Last Sunday morning (17th April), I reviewed a book for my church’s Bible Study session. Here’s what I said about it:
I’m going to be reviewing Desiring God, by John Piper. This book, along with others that I’ve read recently, has made a big difference to my understanding of my relationship to God. It’s possible that all of you will think what I’ve learned is really obvious, but to me it’s new and exciting. I hope, even if it’s not new to you, it is still exciting. And in some ways I hope it’s not new, because I hope it’s biblical.
If I were to say I hope you’ll read this book and be inspired to take a more God-centred view of life, I reckon you’d probably all approve. If I said instead that I hope you’ll read it and be inspired to more eagerly seek your own pleasure, I expect there’d be a few raised eyebrows. Well, I’m actually going for both at the same time. Hopefully that will make more sense by the time I’ve finished.
John Piper is pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He’s written loads of books, but I first came across him in a YouTube video, addressing Barack Obama’s views on abortion. Then I started watching his Desiring God videos where he answers questions from viewers on a wide range of subjects, such as ‘Can I enjoy art produced by unbelievers and glorify God?’, ‘How should you boast only in Christ when job hunting?’, ‘Is it sin to dislike the doctrine of election…?’
Then, before Blair went back to America, he gave me Piper’s book God Is The Gospel. Just the introduction to that book blew me away. I’ve sometimes described its effect on me as a kind of re-conversion. Before, I saw the whole point of Christianity as being salvation from hell, but God Is The Gospel showed me that salvation is just the means to an end, the end being for us to spend eternity glorifying God and enjoying getting to know Him. Forgiveness of sins is of course an essential prerequisite for us to have a relationship with God, but it’s just the beginning, and that book gave me a new hunger to know God more and more… which led me onto Desiring God and a heap of other books. I wasn’t a big reader before, so if you’re thinking “these book reviews are all well and good for people who like reading, but that’s just not for me”, think again; thanks to God Is The Gospel, I’ve probably read more books so far in 2011 than the previous couple of years put together.
But I’m reviewing Desiring God. Piper says about this book that:
“This is a serious book about being happy in God. It’s about happiness because that is what our creator commands: “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 34:7). And it is a serious book because, as Jeremy Taylor said, “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.””
The subtitle of the book is ‘Meditations of a Christian Hedonist’. (Apologies if I pronounce it wrong at any point. It looks like it should be pronounced ‘heddonism’ to me, but apparently ‘heedonism’ is the correct pronunciation.)
I think I should probably explain what he means by Christian Hedonism, because the whole book is based on that foundation, so I can’t really say anything else about the book unless you understand that bit. I don’t want to say too much, because I’m trying to persuade you to read the book for yourselves, but if I don’t say enough, you probably won’t have a clue what I’m on about.
Firstly, do people know what hedonism is?
A dictionary definition of it is “devotion to pleasure as a way of life.”
Now you might say Christianity is devotion to God as a way of life, so how can you be a Christian and a Hedonist? Aren’t the two contradictory?
I’ve tried to avoid just reading long chunks from the book, but I will use a few quotes to explain this Christian Hedonism idea.
Firstly though, a little bit of audience participation for you:
“What is the chief end of man?”
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
Good. Now I would open up my follow-up question for anyone to answer, but I’m worried someone might throw me a real curveball that I don’t know how to deal with, so I think it’s safer to just tell you what I used to think, and then go on explain to what I think now.
My question is: If my chief end is to glorify God, how do I glorify God?
6 months ago – before I read God Is The Gospel or Desiring God – I would’ve said something like “by living as He intends”, or “by serving Him and keeping His commandments”… Of course, we are told in Romans 12 to “present [our] bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is [our] reasonable service.” And Jesus said in John 14 verse 15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments”, but is our obedience and service really what glorifies God?
I will come back to this in a minute, but for now, notice that man’s chief end (singular) is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. It doesn’t say “man’s chief ends are…”; it says “man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.”
Does that mean “sometimes you glorify God and sometimes you enjoy Him? Sometimes He gets the glory, sometimes you get joy?” Piper explains that each part works best when the other is happening at the same time!
So in Piper’s words
“The chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”
So that’s kind of the basic principle (I hope you’re following so far), but I think it’s worth taking a little bit more from the introductory section called ‘How I became a Christian Hedonist’ to explain a bit further how it works.
“When I was in college, I had a vague pervasive notion that if I did something good because it would make me happy, I would ruin its goodness. I figured that the goodness of my moral action was lessened to the degree that I was motivated by a desire for my own pleasure… to be motivated by a desire for happiness or pleasure when I volunteered for Christian service or went to church – that seemed selfish, utilitarian, mercenary. This was a problem for me because I found in myself… a tremendously powerful impulse to seek pleasure, yet at every point of moral decision I said to myself that this impulse should have no influence.
