5 Reasons Why I'm Not a Christian Hedonist

There is a movement called “Christian hedonism.” If you are an evangelical, you probably know about it. Its slogan goes like this: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” But that doesn’t really capture the psychological essence of the movement. From the human perspective, Christian hedonism is composed of several premises: 

  1. There is a hierarchy of human experiences.

  2. Joyfulness about God is at the top of this hierarchy.

  3. When possible, choose joyfulness about God over other experiences.

The Difference Between Hedonism and Stoicism

The term “Christian hedonism” is a callback to an ancient philosophical distinction between the Stoics and the Hedonists. The Stoics saw reason as the highest ideal, and the Hedonists saw pleasure as the highest ideal. Stoics believed that pleasure was the enemy of reason, and man’s highest call was to be rational. Hedonists believed that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, and that reason was too often a pedantic distraction form one’s ability to live life, which is where we get this notion of “the hedonic ideal” driving the masses who seek pleasure.

Hedonists had to distinguish among themselves between quantitative hedonists and qualitative hedonists. Quantitative hedonists, like the Cyrenaic school, pursued physical pleasures like food and sex, arguing that there was no real distinction between “lower” and “higher” pleasures, since all that mattered was one’s feeling in any given moment. Qualitative hedonists like the Epicureans (following more after Socrates, who distinguished between lower and higher pleasures) pursued more durative satisfaction in intellectual, familial, and relational pursuits.


Both Hedonism and Stoicism were practical philosophies about how to live that were hemmed in by death.

The highest pleasure, in this view, was a freedom from fear.

Its natural philosophical opponent was Stoicism, which was the belief that God is pure reason, and that his will determines all reality so that human beings are slaves of fate — the best humans can do is come to peace with their fate, learn to attain calm in every circumstance, and be arbiters of rationality, resisting temptations by lower passions to live emotional and hedonic lives.

Both Hedonism and Stoicism were practical philosophies about how to live that were hemmed in by death. Hedonism was more of a secular religion that encouraged its proponents to make the most of a short life, and Stoicism was more about aligning your mind and soul to the divine will, who orders all things according to a certain rational principle that we will never be able to full understand.

For the Epicurean Hedonist, there is nothing more worthy than the experience of fearless pleasure, whereas for the Stoic, there was nothing more noble than the commitment to reason in spite of pleasure and pain. For the Stoic, pleasure and pain were merely distractions from reality, whereas for the Hedonist, pleasure and pain are guideposts on the path to more worthwhile pleasure and pain. Stoics like Cato the Younger would stand outside naked in the snow as long as possible in order to cultivate mental mastery over their bodies. Stoicism bordered on a hatred for the physical in light of an adoration of mental fortitude and force of will.

5 Limitations of Christian Hedonism

This brings us back to this movement called “Christian Hedonism.” As a movement, it started with this Minneapolis pastor named John Piper who wrote a book called Desiring God. And in this book, he argues that man’s sole purpose on earth is not to dutifully pursue some rational principle, but is rather to bring glory to God by enjoying him. In other words, joyfulness about God is man’s created purpose. It is his end — his Aristotelean telos.

 My purpose here isn’t necessarily to critique Christian Hedonism, but to point out its limitations, and the unintended negative effects that can come from asking Piper’s idea to carry a greater existential load than it can carry. So, here are a few reasons that Christian Hedonism doesn’t work as an overarching religious philosophy for everyone, and at the very least, why we should be cautious to adopt this model as a prescriptive view for the whole of the Christian life.

1. The Bible does not take sides in the Hedonist/Stoic debate.

Piper draws multiple times on this quote from C. S. Lewis’s book The Weight of Glory, in which Lewis argues that we need to eradicate from Christianity this concept of “ethical duty” or “obligation” that we errantly inherited from Immanuel Kant and the Stoics. But Christianity does have Stoic notions of duty woven into the very fabric of its moral theory.[1]  

Piper suggests in his book Desiring God: “the pursuit of pleasure is an essential motive for every good deed.”[2] Piper says that when Paul wants others to be saved, “he was a Christian Hedonist, not a dutiful stoic.”[3]

Piper casts stoicism as the reluctant slog of rationality, rather than warring against the flesh. He speaks about pleasure as the only possible motive we could reasonably choose by contrasting it with a Sisyphean concept of compliance, of doing the right thing when pleasure isn’t an option, and doing the right thing even when it may never have a hedonic payoff.

