards explains that Gods entire motivation is His glory. By using an esteemed Christian leader from 18th century America, Piper is attempting to add great weight and credibility to his claims about Hedonism. If Edwards works do support his claims and are fundamentally in agreement with the concept and term of Christian Hedonism, than Pipers work can be considered legitimate, however, if Edwards beliefs are in disagreement or even slightly different from that of Piper than the believe ought to use caution about believing and implementing Pipers theology, particularly in adopting the term “Christian Hedonism” to describe their own faith. Based upon some of the other works of Jonathan Edwards that were not used by Piper, it can be discovered that while no one can say for certain whether or not Jonathan Edwards would personally ascribe the term “Christian Hedonism” to his set of beliefs, there is nothing fundamentally difference between the theology of Edwards and Piper.
The reason for devoting time to comparing Pipers book to the writings of Edwards is twofold: one Piper specifically uses Edwards to back up his claims, and two Edwards is an accepted and respect Christian leader of early American theology. His sermons launched the Great Awakening, bringing a heightened spiritual age to the colonies. His life demonstrates that he was a man of power and full of conviction even when facing adversity. His teachings were too conservative, too hard-core for even his congregation and eventually he was expelled from the pulpit but his writings have endured for centuries. While he like any other man is prone to error, his teachings have been regarded as sound, based on biblical principles. Because of his authority throughout history it is fitting to compare modern texts with this theology as a layer in which to judge new teaching.
Edward’s writings about virtue, love, and happiness through God provide a greater insight to understanding the role and purpose of man in regards to finding happiness through God. Edwards provides much needed wisdom when he addresses the two different types of brotherly love as well as the difference between a genuine Christian’s relationship to God and the motivation behind their joy, and the shallow impulsive joy of a hypocrite.
The biggest contention one could legitimately raise against John Pipers book is specific term “Christian Hedonism.” It is commonly accepted that Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure, images of vile and obsessive people come to mind, those without any restraint, living day-to-day doing whatever makes them feel good for the moment and abandon all sense of responsibility or self-control. Immediately when the word “Christian” is placed in front of such a negative term like “Hedonism” is make one become alert. Christian is a religion of sacrifice, loving your neighbor as yourself, turning the other cheek, giving of yourself for the benefit of others. It is not living for your own personal pleasure. In the appendix of his book, Piper addresses the issue of the term “Hedonism” he argue that traditional hedonists make a god out of pleasure, whatever they find pleasurable has become their god and when Christians make God their source of pleasure it only reaffirms their connection to God. No idolatry occurs because they are only esteeming God more rather than relying on new gods. While the use of a specific term could be debated, the fundamental principles Piper is associating with that term are much needed in today’s society as they were in Edwards’s time. Far too often more emphasis is placed on the suffering and hardship of Christianity, creating an epidemic of “martyrs” within Churches and people fail to appreciate the rest and joy that comes with Christ and enjoy the fountain of happiness that he has for all of those who believe in Him.
foundation a both Edwards and Pipers theology is the ultimate sovereignty of
God and the motivation behind God’s actions. Piper opens his first chapter with
this statement, “The chief end of God is to glorify God and enjoy himself
forever” (Piper, 31). Edwards devoted an entire sermon to that principle,
arguing that man has created for God’s glory and to fulfill God’s glory. When
man aligns his life to bring God maximum glory, the result is overwhelming joy
and happiness. If God had created the Earth for any other reason or had any
alternative motives than what He does than God would not be able to provide the
same level of happiness and He would not be the sovereign God that He is.
The abundant gift of happiness that God provides for those who believe is not available to everyone to enjoy. Before the beautiful must come the ugly. It is through man understanding his sinful nature that he comes to accept God’s gift of salvation and receives the happiness that comes through God. Like Piper, Edwards places a great amount of importance in pleasure and the simply goodness of it. He wrote, “Thus pleasure is a natural good; so is honor, so is speculative knowledge, human learning, and policy” (RA, 84). While the corrupt nature of man must first be understood, pleasure for the sake of beneficial pleasure also has a place in the Christian’s life.
The time in which Edwards was giving his revolutionary sermons, people were focusing on the ceremony of the Christian walk and failing to understand the inward faith and devotion to God. He strove to bring more than simple head knowledge to the congregation but rather give them the truly sensuous nature of God. Sensuous not strictly in the positive, pleasurable sense but also the utterly terrifying reality of Hell and the pain that accompanies it. Today most people associate Jonathan Edwards with his infamous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, while the entire span of his sermon deal with the beauty of Heaven just as much as the pain of Hell. It is in the opposites, the beauty of one, and the horror of the other, that creates the greatest case for the Christian to strive towards heaven. Without the bad is it hard to appreciate the good.
In his texts Edwards emphasizes the importance of all virtues and characteristics including sorrow and fear. He says, “The holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affection; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion, and zeal” (RA, 9) Piper devotes much of his attention to pleasure and happiness, while Edwards taught that sorrow and fear are necessary for the Christian walk. He explains, “The holy Scriptures do everywhere place much of religion in godly fear; insomuch, that it is often spoken of as the character of those that are truly religious persons, that they tremble at God’s word, that they fear before him,” (RA, 10) It is a necessary component for people to fear God in order for them to truly experience the joy of God.
Jonathan Edwards in his discourse on religious affections discusses how man comes to the point where he love God with all his heart and finds happiness through that love. He addresses a similar belief to that of John Piper, answering people who believe all love flows out of self-love, if we pursue what is best for ourselves that will lead us to God and give us the most satisfaction. Edwards disagrees with this order of love because he thinks they are too shallow in their thinking and need to focus on the nature of loving God. He writes, “There is no doubt but that after God’s glory, and the beholding his perfections, are become so agreeable to him, that he places his highest happiness in these things then he will desire them, as he desires his own happiness” (RA, 77). Joy and happiness are most felt when we reach out and demonstrate love to others.
