I am an unashamed, passionate advocate of Christian Hedonism. I’m sure there are some who think that’s akin to saying that I enjoy eating fried ice or drawing round squares. After all, aren’t Christianity and Hedonism mutually exclusive? This isn’t the place to explain why they aren’t. I’ve done that elsewhere at some length (see my books, Pleasures Evermore and One Thing, and of course, John Piper’s classic defense in his book, Desiring God).
I’ll simply say that I’m a hedonist because I believe it is impossible to desire pleasure too much. But I’m a Christian hedonist because I believe the pleasure we cannot desire too much is pleasure in God and all that he is for us in Jesus.
Of the many biblical texts I could cite to defend this concept, none is more explicit than what David says in Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
David doesn’t say, “Delight yourself.” Such would be an endorsement of secular, self-indulgent hedonism. Hedonism as it is found in the world at large is a philosophy of life and decision-making which says that choices should be made based solely on their capacity to bring us the greatest degree of personal pleasure. Hedonism, then, is the pursuit of pleasure as an end in itself. But David's counsel is that we delight ourselves in God!
I once asked John Piper how we avoid reading this text as an endorsement of the prosperity gospel or a gospel that uses God to get goodies, so to speak. In other words, what prevents us from seeking our joy and satisfaction in God as a pathway to laying hold of other desires of the heart?
He responded by saying that the “desires” of the heart must be desires that are satisfied in more of God in more and more ways. If that were not the case, we would not truly be delighting in God as an end in itself but only using God to get what we enjoy more than what may be found in him alone. He wrote to me: “I often say that the desire of the heart that we get is God himself. True. But the text implies plurality, and so I am willing to say that we get more of God in more ways when we delight in him. It does not promise that all we can conceive of enjoying will come to us, but that our desires to taste more of God in many ways will be arranged according to God’s wise and loving plan.”
We should also note that if your delight is wholly in God then your desires will not be for anything that would diminish his centrality in your soul. You won’t want anything that has the potential of turning your heart to trust in anyone but him. If your “desires’ are for the stuff of this world that would detract from your complete satisfaction in God, then you aren’t truly delighting yourself in him.
That said, let's notice two things about this statement.
First, it is a command. This isn't something we are to "pray about" or "consider", as if it were an option or choice. This is a moral obligation binding on all. You can't respond to this statement by saying: "Thanks, God, but no thanks. I think I'll pass on this one. It's just not my style. It's not in keeping with my personality or temperament or spiritual gifts. But thanks anyway." No. Such would be sin! In a word: delight is a duty.
Second, delight or joy is also a feeling, an emotion, an affection, a subjective experience that is ultimately not under our control. It isn't something we can produce by an act of will. God has to awaken and stir and evoke such affections in our souls. He uses a variety of means to this: Scripture, creation, the sacraments, obedience, prayer, worship, meditation, etc. Our responsibility, as Jonathan Edwards put it, is “to lay ourselves in the way of allurement.” God’s responsibility is to allure.
How, then, are we to fulfill this command? Or, better still, in what ways does this delight manifest itself in our lives? I delight myself in my wife by spending time with her. I delight myself in baseball by watching the game and reading the box scores. I delight myself in ice cream by eating it. I delight myself in my grandsons by playing with them. I delight myself in a book by reading it. But how do we delight ourselves in God? Let me suggest four ways.
(1) Intellectual fascination. We must make use of the mind to set ourselves to know him. I have in view intellectual enthrallment with God in which our understanding of him is expanded and intensified. Know him. Learn of him. Study him. Explore his ways. Investigate his will. Become a student of the personality and character of God and he will most surely captivate your mind.
In sum, trust God to be sufficiently intriguing that you will be ruined for anything else!
(2) Aesthetic adoration. We are fundamentally, and by God’s design, aesthetic creatures. Being fashioned in the image of God means, at least in part, that we are instinctively drawn to beauty and repelled by ugliness. We have an innate capacity to recognize and rejoice in beauty (unless, of course, we pervert and diminish that capacity by hardening our souls in unrepentant sin). God is ultimate Beauty. To delight in him is to behold his beauty in all its vast array: the symmetry of his attributes, the intricacies of his handiwork, the splendor of his power, the majesty of his mercy, and the list could go, quite literally, infinitely. We must therefore labor to cultivate our aesthetic sensibility and refine our taste for the sweetness of his glory.
In sum, trust God to be sufficiently beautiful that all idols become ugly in comparison!
(3) Emotional exhilaration. Our affections are also designed to find their focus and fulfillment in God. He is worthy of our zeal, love, devotion, delight, fear, joy, passion, gratitude, and hope. Although we do not see him now, we “love him,” and “believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). With the Spirit’s help we must learn to cultivate and re-direct all affections so that they are rooted in him and riveted on him.
In sum, trust God to be sufficiently enjoyable that all else pales in comparison!
(4) Volitional dedication. Delighting in the Lord also entails the engagement of our wills and the choices we make.
We must do two things. First, we must choose to obey his commands, and second, we must choose to avoid all that he has prohibited. Obedience nourishes delight and joy. God's commands are his prescription for happiness and spiritual health. We must therefore trust God when he says that sin will corrupt and destroy. We must trust God when he says obedience will bless and enrich.
Disobedience dulls and anesthetizes our spirits to God's presence and activity. It's like injecting Novocain into our spiritual nerves. Disobedience diminishes our capacity to delight in him; it drains our spiritual energy; it lays waste to our ability to focus on God and trust him confidently. It unleashes in our spiritual system a toxin that will progressively cause our spiritual eyes to go blind and our spiritual ears to go deaf. To the extent that we insist on eating the appealing, but ultimately toxic, delicacies of this world, our spiritual taste buds will lose their sensitivity to enjoy the sweet savor of Jesus.
In sum, trust God’s commandments to be sufficiently good that the ways of the world are exposed as noxious and fatal.
Don’t treat delight or joy as merely an after-effect of obedience, a mere by-product of duty. Make your joy in Jesus central in all you do and say and think, for in your gladness in him is his glory in you most vividly seen!
Joyful, joyful we adore Thee!