The problem is that there are indisputably stoic elements of New Testament teaching, such as Romans 12:3, in which Paul commends the sacrifice of the body because it is the reasonable act of worship. One of the most famous Stoic philosophers was a man named Seneca the Younger. Seneca wrote: “The honour that is paid to the gods lies, not in the victims for sacrifice, though they be fat and glitter with gold, but in the upright and holy desire of the worshippers [recta ac pia voluntate venerantium]. Good men, therefore, are pleasing to the gods with an offering of meal and gruel’ the bad, on the other hand, do not escap e impiety although they dye the altars with streams of blood.”[4]


By rejecting a Stoic principle, and by rejecting by presuming that God rejects it, we lose wisdom that we need to retain.

Paul similarly implores the Christian Rome: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Even this notion of “reasonable” worship, the term λογικοι, is a technical Stoic term that indicated the correspondence between the ideal human mental life, which imitated God as λογος. 

When Paul was writing this letter, Seneca was acting as imperial counselor to Nero. I’m not arguing that Paul was a Stoic, or that he would have rejected any role for hedonic motivations within Christianity. But there are elements of Stoicism woven into the very fabric of the Bible’s teaching — notions of duty, and character, which have everything to do with what you do when you don’t gain any pleasure from your action. And it is this sort of dutiful notion of ethics against which Piper frames his Christian hedonism.

2. Christian Hedonism Sounds a Lot Like Christian Stoicism 

By rejecting a Stoic principle, and by rejecting by presuming that God rejects it, we lose wisdom that we need to retain. We can’t psychologize every action so that we require it to come from a desire for pleasure. If we do, we’ll overthink everything and underperform important tasks that require our dutiful attention. Exercise, financial discipline, caring for important relationships, going to work — all of these duties regularly yield psychological pleasure, but to say that this pleasure is the ultimate meaning — even this pleasure, only as it terminates in God — negates the value of other benefits that come from duty and discipline that aren’t psychologically rooted in pleasure, like habit, provision, fittingness to one’s purpose, and strength of character. Being disciplined does yield the occasional euphoria, but it is far more displeasurable than pleasurable.

Seneca writes: “A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” Either Piper agrees with this wisdom and concedes that his system is just as much Stoicism as it is Hedonism, or he rejects it, and we can note the contradiction between the Christian Hedonism and common sense.

Seneca writes further:

“Are you surprised if that God who so loves good men and wants them to be as good, as virtuous as possible, assigns to them a fortune that will make them struggle? … We humans at times enjoy the sight of a courageous youth meeting the charge of some beast with his spear-point, if without fear he stands up to a charging lion, and the more honourable the young man who does so, the more pleasure we take in the sight.”[5]

Seneca explains the hedonic benefits of Stoicism: “True happiness, therefore, resides in virtue. What counsel will you be offered by this virtue? That you should not consider anything a good or an evil that will not proceed from either virtue or vice; then that you should remain unmoved, whether you face evil or enjoy good, so that, as far as permitted, you may represent God in our own person.”[6]

A man who is able to accomplish a Stoic posture “will be accompanied by continuous cheerfulness and a profound happiness that comes from deep inside him, since he is one who takes pleasure in his own resources and wishes for no joys greater than those of his own heart.”[7]

This sounds a lot to me like Christian Hedonism, and it sounds a lot to me like the Apostle Paul.

3. Not a Practical Model for Behavior Change

Piper writes: “I know of no other way to triumph over sin long-term than to gain a distaste for it because of a superior satisfaction in God.”[8] This is an example of Piper insisting too much on behalf of the hedonic principle. One of the consequences, as he sees it, of seeing joyfulness about God as the highest good is that it become the exclusive method by which people undergo spiritual and behavioral improvement.

There are two psychological obstacles to this notion bearing itself out as a universal human truth. First, as any alcoholic who’s been through the 12-steps knows, for many people who struggle with addiction, there is no such thing in this life as gaining a distaste for certain vices. In fact, presuming to have a distaste for a desirable but destructive object is often the means by which it once again gains a psychological hold.


