Multnomah recently published a 25th anniversary edition of John Piper’s classic, Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Piper was kind enough to answer a few questions:
I know this book originally started as a sermon series in the Fall of 1983. How did it go from these nine sermons to a book published in 1986/1987?
I owe Steve Halliday a huge and joyful debt of gratitude. He had been a student at Bethel Seminary and so knew of my move from college teaching to the pastorate in 1980. In 1983 he was an editor with Multnomah Publishers. He was in town and called me on the phone and asked what I was preaching. I told him, and he asked if we could get together. Looking over what I was doing, he asked if he could run it by the editorial team at Multnomah. I said yes.
They wanted to make a book out of it, and so for the next three years, I used my spare time (no writing leave in those days) to write Desiring God, increasing the length of the sermons threefold.
As I look back now on those years, I don’t know how I managed it. The pressures at church were huge, and I was coming up on 40 with unhelpful midlife moods. Sometimes you can only see sovereign grace in retrospect.
In the Preface you explain the convergence of a number of things that turned you into a “Christian Hedonist” (Pascal, Lewis, the Psalms, etc.). Did you invent the term, or did you learn it from Daniel Fuller?
I don’t remember. I certainly saw the word “hedonism” used positively in several authors roughly in the way I use it. I don’t recall seeing the exact phrase “Christian Hedonism.”
The key living person in shaping the vision was Daniel Fuller. His unpublished Hermeneutics Syllabus that I read in his class in the Fall of 1968 had a section entitled “We are far too easily pleased.” This section developed the argument of C. S. Lewis from his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” The first page of that sermon, and it’s unpacking by Dan Fuller, was the flashpoint where thing exploded in my head and heart.
Was there a moment you remember when the thesis crystallized in your mind: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”?
As I recall one of the most influential early evidences for that truth in my experience was the coming together of two passages on prayer in John’s Gospel: John 14:13 and 16:24, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. . . . Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Prayer assumes the pursuit of God’s glory and our joy. Only later did I see the way Paul argued in Phil. 1:20–21—that Christ is magnified most in our dying when we count dying gain; that is, when we are more satisfied in him than anything this life offers.
I had read in seminary Edwards’s End for Which God Created the World, but did not see till years later how he came within a hair of saying God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him: “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it.”
The way things work for me is that each time I speak on this subject, I ask the Lord for fresh power and fresh words. It is amazing to me how many fresh insights come in trying to say old things in ever new ways. One day, I don’t recall when, that particular rhyming wording came to me. I am thankful for it. It does come close to summing up my life’s work.
In the 25 years since you wrote the book, you’ve undoubtedly heard every objection to the concept of “Christian Hedonism.” What would you identify as the most common misunderstanding?
Probably the most common misunderstanding and misapplication is the assumption that the joy which the Bible commands us to pursue is most essentially joy in God’s gifts. This is not true. Yes, we are to rejoice in God’s good gifts, all of them, from justification to sexual intercourse. But if our joy terminates on his gifts, we are idolaters. “Delight yourself in the Lord!” is not ultimately a command to be glad that we are out of hell, or forgiven, or healthy, or prosperous, or going to heaven. It is a command to be satisfied in God himself. To demonstrate this from Scripture is why I wrote the book God Is the Gospel.
Among fans of the book, have you seen any ways in which “Christian Hedonism” has been misappropriated or misapplied in a way not keeping with your original vision?
1. Christian Hedonism is misapplied when someone thinks that it is humanly possible. Jesus said bluntly that it is not: “With men it is impossible, but not with God” (Mark 10:27). Some people even make the mistake of thinking I am a good embodiment of what I teach. Ha! Ask my wife. Nobody comes close to the fullness and depth and consistency of joy in God that the Bible is calling for. It is a very radical vision of life. It is liberating and devastating. Finally, we discover that God commands us to be happy! That’s liberating! But then we also discover that the happiness we want is not God himself. That is devastating. This is why I wrote the book When I Don’t Desire God.
2. Christian Hedonism is misappropriated when it is taken to be a philosophical defense of the truth that people only act in the pursuit of more happiness or less pain. That’s not what Christian Hedonism is. I do believe that is true. But it’s not what I am arguing for. My case is exegetical, not philosophical. And what I am arguing for is not that people do pursue their pleasure in all things, but that they should—pleasure in God that may cost you your life. The Bible commands us to pursue happiness all the time and in every act—namely, happiness in God (and happiness in other people’s happiness in God). And to the degree that we don’t or can’t do this, our action is defective (which, in fact, it always is).
I know you pray over each of your books—before you write, while you write, and after the book is published. How are you praying that God would use this new edition of Desiring God?
I pray that God would use the book to the end
- that joy in Jesus would be created out of granite unbelief,
- that the duty of Christian worship would be intensified with God-enthralled delight,
- that believers would pursue their own Godward joy in the Godward joy of the unlovely,
- that joyful and total submission to the inerrant Scriptures would spread,
- that believers would give themselves to prayer with the unwavering expectation that God will answer for their joy and his glory,
- that Christians would lay up treasures for themselves in heaven not on the earth,
- that marriage would magnify the self-sacrificing, self-nourishing covenant-keeping love of Christ for his church,
- that followers of Jesus would embrace God-ordained suffering as the brief, embattled path to everlasting pleasure, and
- that the church would spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.