Resolving the Biblical and Experiential Tensions of Christian Hedonism

In the foreword to Joe Rigney’s book The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying His Gifts, John Piper wrote:

If there is an evangelical Christian alive today who has thought and written more biblically, more deeply, more creatively, or more practically about the proper enjoyment of creation and culture, I don’t know who it is. When I say “biblically,” I mean that Joe thinks and writes under the authority of God’s Word and with a view to answering all serious objections that arise from the Bible. I also mean that he writes as a persuaded Christian Hedonist—that is, with the pervasive conviction that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.

But like all good students, he is not merely swallowing the teachings of Christian Hedonism; he is digesting them so that they turn into energies and insights beyond his teacher’s. The fact that he asked me to write this foreword, and that I agreed to do it, is a sign that those insights are not contradictory, but complementary, to the teacher’s efforts.

Joe has discerned that a strength of Christian Hedonism can also turn into a weakness.

The strength is that Christian Hedonism, as I have tried to develop it, has a strong ascetic tendency (as the Bible does!). For example, I often add these words: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, especially in those times when we embrace suffering for his sake with joy.” Joy in affliction is a clearer witness that we treasure Christ more than comfort, than joy in comfortable, sunny days.

I also stress that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that giving is often painful. I have tried to make the tone of my ministry “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). The very heart of Christian Hedonism, textually, is found in Philippians 1:19–23, where Christ is most magnified in our dying, because we treasure Christ so supremely that we call dying gain—because in it we get more of Christ. And we treasure Christ in our living by counting everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (Phil. 3:8). The saltiness of the Christian life is tasted most keenly when, in the midst of being reviled and persecuted, we rejoice and are glad because our reward in heaven is great (Matt. 5:11–13).

The weakness of this emphasis is that little space is devoted to magnifying Christ in the right enjoyment of creation and culture. Little emphasis is given to Paul’s words: “God created [foods] to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:3–4). Or his words that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

The trees of biblical wisdom in regard to savoring God in the savoring of his creation are not full-grown in what I have written about Christian Hedonism. I sowed some seeds, but I never circled back to tend those saplings, let alone grow them into a book. That’s what Joe Rigney has done. And I am so pleased with what he has written that I feel no need to write that book. It needed to be written, and he has done it.

At the January 2019 Bethlehem Conference & Seminary conference for pastor and church leaders, the theme was Christian Hedonism, and Rigney was able to summarize and develop his perspective. I think the whole thing is worth listening to—either by audio or by the video above. His introduction—reproduced below—sets up the tensions he seeks to resolve.

Last night Pastor John asked a question:

How should we respond to the revelation of the all-surpassing glory and beauty of Christ?

And the answer is Christian Hedonism. We magnify Christ by pursuing our maximal happiness in him. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Christ is our exceeding joy, our gladness, our delight, our desire, our sweetness, our pleasure, our satisfaction. Christ himself. Not first his gifts, but himself.

I’ve heard John strike that note hundreds of times over the last 20 years. And like many of you, the message of Christian Hedonism has me to the core. I know it to be true. I can see it for myself in the Bible, plain as day. And in terms of my experience, Christian Hedonism solved the central problem of how the pursuit of God relates to the pursuit of happiness.

Experiential Tensions

But Christian Hedonism doesn’t just solve problems; it creates problems.

If I am to pursue my maximal joy in Christ above all earthly things, then how do I enjoy earthly things?

Should I enjoy earthly things?

In seeking to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, what do I do with the tension that I feel between “the supremacy of God” and the “all things”?

Think about a biblical passage like Psalm 73:25-26:

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And on earth there is nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

You go to church, and you say that and feel that and sing that, then you look down the row at your wife and kids, or look around at your friends, or remember that lunch is coming in about an hour, and think, “But I want them too. I desire them too.”

On the one hand we say, “I desire nothing but you, God,” and on the other hand, we say, “Except for all the other things I desire.”

And there’s the tension: how does a single-minded pursuit of the glory of God fit with a real and deep enjoyment of created things?

Get more concrete: how does the biblical truth that I am called to glorify God by supremely delighting in him relate to my enjoyment of Diet Dr. Pepper, bacon cheeseburgers, West Texas sunsets, marital love, the uncontrollable belly laughs of a 7-year-old, the thrill of intellectual discovery, and college football?

My guess is that many of you have asked that question and felt this tension too. You’ve felt a kind of low-grade guilt whenever you really enjoy an earthly pleasure.

Maybe you live with a perpetual sense that you’re not enjoying God “enough” (whatever that means) or that you’re enjoying his gifts “too much” (whatever that means).

Maybe you’ve begun to treat created things like hot potatoes, looking at your delight in physical affection and chocolate ice cream and a walk around the lake in early summer with a wary and skeptical eye, because you wonder whether it is too precious to you.

We have a sense that as we grow in holiness, as we become more like Jesus, that our enjoyment of fresh raspberries and lively conversation with friends and teaching Shakespeare ought to diminish, ought to grow dim, because we’re increasingly satisfied with God alone.

We know that God is infinitely valuable, that our family and friends and food are finite, and therefore, we feel that there ought to be a larger gap between our love for them and our love for him.

And so we can attempt to suppress our joy in created things so that they don’t compete and get in the way of our love for Christ.

Or, we attempt to suppress our grief when we lose gifts that are very dear to us, like a spouse, or a parent, or child.

That’s the experiential tension.

Biblical Tension

But this isn’t just a tension in our experience. It’s a tension that is rooted in the Scriptures. Think with me about the following Scripture passages.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as excrement, in order that I may gain Christ . . . (Phil. 3:7-8)

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Col 3:1-2)

Whom have I in heaven but you, and on earth there is nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:25-26)

Everything is excrement compared to Christ. Don’t set your mind and your affections on things below. Desire nothing besides God. Now consider passages like this:

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Tim. 6:17)

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. (1 Tim. 4:4)

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17)

So which is it:

Only desire God? Or enjoy everything God richly provides?

Count everything as excrement? Or receive everything with thanksgiving?

Set your mind on things above? Or enjoy the good and perfect gifts that have come down from above?

This is not just a tension in your life; it’s a tension in the Bible.

Again, you can watch the whole message above—including a case study on loving baseball to the glory of God.

Here is the key to his answer in a nutshell:

The Bible gives us two complementary ways of approaching God and his gifts. The first is a comparative approach, in which God and his gifts are separated and set next to each other to determine which is more valuable. . . . The second I call the integrated approach, in which God and his gifts are enjoyed together, so that we don’t separate them or treat them as rivals.