One of the most frustrating areas was that of worship and praise. My vague notion that the higher the activity, the less there must be of self-interest in it caused me to think of worship almost solely in terms of duty. And that cuts the heart out of it…
Then I came to see that it is unbiblical and arrogant to try to worship God for any other reason than the pleasure to be had in Him. (Don’t miss those last two words: in Him. Not His gifts… Not ourselves, but Him)”
So how did Piper come to this realisation? Among others, he quotes C.S. Lewis from a sermon called The Weight of Glory:
“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? … The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
So basically, he’s saying that the problem is not that we seek pleasure; it’s that we seek our pleasure in the wrong places. The things we find pleasure in might not be inherently bad, but if there’s no reference to God as the source of the pleasure, then we’re not glorifying God as we should; we’re honouring the gifts rather than the giver.
But also, if we claim God is all that satisfies us, why would we want to seek pleasure anywhere else? I’m thinking mainly of myself here, if I watch something on TV, or a film, or sport, or listen to music, and it doesn’t in any way lead me to worship God, why am I doing it?
If I really believed God to be the ultimate source of all real joy, I wouldn’t just want to go to church on a Sunday, prayer meeting during the week, maybe spend a few minutes reading the Bible and praying each day, and then use the rest of my time for secular work and pleasure. I’d want to spend all my time enjoying Him, and like everything else I enjoy I wouldn’t be able to stop myself constantly praising Him. I mean, when we say things like “I love this song!” or “What a great goal!” or “Look at that view!” it’s an involuntary reaction to something glorious, so why should praising God feel like a duty?
We must worship God because we are commanded to, but to quote Edward John Carnell:
“Suppose a husband asks his wife if he must kiss her good night. Her answer is, “You must, but not that kind of a must.” What she means is this: “Unless a spontaneous affection for my person motivates you, your overtures are stripped of all moral value.””
This new, real heartfelt understanding of God as the ultimate source of joy, rather than just focusing on what He’s done for me in His work of salvation, is what I mean by having a more God-centred, rather than self-centred, view of life. But I’m also more eagerly seeking my own pleasure, in God.
So once Piper has explained what Christian Hedonism is, he goes on to apply it to a range of different areas of life. There’s Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism, Love: The Labour of Christian Hedonism, Scripture: Kindling for Christian Hedonism, Prayer: The Power of Christian Hedonism, then chapters on money, marriage, missions, and suffering.
I’ve already briefly mentioned the hedonistic principle of worship, how it should be a joy rather than just a duty. The other chapter that particularly stood out for me was the one on prayer. I think it’s key to understanding how we glorify God by enjoying Him forever.
Piper refers to John 14 verse 13:
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son.”
He then uses an illustration to show how we should glorify God:
Suppose you’re totally paralysed and can do nothing for yourself but talk. And suppose a strong and reliable friend promised to live with you and do whatever you needed done. If someone came to visit you, how would you show them how great your friend is? Would you try to get out of bed and start doing things for them? Surely the best way for your visitor to see your friend’s generosity and strength would instead be for him to see for himself what your friend does for you?
He quotes Spurgeon’s explanation of Psalm 50 verse 15, which says:
“call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”
“God and the praying man take shares… first here is your share: “Call upon me in the day of trouble.” Secondly, here is God’s share: “I will deliver thee.” Again, you take a share – for you shall be delivered. And then again it is the Lord’s turn – “Thou shalt glorify me.” Here is… a covenant that God enters into with you who pray to him, and whom he helps. He says, “You shall have the deliverance, but I must have the glory…” Here is a delightful partnership: we obtain that which we so greatly need, and all that God getteth is the glory which is due unto his name.”
So we need to be careful about trying to serve God. Of course, we are called to be God’s servants, but when we serve God, who gets the glory?
Mark 10:45 says: “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve.”
And the image of Christ’s return in Luke 12:37 is actually quite shocking:
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, he will dress himself for service and have them recline at table, and he will come and serve them.”
Clearly we need to be careful not to start thinking we’re above God, but He glorifies Himself by giving of His infinite riches, not by taking anything from us. So the way for us to glorify Him is not to try to do things for Him, as though he needs anything from us, but to enjoy what He gives us, and make sure to give Him all the credit.
So to sum up, God Is The Gospel gave me a new hunger to know God, and to use John MacArthur’s words off the back cover of Desiring God it’s “a soul-stirring celebration of the pleasures of knowing God… a must-read for every Christian, and a feast for the spiritually hungry.”
Perhaps you already have an intense hunger to know God more, in which case, this is a feast for you. But if you don’t feel you have such a hunger, I think Piper’s desire for God is infectious, so read this book and I’ll be very surprised if you don’t have more of a hunger by the time you finish it.
In case I haven’t conveyed my enthusiasm for this book as well as I hoped, to show how keen I am for you to read this, I’ve bought an extra copy of both Desiring God and God Is The Gospel just to lend out to people, and I’ll be very disappointed if no one asks to borrow them.