Piper proscribes the possibility of behavior change that’s not explicitly a product of a theologically formatted belief or experience.

Second, any Piper writes that this distaste must occur “because of a superior satisfaction in God.” This might work for some people. But it proscribes the possibility of behavior change that’s not explicitly a product of a theologically formatted belief or experience. This classifies other methods that more tactical, secular, commonsense that help you to strengthen your willpower and make wiser choices in a way that isn’t directly derived from a Christian concept, as categorically inferior to Piper’s, and perhaps even inappropriate for the Christian. My point here isn’t really that sophisticated, except to note that this this clearly cuts against the grain of common sense, and sounds much better as a theory for people who are willing to drink the Kool-Aid than it is as a long-term method for those who are just looking to make needed changes in their behavior and mental life.

4. Minimizes Pleasure, Instead of Maximizing It

There is this persistent notion that anything less than explicitly pious delight about a theological concept — and we can think of that concept as a personal one — is worthless. And it is not only worthless, but sinful to linger there. Piper writes: “The great danger of riches is that our affections will be carried away from God to His gifts.”[9] Piper writes again: “Money’s chief attractions are the power it gives and the pride it feeds.”[10] There is a suggestion that all the good things money can provide — like food and security for our families and communities — is tainted with industrialist and corporatist greed. In all his vehement rhetoric against the idea that God promises physical prosperity to Christians, the message swells into this hyperbole that God despises private wealth that isn’t immediately redistributed charitably.  

John Piper writes:

“God is not glorified when we keep for ourselves (no matter how thankfully) what we ought to be using to alleviate the misery of unevangelized, uneducated, unmedicated, and unfed millions. The evidence that many professing Christians have been deceived by this doctrine is how little they give and how much they own. God has prospered them. And by an almost irresistible law of consumer culture (baptized by a doctrine of health, wealth, and prosperity) they have bought bigger (and more) houses, newer (and more) cars, fancier (and more) clothes, better (and more) meat, and all manner of trinkets and gadgets and containers and devices and equipment to make life more fun. They will object: Does not the Old Testament promise that God will prosper his people? Indeed! God increases our yield, so that by giving we can prove our yield is not our god. God does not prosper a man's business so that he can move from a Ford to a Cadillac. God prospers a business so that 17,000 unreached people can be reached with the gospel. He prospers the business so that 12 percent of the world's population can move a step back from the precipice of starvation.”[11] 

I’m confused. Is Piper saying that prosperity for its own sake is an inherent evil? Is he saying that equity that isn’t redistributed contradicts some Christian mandate? Because when I was in seminary, I drove a Cadillac. It was my dad’s, but he let my drive it. Was that unideal? What we see here is that when we form an ethical vision for life based on a single principle, then when it is applied to areas of life like the accumulation of financial capital, the ethical lines become based more on preference and arbitrary logic than on principle and sound logic.

Why is the jump from a Ford to a Cadillac any different than the jump from a 500 square foot studio apartment to a 1,000 square foot 2-bedroom apartment? These ethical lines fall in odd places for Piper because, at the end of the day, his system doesn’t really entail anything ethically other than that we ought to devalue earthly pleasures in comparison to the highest conceivable pleasure — God himself, and his expressed will for us — which sounds a lot more like a stoic philosophy than a hedonist one.

5. Encourages Emotional Rules That Shouldn’t Be Universalized

Christian Hedonism is an emotional law that binds every proponent to the wheel of salvation by affect. As a system which seeks to give account in a singular slogan for the entire of the Christian life, it pretends that there is a psychological equity among its  

There are two undesirable consequences from making joyfulness about God the ideal of Christian life. First, it oddly discriminates against those either who suffer mentally or who suffer from grief, whose ability to experience joy is understandably and indeterminately damaged. Second, the very concept of “joy” that operates in this system suffers so much from a lack of clarity that any sense of success or failure becomes more a matter of one’s sense of self than of any real spiritual or psychological accomplishment. Third, casting this emotion as the ideal on a spectrum of emotion unduly diminishes the inherent value of other positive and negative experiences, since it is always cast as a foil.  

In other words, positive emotions are always perceived by the Christian hedonist as experiences that must be qualitatively tempered and moderated in order to make room for this joy that is always supposed to show up. In order to maximize your joy in God, it’s easy to find yourself playing a zero-sum game with your emotional life that manifests itself as subtracting emotional intensity from worldly experiences in order to maximize explicitly theological experiences.  