Similar to the motivation behind Pipers work, Edwards did encourage the people of his day to find joy and seek happiness through the nature and gifts of God. But he warns against those who do not have pure motivations, that seeking pleasure through God is not an end in itself but rather flows from an existing love. Edwards explains, “True saints have their minds, in the first place, inexpressibly pleased and delighted with the sweet ideas of the glorious and amiable nature of the things of God…. But the dependence of the affections of hypocrites is in a contrary order; they first rejoice and are elevated with it, that they are made so much of by God; and then on that ground he seems, in a sort, lovely to them” (RA, 82). John Pipers book stresses the fundamental element of Christian happiness, the realization of sin and the unworthiness of humans to match God perfect and the humility that comes from recognizing and accepting God’s gift of grace. From that difficult and low point in life does the spring of happiness flow for the believer. It is not simply finding pleasure in God but finding happiness through the gifts of God. Edwards so beautifully says,
But that which is the true saint’s superstructure is the hypocrite’s foundation. When they hear of the wonderful things of the gospel, of God’s great love in sending his Son, of Christ’s diving love to sinners, and the great things Christ has purchased and promised to the saints, and hear these things livelily and eloquently set forth; they may bear with a great deal of pleasure, and be lifted up with what they hear; but if their joy be examined, it will be found to have no other foundation than this, that they look upon these things as theirs, all this exalts them, they love to hear of the great love of Christ, so vastly distinguishing some from others; for self-love, and even pride itself makes them affect great distinction from others (RA, 82).
It is through the imperfection of man compared to the vast glory of God does man find the foundation of grace and happiness that God gives to those who believe in Him. Before that happiness can be given it is necessary that a person first become humbled by the sovereignty of God. Edwards say, “By which God is exalted and man abased, holiness honored and promoted, and sin greatly disgraced and discouraged” (RA, 82). Those who do not first become humbled but rather strive to find happiness through the faith at a shallow level are called hypocrites.
The hypocrites according to Edwards are those who do not fully understand the glory of God and act upon their initial impulses rather than through wisdom and understanding. He says, “The affections of hypocrites are very often after this manner; they are first much affected with some impression of their imagination, or some impulse which they take to be an immediate suggestion or testimony from God of his love and their happiness,” (RA, 83). This is also where John Pipers book fails to provide a warning for those seeking happiness. In our current culture many different spiritual leaders are teaching about a God who makes people healthy and wealthy, disregarding the suffering the hardships that are promised in the Christian walk. To his credit Piper does devote a chapter to explaining the sovereign will of God and how bad things occur because it is part of a larger plan.
One the key ways to decipher between those who are searching for carnal pleasure and those seeking after the glory of God are in their dealings with others. Edwards’s calls with benevolent love, a type of love that acts out of compassion and the pleasure received in helping others (TV, 14). Piper agrees with the importance of finding happiness outside of ourselves, he writes, “Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. The overflow is experienced consciously as the pursuit of our joy in the joy of another” (Piper, 141). Essentially the happiness found from God is not simply an action that occurs between God and an individual, it is the communal showing and caring of others, the action and demonstration of love that produces happiness. Rather than make happiness a selfish endeavor, Piper and Edwards are encouraging believers to care for one another because it is what produces the maximum amount of joy.
Both John Piper and Jonathan Edwards saw a need within their own culture, a need for people to realize the full potential for happiness that exist within the Christian walk. While bad things continue to occur in the world, they are opportunities for people to remember the sovereign plan of God and to use the difficult times to bring more glory to God and thus more happiness for themselves. It is only for those who pursue with a pure heart the glorification of God through actions and deeds that will experience the fullest amount of pleasure. This is where one should be cautious about using the term “Christian Hedonist” while many will take the time to read the theology behind the modern term in order to understand the requirements and conditions of the pursuit of pleasure, many may incorrectly interpret the term as a free pass to go out and do whatever they want in the “name of God” and as long as it brings them immediate pleasure, believe they are doing the right thing.
Edwards specifically address the nature of pleasure and happiness that the Christian ought to strive for, stating, “This also shows the soul the truth of what the word of God declares concerning man’s chief happiness, as consisting in holy exercises and enjoyment” (RA, 107). Similarly Piper puts forth that worship and scripture are the means by which God’s joy can be experienced. He says about worship, “Worship should provide two things: cannels for the mind to apprehend the truth of God’s reality and channels for the heart to respond to the beauty of that truth” (Piper, 104). He also stresses, “the benefits and power of Scripture and how it kindles our joy” (Piper, 144). It is not only important that Christians understand their relationship with God correctly, but that they also learn to strive for and find pleasure in those things that will bring them ultimate happiness.
Both men encourage a necessary and far too often forgotten element within the Christian faith. While disagreement may exist about certain terms used the central message is correct and healthy. The uniting beliefs of God’s sovereignty, and the potential happiness for people to find by glorifying God and delighting in His words and actions span across centuries. While some may pursue pleasure on a shallow and impulsive level, Edwards provides guides for determining the truly genuine and those impure of heart. The most important lesson to learn is that God does want us to be happy and has made a perfect and never ending way for us to achieve that happiness if we will trust him and enjoy the gifts that he has given us.
Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2011. Print.
Edwards, Jonathan, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections In Three Parts. Ames, Iowa: International Outreach, Inc. Online Edition.
Edwards, Jonathan, A Dissertation Concerning The Nature of True Virtue. Online Edition.