On the other hand, you could end up trying to subtract intensity from negative emotions through psychological suppression in order to give yourself and others the impression that God isn’t satisfying enough to make your overall experience of grief an emotional net positive. In other words, you end up curbing tragedy and speaking less than truthful things about evil in the world in order to keep in step with your emotional obligations to God. In a sense, Christianity at its best could be called Christian Hedonism just as easily as it could be called Christian Greif, or Christian Anger, or Christian Anxiety.[12]

Also, theological joy can easily become an add-on (oh, I love this Frosty … to the glory of God!), which really highlights its superficiality more than its necessity.

Conclusion

Christian Hedonism plugs Christian ideas into a qualitatively hedonic principle. So, Christian Hedonism is literally that — not hedonistic Christianity, but Christian Hedonism proper. Hedonistic Christianity acknowledges the goodness of pleasure, and Christian Hedonism requires everything to fall into place under a rigidly hedonic conception of the ultimate good. And yet, for all the lip service Piper gives to pleasure, the system operates practically like stoicism. When this so-called “greater pleasure,” which is joyfulness about God, hovers over every other pleasure, it diminishes the quality of everyday human experience. This incentivizes Christian Hedonists to be hypervigilant against earthly pleasures. 

In the same way that the stoics saw bodily and mental pleasures as threats to their ability to be rational, Piper has a hair trigger aimed at every earthly good. Again, he gives lip service to the goodness of earthly gifts, but he can’t seem to celebrate them without putting an asterisk next to them: “Not God.” And if you have to put that asterisk next to everything, you have to wonder whether the system really gives a positive account of earthly reality, or is fundamentally anti-joy — it might even be appropriate to call it “anti-real-life.”


Why do the finite pleasures of creaturely life have to be dirty, slummy, disgusting things because of a comparison to infinity?

In the C. S. Lewis quote we mentioned earlier, from which Piper draws great agreement with Lewis, Lewis compares earthly gifts like alcohol, sex, and ambition to “making mud pies in a slum,” compared to “infinity joy” in God, which is by comparison like taking “a holiday at sea.” But why do we have to compare them? Why do the finite pleasures of creaturely life have to be dirty, slummy, disgusting things because of a comparison to infinity? 

Our finitude, and the pleasures which constitute it, don’t have to compete with spiritual pleasures. There’s no reason for that, and to suggest that we must pit our physical and mental enjoyment against spiritual enjoyment too easily contorts and extremizes young minds who don’t yet have a grip on themselves.

Young Christians who buy this line of logic will grow up diminishing, even hating, their bodies, families, enjoyments, sex, alcohol, and career success, all because it’s not joyfulness about God. When you think of what Christian Hedonism practically and actually suggests, it’s more than weird — it’s harmfully extreme for many people. Again, certain personality types might fit perfectly with this model. But to suggest that this singular, theologically formatted hedonic principle needs to hover over every other pleasure like a rain cloud will end up making life more miserable than it needs to be for many people.

FOOTNOTES

[1] The Lewis quote: “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? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. 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 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.” C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 115.

[3] Ibid., 115.

[4] Seneca, On Benefits (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), (1.6.3). See Runar M. Thorsteinsson, “Stoicism as a Key to Pauline Ethics in Romans,” in Stoicism in Early Christianity, ed. Tuomas Rasimus, Troels Engberg-Pederson, and Ismo Dunderberg (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 5-38; idem, Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). The translation in the body belongs to Thorsteinsson.

[5] Seneca, “On Providence,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[6] Seneca, “On the Happy Life,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 98.

[7] Seneca, “On the Happy Life,” in Dialogues and Essays (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 98-99.

[8] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Revised Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: 1986, 2011), 13.

[9] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Revised Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: 1986, 2011), 197.

[10] Ibid.

[11] John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, Revised Edition (Colorado Springs, CO: 1986, 2011), 199.

[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar has written an entire book about this — The Christian and Anxiety (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press). Balthasar’s perspective is essentially that angst understandably characterizes the Christian’s experience of the world because he has a greater sense of what’s at stake in the moral victories and tragedies of the cosmos.

 
 

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